Earning, Learning, and Self-Care

Nic interviews Lisa Jacobs, the CEO of Funding Circle. Lisa discusses her journey as an entrepreneur and offers insights into the world of small business lending. She shares her experiences of earning her first money through odd jobs and building websites, and how those early experiences shaped her interest in small businesses. She also talks about her time in management consulting and the valuable skills she gained, such as problem-solving and receiving feedback. Lisa emphasizes the importance of taking calculated risks and shares her own experience of leaving a secure job to join Funding Circle. She also discusses the changing landscape of small businesses over the past decade, highlighting the increase in resilience and the shift towards online businesses. Lisa provides advice on managing stress as an entrepreneur, including taking care of oneself and seeking support from mentors and advisors. The episode concludes with a discussion on the importance of agility, seeking feedback, and finding a balance between work and personal well-being.

Lisa Jacobs

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • About the peaks and valleys of earning money while working in small businesses
  • The value and importance of taking calculated risks and seeking feedback
  • The role of self-care in the entrepreneurial journey
  • How finding a mentor and other key figures to talk to for support can help you build resilience as an entrepreneur 


In this episode…

Nicolas Cary welcomes Lisa to discuss the lessons learned during her career journey. 

  • Lisa Jacobs shares her experience of earning her first pound by working in her parents' business and doing odd tasks.
  • She emphasizes the importance of taking calculated risks in entrepreneurship and shares her own experience of taking a risk by joining Funding Circle.
  • Jacobs highlights the need for entrepreneurs to be resilient and adaptable, especially in the face of challenges like Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • She emphasizes the importance of self-care for entrepreneurs, including getting enough sleep, eating properly, and exercising, as well as having someone to talk to for support. 

Sponsor for this episode:

This episode is brought to you by Sky’s The Limit, one of the largest nonprofit programs for underrepresented young adult entrepreneurs in the US. Sky’s The Limit is a quick-growing digital platform that connects entrepreneurs with their peers, volunteer business mentors, training resources, and funding.

Our goal is to develop the social capital that founders need to chase their business dreams.

To learn more, please visit today.

Episode transcript

Intro  0:04  

Welcome to The First Buck Podcast, where we feature stories about entrepreneurs and the people who support them. Now, let's get started with the show.

Nic Cary  0:23

Welcome to the First Buck Podcast, brought to you by sky's We feature stories about entrepreneurs and the people who support them. Today we're joined by Lisa Jacobs, the CEO of Funding Circle, the UK's leading SME lending platform. Lisa joined Funding Circle in 2012, was previously the UK managing director and chief strategy officer. Prior to Funding Circle, Lisa worked as a management consultant, both independently and for the Boston Consulting Group where she had financial services focus. She has also had roles with NGOs in Tanzania and India. Thank you so much for your time today, Lisa.

Lisa Jacobs  0:56

Hey Nic. Great to be on the show. So my first pound, my parents actually had a small business, a medium sized business I should say, which is where my love actually for SMEs, small businesses originates and so many a holiday was spent doing various odd tasks in order to earn my first money. Actually, the very early ones I think were paid in magazines as I was a young kid modeling wetsuits with my brother. But then it progressed to things like glamorous things like picking up rubbish from car parks, but also some more interesting things like I taught myself HTML, which states me in order to build a couple of websites for them, their first websites. So I had a really interesting immersion into small businesses at that stage.

Nic Cary  1:50

Well, I could definitely tell it's in your jeans, genes. I like that story a lot. One of the things we hear so much from the people we interview is that they start off by using the things they have around them to earn a little bit of income, and that gives them sort of a base to grow from and then learn. They learn about customers, they learn about taking care of the environment around them and to learn new skills. And it's funny you mentioned HCML. One of my first sources of income too was building websites for all my friend's parents. And we built one for a law firm. We built one for a small restaurant nearby that used to sell sandwiches. And this was before we knew anything about business. So we said, we won't charge you, we just want free sandwiches for all time. And the person was keen to do that deal, but it ended up not working out so well for us because the sandwich company only lasted in business for two years. So as you grow, as you change, you learn how to put terms in your agreements so that you can have a little more sustainability. But that was kind of a foray and something that you and I share in common, which is pretty funny. Okay, so let's fast forward. So you've gone from modeling to picking up rubbish to building websites. And then maybe talk a little bit about your early twenties, how you got involved in management consulting and what you sort of learned through that experience.

