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Founder Stories

How our startup shook up an industry and raised £2.6m from top-tier investors

Founder Stories

How our startup shook up an industry and raised £2.6m from top-tier investors

Words Ritesh Singhania & Christopher Sier

February 22nd 2021 / 11 min read

Ritesh Singhania, Chris Sier, and Kunal Varma, co-founders of pension fintech ClearGlass, recently concluded their six months in Founders Factory’s accelerator program by raising £2.6m seed – more than double their original target – from top-tier investors. Staggeringly, they managed to pull all of this off during a pandemic. 

Ritesh and Chris make public their lessons on raising from top-tier investors.

You can expect to read about…

  • How ClearGlass tapped into the pension industry’s need for transparency and secured 400 pension funds, capturing £500bn of pensions assets in 18 months

  • Their fundraising process, which started with a £1.25m target and culminated in a £2.6m raise 

  • How the founders decided when to raise, and who to raise from

  • Why LakeStar, a Tier 1 VC who normally comes in at Series A, made an exception for ClearGlass

  • Top tips on how to nail your fundraise, choose the right investors, and finetune your pitch

How we shook up the global pensions industry and captured £500bn of pensions assets in 18 months

The UK asset management market is worth £9.5 trillion. That’s four or five times the size of the retail banking or mortgage markets. One of the largest slices of this market is the workplace pension market, which accounts for £3 trillion – or about a third of this very large pie. 

Although the market is massive, the level of communication between client (consumers and consumer representatives) and providers (mainly asset managers) is substandard. Fund management products and investment objectives are described in vague, bullish terms (“invest green!” or “zero carbon!”). And according to the Work and Pensions Committee, many pension funds are “misinforming, mischarging, overcharging and making a fat living off the hard-earned savings of pensioners”. 

The real problem, however, is that pension trustees are making investment decisions without a clear understanding of the costs. According to “worrying evidence” from the Committee, it is “near impossible for investors to figure out how much their investments are costing them because additional costs are hidden and too high”. 

To address this lack of transparency, we built ClearGlass, a platform which helps to provide transparency to pension funds on the hidden fees and costs which impact the value of an individual’s pension pot. 

We knew this solution could have a massive effect on the individual saver’s quality of life. For example, just by reducing the cost of the pension product by 1%, a pensioner could double their investment over 47 years. Our real client, however, wasn’t the consumer, but the consumer’s representative: the pension funds, aka the primary decision-makers behind the £3 trillion pension industry.

“Like many other start-ups, our journey started with identifying the weak points in our industry. But we were also looking for points of leverage, trying to identify where the smallest change could have the biggest impact.”

After only 18 months, we had secured 400 pension funds, effectively capturing £500bn of pensions assets. We also won some big clients – the kind that usually take about 3 years to win. 

People in our industry always ask us how we managed to win so many clients in such a short amount of time. Here’s our answer: it’s all about identifying your market, becoming an expert in it – and making sure you’re the first one there. 

Surprisingly, in our case, we did come first. The pension market has been so widely misunderstood that no-one has approached this widespread lack of transparency. Until now.

Deciding when (and how much) to raise

We were completely self-funded until we ended up with £2.6m in our bank accounts. After just 18 months, we had healthy recurring revenues, and we managed to stay profitable through lockdown by getting rid of our office space and taking voluntary wage cuts. But we wanted to make sure we were resilient – and we needed more funds to build out our team and develop new products.

Our original goal was to raise £1.25m. We decided to be super conservative for a few reasons. Firstly, because we were operating in a very unique space: the asset management industry is a niche unto itself, but adding to that, our proposition is B2B. Second, our product is very esoteric: it’s not a payments app, not a banking app, and not a peer-to-peer platform – and given that we were fundraising in the middle of a pandemic, we decided it was best to aim low.

Having never fundraised before, we needed some help fine-tuning our go-to-market strategy and pitch, and we definitely needed help finding investors. We wanted someone who could take problems off our plate – someone we could work with to actually solve the problems for us. 

