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Interviews

CASH FLOW KINGS – CLEAR FACTOR, THE DECENTRALISED GLOBAL INVOICE FINANCE ECOSYSTEM DESIGNED FOR SME’S

Ricky Shankar, Chairman of Clear Factor

 

How was inter-bank lending affected by the 2008 financial crisis?

In the aftermath of the financial crisis of September 2008, money market interest rates rose sharply and there was a virtual freeze in inter-bank lending. A principal source of funding for loans to businesses and individuals was no longer available.

SME’s were directly affected. These small businesses, more than any other, relied on bank debt including overdrafts and loans for their external financing needs and were particularly at risk from a collapse in bank lending. Indeed, the available evidence from 2008 suggests that small businesses were not only finding it increasingly difficult to obtain finance, but were dealing with the withdrawal of promised finance, experiencing sharp increases in loan interest rates and were having facility fees imposed. Even firms with good credit histories were not immune to these problems. Banks became more risk averse and small business owners were being offered smaller loans, as falling house prices meant they had reduced collateral.

 

What type of SME’s were affected?

Ricky Shankar launched his then software services firm Amsphere, in 2002 to help FTSE 100 businesses reduce their risk of business change, particularly in IT.

Like many entrepreneurs getting started, Shankar had put up his home as collateral with a high street bank – HBOS. Amsphere grew quickly and exponentially, posting 100% growth in revenue and profits. In 2005, Amsphere continued to expand and subsequently, payment terms lengthened. Yet, despite being profitable, cash flow was becoming an issue and Amsphere required access to working capital in order to pay the monthly bills.

Shankar looked in to invoice financing and within a few weeks agreed an invoice finance facility with HBOS. In short, Amsphere was able to draw down 85% of all invoices raised immediately. Their cash flow problems were solved at a stroke.

Ricky Shankar

The next three years saw Amsphere’s trajectory further rise, peaking in 2008 when the firm was named in The Sunday Times fastest growing Techtrack companies in the UK. HBOS publicised Amsphere’s accolades and were quick to also take credit.

In 2009, as a direct result of the financial crisis, HBOS was taken over by Lloyds and they merged to become Lloyds Banking Group, the largest retail bank in the UK.

The following year, Lloyds recalibrated its risk assessment and Amsphere was now deemed ‘high risk’ despite being a reliable client and posting no bad debts. In no uncertain terms, Amsphere was given six months to find a new invoice finance lender.

Shankar quickly sought an alternative arrangement with Bibby Financial Services and a deal was signed. However, three days before the transfer between banks, Bibby pulled out of the deal, asking for directors’ homes as collateral. Amsphere, now struggling as many SME’s were in the recession, still remained profitable but was three days away from collapse.

Shankar contacted Simon Featherstone, who at the time was Managing Director of Lloyds Commercial Finance. A meeting with Lloyds was arranged whereby it was explained how the failings of banks would in effect be putting a perfectly profitable and fast growing UK SME out of business and Featherstone convinced Lloyds to take back Amsphere as a client.

Whilst Shankar’s predicament had a happy ending, thousands of other profitable businesses were not so fortunate. According to data from the Federation of Small Businesses, 50,000 small businesses fail each year due to cash flow issues.

 

So, is the Alternative Finance Marketplace changing? 

“After my experience, I saw the opportunity for the invoice financing sector to grow away from the banks. There are almost six million small businesses in Britain today. Of those, less than one per cent are funded by high street banks!” added Shankar, who is now Chairman of Clear Factor, a transparent, democratised global invoice-finance ecosystem that provides every viable SME with access to fair and affordable working capital.

“SME’s today have very few choices for working capital. Low borrowing rates no longer exist as interest rates range from 12% to 100% per annum for SME loans via the alternative finance lenders. Most lenders require director guarantees, additional collateral and debentures on the business. SME invoice finance for most of the business community still remains at a very nascent stage of development. That is why we have launched Clear Factor to change the playing field forever.”