Lisa Jacobs  3:09

Yeah, I've always been really curious actually about work and wanting to get lots of different experiences. And so actually through my teens I spent a lot of time in various different retail stores working through the holidays and like you said, picking up all these skills that you don't even realize you're doing customer service. I worked in three different retailers over jobs and holiday jobs. I did at university, took the opportunity to do an internship with a marketing business and actually all of these experiences were so useful in shaping what did I really like, all these skills that you pick up and in marketing, which I thought was something that I would really love. I learned that the things that I really enjoyed were actually things very akin to consulting. And so when I came to leaving university, actually this was the top job that I was thinking of.

And so I ended up in consulting and actually it was a great place to start. I found it was full of really smart people who were generous enough with their time to support me in terms of my development. It was a place where development, personal development was very central. So every Friday morning there would be trainings, there'd be various different development programs and feedback was just embedded throughout the whole of the business. So after every single case you did, you received feedback and it really helped me grow as an individual. I got to work on some really fascinating cases. I was doing mainly strategy consulting and that meant going and working in a number of different industries and solving some of their difficult problems. And so a couple of the key things I picked up from there was how to be thrown into an environment that was very alien, very different from where you'd been before, maybe a new industry, a different set of people, a different challenge to solve and how to very quickly find your feet and get to the answer, solve problems, think about things in a logical structured way. And it was only really when I came out of consulting that I realized how much of a skill that was and that I picked up through those years. And then I think the second thing was, as I was saying, being able to give and receive feedback is hugely important I think for anyone's personal growth. And this was something that was just par for the course in consulting and is something that I've actively sought to sort out from various others as I've worked with them and has helped me develop and grow as an individual.

Nic Cary  5:53

Yeah, I'm looking forward to getting back to that one. That is to hear about your sort of management theory about giving feedback and helping your team see it as a gift as opposed to a personal criticism. I think it's one of the more challenging things to get right, but it's so important longer term for accountability within an organization. And so yeah, there's some more layers to that one to unravel. So I want to hear a little bit about from the time you went from building websites and then having this opportunity at the Boston Consulting Group, you can kind of see these pivotal moments have sort increased the level of responsibility you've had. What were, from the time you were in your first buck to sort of learning in your career to take risks, can you talk to us about a time where you sort of had to persuade people to make a big investment in something and how you went through the process of getting them on board to do that? And whether that was with a personal ambition or one within one of the client projects you were working on. What I'm trying to get to here is that everyone needs to learn how to take thoughtful risks. How did you learn some lessons there and then how do you apply that thinking today?

Lisa Jacobs  7:01

Yeah, and I couldn't agree with you more. I think taking risks is key for any entrepreneur, any individual. I always think about it in the context of taking calculated risks. So my analogy is you're jumping out of a plane, but you've got a parachute on your back. And so you've worked that through. So for me, actually one of the biggest risks that I took was leaving consulting, which was a very well trodden path, very clear career growth and moving to a business funding circle that was at that stage, 40 people halving my salary taking a bet on how the business would grow, how I could help drive that. And I think a lot of people at that time thought I was a bit crazy and they thought, why are you doing this? And I remember actually speaking to some of my peers in consulting who said, why don't you take an unpaid sabbatical for a period and just think about this?

And I did actually. And actually what my calculated risk and the way I worked through it was I spent a year prior to joining Funding Circle actually trying to figure out I wanted to get my hands dirty, I wanted to get stuck in, I wanted to build something and have impact, but I spent a year doing freelance consulting. So I knew that I had this backup option. I also moved out of London, my kind sister let me move into her spare room. I reduced all my outgoings so that I could afford to take this risk. And that for me is what taking calculated risks is about. And in applying that in business then I think it's very similar is that you work with people on what's the vision, what's the dream, how could it get to, and ultimately it's a risk reward calculation. And in business I see entrepreneurs doing great things like testing things, doing small tests that give you confidence, doing AB tests, going to speak to customers, getting all the insight that you can before you go too far through it. And Amazon have this great phrase around two-way doors, take a risk, but know that you can come back from that and that there is this two-way door and if it's a one-way door, you have to do a lot more research in order to be confident in that decision. So I couldn't agree with you more. I think risk taking is one of the most important attributes that entrepreneurs have.