That’s how we came into contact with Founders Factory. Having helped over 200 startups, we knew their advice and experience would really gave us a leg-up.

“We often talk about those who stand at the side with clipboards, and those that drop the clipboards and get on the field. We drop the clipboards. We measure ourselves on the value we add to our founders, and our dedicated team works day in and day out with our portfolio – including helping them to fundraise.”

– David Hickson, Chief Strategic Development Officer at Founders Factory via his guide to fundraising

How we raised £2.6m in six months

When we first joined the accelerator, we had no investment, no VC contacts, and no experience fundraising. 

Luckily, Founders Factory helped us shape our pitch and craft our story to be as bold and visionary as it could be, and made a huge number of introductions to VCs – and that’s what got the ball rolling.

Rather than having us go for the big investors immediately, we were advised to pitch to a variety of potential partners first – this allowed us to practice and get better over time. 

For the first three months, we weren’t really getting any traction. No one was willing to take the bet. The rejections all followed a similar pattern: “you’re not a big enough business”, “the market is too small”, “we haven’t seen enough user engagement with your product”, “you’re not B2C”, “you don’t have any metrics'' – in other words, we weren’t telling the story they wanted to hear. But each time we were rejected, we went back and fine-tuned our message. And slowly, the picture started to change.

One organisation that stuck with us early on was Redbus, a fund with two Angels that invest collectively, whom we really got on with. A few other Angels came to us through a range of different models, such as the Founders Factory pitching event, which we attended in our third month. 

By month five, we had traction – and it was clear that we had struck a chord. Suddenly we had three or four term sheets, and our £1.25m goal quickly became too little. Some of the VC firms we were talking to began suggesting that we should raise more than we had originally planned. 

What transpired was that we could unlock an extra £1.4m at a valuation that still made sense for us. LakeStar and Outward VC were particularly interested, the former wanting to invest a full £1.5m. In a way, we found ourselves in our dream scenario: we simply had too many people who wanted to invest.

Our top three lessons on how to nail your fundraise

  1. Get the story right. At our stage, the story behind your brand and your vision is the most important thing. By the end of your very first conversation with an investor, you’ll get a sense of whether they will invest or not. Part of it is what you say. Another part is who’s in the room: if you’re pitching to a junior investor, they’ll have to pitch you internally. However, if you’ve got the partners in the room, and you’ve got their interest, it’s more likely that you’ll get the money. We were lucky to have Chris, who is a great storyteller – having him lead the conversation gave us lot of conviction.

  2. If you haven’t been rejected, you’re not talking to enough people. The fundraising process was sort of like going through several rounds of job interviews. Each time we were rejected, we went back to the team and iterated, coming up with an evolved story and improved pitch. We’d get better and better after each meeting – all while saving the biggest interview for last. By the time we got to LakeStar, we were on a roll.

  3. Remember: the first raise isn’t the endgame – so start your conversations early on. LakeStar normally invest at Series A; but they made an exception because our story resonated with them, and they were impressed with our commercial traction. We’d always been told only to target investors at our stage; despite that, we managed to secure a Tier 1 VC during our first round. It taught us a valuable lesson: even though they might not invest straight away, it’s worth having the conversation – so start building that relationship early on.

The final point is perhaps the most important. It was unexpected for us to exceed our fundraising goal (more than double our original target), and catch LakeStar’s interest so early on. However, our goal was to speak to as many investors as possible – a strategy driven by “investor FOMO” [Fear of Missing Out]. 

We were new to fundraising and were unphased by rejections. We just wanted to put ourselves in front of any investor to find the right partner. In fact, this mentality probably helped us a lot: investors talk to each other, and feel confidence knowing that other investors are interested.

