James share his journey building Checkboard and why it's important to embrace failure
In this episode, James Owusu, founder and CEO of Checkboard shares his story and how he's learn to master stress and embrace failure in order to move forward.
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Charles Brecque: Welcome to another episode of Tech Story, the podcast which talks about all things tech with successful founders and business people working at tech companies. Today, I'm excited to welcome James Owusu on the show. James is the founder of Checkboard, an online orchestration onboarding platform aimed at the property sector and conveyancers. James, thank you for taking the time to be with us today. Please can you share a bit of background about yourself and Checkboard.
James Owusu: Thank you, Charles. Thank you for having me. Where do I start? I think maybe start with my background is probably the best way to go about it. I originally started working in financial services, dealing with mortgages and investments. So, I guess that's where the property focus originated from and how Checkboard evolved. I did a lot of work with consumers in helping them arrange mortgages, learnt about the property transactions, doing the KYC, and then, moving on to do the same in the investment space. So, it became very clear that KYC's a pain. I don't think anyone likes doing it, actually, as a matter of fact. No-one likes, you know, providing their documents a thousand times or passport image, bank statement. It all feels a bit intrusive, when you think about it. So, I, kind of, set out to disrupt that and change it, just to provide a better experience for everyone whilst reducing risk and mitigating fraud.
Charles Brecque: That's great, and in terms of your online verification and checks, is it in, you know, if a consumer's looking to get a mortgage, is that the specific use case that you're solving? Who uses Checkboard today?
James Owusu: Yes, in terms of the use cases that we actually solve, the platform is built in a way that you can take it apart and put it together however you see fit, meaning you can orchestrate any journey that you would like to. Let's say you were onboarding new cash from investors, you know, maybe not the founder directly onboarding cash, but maybe a VC house or an investment house would want to go through some form of onboarding flow for their investors. You can use Checkboard for that. You can ensure that you capture the relevant data points that help your business and are relevant to your business in doing so. So, presently, our largest clients and our largest use cases are in the conveyancing market, where they use Checkboard to learn about their clients, to onboard them, and as well as to find out if they've got mortgage information or how much they've got available to either purchase property or how much of a mortgage they have when selling a house. Also, the thing is similarly conducted by estate agents as well, but as I just mentioned, we've also got some investment houses that, you know, use us to conduct those initial due diligence checks on their customers. Going forward, we do have plans to branch out into other verticals which have a need to learn specific and contextual relevant information about their customers through the onboarding journey.
Charles Brecque: That's great, and so, what contextual information can a client of yours obtain through Checkboard?
James Owusu: Yes. Interesting. Very, very interesting question. Yes, so you've got things like, if you think about a home buying journey, right? Yes, you might need to know who the person is, a passport, you might need to know where they live. That's standard stuff and you can get that information pretty much everywhere. That market, you know, there is not much innovation happening there. Where we step in is, we take that information and we use it to obtain other bits, like, for example, we know where you live or we know the house you're selling, we would then use that information to figure out from your credit file what, you know, the balance of your mortgage is, as an example, on that property. You know, someone might be interested in understanding the leverage, the amount of leverage you have, the amount of CCJs you have. You know, so if they are acting on behalf of a lender or selling a property, they know not to miss out the people who have got a right to the sale proceeds, about that property. So, as you can imagine, you know, we're getting very granular now. Equally, if you're onboarding cash from an investor, for example, you might be interested in understanding where the largest source of that cash is coming from.
We can draw that information out, because, you know, that is something super important to you, you can actually select, 'I would like to know this information from the entire onboarding journey.' So, that's how it is very relevant, how it's contextual, and as we, kind of, branch out into other spaces, you know, we always want to make sure, when we are helping people obtain that information, it is absolutely relevant to the organisation. We're not just giving you, 'Here is the standard, you know, data dump. Figure out what you want to do with it.' We help you actually go, 'I don't want all this other information. I don't want all these GDPR obligations. I just want to know this, that, that, and that. Tell me it please, as part of the onboarding journey.' That's what we do.
Charles Brecque: Really interesting, and since starting Checkboard, three years' ago?
James Owusu: Yes.
Charles Brecque: What's been your favourite moment so far?
James Owusu: Ooh, favourite moment? I think when you start building a product, you face a lot of challenges. I think all of us are, I mean, you know, familiar with that, and sometimes, we all come across problems which, with all the will in the world, you can't solve today, and we had this very niggly little problem that was causing a customer experience pain-point. You know, it was very slow, and as you know, when you're engineering a product and you're putting things together, you build up technical debt. So, there was one bit of technical debt which existed in our platform for a long time, and we just didn't know what it was and, you know, I remember the day we solved that issue, I was, like, 'Thank God,' because it was something that we were building on top and then adding new things, and we knew it was there, but we didn't want to allocate the time just yet to resolve it. You know, every single time something came up, it was like, 'We'll look at it later,' and then, one day, we just, kind of, spent a good day at just resolving it and that was it. It felt really good to have eliminated that pain, you know, slowing things down and making it the experience not optimal, and ever since thing, it was actually fantastic going forward. So, yes, that was good.
