Start-ups will play a key part in powering the UK’s growth, with fintech set to be a particularly dynamic area. Penelope Rance talks to three rising stars – Thomas Holliday, Ken Chan and Sam O’Connor – about what attracted them to the sector.
Thomas Holliday: Head of Finance, Capital On Tap
After studying physics at the University of Bath, Thomas Holliday began his career at PwC in the Midlands as part of their core assurance team. Focused primarily on external audit engagements, he worked with clients spanning a range of industries before moving to London to join PwC’s structured finance group.
“It was during my time there that I became involved with Capital On Tap, one of my audit clients,” says Holliday. “At the time it was a fairly young start-up offering technology solutions to allow small businesses to access funding, with a loan portfolio of around £50m. They were yet to hit profitability, but growth had been fast.”
Having decided to move out of professional services and into industry, the opportunity to join Capital On Tap as head of finance looked attractive, with the remit to improve internal processes and build the foundations for the finance function to scale with the business.
It proved an excellent fit. “Fintech was an area I’d always been interested in joining, especially with a start-up business,” Holliday says. “It’s fast moving and disruptive, and favours companies that can match that mentality.”
For accountants in the sector, Holliday says it’s important to have a good grounding in data analysis. “Fintech companies are inherently data-hungry and the ability to access, analyse and understand this data – which is more often than not unavailable in the user-friendly systems used in larger businesses – in an effective manner is crucial to understanding and analysing current and future performance.”
Capital On Tap continues to grow, in the UK and in Spain, where it launched a business in 2019. Holliday predicted a similarly buoyant future for himself in the sector before the COVID-19 crisis raised question marks about how the economy would be affected.
“Fintech is constantly changing and offers a great opportunity to solve problems in a dynamic work environment. It’s a unique experience and something I enjoy doing, so I can see myself staying in the sector for the foreseeable future.”
Ken Chan: Group Head of Tax, TransferWise
Despite intentions to pursue a creative career, Ken Chan signed up to PwC’s summer internship, then went on to its graduate scheme, kickstarting a career in tax. After qualifying, he worked in a number of different roles within financial services, seeking the right challenge.
“I enjoy new ways of working, finding new ways to solve old problems,” says Chan. “So when the opportunity came up at TransferWise to build a tax function from scratch while keeping up with its rapid growth, I couldn’t resist diving in.”
TransferWise offers its six million-plus users a new way of moving money around the world, and processes more than £4bn in payments every month. “It’s refreshing how everything is driven by real problems. I buy into the TransferWise idea of shaking up traditional financial services by building something that’s better, fairer and more transparent. Why shouldn’t sending money be as efficient, convenient and cheap as sending an email?”
Leveraging his financial experience to help bring about social good, while satisfying the problem-solving itch, gives Chan a sense of purpose: “It’s energising to know we’re making a real difference in the work that we as a tax function do, whether solving problems with product teams, launching new routes with the expansion team, or figuring out R&D tax credits with engineers.”
That ability to meet new challenges is central to the skills required in fintech, he says. “As a chartered accountant, technical knowledge should be a given. Having a growth mindset and a resilient character is more important, whether it’s working in autonomous teams, lobbying for new regulations or keeping up with the breakneck speed of development. Given how fast fintechs evolve, it’s important to see possibilities and not just endless barriers.”
For Chan, fintech is, for now, the future. “I’m always looking for the next challenge to tackle and where I can play my part to make a difference. The sector right now provides tremendous opportunities for personal growth and learning.”
Sam O’Connor: Co-Founder, Coconut
Sam O’Connor’s entrepreneurial career began before he left school with eco-friendly cleaning company Clean Conscience. He studied business management at Kingston University, London, before applying for a training contract at PwC in 2008.
There O’Connor met future business partner Adam Goodall. “We were spending a lot of time on audit confirmations. So we built a business bringing the process online for speed, efficiency and security.” They left their jobs to focus on ProConfirm, which they sold to US competitor Confirmation in 2014. “It was a real transition for me from the accountancy side to the commercial, growing a business, making revenue and being on the front line,” says O’Connor.
Experience of the accounting frustrations of the self-employed community sparked the idea for their next start-up, Coconut. “Despite all of the technology available for businesses, for independent workers there was nothing suitable. They want something mobile, with very little data entry, and relatively simple,” says O’Connor. “Most accountancy software starts with entering an invoice or receipt, or creating an accrual. But most small businesses use cash accounting, and so by taking them straight into the payments data, we were able to shortcut many of the manual steps.”
“We’re building what we see as the ultimate accounting and tax tool for self-employed people. Our background in accounting enables us to see and understand the gaps. If we weren’t accountants, we would have struggled to start this business.”
So, is the serial entrepreneur intending to launch another start-up? “I very much enjoy the process of starting businesses. It’s one of the most rewarding, challenging things that I’ve done. The needs of the self-employed workforce present huge opportunities. Coconut is something we’ll be working on for a while.”