Executive Profile: One on One with Richard Steggall, Urban FT
Richard Steggall didn’t even set foot in the U.S. until he was approaching 30. So, what prompted the native Aussie by way of London to set up a fintech shop in New York—first as Waspit, then as Urban FT, the SaaS-based digital payments platform he now heads? It was, of course, American optimism.
“In America, anything is seen as being possible,” he says. “My great awakening happened on a 2010 trip to the States—to speak at a conference in San Francisco on emerging payment trends.
“Although it was only two years after the Great Recession, people in payments were optimistic, and also open and accepting of this outsider,” he recalls. “The atmosphere was such a contrast to doing business in Europe, where there’s less inclination to take risks, and in Asia, where building necessary trust and respect in business takes years.
“America presents the ultimate opportunity for growth and success, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that.”
Steggall returned to London, where Waspit, an alternative banking solution aimed at students, was gaining traction and, in conjunction with the U.K. Trade and Investment Commission, formulated a plan to open a New York office. That office opened in April 2012. A few months later, he sold the U.K. business to fund the U.S. growth strategy, which included, in short order, switching the business model to B2B from B2C, and renaming the company Urban FT.
But, how did Steggall end up in payments anyway? “Totally by accident,” he says. “I was one of the first investors in Waspit, through which I realized that many financial institutions and non-financial institution brands can’t deliver the payments solutions that today’s consumers expect. For an entrepreneur, this was a revelation. I was so intrigued by the potential that I assumed full management control of the company.”
Gap Year Gear Shift
Steggall’s proclivity for entrepreneurship surfaced while still a teen in Australia. In the months before entering university, Steggall convinced his parents, an insurance broker mom and a property developer dad, that he should take a gap year, including summering in Europe. To earn pocket money for his upcoming adventure, he identified an opportunity in the used office furniture and equipment space. He’d take orders from businesses who responded to his ads in the local paper; then he’d visit auctions to buy the items he needed on the cheap from companies that were liquidating due to the Australian recession of ’91.
One of his clients, just starting in the new mobile phone sector, offered Steggall a job. He declined the job but set up an office in his client’s space and began working as a subcontractor. He then went to Hong Kong and started importing mobile phone accessories. Within months, he had a sales staff of 11 and bought himself a business-class ticket to London to start his gap year.
|In His Own Words
Is money what drives your entrepreneurial spirit? Funny, maybe it once did, but no longer. When I was younger, I was always thinking, “What’s my business worth?” Then I had an epiphany: Your business isn’t worth anything until someone offers to buy it. So why worry? In fact, I’d say, if money is your driver, you won’t succeed. You’ll only succeed if you believe in what you’re doing and the people you’re doing it with.
How do you think people view you? Well, I get a lot of extra attention from my accent. Aside from that, probably as brash and direct. But, I hope, not arrogant. During the past five years—which, interestingly, coincides with my coming to America—I’ve become more confident but, equally, more open-minded. I value what others have to say, but I know what I want, and I’m very firm in communicating my point of view. Most people appreciate directness.
What about work relationships? I wake up each morning happy to go to work because I love it and because I want to spend time with the Urban FT staff. Life’s too short to work with people with whom I wouldn’t want to be friends and have a drink with at the end of the day. There are a lot of great ideas that surface over having a pint or two and a lot of wisdom at the bottom of a glass.
Ever regret not having attended university? None. I can honestly say, not having a degree never held me back from anything I wanted to do. Once you have a track record as an entrepreneur, no one cares about your degree.
While in London, young Steggall made the decision to forgo university in favor of entrepreneurship. The day he returned to Australia, he signed a lease on his first mobile phone shop, which he expanded to a chain of five. Eighteen months later, he went bust. It was all gone.
“I was young and naïve,” he explains. “Problems—obvious problems in business—arose that I was too immature and inexperienced to deal with. I was also too proud to ask for help from the people who could have and would have helped me.”
But the failure didn’t dampen Steggall’s entrepreneurial resolve. In short order, he invested in and turned around a failed fast food chain by introducing home delivery. In later years, he and his business partners invested in a variety of other businesses—from a winery to apple orchards—before he got back into telecomm, which led him to a U.S.-based firm, Roo Media, and propelled him into corporate finance, where he spent about 12 years.
“Early failure was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Steggall claims. “The most important life lessons come through failure. Success without failure is a breeding ground for arrogance. Failure makes you dig deep and confront your shortcomings, and—if you’re smart—you’ll never make the same mistake twice.
“The willingness to accept failure as a natural part of a person’s evolution is another reason I’m a huge fan of the American spirit,” he continues. “Here, people forgive your failures, as long as you pick yourself up and get on with it. And, it’s good training for fintech. If you haven’t failed at least once, you’re not part of the club because you haven’t taken enough risk.”
What about Steggall’s risk tolerance these days? “For a large part of my life, I was too willing to take on too much risk, because—as a kid and young adult—I had nothing to lose. Take on the house and gamble the lot,” he answers. “I won on occasion and I lost on occasion, and either outcome was okay. If I won, it was only money. If I lost, it was a temporary setback, because there was always time to make more money.
“That all changed, though, when I turned 32 and my wife delivered our twins. That was the moment I grew up. As a dad, I needed to be—not risk averse—but more careful about my business pursuits. I don’t think it was an accident that the Urban FT business was formed shortly after their birth. Urban FT is my first business pursuit as a full-fledged adult. It’s a new phase for me, and I like it.
“This is where I’m meant to be, and this is what I’m meant to be doing. All of the things, the successes and the failures, have prepared me for today—that is, in New York, running Urban FT and working like crazy. What a country! What an industry! What an opportunity!”