Charles Brecque: I can definitely relate. I mean product's really difficult, really hard.
James Owusu: Yes.
Charles Brecque: Even when you follow all the rules and everything that's preached in all the books, you still end up with something which isn't what you expected.
James Owusu: Yes.
Charles Brecque: Technical debt is something that, sometimes, you just need to do, but also, I guess, I understand it from the founder's perspective, whenever technical debt comes up, it's always, 'Well, if we work on this, it means that we're not working on everything else that we're supposed to.'
James Owusu: Yes.
Charles Brecque: I guess it's always about, sometimes, you need to do it, sometimes, you shouldn't, but yes, never, product is not easy.
James Owusu: Yes. If you know, getting a balance in that, because the truth is, you've got so many different priorities that you'er trying to manage. You've got, you know, a client requesting this feature or that feature and, at the same time, you're aware of a thousand different problems which, you know, you're aware you need to address, but you haven't got (a) enough time and (b) enough resources to actually tackle it. So, you just go, 'Okay, look, you know, let's put this fire aside for now. We'll come back to it. Let's, you know, deal with these problems tat help the client, generate more revenue. We'll come back to these problems,' and you'er constantly, you know, playing with that balance. I think all of us know that there are some really, really massive issues in our business that are not necessarily, you know, massive problems that will tank the company, but there are issues that you know are holding back some experience, are holding back taking the business to the next level, and occasionally, you have to go, 'Stop all of this. Let's actually deal with this,' before you can get to the next level. So, it really felt good to identify and resolve that, yes.
Charles Brecque: Absolutely, and I guess, aside from products, what do you wish you'd known before starting Checkboard?
James Owusu: Jesus. I wish I had known that all the projections you make, yes, with all the will in the world, you will be off your projections, and that's fine. I think, you know, there's absolutely nothing wrong with being off your projection, because you have to start somewhere. It's, kind of, like, a dissertation, right? You know, you start having a thesis of what you're going to be researching or what you're going to be investigating and you probably end up with something completely different to what you had it mind, you're going to achieve. 'I'm going to be researching that,' and completely go off track, you know, off the path. So, yes, that's one of the biggest things that, you know, you put your forecast together, you put your financial model together, you, kind of, say, 'In twelve months, I think we're going to be here, based on all the market research we have done. Based on all the, you know, data points I've looked at,' and then, you actually get down to, you know, the nitty-gritty and you realise, 'Yes.'
Charles Brecque: Well, I mean, I think everything takes longer than we expect.
James Owusu: Yes.
Charles Brecque: I mean, product is a prime example, but I think sales as well, and even if you've got a customer who's super interested, super excited, and they say, 'Oh, yes, next week,' and then, next week comes and nothing's changed, and ultimately, you know, it does drag on. So, I think, yes, time is always going to slow things down, always going to mess up with your projections.
James Owusu: Yes.
Charles Brecque: I think, especially when you're creating something new in a brand new market, it's really difficult to project or forecast anyway, because it's never been done before. You're creating demand for something which doesn't exist, and it will eventually, the projections will catch up, that's the whole point, you know, exponential growth, but you just don't know when it's going to happen, and until then, I guess, you need to come up with numbers for investors, right?
James Owusu: Exactly, and I think, you know, there's been no better way to put it than what you just said. I think one of the biggest challenges for us was we'd start a conversation with a client and we were like, 'Okay, you know,' they said, 'Yes, it will take us about three weeks to implement this.' Two months later, you know, we're still implementing this and we're still testing this, three months later, and then, you quickly realise, 'Yes, I was forecasting to be having all that revenue now, but yes, we're out by a couple more months or several months.' Yes, it's just the nature of the beast. You're right, exponential growth is what we all hope for, and that's how that J curve is formed, to make up for the fact that it's not a straight line.
Charles Brecque: Yes, exactly. It's, like, leaving everything to the last minute, but great.
James Owusu: Yes.
Charles Brecque: Obviously, you know, you've found this great use case with conveyancers and property and you're looking to branch out to other verticals. What's, sort of, the vision for the company for the next three, five years?
James Owusu: I do see us branching out into other verticals, primarily the car, you know, used car market, and potentially, the new car sales. They have a need for, you know, due diligence as well as understanding their clients as well. So, that's an exciting space I'm quite looking forward to getting into, and equally, approaching underserved markets So, although, yes, great, you know, in the UK the property industry and onboarding is very much nearing maturity, there are other markets out there which are a thousand years behind. You know, I mean, we've got some of our teams in South Africa, as an example, and in those markets, you've got a massive need for a feature like ours. So, over the next, you know, three to five years, we are going to be expanding the platform internationally and in to the markets, so yes, I'm quite looking forward to that.
