Editor’s Note: During the Semi-Finals of the McGill Dobson Cup 2017 powered by National Bank, we had the chance to sit down with some of our amazing judges and mentors and have them tell us about their experiences and perspective on startups and innovation. This week, the judge in the spotlight is Eytan Bensoussan, who was there as a judge for the Innovation Driven Enterprise Track of the competition and is the Co-Founder and CEO at Ferst Digital which aims to provide better banking for modern businesses.
So you’re a McGill Alumni, what did you study?
I started in Bio-Chemistry, then I added a Math degree, as well as minors in Political Science and Management. I even tried to create the first ever Bio-Chemistry and Math double major but I was told it wouldn’t be possible for them to make it a new program. I just love the idea of doing many different things.
— Eytan Bensoussan (@eytanbensoussan) February 17, 2017
Where did you go from there?
After finishing undergrad here in Science, I then went on to do the Law-MBA program at McGill as well. After doing the New York Bar, I worked at McKinsey and Company for 5 years which is a management consultancy. I spent a lot of time in digital customer experience and financial services. I left that about two years ago and have since then founded a company called Ferst Digital. What we are doing is partnering up with a real licensed banking partner to build a platform specifically for start-ups and small businesses in Canada.
Through our platform, they can deposit money, make payments and other things they would be able to do with a bank because we are allied with a banking partner. For us, the reason we do this is not just to create another option but to re-built the offering of a banking platform, we change what banking is supposed to do. The bank takes off a lot of the activities and busy financial work from the life of the business and absorbs it into its own software.
For example, all the bookkeeping can be done at the platform level so that the mechanic, cook, or artist no longer has to go home and look at these numbers at the end of the day. We take that pain away and say ‘your bank has already figured out 80% of this for you, you don’t have to do this work anymore’. For us, the most obvious way to take this pain away is through your banking partner because it’s the one institution that knows all your financial data. With us, there are no branches, we are re-building the functionality of a typical bank through the constraints of a phone.
— Ferst Digital (@ferstdigital) March 22, 2017
By partnering with licensed banks, they provide us with the regularity power to manage money. They almost act as a piggy bank in many ways and we act as the financial manager that the business never had. We have interviewed about a hundred businesses across North America about what they find the most painful about managing money of their business, and what they need to make things easier for them. A lot of them told us that having to log into their bank account for everything even just to check their balance or payment was a pain. Through us, they only need to log in for the most sensitive activities.
We’re simply trying to remove friction. The idea of having portals removes the need to spend time on the phone with an accountant to verify things which take time out of your day when you could be focusing on your business. By creating a portal where your accountant can have a read-only access to the bank transactions, they can answer all the questions on their own without having to bug you. It saves time by getting some of the painful work out of the way. Another thing is managing your budget and for some businesses, this can be too much extra work. If they need to be something, sometimes they are not even sure if their budget allows that so they just guess. So being able to provide them with a better way to tell what their balance would be after this payment is a great help. Sometimes all they need to know is if they’re in the safe zone. So the philosophy is taking as much of the anxiety and trouble away from the owner’s head to say “Hey we’ve got this covered”.
A10. Go to where your customers are. If they’re on fb, talk to them there. Same for LinkedIn, Snapchat etc. #startupchats
— Eytan Bensoussan (@eytanbensoussan) March 1, 2017
Why only small businesses?
Ultimately, it’s about serving small business in Canada. For me, small businesses are the most important because our purpose as a company is financial inclusion and making it easier for people to have access to the financial system. Small businesses are the best way to help immigrants rebuild their lives in Canada, reduce income inequality, and the best way to have women and minority business leaders build their own companies. It is so important for Canada to have a healthy small business sector that is easy to access and this is why it is important to me. Also, the start-up world is a bit more flexible and adaptable to new things, they would be more willing to try something different are more open to risks. Then you have the small businesses that are a bit more risk averse but still more flexible to eventually try something new.
In speaking about improving access inequality, what are your thoughts on the gender inequality within the start-up world?
There is a very clear difference in experiences when it comes to women and men and minorities and immigrants in the business world. You can have women with phenomenal ideas that are less likely to get funding than men with the same idea. But here’s the thing, it comes down to something really important. This can never be an excuse. It is going to be harder but someone has to do it and you can’t use that as a reason not to try. I have a friend who is an Iranian entrepreneur and she identifies that she may have difficulties being funded because of her nationality and gender and whatever other reason but the market doesn’t care.
You can still create an amazing company and prove them all wrong. The burden is a little heavier and it sucks but we need people to just say “I get it, it’s tougher” but we have to prove them wrong so that it becomes more normal. There are so many people that get discouraged because of various things like maybe not being able to speak English or anything else but these are especially the people that need to prove they can do it. This is the reality but I don’t think anyone should shy away, they will have to try harder but they need to try anyways. Even a few generations ago, immigrants coming to Canada had such a tough time with integrating and someone had to work a little longer to show that they too can make it. And we’ve seen it happen, especially if you look at how these same communities have grown successfully.
You can still create an amazing company and prove them all wrong.
How did you progress from science and law to business and finance?
Ever since I’ve been a kid, I’ve been very business-minded. However, the traditional option is to go into science and keep your doors open. So I studied science because I knew I could get good marks but as I went further I took different courses like philosophy and political science. I realized how much I loved it; I love the logic of science but the human subject matter of business and social sciences is so much more important to me. This is why I went to law school and did things like that. I know that I’m not the guy who’s wired to do one thing and only one thing forever. I have always been better when I have multiple and various things going on in my life so this was very natural for me.
— McGill Dobson Centre (@DobsonCentre) February 18, 2017
As a judge, what are you looking for? What would impress you from a competitor?
At this level, it is so early for these companies so judging at this stage is much different than looking at a company that has been in business for four years when you can just look at the results. It’s not like that so you’re left with a few important judgment: is it a market that makes sense? Do I believe in this team? They will change their idea constantly but can the team prove that they will get through the desert? The product at this level is a hypothesis at best. It will change thirty times and it has to otherwise you’re never going to get there. However, its the people behind the product that matter. How relentless are they, how much are they going to bulldoze through the hardest parts of building their company when they feel like they’re getting punched in the face constantly. I’m looking out for the team that has a fire in their eyes, that come rain or shine they are trying to figure this out.
So what advice would you give to others interested starting a business at the moment?
I think the key is self-awareness. You need to know who you are first. Knowing your skills and talents is so important because if you think about it, employees 4 and 5 at Facebook are all billionaires. They are still way more successful that the person who started their own business that never went anywhere. So you need to ask yourself, would I be better at supporting as an employee? Do you want to be Michael Jordan on the basketball court or do you want to be Lebron James playing hockey? So you may think, I want to be a founder but if you know you could be the best number 2, or number 3 of a company and support a founding rocket ship then do that. It’s all about self awareness. A person who really wants to be a founder and is meant for that kind of position will pull their hair out working in a big company, whereas a person who would be great as a supporting employee will panic in the founder role. It would be completely nuts if someone says, “I can do it all”, “I can play all the roles”. We all have our talents but if you want to hit a home run, you need to think about what role you would be best in and do that.