FinTech Incubators Inflation and Courage

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 08.24.08My journey with mentoring started when I helped organise and mentor a local cohort for new businesses within the IT services space many many years ago. Not one of those 20 companies remains today. I found it sad and haven’t gotten involved again.

Over the past two years I’ve witnessed the lab/incubator/accelerator/culminator explosion and was terrified by the inflation and what it would do to the industry. At best it will slow down progress to the consumer level as banks will use them as another reason to experiment some more and do nothing of value, at worst it would clutter a space that needs nothing but clarity and will leave a lot of people broken and unemployed. Last year at this time, my outrage hadn’t hit peak yet but I was writing this after my first encounters with Level39’s famous iPad coffee machine.

The industry at the same time was ecstatic. Growth! Money! New blood! All the blood! A mere few weeks later than the article above, London was to be proclaimed the capital of FinTech and I was seen as the equivalent of the Negator from this video.

While I had met Nektarios Liolios, the Director of SBC FinTech London, around the conference block I had never spoken to him properly until my annoyance at this FinTech start-up inflation became public, but then one morning while we were both speaking at a Next Bank Asia event in Singapore, he listened to my rapid fire preconceived ideas of how broken all this was, and then smilingly, calmly, with the what I then came to admire as his hallmark wisdom and elegance, asked me to put my time where my loud mouth is and become a mentor for StartUpBootCamp.

I can’t be any more grateful that he did.

I mentored (not sure I like that term – “gave a little too passionate and forceful advice to” is maybe a better way of putting it) a few companies over the last year, both in SBC (which ended with an amazingly strong Demo Day) and in Level39, formally and informally.  Most would have done amazingly with or without me, one I’ve even invested in myself and it would be wise if it did stupendously well in particular since it’s redefining exactly how to get the most value out of each human encounter and how to grow – eRipple showed at Finovate earlier this year and was nominated as the Best New Idea by Bob’s Guide – and some, very few of these, I’ve helped in a measure or other.

Unsurprisingly maybe, the ones I feel I did most good for, aside from the ones where I spent a considerable amount of time with such as Insly, are the ones I only touched tangentially, for a meeting or two, for a “wow moment” on either side or two, and that’s why I love the 1-on-1’s at the beginning of an incubation or acceleration program.

I spent the day with Techstars London yesterday during these 1-on-1’s and aside from how I was very pleasantly surprised at the quality of their cohort and how it touches on the real themes left to sort out in FinTech on the back-end of banks not on the shinny digital front-end, it reminded me of something I learned in this mentorship journey aside from all I’ve soaked up about technology. How much I admire all who take the leap. If starting on your own is often terrifying, starting a technology company where you actually make a product for the FinTech space requires massive amounts of mad courage.

As for how many start-ups have this courage, it’s not a secret that StartUpBootCamp and Techstars are battling it out for who’s best in London and therefore by natural extrapolation in FinTech full stop and therefore encourage the volume so they raise the bar, but that’s not bad volume, that’s a good example of very healthy, very positive competition for the industry.

I’m not going soft on the topic, I still feel the inflation is ridiculous, there’s no reason to have 361* companies solving the wallet issue in 2014 or even 83 looking at identity (*hyperbolic numbers, no report to be cited) and there is even less of a reason every bank needs a -cubator of some denomination to show they care about innovation, and the process is still broken in parts, the iPad coffee machine is still slow and dispenses doubtful quality coffee and eventually the lines will still be long at the local JobCenter because of us but you know what? It’s all worth it if we’re all growing and learning more than we’ve bargained for in the process.

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