Lucy Mullins is the co-founder of StepLadder, a collaborative finance company that helps people reach their financial goals. There has been a huge wave of social media where people share what they eat, the exercise they do etc. but people aren’t yet social about money about money. Here comes StepLadder, one of the first collaborative finance savings apps, a platform where you can save with other people to reach your financial goals faster. There are nine team members at StepLadder and they are about to do a Series A funding round to help them scale-up further having already raised over three million from angel investors, crowdfunding and venture capital fundraising.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I think I have always been a little entrepreneurial. When I was about nine or ten years old, I decided to set up a company called Organized Chaos and it was organising children’s birthday parties. I helped a friend’s four-year-old sibling’s birthday party and I loved it, and then for other people in the village. And then, when I was about fifteen, I set up a fitness company called Flap to Fab. I always enjoyed entrepreneurial things, creating a brand name, marketing it, putting a vision out there and offering a product or service that makes a difference to people lives. All the entrepreneurial projects I’ve done either bring joy or really help people so that’s a running theme. The fitness business was great because people would come and tell me what they were struggling with and how much they enjoyed getting fit – I always really loved that.
Then, I trained as an executive coach and worked with a variety of people to help them reach their goals. I was introduced to my co-founder Matthew, (through an Oxford connection!) who had actually studied these saving circles in Brazil. When he pitched the idea of StepLadder to me, I thought, “How lovely to help people reach their financial goals or support them in saving money rather than them doing it on their own” and I was sold on the idea of StepLadder. So that is my background, I love helping people reach their goals and feel empowered about things.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I remember someone said in Business School that if you run a little hair salon, that is entrepreneurial. Then, there was a big argument saying since it is not really scalable, it is not really entrepreneurship, it is a lifestyle business. I have always had a very broad definition, I think anyone that does their own thing is entrepreneurial, it is brave. But there was an academic augment that if you want to be a true entrepreneur, there has to be risk involved. I asked the Master of the Guild of Professional Entrepreneurs this question when I was invited to one of their events. She said, the definition is, “if you’re unemployable”, which I loved! I like the idea that: a) you cannot be employed by someone else, b) you’ve got an idea, and c) it is new e.g., to your neighbourhood, with a new name etc.. So, I think your local hair salon is just as entrepreneurial as some big digital finance business that is going global. It is the idea of being your own boss and bringing your own ideas to life.I don’t think I am very good at doing what I’m told which might be what makes me a good entrepreneur.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
We have been going for nearly seven years now and people have invested in our business so I think that’s a good sign. However, you always need to grow more so you never really know! When you get that first investment, that is one important step; smart individuals and professional venture capital funds listen to your pitch and say that this is a good idea and we will give you money for it. But it goes in a series of steps; it is not like a bright line where you go “This is my idea and now it is going to work”. It is more like rounds where you think this is working, but then things go wrong or regulation changes or you don’t get customers that quickly so you then start doubting yourself and the idea.
We have done a number of rounds of funding. We did crowdfunding with Seedra. It is a very exciting platform where anyone can invest from ten pounds. We raised around a hundred and fifty thousand pounds from it last year. Every time you fundraise you are testing if your idea is good enough. It is an ongoing process and we will be fundraising again next year. We have momentum now which is great but fundraising is always a test!
People use their money saved from StepLadder to buy houses, for property deposits, to buy cars, to buy things for their home, to pay for holidays, for emergency funds – so a whole range of things. It is really nice when people write reviews saying that this changed their life. As well as financial success it’s great to see that you have had an impact on the world and improved lives. My co-founder and I care very much about that. Of course, we want StepLadder to do well financially but the day the first person bought her home we thought we have made a difference to someone’s life!
