Today I interview Louise Barker, CEO of Bamzonia - a platform that focuses on educating people about independent and effective financial awareness in their daily life. An idea which Louise came up with during a conversation with her business partner, Bruce Scott in Sainsbury’s car park.
In our interview, she also talks about walking away from her well paid and secure job into starting a business just before a recession.
The full interview is below.
Hi Louise, Thanks for doing this interview with me.
It’s a pleasure, thanks very much for asking me.
Can you give us some background information about yourself, were you the entrepreneurial type growing up?
I’m not sure I was necessarily entrepreneurial growing up but I was definitely head strong and didn’t really like being told what to do. My mum tells me that as a toddler the only way she could get me to do something was if I believed it was my idea, so I guess I have always been comfortable making my own decisions and as I’ve got older – taking responsibility for those decisions – whether they were my idea or not!
Tell me how the idea for Bamzonia came about?
The idea was conceived in Sainsbury’s car park during a conversation with my business partner. It was a few years ago now and the country was on the brink of a recession. We knew it was going to be tough times ahead as the level of consumer debt was sky high – we all had the latest gadgets, flat screen TV’s and credit card balances to match. We wondered how, in the space of a couple of generations things had changed so much. My grandparents wouldn’t have dreamed of spending on credit, my parents used credit but settled the balance every month and then my generation seemed comfortable to max a credit card and make minimum payments every month. We couldn’t begin to think what would happen in one generations time and felt independent and effective financial education had to be included in daily life – and then we came up with Bamzonia.
What is Bamzonia? Tell me how it works?
Bamzonia is an online platform for children, parents, schools and communities that teaches personal financial education in bite size, fun and engaging chunks. We have taken all the things you need to know about money and broken them down into 47 lessons. These lessons are interactive and are linked to a 3D city regeneration game. Basically, the better you do in the education, the faster and more successful you are in the game. You can start learning from 8 years old (before bad financial habits have set in) and by the time you have worked through all the lessons you should have a foundation of knowledge that allows you to make more informed financial decisions later in life. We are independent and don’t advertise or sell financial products so you can be sure we just want to deliver a level of confidence to our users to stop this negative spiral of debt that so many people find themselves in.
Tell us about the first few months of running the business? What would you say was the hardest part of starting the business?
The first step for me was the hardest. I so desperately wanted to set up my business but in order to give it everything I needed to walk away from my well paid and secure job just before a recession. That was a scary step and I made sure I had the full support of my family before doing anything but once I’d made that first step, the rest was just a case of working hard and never losing sight of the end goal. The first few months was spent carrying out market research, creating business plans and naively going for funding that we weren’t ready for!
How have you been able to fund the business?
We have raised a mixture of debt and equity funding. We have business angels as early stage investors and we have also been successful applying for an EFG loan.
How has the business evolved comparing to the your first year of running it, the business model? Strategy?
If I were to look at one of our early business plans I probably wouldn’t recognise the business, we really have evolved an awful lot. For a start, we were not going to tie the education into a game initially; it was going to be a prepaid card. When we looked at the reasons why financial education was not being taught in the schools or at home though, the prepaid card was not going to make the difference, it was the online, simple, accessible, complete and competitive experience that was going to work. As for our strategy, we had a focus on B2C originally which soon changed to the education sector. As a new business we needed to prove we could deliver financial education effectively and in a fun way. We have done that now so we are ready to look at our B2C strategy. Basically, the more people using Bamzonia, the brighter our financial futures will be.
What is your business model?
We are an independent provider of financial education so there is no advertising, or product placement, we sell subscriptions to our website for a year’s access for individuals, families, schools and communities. For that you can access all of the personal financial education and game. We have a price point that is affordable and recognised as excellent value, particularly in the education sector where we should always be mindful of stretched budgets.
Are you profitable?
We are at the beginning of our second year of trading so we are not profitable yet. We forecast a profit next financial year and are currently on target to achieve this which will be a fantastic milestone and a very proud moment.
What could you say has been some of the key things you’ve learnt so far as an entrepreneur?
I think key learnings are that no matter what your experience and background, unless you have been through the start up process yourself – you have no idea what to expect. I can see now why investors want someone who has done it all before to be a part of the executive team because you need someone looking out for the obvious pitfalls and start up mistakes that you are bound to make, no matter how experienced you are. On a more positive note however, there is no better feeling than your business making a difference, being acknowledged or achieving milestones. When you get to that point it all seems worth it.
What has been your most memorable moment so far on your entrepreneurial journey?
The most memorable moment was receiving feedback from a primary school in Scotland who had been using Bamzonia for a matter of weeks. The bit that stood out for me was this comment “Some students apparently saw a news story talking about inflation, knew what it meant and told their parents” These students were 11 years old and due to Bamzonia were familiar with the term “inflation”. When we were standing in Sainsbury’s car park over 3 years ago this is what we were aiming for – building a familiarity and confidence with money that gives the next generation a chance to control their money, rather than a lifetime of money controlling them.
What can be expecting from you and Bamzonia in 2012?
We have done all of our testing, made sure the product works and does what it says on the tin. We are now rolling Bamzonia out to schools and individuals and are busy telling anyone who will listen who we are and what we do. We have plans to develop our platform further and add depth to our game as well as appeal to a more adult audience. The future looks very exciting for us.
What pieces of advices could you give to aspiring entrepreneurs out there looking to start their business?
I would say that no matter what, you should trust your gut feeling. Sometimes the facts in front of you are saying one thing but your gut is telling you something else. Be brave and go with your gut if it feels right. Bring in a mentor or business advisor who has been on the start up journey with a successful exit behind them, you will benefit a great deal from an outside opinion from an experienced head. Be positive, positive, positive and don’t lose sight of the excitement and enthusiasm, even when those around you do. Lastly, be capable of working hard and continuously even when there is no certain future in sight – know as best you can that you (and those close to you) are ready for this journey – it really could be the best journey of your life.