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Notes from Last Night: “An Evening with Matt Robinson, Co-Founder of GoCardless”

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Last night we had the honor (sorry, honour — I’m still working on my proper British English) of hosting a Q&A session with Matt Robinson, co-founder of GoCardless. GoCardless is commonly described as “a UK online direct debit provider.” Which in normal-people speak basically means this: GoCardless let’s you easily and conveniently accept payment for your goods and services.

The Guardian has named GoCardless one of the UK’s hottest startups, and the company was once picked as a Wired Magazine’s “Startup of the Week.” As of January 2014, GoCardless was handling $200m worth of transactions per year.

I’d never met Matt Robinson before, but I had used his product GoCardless to accept payment for some of our courses here at The Escape School. And we do share a name. So I went into the evening with high expectations of startup & entrepreneurial enlightenment.

Matt did not disappoint. At all. In fact, it may have been one of my favorite Q&A sessions we’ve had lately.

Robinson’s story sings similar to many of our most admired Escape heroes: former McKinsey & Company consultant and Oxford Law student breaks free to realize his dreams of building a business and having more autonomy around his career and work life. After about a year of ideating with a fellow McKinsey colleague (with ideas ranging from events to logistics and many things in between), the two eventually founded GoCardless. The story continues, leading them through startup Godfather Paul Graham’s famed YCombinator accelerator program, several rounds of funding, and the constant struggle of managing and growing a business.

With a story like this, one might assume (or even allow) Robinson to carry an air of arrogance about him.

The reality couldn’t have been further from this. The amount of humility, honesty, and helpfulness Matt brought to our attendees last night was admirable. He’s a standup dude who’s as smart as he is genuine.

As he spouted startup wisdom, I managed to catch a few quotable gems and dictate them onto my iPhone notepad:

On Execution:

“Yes, it’s all about the execution…but the idea (e.g. the problem you’re trying to solve) is still important.”

On Idea Generation:

How Matt would approach idea generation in the future:

  • Think about things that matter deeply to you. (Is it something you’d use yourself?)
  • Make sure the business is centered around an idea you’re extremely passionate about, or a certain skill you have is central to the business.
  • Try to build something that gives you revenue from day one.

On Finding a Need:

“You need to satisfy a burning pain. It needs to be a quantum better than current solution.”

On Customer Development:

“Sometimes people don’t actually know what they want.”

When asking customers questions about your product, “you usually hear what you want to hear.”

Suggested reading: The Entrepreneurs Guide to Customer Development [Amazon UK, Amazon US]

On the Competition:

“For one-off payments, yes, Stripe is great. But for recurring payments, we’re the best.”

On Raising Money:

There are three very important questions to ask when looking to raise money:

  1. Are you ready to invest 18 months of your life into this idea?
  2. If you had 100% of the money you needed, would you put all of your own money into this idea?
  3. Does your graph look “like this” (a positive trend)?

On Raising Money from Friends & Family: 

“I didn’t want the extra pressure of having to answer to friends and family. The stress of starting a business was great enough.”

Friends and family are often unsophisticated investors. Plus, are they prepared to invest in something that may produce positive returns in 10 years time? With a 2% chance of success?

On Accelerators: 

Matt would only suggest gunning for the top 3: YCombinator, Tech Stars, or Seedcamp.

On Advisors & Investors:

“Ask for money, you get advice. Ask for advice, you get money.” (adapted from a Paul Graham quote).

On Having a Long-Term View:

“Realistically a startup is a 5-10 year endeavor. Are you prepared to invest that much time into your idea and business?”

On Getting a Job at a Startup:

As a generalist (someone without a specific skill set like coding, e.g. a Management Consultant!), expect your role to be Business Development (BD). “And BD is another name for dirty work.”

On Setting Objectives and Targets:

“We set ourselves specific concrete milestones.” If GoCardless and the team didn’t hit XYZ or do ABC by this date, they would rethink their direction and business model.

On the Obvious Differences Between a Startup and a Corporate:

“In your startup, nothing will happen if you don’t make it happen.”


Missed this event? Join us for a similar session with Avin Rabheru, founder of Housekeep on Wednesday, 20 August.