The Entrepreneur: Simon Cureton, Funding Options

At a time when small UK business owners need all the funding support they can get, Simon Cureton's business finance company Funding Options has been a lifeline.

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Company: Funding Options
CEO: Simon Cureton
Website: fundingoptions.com

Funding Options streamlines the business loan process for SMEs, matching small companies with 120-plus lenders through one simple application. Cureton’s marketplace for business finance has helped raise a staggering £597,332,862 for UK businesses since it was founded back in 2011, but the company isn’t stopping there.

It has since expanded its finance offering, providing business energy and international payment comparisons via its innovative Funding Cloud technology.

We spoke to Simon Cureton, CEO of Funding Options, about his desire to solve the biased funding gap, his pride in featuring in the Financial Times’ fastest-growing companies index, and how open banking technology has changed the business finance landscape forever.

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The Business

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

Funding Options operates in the fintech space. We’re a data-driven marketplace for business finance, helping SMEs get the right funding to trade, plan and grow with confidence.

We have over 240 lender partners – from high street banks to alternative finance providers and are the only platform that sends a single application to multiple lenders in real-time.

Our platform processes applications for funding worth £1bn every month which has led to more than 11,500 businesses across the UK and Netherlands securing over £650m in funding.

Part of Funding Options’ mission and our USP is to help solve the funding gap through the transparent and unbiased comparison of available opportunities for each business so they can make informed decisions.

We do this through both an AI and Open Banking-driven platform that can automate the process from application to loan, while also having business finance specialists on-hand to discuss each business’ options.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

I took over Funding Options from the founder. He did a great job of getting the business off the ground and creating a startup culture. But in order to transition to a more sophisticated and innovative fintech platform, we needed to invest in the underlying tech.

Launching Funding Cloud™ and seeing the company named in the top half of businesses from across Europe in the FT1000, the Financial Times’ index of the fastest growing companies, for the last two years in a row, felt like a huge validation of the work the team has undertaken to reach where we are today.

As did winning awards for innovation and LendTech of the Year at the UK Fintech Awards recently.

How did you fund your business?

We have followed a fairly well-trodden route for fintech companies in raising angel investment, followed by venture capital. This was supplemented by the government-backed award of funding from Pool D of the Capability and Innovation Fund, which was created following the fall-out of the 2008 recession to ensure the sector delivered competition and choice in the provision of finance to SMEs.

Prior to that, the market had been too reliant on the incumbent high street banks, but now the UK has a thriving fintech community that is envied the world over.

Since government support has been withdrawn we’ve seen greater uptake of market-based business lending, a 58% year-on-year rise in January which has shown that businesses are turning to alternative forms of finance to provide ready working capital and greater flexibility.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

I come from a commercial banking background, so somewhat inevitably I’m a number and data-driven person. For us, we constantly monitor the lead indicators in terms of the quality of demand from small business customers and the supply of lending products at competitive rates. This gives us a good sense of the revenue we can see coming down the line.

I’m also fascinated by which sectors are most prominent, how much they are seeking, and why. As you can imagine, this gives us essential insight into where the stresses and strains are within the UK economy.

Since the government support has been withdrawn we’ve seen greater uptake of market-based business lending, a 58% year-on-year rise in January which has shown that businesses are turning to alternative forms of finance such as Merchant Cash Advance and rolling credit facilities to provide ready working capital and greater flexibility.

Lenders that use the platform would also be interested in gaining insights into the competitive landscape in the UK and Dutch markets. This data is incredibly valuable to assess their own offering and to trigger greater competition and choice for small businesses.

To what extent does your business trade internationally?

Funding Options is co-located, operating across the UK, where we have our headquarters in London, and the Netherlands. We are the only platform of our kind to have established ourselves internationally. We’ve been well-established in the Dutch market since 2019 and have facilitated loans to a value of tens of millions of Euros.

Where would you like your business to be in five years?

Last year we launched the first real-time lending platform, which we called Funding Cloud™. We’ve seen loan applications approved in just 20 seconds with no manual intervention, which basically means the due diligence is done instantly through access to key data. Our customers have highlighted the need for fast access to vital funds as critical.

So, in five years’ time, recognising that an enormous funding gap exists globally (estimated at $5 trillion in the US, £56bn in the UK, and €730 billion in Europe) I would like to see our innovation positively contributing on a global scale.

We will come to rely far more heavily on the world’s SME population. The World Bank estimates that 600 million jobs will be needed by 2030 to absorb the growing global workforce. Small and mid-sized businesses – responsible for half of the employment worldwide already – will be the essential job creators.