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Resilience – it is such an obvious one. It is essential to have that sort of relentless bounce back from things when they go wrong because they will go wrong. This is coupled with energy, passion and motivation because there is not necessarily a paycheck at the end of the day and you constantly have to keep knocking down barriers. Most of the time, when you’re an entrepreneur, you’re in a space that is new; you’re at the frontier where you have to be prepared to fight with that energy. Finally, you need a super co-founder. You cannot do this on your own. You need to find someone where your values are aligned which is very important. Matthew and I could not be more different in so many ways, but actually we have very similar core values. We both value the team that we have hired, how we treat people and why we are doing this. When regulatory changes come in, we like to do things in the same way. We like to do things properly and fast. So this is an essential aspect.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Some days, nothing! But I obviously love it. Being your own boss is amazing. You work harder than you’ll ever work anywhere else because you are working for yourself. But it feels different because you’re in-charge of what you do. We never have to do something because a committee needs it. If we don’t want to do something, we say let’s just not do it, if it’s not going to break anything and not adding any value we can get rid of it. This gives us more ability to create impact rather than just doing things for the sake of it.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
An individual that really inspires me is Joanna Lumley. I think a lot of the work she does, raising awareness of causes throughout the world and inspiring people, I think she’s an extremely inspiring character. When I see her, I get really energised by her, I love the way she has a celebrity life but also is making an impact in the world. So that inspires me.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would want to hear her stories. She has travelled so much and has experienced so many different cultures.. I would like to understand some of the things that she has seen that have really changed her perspective of the world over the years. I also want to know how she looks so fabulous at her age, she is 70 something! Where that passion comes from, how she has kept her fire burning for so long.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
A key moment was when Shanae, our first member, got the key to her first home as she had been able to buy her first home because of StepLadder , that was genuinely amazing. Another moment was in January 2020 at an award ceremony. We had entered a “Women in Finance” award which was huge with fifteen hundred people and we almost did not go because the tables were really expensive. At the last minute, we got a deal on the tickets, so I took two friends and we sat at the back and StepLadder won the award for Social Impact. I had to go up to the stage and accept the award which was very exciting and glamorous, and I thought wow, we have been noticed in a very big way. So Shanae’s news was very intrinsically satisfying – the joy of seeing someone else’s delight, which I think is called compersion!. The award was extrinsic reward – feeling overwhelmed that we have been recognised for what we are doing.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
So many! Finding the right people is very important and we faced our challenges with that in the early days. Another thing I have learnt and we still don’t do this very well is not backing ourselves enough in front of the investors. We don’t sell ourselves and the business enough – we are a bit too humble when we speak with them. A lot of people when they pitch to investors go really big on their idea and the impact, whereas we often underplay what we have done. So we are trying to learn to get better at articulating what we have done it.
How have you funded your ideas?
A number of different ways! We did a friends and family round to start with. We went out to our network and got angel investors.. And then we went to venture capitalists: SeedCamp (2018) and Anthemis – BBVA Venture Partnership Anthamists – BBVA Venture Partnerships (2019). Then, we did a Seeders crowdfunding as I mentioned earlier. So, it was a mix of angel investors, VCs and crowdfunding.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
We have won a few industry awards which gave us some nice recognition. We have not had any grants.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
We are based in London now, but obviously, my ecosystem was very much Oxford. The great thing about having that kind of connection with Oxford is when you need something, there is always someone you can call up: the Entrepreneurship Centre, the Business School etc. You can go on LinkedIn and reach out to people who study at Oxford and are now living in different regions . Nine times out of ten, people are happy to do that by virtue of the community and collegiality – just knowing Oxford. So that is a great thing.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
My number one tip, this was a game changer for us, is called Startup Core Strengths (SCS). It is run by two guys called Matt Lerner and Nopadon Wongpakdee. It is a growth marketing program which is done online in real time. Most startups face the problem of how to do marketing and get customers; it is not the old-school marketing way anymore. That is my best resource to send people to. I would also recommend the Oxford community; there is a wealth of resources at the Entrepreneurship Centre at the Business School.
Any last words of advice?
Understand your own personality. Understand how you best work. Having a good co-founder is my number one piece of advice, as I said: same values but different skill sets. Matt has an outstanding commercial brain and is highly analytical, I like talking to people and pitching on a stage. So find someone with really complementary skills, so you could be the yin and yang of the business. After that, one of the things you must do is have that energy and resilience to keep going; the best way to do that is to exercise, drink water and sleep. Those are actually always my top three tips! You can’t skip the basics, nothing happens if you are dehydrated, tired and don’t exercise. As an entrepreneur you will get a lot of setbacks and need the extraordinary power of exercise to lift your mood. Every interview I do, I tell people this – it is the best thing you can do for your mental health. It keeps me happy!