Charles Brecque: International expansion and domination.
James Owusu: Well, yes, I think, you know, once you build something and the potential is clearly demonstrated, you don't want to hold it back. You want the whole world to benefit from this, if possible. So, rather than, it's definitely an international expansion and it's definitely exciting, but it comes with unique challenges. Different markets, different jurisdictions, different regulations, different requirements, I think, I wish it would be a walk in the park, but I know it's definitely not going to be,
Charles Brecque: Yes, well, I mean, best of luck and I think, yes, international expansion is really fun and interesting, but also, really risky and dangerous, so I'm sure you'll, sort of, work that out.
James Owusu: Yes, exactly.
Charles Brecque: Great, and as a busy founder and CEO, I imagine you must come across quite a few legal documents and contracts. What are the key ones and are there any areas of friction that you've encountered?
James Owusu: Yes. So, legal documents and contracts, I think two of them really stand out to me. Employment contracts, for example, are ones that you, kind of, have to get right, and you have to standardise them in some, way, shape, or form. But then, you do have occasions where, you know, you might be hiring someone from a different part of the country or, well, a different part of the world, actually, and you need something different for them. Then your standard employment contract does not fit anymore. So, a UK employment contract's not going to work for somebody in Macedonia or South Africa, so you need to do something different there, and I, for one, you know, have previously used a consultancy agreement for international hires, and an employment agreement for UK hires, but that does not provide the level of protection that they might have benefit from. So, I guess it's an imperfect solution to a problem. So, employment contracts are one of the tricky ones, when you have teams in different parts of the world, which I think is something that most companies have today, because of COVID. Another one is, you know, consultancy agreements. Just how you get right. Some people, you know, want to get paid a fixed amount. Some of them want to have a, you know, fixed monthly payment, and they all come in different shapes and sizes, and again, that's probably the most varied contract that I've, kind of, dealt with.
Consultancy agreements just don't come in any standard shapes, you know? You're not going to meet any two consultants, you're not going to meet any two professional service providers, and you do have to always adapt it differently to suit their needs. So, it's literally faster to, you know, articulate it, a very challenging one and definitely that.
Charles Brecque: With those, let's say, the consultancy agreements where every consultant has their own rates, might be weekly, monthly, daily, how do you, sort of, keep track of all of that?
James Owusu: I don't. That's the actuarial side. I don't keep track of it. I think-,
Charles Brecque: I guess your finance team must hate you.
James Owusu: Yes. They really do, because I think, naturally, what happens is, you don't think about it until you have to, or until someone goes to you, 'Oh, what's the state of that?' and you're like, 'Give me a minute, let me check it out for you,' and then, you have to go open up. That's what I do now. I'll probably, you know, get asked a question from an investor or an advisor, interested in understanding what the expenses are, for example, and then, because I'm not sitting their creating a separate spreadsheet and going, 'Oh, yes, this is that and that is this,' I just go, 'Yes, sure. Hold on a second,' and I sign in, get the contract up, go to the terms, and then, pull out the number. I guess, you know, it does get tedious when you have five or six that you have to, kind of, put together. That task is no longer a quick, 'Oh, yes, give me five minutes.' That's, you know, maybe about half-an-hour, because you have to write it all down as well, don't you? So, yes.
Charles Brecque: Yes, well, sounds like you should be using Legislate.
James Owusu: Well, yes, I think, you know, from the conversations we've had, that does seem like a way to resolve that. Is it reconciling information and putting it together?
Charles Brecque: Well, I mean, I think reconciling is one, but you mentioned, even with five consultancy agreements, five consultants might have different rates, whether it's daily, weekly, they might have different notice periods. Some might be providing deliverables, others might just be providing a continuous service, and it can be really tricky to track, unless you creating and maintaining a spreadsheet. So, ultimately, Legislate just makes it easy to find those contracts, and even if, for example, let's say, you weren't sure which consultant had which rate, in a classic scenario, you would have to go through every single PDF, whereas with Legislate, you could just say, 'Well, okay, show me the consultancy agreements that have this rate.' Then you'd find the consultants that meet that criteria. So, that way, you don't waste time, and it always is a two or a five minute question, not a 30 minute, one hour question, which I know, as a founder, obviously, we've got unlimited hours in the day, but yes, one hour is really valuable.
James Owusu: Yes.
Charles Brecque: So, no, that's great insight, thank you for sharing, and if you were to receive a contract to sign, via Legislate or not, what would impress you?