What software or technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

Again, the technology stack that sits behind our Funding Cloud™ platform has been transformative for customers. It wouldn’t be possible without Open Banking, Open Accounting and AI, supported by third party verification (AML – anti-money laundering and KYC – know your customer) technologies.

We’re very lucky to operate at a time when there are so many exciting third parties that we can partner with to enhance our offering such as Codat, Equifax and FullCircl.

Based on what lenders need to know in order to provide loans, our algorithm can instantly identify whether an application meets the required criteria. Open Banking technology gives us a window on companies’ financial suitability to receive a loan. And the third party verification carries out instant due diligence.

Crunching all of that data in real-time, businesses receive the offer of an approved loan in seconds.

Our new record time from application to funds in the bank is just 18 minutes, meaning you can apply and receive a loan within your coffee break!


Growth challenges

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in business?

I’ve been described as a ‘change agent’, which arguably means I’m a pain in the ass if things aren’t right. I want to see our company reach its potential and look to inject the energy, experience, and skill sets required to achieve that.

The danger is that you can seem uncompromising to some. Changing the startup culture was probably the biggest challenge I had to deal with. It didn’t mean we dispensed with all the ‘soft’ and fun stuff, but you do have to focus on the fundamentals of growth and profitability.

What was your biggest business mistake and what did you learn from it?

When you’re ambitious you can find yourself guilty of trying to do too many things at once. I’ve learnt that although you have to bring everybody on the journey with you, you need to keep it focused or you’ll risk exhausting people. The business has so much potential, so I look to prioritise based on the capacity and capability of the team we have at that moment.

When you’re ambitious you can find yourself guilty of trying to do too many things at once. I’ve learnt that although you have to bring everybody on the journey with you, you need to keep it focused or you’ll risk exhausting people.

What one thing do you wish someone had told you when you started your business journey?

To listen to people who are a positive influence. You can get weighed down and put off course by detractors that are not adding any value. There are lots of mixed messages given by strong personalities and I wish we’d not been as influenced.

I would tell my slightly younger self to believe in yourself, your core team, and the collective vision you have. With that, I feel we could have gotten to where we are quicker.

How has the pandemic affected the market you operate in?

Like everyone, we’ve had to deal with many curve balls, which has provided proof of our agility and how much strength, penetration, and loyalty we have. We’ve just achieved our strongest quarter since pre-COVID.

In the wider market, our customers – small businesses – have dealt with shuttering up during lockdowns, unable to trade unless deemed essential or online. And on the other side of our marketplace, lenders either sought accreditation to facilitate government support schemes or were largely sidelined due to not having access to the cheaper credit afforded to incumbent banks via the Bank of England’s Term Funding Scheme.

Customers and partners alike have been affected by this distortion of the SME finance industry. But thankfully, we are seeing a return to market-based lending and one positive side-effect is that COVID has accelerated the utilisation of data-driven technology to process vital funds faster.


Personal Growth

Did you study business or learn on the job?

I studied French and business studies, so I’d say learning on the job has been absolutely priceless. I’ve always been someone who wants to get out of my comfort zone. I like to push myself. At Funding Options it’s so varied and there’s so much to do still. Every day I learn from others in the team – whether that’s C-Suite, the marketing team, or a junior member of our tech team.

What would make you a better leader?

Time to reflect. I’d like to read more about what other leaders do and other ways of working. Fortunately, so many members of our team pull in titbits of information from what they’ve read, so I’m regularly exposed to other ways of approaching challenges.

One business app and one personal app you can’t do without?

For business I’d say Slack as it gives you a really good barometer of how everything is ticking along without having to go in too deeply. For example, I see the important numbers within the business and each team’s insights relating to them on a daily basis. Plus, we have a ‘gong’ channel to celebrate our business customers’ success in securing finance – and the odd cat gif!

My personal app would have to be Strava or Garmin. I love my sport and am a competitive person, so love to track my progress.

A business book or podcast that you think is great:

I’ve never been an avid business book reader, so I’d have to say The Few – an Aussie podcast. It features leaders from all walks of life. So it’s a bit of a throwback to my days living there – the two that do it are Aussies, but the people they speak to are globally renowned leaders from the worlds of business, sport, and public service.

Ross has been writing for Startups since 2021, specialising in telephone systems, digital marketing, payroll, and sustainable business. He also runs the successful entrepreneur section of the website.

Having graduated with a Masters in Journalism, Ross went on to write for Condé Nast Traveller and the NME, before moving in to the world of business journalism.

Ross has been involved in startups from a young age, and has a keen eye for exciting, innovative new businesses. Follow him on his Twitter - @startupsross for helpful business tips.

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