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As CEO of big data and analytics business mnAI, John Cushing has plenty of experience in building a successful tech venture, as he explains to Mark Mullen

The use of technology to augment and speed up the provision of advisory and other financial services is growing exponentially. John Cushing, a serial entrepreneur who has already built two other successful tech-based ventures, set up mnAI three years ago. It’s an analytics-led advisory firm that helps people to generate M&A leads and with due diligence processes.

Cushing says that mnAI’s information about private companies is what sets it apart – albeit in a very competitive market. It supplies data, insight and research analytics on all UK companies and offers proprietary technology to build datasets. Customer service and technology are at the heart of the offering. Information that in the past might have taken weeks or months to put together and analyse can be gathered in a matter of minutes.

“We had a vision to revolutionise the way in which technology could be used to help identify companies, markets or sectors,” says Cushing. “Our clients combine our data and insight with their origination criteria and skills to generate unique opportunities that otherwise would have remained undiscovered.

Advisers or investors may wish to use the data to examine industries, regions, sectors, verticals, single companies or individuals. mnAI also offers insight on relational networks, predictive revenue and, given the ever-increasing focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG), ethnicity and gender. At the end of last month, it launched The Gender Index (TGI) (see box). It’ll soon be able to offer data about the carbon usage of businesses.

The initial aim of mnAI was to use tech to provide support to private equity and corporate finance on deal origination, as Cushing and his team saw that time was crucial to those in M&A. Three years on, the company, which is a member of the Corporate Finance Faculty, now serves three core verticals: governments, financial and professional services firms, and investors. “We sit right in the middle of what faculty members want and need – not just to increase depth and breadth of knowledge, sectorally or regionally, for example, but also to save time and effort. Our data and technology does this.

The firm spent two years building its database and technology infrastructure, then worked closely with its first customers to develop analytics that met their needs. From there, the business has grown.

What’s the out? 

In 2005, Cushing founded PPR Solutions, an IT outsourcing business that was acquired by ByBox in 2012. He then co-founded Opun, which manages home improvement projects and was acquired by the John Lewis Partnership in 2018. 

So, having built two tech businesses previously and completed two exits, he’s fully aware of the importance of creating a company that, among other options, will be an attractive acquisition target to a range of buyers: “We work very hard to build strong client relationships while developing cutting-edge data and technology – values we know acquirers like to see. Until then, our focus is on revenue and product growth.

“We identified a huge opportunity to put proprietary data, insight and technology at the forefront of the offering to advisers and investors in the mid-market and elsewhere. We use cutting-edge, machine-level algorithms to interrogate and distil proprietary knowledge. There’s a real interest in that, which will only increase with time.

He says 2023 will be the year he looks to expand internationally. “We can replicate what we do in the UK across a number of different jurisdictions and markets.

The company already works with big accountancy firms. Buy-and-build advisory firms or large consultants are perhaps obvious potential acquirers – all of whom are willing to fast-track their way to tech. McKinsey, for instance, is very interested in acquiring data technology businesses.

 “These companies are consuming vast levels of data to produce proprietary insights for customers. We’re highly complementary to them. Then there are ESG consultancies, financial services providers, technology houses, or other data providers. What we build in the UK has practical applications on a global basis. There’s a large market opportunity for us,” Cushing explains.

Growth through acquisitions is part of the mnAI strategy when the right opportunity comes along. In March, it made its first acquisition, buying the intellectual property and assets of Regulation Technologies Limited.

“It’s about identifying the right businesses,” says Cushing. “In our sector, there are a small number of very interesting businesses that are highly complementary to ours, and Regulation Technologies is another data and technology provider in a marketplace adjacent to ours. I’ve always believed acquisitions can fuel a company’s growth.

Team game

Building businesses is extremely satisfying – a “good habit” – according to John Cushing: “It involves massive amounts of hard work and it’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s about the team. If you can build a culture that allows you all to work with a single purpose and vision, then that team brings the success.

Cushing and other individual investors funded mnAI. He was able to take with him several members of the management team that built Opun before he sold it to the John Lewis Partnership.

CFO Karen Allen trained as an ACA and worked for PwC before joining Innovation Group in 2009 as CFO, when it was a UK public company. In 2015, when Carlyle Group delisted it, she was effectively working for a US private company. “She has a depth of skills that helps us navigate the issues that appear in an early-stage business – she understands the entrepreneurial journey,” says Cushing.

CTO James Prout was tech director at Opun. He had a spell as head of tech at the John Lewis Partnership before rejoining his former colleagues.

David Turnbull is non-executive investor director. He has more than 40 years of experience in finance as a builder of businesses, adviser, investor, and non-exec. Having fulfilled a similar role at Opun, he helped Cushing set up mnAI.

“You really need good people who you can trust around you when you get going because it can be a lonely place otherwise,” says Cushing.

The gender index 

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cushing met two female founders who were building a tech-driven interior design business. They spoke to him about the challenges they, as women, faced with fundraising.  

“It’s universally recognised that female founders have a different experience to that of their male counterparts,” says Cushing. “We were shocked to learn that no one had been able to quantify the scale or size of the problem. This led to the development and subsequent launch of our diversity and inclusion algorithms.” 

Last year, mnAI took its work further, running pilots with Alison Rose, CEO of NatWest Group, to support the Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship initiative. Together, they recruited Jill Pay, not only as non-executive director of mnAI, but also as chair of the Gender Index (TGI), which was launched last month at an event at the Shard. Previously, Pay spent 18 years working at the Houses of Parliament, the last four as (the first woman) Serjeant at Arms. 

With analysis of eight million UK companies, The Gender Index is the single largest and most detailed study on female entrepreneurs. Using information derived from the billions of data points on the mnAI data platform, TGI provides support to female business founders and other under-represented business groups. The University of Warwick, Strathclyde University, Queens University Belfast and Cardiff University have worked with mnAI to provide local insight and analysis, all presenting in research papers. 

Rose’s initial study in 2019 estimated that female entrepreneurs could contribute up to £250bn extra for the UK economy. However, a pilot study in Scotland discovered that female business owners were less likely to get the capital that they needed and were less likely to be supported, and so, in a circular argument, they were therefore less likely to apply for funding.  

“This is a huge step forward. We can actually address the issues and quantify progress for the first time,” says Cushing. “Government, corporates and investors can now see where female-led growth opportunities are. We’re very proud to be a part of this.”