US entrepreneur, Brian Norton, is unusually well-positioned to discuss Ireland’s flourishing fintech sector. As a co-founder of success story Future Finance and CEO of newcomer Supply Finance, Norton leads two successful fintech start-ups based in Ireland.
Since moving to Ireland from the US five years ago, Norton’s entrepreneurial activities in the fintech sector have enjoyed considerable success.
Norton founded Future Finance in Dublin in 2013, with the aim of improving on the student lending offering in Ireland. The company typically provides flexible loans to undergraduates and postgraduates, averaging between €2,300 and €46,000, each academic year to help students pay for tuition costs and living expenses. The fintech company grew rapidly, raising €212 million under Norton’s watch.
Fintech start-up, Supply Finance, was established by Norton in January 2018. The company provides professional-grade trade finance to Small and Medium Enterprises across Europe through a network of partner brands. Its bespoke technology combines a purpose-built customer and financial management system with an automated underwriting engine, to provide faster credit decisions for clients. The company has already secured €4 million in funding and invested €1 million in its first partnership.
The US entrepreneur sat down with Peter Townsend, founder of Norio Ventures, and Enterprise Ireland’s Eoin Fitzgerald, for the first episode of Money Never Sleeps, an Irish financial services podcast.
Over the conversation, Norton described the strengths of the Irish fintech sector and how it has helped his business to succeed.
Four top takeaways from the interview:
1. Norton discusses how Future Finance and Supply Finance benefit from significant government and state agency support, which has helped to nurture a collaborative entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Fintech sector.
Irish fintech has developed a reputation for excellence, thanks in part to an exceptionally supportive business culture. Enterprise Ireland, the national export agency, identifies fintech as a strategically important sector, offering significant financial and non-financial advisory support for businesses. As Irish fintech companies compete for business internationally, rather than within Ireland, high levels of collaboration can be achieved.
2. Norton identifies the financial services sector as traditionally resistant to change. Norton’s fintech companies have adopted an innovative approach.
3. Norton outlines the benefits of meeting investors and collaborating with others in the financial services world. Ireland has become an attractive place for some of the biggest names in financial services, including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Barclays, and Sumitomo Mitsui.
For fintech start-ups, proximity to big names offers significant opportunities for investment, collaboration, and supply chain access.
4. Ireland benefits from an exceptional level of talent and expertise, with nine of the world’s top ten tech companies having bases in the country.
Norton describes the impact an ability to attract highly skilled and motivated staff has had on his fintech companies.
Partially edited interview transcript: Money Never Sleeps Episode 1: The ReUp with Brian Norton.
Pete: Alright guys welcome to money never sleeps. To my right, I have my co-host, Eoin Fitzgerald.
Brian Norton, thanks for coming on board. Brian, you’re our first guest on Money Never Sleeps.
Brian: It’s great to be here.
Pete: Awesome, thank you again. We have you on the show today to get inside your head a bit and tell us a bit about yourself and how you got to this point in your life. Tell us about your businesses and why you became an entrepreneur?
Brian: It’s a funny question. I mean, like you, I meet a lot of entrepreneurs with different stories. For me, I had the virus from an early stage. The first business that I started was making websites. I got introduced to computers in 1997, so we were the first classes to have formalised email addresses and the net was on the up.
Websites were my first expression of entrepreneurial activity, though that business failed. I tried to run it for a year and do it for a living, as my friends all went off to investment banking. I had colleagues that all left university in 1999 to focus on their start-ups and they were all limping back at this time. I was intensely jealous of them at one point. I was thinking about how Bill Gates dropped out of college! Anyway, I joined a client of mine who had a mortgage business and once I realised my business wasn’t working we rolled our thing together. This is how I first got into finance, my first foray into what eventually became fintech.
Pete: The buzz that you got from running that business, how did that convert into ‘Okay I’m going to go into finance from here’? The business failed but how did you carry that over into the corporate world and run a finance business?
Brian: So, I was always interested in real estate. Growing up in Chicago, it’s a real estate town. It was a thing that people did. So these guys in mortgages were doing something that wasn’t totally foreign to me. It all happened by chance. This guy was a terrific mentor for me and still is, he’s an investor and I value his opinion.
Finance is this massive open space, it is by far and away the largest market in human history, so if you are a quick, clever and a hard-working guy, there are opportunities. It was sort of a blessing. I got a good education from an early age in the practical application of finance in customers’ lives.
Pete: You mentioned quick and clever, what do you think, beyond being quick and clever, you need to succeed? What personality traits have you leaned on over the years?
Brian: It’s a pretty heavy independence that you need. It’s particularly useful in finance. There is an inertia factor in finance, this belief that ‘this is the way things have always been done’ that is pretty astounding. There are probably good reasons for this, as banks need stability. There is a reason banks put that on their logos, it matters more in this world.
The independent streak in me is both natural and gifted to me. That really allowed me to say ‘Well that’s fine, that’s the way you always did it, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep doing it that way’. In the same way, an overconfidence can creep in. The curse of independence can lead to you trying to solve too many problems on your own and standing on the shoulders of others. So trying to learn from that as we go along is good. If you can find someone with a good enough head on their shoulders to do the math, as well as a confidence and bravery to figure out other approaches to problems, you’ll succeed. We managed to find people like that here. If there is a commonality in the successful people that I know then they will have at least two of those three traits.
Eoin: Is there a challenge in stepping back from the business and identifying the right people, or person, to drive the business forward? I have worked with you before, so I know that it’s all about that energy and finding the right direction when you aren’t there. Is it hard to identify the right people to give that level of control over to?