Nic Cary  9:39

Wow, thank you so much. There's a lot many pearls of wisdom in there. I think I love the sort of entrepreneurial gap of checking with yourself, can I do this on my own? And a lot of people wouldn't have the courage to do that, but I think there's some really important lessons in there. One is that if you can actually reduce your cost footprint in your personal life, you can learn some frugality, you can learn that you don't need as many things as you thought you did. And in that time you can save money. And that gives you more time to sort out maybe the risks you want to take or the potential for these opportunities in your life. It's hard to leave something that's comfortable to go do something that's arguably more difficult to do. But the difficult paths are sometimes the ones where you grow the most on a personal basis. And let's talk a little bit about your perspectives there because you mentioned some things about AV testing and speaking to customers. So a lot of entrepreneurs that I talked to think right away, they just need some funding. If they just had funding that their idea that they have would work out for sure. But selling your service and talking to customers is so important. So what lessons would you share with our audience about the early stages of founding a business or thinking through how to basically find customers?

Lisa Jacobs  10:52

Yeah, I've got the pleasure of knowing a number of our small business customers and can hopefully speak on their behalf as well. I think those early days, speaking to customers and generally being curious, I mean one of the things as you start out as an entrepreneur when you're in a small business is that there's a lot of things you don't know and there's a lot of insights that you can get from speaking to your customers, testing things out, testing what works, showing them prototypes, showing them what if we did this, what would this look like? There's also a number of people, and I think it's great, what sky's the limit enables you to do in accessing that network of role models, people who have that experience, who have the knowhow and building your group of people who you can go to for different advice. And if you think about it in the context of larger businesses will have a board of directors and they'll have someone in there who's a finance specialist, a sales specialist, a technology specialist, how do you build that group of people around you so that you can go to those people when you are launching something and you need to understand the ins and outs of digital marketing, who's the expert that you can go to?

And really being very curious about the world and doing your research is a really important attribute in those early days.

Nic Cary  12:20

Love it. Let's talk a little bit about that role of mentorship. I think you mentioned the early days at the Boston Consultant group, the emphasis the organization had on personal development and feedback. Talk to us maybe about a mentorship relationship you had in your early career and how that was established and how that was useful for you.

Lisa Jacobs  12:44

I've been really fortunate actually, to have a number of people, mentors that I've been able to go to for advice, actually probably started as early as my parents, my siblings. I'm the youngest of four, which means that I have three individuals to look up to and see the great things they to

Nic Cary  13:02

Give you constant feedback

Lisa Jacobs  13:05

And give constant feedback as you said. But actually having mentors for me are people who can really give you great advice, can build you up and support you. And I've been fortunate to have those throughout my career at BCG at Funding Circle. And some of the really good insights that they've given have been those pieces of feedback that people will give, random piece of feedback that really hits. And for those people who've spent time to invest in me that one of the most important pieces of feedback that I actually received was whilst I was in consulting where someone said, oh, you're an absolute open book. I can tell when you are really annoyed with somebody or when you're frustrated or when you disagree with something. And I remember sitting there thinking I actually was in agreement. I was just thinking very deeply. And I had this sudden realization that when I was thinking very deeply, I've got a very grumpy face, which is not great for the person who's on the receiving end. So actually now I say to everyone I work with, just so you know, this is my thinking face and it's helped to dispel many a potentially challenging time with people who I work with. And it is those small things as well as the big things which have a really significant impact.

