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The Unreasonable People that are Disrupting Finance

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”— George Bernard Shaw

Mutaz Qubbaj, the founder of squirrel.me, unreasonably believes that problems are there to be fixed instead of ignored, we quizzed him on this strange philosophy.

 

HOW DID YOU REALISE YOU’RE AN ENTREPRENEUR?
Photo by Jon Stevens
Photo by Jon Stevens

I guess I’ve always had a knack for figuring out how to make things better and easier to use. I’ve been doing that for ages. Breaking stuff to figure out how it works was a rite of passage as one of 4 brothers. Upgrading from toys to software, however, took place only when I went to MIT and decided to throw myself into roles at the Media Lab that involved changing the face of collaborative storytelling as well as enabling people to interact with their computers without having to use a keyboard or mouse (this was pre-Kinect btw).
As for wanting to be involved in a project that developed something from the ground up and making a business out of it, my first real taste came through a job at Zefer, an internet strategy consulting company based out of Boston. Initially working out of one of the founders’ apartments, I immediately fell in love with the idea of once again taking something that was broken and making it better. We were helping people find their voice on the web through designing their online presence to match their ‘bricks and mortar’ personality. Awesome experience and glad I’m ‘stuck in’ again despite the 13yr ‘banker-break’!

WHAT’S YOUR BACKGROUND? ANY CRAZY STORIES?

I’m a Palestinian with a Jordanian passport who was smuggled out of Kuwait during the Gulf War. Always great conversation fodder, but I guess they say ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ though I can’t discount the amazing strength of my parents who got our family through what can only be described as a crazy time.
I’d have to say between that and being the youngest of 4 brothers who competed to set and exceed standards, including breaking the record for most international siblings that studied at MIT on scholarship, my life’s been quite a ride.
MIT kicked off my trek towards becoming a techie, with a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and internships at the MIT Media Lab, I was ready and raring to embrace the life of an entrepreneur until… Until I was offered the opportunity to take ‘any job that I wanted’ on an investment banking trading floor. 13 years later having done everything from being a trader, salesperson, product marketer, published strategist and global lecturer at each of Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and PIMCO, and armed with a Masters in Finance from LBS, I decided to take the plunge (the positive kind) into truly embracing my desire to build something that could truly make a difference.

What was the stupidest idea you ever had?

This is a fun one. I wouldn’t call it stupid… More of a learning experience.
Imagine coming up with a solution to the payday loan problem, and calling it ‘Payday Savers’… That’s actually the first iteration of the Squirrel name when we were purely focused on coming up with an ethical and affordable alternative to a payday loan. Didn’t quite fly with any of our initial stakeholders!

HOW DID YOU END UP MAKING SQUIRREL?

It all started with a few ads pushing people to take out 2000-6000% APR payday loans during their time of need. This is something I figured obviously needed ‘fixing’…

Seeing the Church of England come out and say that they wanted to compete the largest payday lender out of existence also meant that this was a pretty big problem looking for a solution.

That’s when the conversations with payday borrowers and any/everybody in the credit community came into play. I even got to talk to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s second in command about how to take on the £4B payday loan epidemic.

Squirrel is the culmination of thousands of conversations that all started with a common thread – “what keeps you up at night about your finances?” It was the realization that people weren’t looking for an easy way to score cheap credit. They were looking for a way to get comfortable with their money.

It’s crazy to think about how much time goes into setting aside savings or even making it to the end of month on their salary. What is enlightening is seeing the common theme of people getting creative about either.

The number of people we meet who get paid and pass their money on to their ‘better half’ for safe keeping is growing on a daily basis. So many people want to make sure they can’t tap into their savings at the slightest whim or perceived emergency.

We’ve actually seen people set up multiple bank accounts at different banks just to physically separate out their money into different categories and levels of access.
Squirrel organically grew out of these individual needs into a platform that addresses fundamental issues people have with their finances. We’re all about making people better with their money… And Squirrel makes it easy!
Without going into a full pitch, at its core, Squirrel gives people an account into which their pay is diverted so that they can manage their bills (and we’ll help get them better deals on them), so that they can set aside savings automatically before they even get access to their pay, and so that they can break down their spending money into weekly amounts as opposed to a lump sum every month. Check out the nifty animation online if you get a chance.

HOW DID YOU END UP AT A CORPORATE ACCELERATOR?

After spending half a year working out of a basement, too many coffee shops and restaurants to remember, a chance email crossed my inbox asking for applications to the Barclay’s TechStars program.
So, we were a FinTech company looking for a (much) better and more stable home. Squirrel had (and still has) ambitious goals to help people with their money, but camping out at restaurants and ordering that hundredth glass of water to make sure we didn’t get kicked out didn’t really cut it.
The program appealed to us as it brought together Techstars, a global startup program with an amazing entrepreneurial ecosystem, and Barclays, a global bank that could give us the edge – or what we like to call an ‘unfair advantage’ – as a FinTech startup looking to land on its feet.

Squirrel had (and still has) ambitious goals to help people with their money, but camping out at restaurants and ordering that hundredth glass of water to make sure we didn’t get kicked out didn’t really cut it.
The program appealed to us as it brought together Techstars, a global startup program with an amazing entrepreneurial ecosystem, and Barclays, a global bank that could give us the edge – or what we like to call an ‘unfair advantage’ – as a FinTech startup looking to land on its feet.

DESCRIBE IN 20 WORDS WHAT YOUR COMPANY OFFERS AND WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT IT.

Squirrel helps people take control of their financial lives. It’s the only holistic payroll-based solution with an account out there.

IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING IN THE WORLD WHAT WOULD IT BE?

I would love to see a world where people are easily able to get a handle on their finances.
The reality is that financial complexity is the root of so much distress in an individual’s life. Distress that doesn’t separate between a person’s work or personal life for that matter. I keep on talking about facilitating financial freedom and setting people on the path to having financial peace of mind, and I only see that taking root if more efforts align to help people realise their financial goals.
This would of course have to address giving people better access to financial products what has(d)evolved to become a ‘poverty premium’ for those that need that access the most. Think about how expensive a payday loan is relative to taking out credit as a premier banking customer.

I believe that everybody has an important part to play here… The innovators that provide the ideas and the executions, the banks and incumbents that can provide the structure or the ‘rails’ to build a solution, and the regulators who can take a proactive stance in rewarding that innovation and aligning their roles to reduce barriers to bringing something new and potentially life-changing to market.
So here’s one to everybody out there who’s listening – Let’s get on this bandwagon together and make financial freedom a reality for everbody!

Papa Squirrel out…

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