In reality, the experience highlighted why it’s so important to reach out to as many people as possible from day one, but also why it’s crucial to show vulnerability and learn from each and every conversation. Don’t save any conversations for next week, or next month. Your fundraise is happening right now. You never know where those early conversations might lead.

Choosing our Angel investors

We knew there were certain investors we wanted onboard, and we had to figure out the minimum ticket size they could come onboard with. It ended up being quite complicated – we even had to use a spreadsheet to keep track of everything!

The key, for us, was to set expectations from the beginning, and clarify the roles of our investors. Ultimately, we wanted a small advisory group, not ten people pulling us in ten different directions. 

When we were deciding who to raise from, we asked ourselves a few questions:

  1. Do we want to work with them or not? If an investor is coming in at the beginning, as is the case with seed funding, they’re going to be around for a while.

  2. Do they understand the space? We found that the ones who did were also the ones who believed in us from day one.

  3. What indication do they give to the market? If you bring on senior people, it sends a certain message of credibility – this, of course, was something we were interested in, being a young business in a niche market.

  4. Can they introduce us to other potential investors? We had to be strategic about this.

  5. Can they help us raise further funds in later rounds? Remember, the first round isn’t your endgame.

In the end, we found a selection of 8-10 Angels that we were interested in. Those that ended up investing included people from JP Morgan (many of whom worked in asset management), and some of our own clients from ClearGlass, mainly asset owners who liked what we were doing. What they all had in common was the fact that they came from the finance industry: they all understood the problems we were tackling – and they wanted to invest. As Rahul Vohra, founder of Superhuman, eloquently puts it: “The easiest way to raise money is to build something that investors use.”

The key, for us, was to bring investors on board that we were really happy with – people who could add value beyond the £2.6m they were investing. Once we had found the right people, we were happy to give away a percentage of our business, because we knew we would get so much more in return.

David Hickson's fundraising guide is filled with useful advice to help you decide which investors to raise from.

Refining our pitch

During our time in Founders Factory, we received a lot of guidance around our overall strategy, especially the importance of having a “product mindset”. We needed to shift towards thinking about our product as a prototype: testing, iterating, and validating quickly, and then moving on, without getting hung up on one thing. This process really made us appreciate how product developments could help drive our Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR).

More importantly, however, we were encouraged to move away from framing ClearGlass as a “lifestyle business”, and instead framing ourselves as a “big VC business”. 

One of the game changers, for us, was the dramatic transformation of our pitch deck – the “before” and “after” pictures don’t even look like the same company. Here’s one example.

Before, our pitch-deck was very methodical and technical, going into enormous detail – perhaps too much detail. In hindsight, it was catered to our clients, rather than the VCs we were pitching to. 

We didn’t need to convince our audience that they needed our product. Rather, we had to prove that we were on a path to creating a huge business, and that the market we were going after was big as well. 

Our narrative and pitch model (the one that worked) went something like this:

By changing the pitch and narrative to sell that story, we were able to make those investors believe in us – and ultimately, we secured the funds we needed.

Final thoughts

Looking back to the beginning, when we had no network of investors, and no framework for growth, it’s clear how far we’ve come. 

When we joined Founders Factory, we had a list of steps to follow – the most important of which was to RAISE MONEY. In reality, the team at Founders Factory have helped shape every aspect of our business, from product development to hiring, even coaching us on running a high-performance tech company.

There’s no precedent for what we’re doing, no framework for what we’re building next, no Slack or Spotify that we can copy. This lack of precedent creates both a challenge and an opportunity for us: it’s not a problem we can solve by going out and hiring 20 engineers. Instead, we’ll be employing 3D product development processes: we need to talk to our customers, watch how they use our products, look at the data, and ultimately build what they need – before they know they need it.

One thing is for certain: we’re in a much better place than we were 9 months ago.

Join ClearGlass in our FinTech Accelerator

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Ritesh and Chris joined our Accelerator program when they were ready to scale ClearGlass. If you're interested in joining one of our programs, submit an application here.

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