Brian: Well Eoin as you say, you were one of the pivotal people in helping start Future Finance when building that up here in Dublin.
Yeah, that is my biggest challenge. The letting go. It’s a real thing and I am dealing with it now at this new business, Supply Finance. We are just beginning to hire employees and take the nice concepts from the pitch book to real things that we can delegate. I look at guys who do that gracefully and effortlessly and I am in awe. It’s just not in my personality.
It is a blessing that I take this stuff so personally. Having a grasp on things makes the business more efficient and I like that. But as you have seen with Future Finance, I handed over leadership to a new group of guys at the beginning of 2017, and that was tough.
Eoin: It’s like giving away one of your kids.
Brian: Well yeah, to a large extent. So it is a challenge and for me personally, it’s something I am self-coaching and trying to figure out how to balance better.
Pete: How do you coach yourself?
Brian: It’s almost like a ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ episode. Giving myself a bit of grief. Eventually, I just send an email and it’s solved and then it’s just such a relief!
Pete: Are you one of those people that shouts at yourself in the mirror to get fired up?
Brian: I am not one of those guys. I’m more of a quiet person. I am from Chicago. We ain’t yellers. We have that Irish-Germanic background so we have healthy doses of doubt and a self-deprecating humour. We are deeply passive aggressive. We don’t yell we just say ‘Oh that’s nice’ and everyone knows what that means!
Eoin: Do you have people that you lean on, or is it very much an introspective kind of thing?
Brian: The person I lean on the most is my wife. I am very fortunate to have a strong partnership with her, and one that is always evolving as well. So with this new business, she and I, along with a fella from London, are essentially co-founders.
As you know, Eoin, with the work that we have done together with the good folks at Enterprise Ireland, my wife is dealing with all the important paperwork that they do over there. So she is properly involved with the business itself. That was an evolution. Before she helped very much on the personal side, giving me reality checks etc.
Pete: What would you, or are you doing differently, this time around?
Brian: Away from how this business model is different, I think we have found some really clever hacks and are getting smarter around how to develop a new fintech start-up in the business world.
Eoin: I think in a situation like this, it’s very difficult to switch off and go home. There is a personal attachment to your own business. This is your life. The decision to go again and build a second company, it’s not just a typical job, it is 24/7.
Brian: Totally. I advise many different businesses. This is something that first-time entrepreneurs really wrestle with, the whole ‘am I supposed to work 20 hours a day?’ In my old job I couldn’t, but I could now.
Some of my very good friends are investors in the business. We talk a lot more now which is a real benefit. I am bringing in the people close to me. If you know you are going to be spending all your time doing this, you might as well do it with people you like. It’s like a double dip. We talk business and socialise. I never thought I would have the confidence to take all that on when starting out. Before, I thought I had to be very serious all the time. The reality is that you’ve got to be a real human being about these things. Surround yourself with people who are flexible and adaptable. If not, it’s a great way to give yourself an ulcer!
Eoin: I mean even from an employee point of view at Future Finance, we had an openness with each other. We didn’t always have the answer but we would work at it together. It really created a sense of family and that came from the way you approached work. Everyone bought into it and that is something that I took away in terms of how I like to work now.
Brian: It is kind of like a family. I keep in touch with a lot of people from there and it’s awesome to see people growing and starting their own business now. There’s a great warmth that comes from it. If you show up as the guy that has all the answers and the guy that is just there to run the business and say ‘do your job’ you don’t get that connection. For me, life is too short to show up like that every day.
The way you show up to work is really important. I think it’s better to be yourself.
Pete: What I’ve found is that when you are yourself it creates this authenticity to your character that people associate you with. They then want to get to know you better. You get into those personal moments with colleagues, where you start to see the tears in the eyes well up from time to time, and you know that have really connected with someone.
Have you had any of those moments that have changed the direction for you as you go through the years?
Brian: Yeah, I have in a negative sense. From the positive side, it is great where you see the light bulb turn on. You get some employees that show up at work, very clever, well educated but a little bit listless. Weeks later, you then see them, the last person in the office shutting the lights off as they go. You think, ‘Okay we somehow turned something on in this person’s ethos, a spark. We want to keep that going’.
On the negative side, I have had to lay people off a couple of times. When you take the approach where you are making friends with people, and it’s a big family, it makes those moments that are business necessities brutal to a different degree.
The lessons are very dependent on the situation but the responsibility that you have as an entrepreneur to your employees is different to a compassionate management role in an enterprise where you have this ‘all of us vs them’ approach. When it’s a small entrepreneurial business, you don’t have that get out of jail free card.
The takeaway from this is that we shouldn’t make the same mistakes twice. It’s people’s lives. They take the risk to come to a small business. I mean, Eoin, you took a risk coming from AIB, one of the big names in Irish finance. Small businesses benefit from the expertise that is out there and those who are willing to take a risk by coming to an SME. The responsibility burden is different though, the trust is inspiring but it’s also different.
Pete: You are a caretaker of people’s lives.
Brian: In a daunting way, yeah. The very least that you can do is be open and honest with people. They are with you on this journey, so you must tell them exactly what is going on. You have to allow them to be grownups with you on this experience.
Pete: What is one thing that people don’t know about you? Or wouldn’t expect?
Brian: I hesitate to answer. I like to think I’m a fairly open guy. With Supply Finance we put all the numbers out there. I feel it is better to be open and honest.