With 25 years of experience in financial services with GE Capital, Thomas Cook and Avios, Matt Oldham discusses his latest venture.
Matt Oldham is CEO and co-founder of e-current account service and fintech for good, Unizest.
What products or services do you provide?
Unizest is a digital app offering an e-current account for non-UK residents coming to the UK to work or study, helping them to get the best possible start in the UK. In a simple and secure five-step onboarding process, Unizest allows workers and students coming to the UK to open their account before they leave their home country. Upon arrival in the UK, customers receive their Debit Mastercard.
What type of businesses do you work with?
We work with businesses that are involved in bringing people to the UK to work or study. That includes recruitment agencies, educational agencies, employers, tertiary educational institutions and other support organisations such as immigration and visa specialists.
What problem does your company solve?
It can be really difficult to get a UK bank account if you have no residential history here. This makes it hard for people coming to the UK to work or study to get started – so much of our lives revolve around being paid, and being able to pay. The challenge of opening a traditional high street bank account for overseas workers also creates ‘friction’ in the recruitment process and in the onboarding of overseas candidates; workers need a bank account for their salary to be paid into, before they can start work. Unizest can help recruiters onboard candidates faster.
Underbanked people (i.e. those who do not have access to proper banking services) are also more vulnerable to exploitation, and those who are financially excluded are, in essence, locked out of society. Unizest actively targets people in this situation with a product designed for their needs.
By solving the problem of friction in banking access, Unizest also helps recruiters working in those sectors that rely heavily on overseas workers – such as manufacturing, warehousing and healthcare.
What is your USP?
Unizest has a unique onboarding process for non-UK residents, allowing them to open their account prior to arrival in the UK, and without the need for a residential history. The process links to a Home Office Share Code to ensure customers have a confirmed right to reside in the UK, making the set up simple for Unizest users. This is part of our value proposition – giving our customers the ‘best start’ possible to their new life in the UK.
For a recent arrival, many elements of UK life can be confusing. Lower paid non-UK workers are also more vulnerable to labour abuse and poor working practices. So, in addition to making it easy and secure to get an account, we have incorporated resources and support for our customers (via independent NGOs such as Just Good Work) within the Unizest app. This includes guidance on workers rights, and signposting to organisations to reach out to if a customer needs help.
We recognise that migrant workers are more likely to have temporary, zero hour contracts, and so in order to stretch tight budgets, we have included an offers platform within the app, which gives users discounts on everyday items, including SIM cards and train travel.
What are your company values? Have you ever had them challenged and if so how have you dealt with it?
We have developed a ‘brand playbook’, which is central to how we operate. It details what we’re about, who we are and how we do things, and we are really happy to share this playbook with anyone, including our partners and suppliers. We also use this playbook when training our customer service team, and it is essential reading for new recruits. Within it our three core values are highlighted – ‘do the right thing’; ‘be collegiate’; and ‘be a changemaker’.
We have not had our values challenged, but we have set up our decision making processes to be values focused. As an example, we have challenged ourselves on the way we communicate Unizest pricing. Are we transparent with our customers? Simply asking this question resulted in a change to our website and marketing materials, in order to ensure we were clear on costs to end users. No doubt, we will continue to be challenged going forward, and we will take the same approach of reverting back to our brand playbook. We have already had conversations about Unizest and lending – can we lend money to lower income, high risk customers, and still be true to ourselves?
To help us with external accountability on our values, we are in the process of becoming B Corp accredited. Certified B Corporations are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment.
How do you ensure that you recruit a team that reflects your company values?
As mentioned before, our brand playbook plays a big part in this. We share it early in the recruitment process and it is a clear and mutual statement of expectations. As an early stage business we are asking new recruits to take a chance – to come on an adventure with us! We can’t give much by way of certainty as we are growing and moving so fast, but we can give reassurance on how we will behave as an employer.
We have been fortunate enough to onboard three (paid!) interns, who reflect Gen Z attitudes – progressive, socially aware and values driven. As an employer, it is clear that with this generation of future leaders, the values of your business are more important than the value of your balance sheet.
Are you happy to offer a hybrid working model of home/office post-covid?
As a business we have been founded, formed and funded during what you might call ‘Covid times’. We have created a business and launched our first product all whilst working entirely remotely. This has caused some inconvenience – but also some advantages. We have been able to hire from a wider pool of candidates further afield; have saved costs on office space; and our team seems to have enjoyed the flexibility. Having recently taken up office space, it is clear that we need to re-learn how to work in the ‘old way’, and we will certainly never fully return to office-dominated business practices.
We recently enjoyed an in person launch event, and since most of our team had never met face to face, it was a really special moment. I think we – as a society – are in the process of redefining what ‘work’ means in the context of location. It will be different for different people – and undoubtedly some people will have struggled physically or mentally with extended WFH for such a long time. We will offer choice and flexibility, focusing on outputs, not attendance.
Do you have any tips for managing suppliers and customers effectively?
When I was a very young, inexperienced salesperson, I learned a tremendous lesson about the supplier/customer relationship. A small business that I had never heard of contacted me out of the blue asking for a quote for services. I quoted a ridiculously high price and they bought it. It was a horrible and short lived relationship, but we made some short term money. That business was a very young mobile phone company that went on to become massive. If I had had a longer term vision and more basic respect, who knows what could have happened!
My tip therefore is try and work out how both parties ‘win’, and think in much longer terms than your immediate targets.
Any finance or cash-flow tips for new businesses starting out?
Whatever your contingency budget is, double it! You will have unexpected costs (we have!) and they can be derailing if you don’t have some spare cash.
If you could ask one thing of the government to change for businesses what would it be?
If I had a magic wish, there would be no point wasting it on something sensible like tax relief or VAT waivers – we may as well be radical! I would like to see all children from primary school age onwards taught coding as part of the national curriculum. They have been brought up in the digital age – we need to equip them to shape it.
What is your attitude towards your competitors?
We are competitors to our competitors and I hope they respect us too. By that I mean that we should not treat them as the enemy, but as just another group of people doing similar jobs to us. That does not mean we should not look for their strengths and weaknesses and plan strategies to be better. But we should always do the right thing (thinking back to our values of course!), and play fair.
Any thoughts on the future of your company and your dreams?
We are an early stage company so thoughts of the future and “dreams” are sort of the same thing! We have made a very solid start: we believe in our business model and have great support from partners, investors and other key stakeholders such as Mastercard and Railsbank. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we need to establish Unizest first by building up a presence in the UK market. That will be our focus for 2021/22.
Our core proposition (providing basic banking services via digital technology to underserved populations) resonates in a number of countries outside the UK and to a variety of different customer groups. We are fortunate in that our in-house tech stack and team can stand up digital banking propositions quickly and cost effectively. Our goal is to target areas with large numbers of underbanked and underserved customers, and find innovative partner based routes to market.