 

So what does Clear Factor bring that is new to the sector, as the invoice financing industry has been using the banks’ collapse of 2008 as their marketing tool for the last decade?

Clear Factor is a new financial paradigm that has absolutely no reliance on banks which is attractive from a customer point of view. We have seen how people are flocking to digital platforms such as Tide and Starling instead of the high street banks.

Clear Factor is levelling the playing field so that all SMEs can access all investors on a global level through the auction system. Clear Factor will give every viable SME anywhere on the planet, in any currency, access to the affordable working capital they need to grow. The fair interest rate will be determined by the auction and agreed to by the SME.

Clear Factor is focusing on micro and small segments of the SME market – those that are not currently serviced by banks for invoice finance. There are no lock-ins, impositions, hidden costs or contractual binds and there will always be a quick payment against the invoice. The only fee is the ecosystem fee which is 1.0% of the withdrawal amount taken and this applies to the SME, individual investor and trade investor.

What is not ‘new’ but important for Clear Factor is that the company has a mandate to make sure that it is recession robust. It is about protecting SMEs from a possible future financial crash and a repeat of 2008.

 

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Interviews

DIFFERENTIATION – THE KEY TO THRIVING IN A SATURATED MARKET

Graham Glass, CEO of Cypher Learning

 

What has enabled Cypher to continue to grow in an increasingly saturated market?

Recognising opportunities for growth around the world is actually one of the things that has helped us grow. We realized that there were so many opportunities outside of the U.S or Western Europe and actually, a lot of our revenue comes from outside of these regions. For example, with our education based LMS, NEO, we have schools and institutions in the Philippines, Latin America, Norway, Australia, and more. The way we have created the product allows the flexibility for it to be tailored to each educational institution’s exact needs and because of this process, we can provide different languages, different elements of learning and really help the teachers in each country make the most out of the system.

 

You have recently expanded into four more locations: Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Russia. What was the reasoning behind deciding on these locations?

The growing popularity of our learning platforms has made it possible for the company to expand quickly and cover more of the market around the world. The selection of the new sales offices came as a natural move, as we started to get more and more customers in those locations, and we wanted to seize the opportunity to expand even more. We also wanted to provide local support to our customers, which is an important aspect in our strategy. Since we already had an office in The Philippines, opening new locations in Indonesia and Malaysia was essential. In the case of Australia, since we launched the APAC version of our platforms, with servers hosted in Sydney, it was also vital to have a sales office as well.

 

What is different about your products compared to your competitors?

CYPHER LEARNING is currently the only company on the market that provides a learning platform for each e-learning segment: academic, corporate, and entrepreneurs. Our products are built on the same core platform. They share some functionalities and the overall design of the platform, but they’re targeted towards different markets. NEO is an LMS for schools and universities, MATRIX is an LMS for businesses, and INDIE is an LMS for entrepreneurs. For each of our products, we have created special functionalities that address the needs of each market.

Our platforms are very intuitive, easy to use, and visually appealing, which makes the whole experience more engaging and enjoyable for all users. The navigation is simple, and you can customize the platforms to match your brand and fit your needs.

Our platforms are built to ensure a smooth implementation and they’re easily adopted by students, teachers, trainers, and entrepreneurs. We offer support for 40+ languages, mobile apps for all devices, and accessibility features so all users can enjoy the platform.

CYPHER LEARNING products provide complete solutions with powerful features for managing all teaching and learning activities for schools, organizations, and entrepreneurs.

We’re also focused on bringing innovation through our platforms, by creating cutting-edge features that other systems do not support such as automation, adaptive learning, and competency-based learning.

 

How do you see the e-learning market changing and developing in the future?

I’m very excited about the future of the e-learning market. Machine learning and artificial intelligence hold great potential in terms of making learning truly personalized. We’re already on that path, taking steps forward with automation, multi-layered neural networks, feedback algorithms, amongst many other developments. And things will advance on a massive scale, rather quickly. With AI in online education, we’re not talking about 20 years until it will become the norm. Some of these technologies are going to be available and mainstream in the next few years. Keeping up with these changes and making sure the incredible amounts of learner data will be used correctly will be challenging, but I have high hopes of what the future has in store for us.