James Owusu: Ooh, okay, that's an interesting one. I think having a summary of the contract, because let's face it, I typically look at contracts and I go, there are two key, well, three parts I look at a contract. How much am I paying? How do I cancel it? What am I getting? Then, through those, well, I'd say to read those, or to obtain those three points, you have to read a lot of text, and I think, you know, having a bit of a, well, summary of the key highlights would definitely make reading contracts, for me, a lot quicker, and then, signing them a lot quicker as well, just because that does mean I'm not going to not look at the boring text, but I might look at the boring next after grabbing what's really relevant. I can then focus on, 'Okay, let me quickly skim through this and pick out what else I need to know.'
Charles Brecque: Yes, no, that's useful insight, and I mean, we provide a summary as well, but no, I think summarising the key terms is always important because, you're right, it just makes it easier to read the actual contract when you do read it.
James Owusu: Yes.
Charles Brecque: We've been asking our guests as well, especially founders, do you have any hobbies and how have they, sort of, impacted your journey building Checkboard?
James Owusu: Yes, I cycle when I'm really pissed off. So, I'll probably, like, do a two hour cycle or three hour cycle on those very, very stressful parts of the journey, which I'm sure we've all gone through. I feel like, 'You know, what? I can't do anything right now. I'm just going to go for a long ride.' So, I think, on one occasion, I rode past the M25, just to blow off some steam, and then, you know, you regret cycling back, because you're like, 'Oh, damn, my legs are aching.' At least it gives you something else to think about, rather than the problem, which, you know, occasionally helps, to distract yourself. So, yes, I do cycle as a way to help me, not necessarily-,
Charles Brecque: Switch off?
James Owusu: Yes. See, it's a funny one, because I wouldn't say I switch off when I'm cycling. I just use all that rage that I'm feeling about the problem and power it into my legs to go faster, and just keep going, until my legs actually go, 'Calm down,' and, you know, I'm in pain here, so let's stop. Then, I'l probably, you know, turn back home, but yes, it does help. It does help refocus you because, occasionally, if you're staring at the problem for too long, or if you are looking at the same thing for too long, you realise you're making any progress and you might need to do something completely different to kick your mind into gear again. To me, that's what I use cycling for.
Charles Brecque: Yes. That's a good tip. I don't cycle. I mean, I've started to cycle, but with a Lime bike, across London, just because I do find it's the quickest way to get from A to B, but yes, I think that's a cool hobby and a cool way to, sort of, vent.
James Owusu: Yes. I cycle along the River Thames.
Charles Brecque: Oh, great.
James Owusu: So, that's just, like, it cuts across all the way from Canary Wharf all the way out of London, if you ever want to, you know, give that a go, you can-,
Charles Brecque: Yes.
James Owusu: Yes.
Charles Brecque: No, I mean, the thing is, I've got so used to Lime bikes that I once went back on a normal back, I was like, 'Oh, I've actually got to pedal.'
James Owusu: Yes, good.
Charles Brecque: Great, and is there a question that I haven't asked that you'd like me to ask or-,
James Owusu: No, I think we've, kind of, covered a lot of ground there. I mean, I would've said, well, what's probably the biggest challenge that, you know, that's what we've been facing, but I think that changes, based on the season, right?
Charles Brecque: Yes.
James Owusu: You know, at any given point in time, you've got a really big challenge, either fundraising, either-,
Charles Brecque: Hiring.
James Owusu: Hiring, firing, whichever one it is, and I think there isn't ever this huge problem, because you might solve one today, and then-,
Charles Brecque: Another one comes up.
James Owusu: Exactly.
Charles Brecque: Also, the problems change, because the problems that you have today will be a lot smaller than the problems you have in a year.
James Owusu: Yes.
Charles Brecque: Hopefully.
James Owusu: Today's problems will be smaller in a year, but in a year, you know, that problem will be very big, relevant to the time it's in.
Charles Brecque: Yes.
James Owusu: So, sometimes, I wonder whether, you know, the problems change size or we get stronger to deal with them.
Charles Brecque: Yes, that's a valid point. Hopefully stronger.
James Owusu: Yes, that's what we all hope, otherwise we should be breaking down everything that we face.
Charles Brecque: Great, and, you know, what tips would you give to someone who's considering to be a founder?
James Owusu: Just start.
Charles Brecque: And don't stop.
James Owusu: Yes, that's it. Just start and don't stop, and if you're successful, great. If you fail, you should learn something. You've learnt a way not to do it and you can start again. Not that, you know, you ever want to fail, and not that failure's ever the goal, but it's always something you have to be aware could happen, and you just ignore it anyway, and just keep going forward.
Charles Brecque: Very wise words.
James Owusu: Yes.
Charles Brecque: Thank you. Yes, thank you very much, James, for sharing your story on the Tech Story, and sharing your wisdom. Thank you for coming and best of luck growing Checkboard.
James Owusu: Thanks for having me, Charles, and likewise, best of luck with everything you've got going on at Legislate.
Charles Brecque: Thank you.