We recently sat down with our CEO, Cameron Stevens, to ask him about his MBA days, and various experiences as an entrepreneur.
You are a serial entrepreneur. Can you tell us about your other ventures?
My first startup was a staffing company I founded during university. I was particularly interested in entrepreneurial ways to address social problems. In South Africa you have huge unemployment but also many first world opportunities.
I was project managing corporate functions at the time and started a company to train up and then staff functions with previously unemployed people. It worked well as a model and we grew to 30 staff.
But my other passion is travel and getting under the skin of other cultures, and I wanted to explore. I had left to travel around South East Asia and made the decision to stay in Malaysia in 2000 during the heyday of the dot-com boom. My undergraduate thesis in 1998 was on direct public offerings - essentially the precursor to Crowdfunding. And I had a keen interest in early-stage technology ventures and particularly the funding cycles that drive them.
So I founded a company with two colleagues to fund techie startups and help them to grow. We initially intended to raise a fund ourselves but the dot-com crash put paid to that idea. So we did it the hard way and took stakes in companies for sweat equity. We would look for great technical teams and help them with funding, strategy and growth. This was a tough road as you don’t have the same diversification as a VC fund and so have to pick your bets carefully and work very hard to make them successful. But luckily it paid off and we listed one of the companies on the Malaysian exchange.
What do you find to be the most challenging thing about running a startup?
You need this fanatical commitment to make things happen – particularly in the financial services space. You have this vision when you start something of what it can become. And I find you become quite fixated on the future potential and forget to celebrate the small victories along the way. Nothing happens overnight – it’s the succession of multiple small steps that end in something dramatic in hindsight. But as an entrepreneur you want to make a leap rather than lots of small steps – and it can be frustrating unless you make peace with the process.
What do you find to be the most exciting/engaging?
Starting a business, or even working for a startup, comes with a different level of responsibility. You have immediate and daily impact on the future of the business and all the people around it and that feeling is very rewarding.
Why did you start Prodigy Finance?
I had a tough time funding my own MBA. When I got to INSEAD, it was apparent that I was not the only one who had faced this challenge. Miha (a current shareholder) and I discussed the problem over a couple of beers in Fontainebleau and thought that we could solve the problem. We did some coursework during the MBA year on the model and Ryan joined the team and brought a great background in risk and consumer credit. Our initial thought was to solve a problem that we, and many others, experienced.
In what ways does your experience with Prodigy Finance differ from your experience with your past startups?
I think that the scope of what we took on with Prodigy Finance was quite substantial, and quite different to my previous experiences. Operating in a regulated environment and across multiple borders is tricky at the best of times. There are a lot of complex legal and regulatory issues that need to be dealt with. It also takes a lot longer to build trust in the financial services space. People want to see data over many years and there isn’t really a quick fix to that.
What message(s) would you have for business students who hope to be entrepreneurs in the future?
I think it’s a tough route, but very rewarding. The odds are against you, but you probably didn’t pay enough attention in stats classes to care. So go for it! Picking good co-founders who complement your strengths is key. And I think that business school is a great place to find co-founders – you have many people who share a similar drive and ambition but come from different backgrounds.
What was your favourite memory from business school?
Meeting my wife (of course).
The INSEAD year is described as like drinking from a fire hydrant. You have so many amazing memories packed into the year, shared with new friends (now old friends) from around the world. It’s intense.
Want to learn more about the Prodigy Finance story?
Take a moment to see how far we’ve come since this interview. Or interested in joining the team?
Prodigy Finance Ltd is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.