 

What advice would you offer other individuals and businesses in the e-learning industry?

We’re all in this together so we need to stay true to ourselves. In order to provide the best tools, the best solutions and the most memorable experiences that support people of all ages to learn new things, we need to keep on learning ourselves. That’s the only way to continued growth, both personally and professionally.

 

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Interviews

IPO: WHY GO PUBLIC?

By Sandy Campart

 

The main objective of an IPO – Initial Public Offering – is to raise capital in order to allow a company to grow. However, during a global economic slowdown, investors are increasingly cautious. In times like these, how should you prepare to go to the market?

 

Reasons for an IPO

A company’s motivation for going public is often linked to the idea of “creating one’s own currency” in order to fund internal and external growth, to diversify future sources of finance and strengthen the financial structure of the company. Listing a company on the stock exchange results in tradability and liquidity, allowing previous shareholders to exit, realising a gain on their capital. It also creates a valuation for the company which will be useful for future succession plans. At a strategic level, an IPO can enable the company to clarify its strategy, refocus its activities, increase its visibility and credibility, and ultimately differentiate itself from competitors.

Nonetheless an IPO will significantly change the way a company operates. Corporate governance has to be overhauled, support functions professionalised and financial communication must be made transparent. All studies show that, when information is withheld, the negative impact on the share price is greater than if the bad news had been announced.

 

2019: a mixed bag

In 2019, newly listed companies have seen their share price grow by almost 13% on average. However, the figures vary greatly. Software and IT security companies have performed the best with an average of nearly 40%.

Nevertheless, the stock market performances of SmileDirect (dental aligners), Peloton (exercise bikes and fitness) and even Uber attest to the increased scepticism of investors for unrealistic or exaggerated levels of profitability. Uber’s price has been particularly disappointing since the latest results presented were well below the expectations of the investors. In the second quarter of 2019, the turnover was more than 5% lower than expected and the profit – or rather the deficit – per share was 53% greater than expected. Uber’s growth has been slower than that of rival app Lyft, and the restructuring costs associated with many departures, lay-offs and resignations do not seem to be controlled. Additionally, Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowski, told his employees that the teams were too large to be compatible with the pace of growth needed, while Uber’s CTO, Thuan Pham, believes it could take decades for Uber to achieve its “vision”, suggesting there could be a later than expected ability to turn a profit.

 

Towards a better year in 2020?

For a company wishing wanting to maximise its initial flotation price, there are two strategies to pursue: the first is to float when the company is performing exceptionally, the second is to wait until the stock market is in a more favourable position.

In the context of a global economic slowdown, investors have for several months been moving towards “safe haven” shares in order to protect their assets. This, combined with the chaotic path of some recently introduced companies and the abundance of private financing, makes it difficult to see an acceleration of operations in 2020.

Even though the flotation of Airbnb remains topical, Postmates (delivery service) and Endeavor (talent agency) have paused their entry to the stock market. It is possible they are prioritizing interest from venture capitalists and risk capitalists. Palantir (Big Data) and Stripe (internet payments) could also look for private funds instead.

 

The WeWork failure

WeWork is the most prominent example of our current inability to distinguish a unicorn from a chimera. Investors have to learn – or re-learn – how to resist those appealing equity fairy stories and to see beyond the innovative nature and rapid growth of a concept. Cash flow, debt level and governance remain key decision-making factors. In the WeWork prospectus, the word “technology” appears more than 120 times. The Coué method of repetition is here being used to suggest that traditional valuation models should not apply to this business. There is little doubt, however that WeWork is more of a property developer with an innovative business model than it is a technology company.

 

About Sandy Campart 

Sandy Campart is a lecturer and researcher. He is a member of the Centre of Research for Economics and Management (CREM), part of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). M. Campart is director of IUP Banque Finance Assurance de Caen – a finance school in Normandy – and author of “If we dared to invest in the stock market”.

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