Nic Cary  14:35

Those types of things are sometimes hard to hear. It happened to me the other day where I have a tendency in meetings to immediately get distracted if I'm not being engaged with. And I was rudely being on my phone in front of a group of colleagues and I had someone text me from the side while I was on my phone saying, Hey, put your phone down, pay attention. And it was absolutely right. I had no business being on my phone, death, scrolling. And sometimes those little bits of feedback are important though because the attention and the investment made in an interpersonal way is hugely important across your career. And I think mentors, especially that they spend some time with you over the long period of time, really get to know some of your quirks, nuances, habits, and we all have sort of patterns that reveal themselves. Sometimes they're very quick and sometimes they take more time to sort of demonstrate themselves. So I'm thankful for you sharing those.

Lisa Jacobs  15:30

And it's often the impact those things have, the impact that you might not see, but the impact that they have on other people

Nic Cary  15:37

Hugely. So you've hired a lot of people across your career and building teams after you're a team of one as an entrepreneur kind of becomes the next sort of critical hurdle because eventually you won't be able to do it by yourself. And so you're going to need to find support as you grow your business. So what are some of the lessons that you've learned about how to recruit, retain, or hire high performing people?

Lisa Jacobs  16:07

A slight imposter here in that I've never been in that team of one and trying to hire the early ones because I started when Funding Circle had about 40 people. But still that importance of those early hires in setting the culture, in setting the ways of working was hugely important for us at Funding Circle and continues to be. So, and I guess the thing about two things when I'm hiring, so the first is this somebody that I can learn from? Is this the best that I can hire and hiring for the best and otherwise known as hiring the A team? Because if you don't hire the A team and you see this time and again, people are worried that someone's going to take their job, so they hire somebody who's not quite as good as they could hire, and then they hire somebody who's not quite as good as they could hire.

And before you know it, you've got seating players all around you. So hiring those really great people because if your business is successful, you are going to need great people to take over from you ultimately. And so every entrepreneur should want to be hiring those people. And then the second thing is hiring people who can break through brick walls, whether that's going round them under them, over them through them, because you need people around you, particularly in those early days when you're trying to build something, when you're trying to change something, who are going to be the people who ask, how can I do this? Not I can't do this. And so that attitude is really important both at an individual level and also setting the tone for the rest of the business to be innovative, to be able to,

Nic Cary  17:50

It's funny, we have two things we care a lot about that are the same. And one of the interview questions I like to have, I always try and pose, is just teach me something that a lot about, and that can be about anything because ultimately I want someone that can communicate with candor and with excellence and whatever they're passionate about I can learn something from. And that other one is to find those relentless people. And I think that one's kind of hard to sort of antagonize in an interview. And you have to ask for context outside of work maybe what is the hardest thing you've ever done? And I've had people answer that question where they tell me the hardest thing they've ever done is graduated from university. Now on its face. That's not a very great answer to me because about 96% of people that go into university graduate now if they graduated from university while holding down three jobs, taking care of family members and dealing with personal challenges, that's a completely different answer than someone that just graduated from university. And so finding those characters that, like you said, are relentless in the pursuit of the work and can break through brick walls, I do think that those are, especially in the early stages of a business, and pretty much you're going to need a few of those people I think no matter how big your company is. But definitely at the early days, those are so critical.

Okay, so how do you keep up, one of the things I was learning from founders and CEOs now is where do you keep up with the news in your business? The world is just seemingly so noisy and complicated. How are you staying informed and how do you do that precisely without wasting too much of your time?

Lisa Jacobs  19:34

Well, if you know the answer then let me know. But I tried to do as best as I can. There are various different good news sources for FinTech in particular, for lending in particular. And I will peruse those. There are some great podcasts that are great for me. I have quite a long commute, so listening to those on the commute. And we also have a great community of circlers who share interesting news through our various Slack channels, interesting snippets. And I guess the other thing is for me, it's really important to be able to listen to our customers. So meeting with our customers, understanding what tools they're using, understanding what their challenges are in the business, whether that's face to face, whether that's through looking at some of our calls, speaking to our sales teams, speaking to some of our other customer facing teams, that gives actually a really good insight into what's real versus what's hype, which I think sometimes we'll get a bit carried away with.

Nic Cary  20:45

And the headlines in the FT are not always the same as what the entrepreneurs on the ground are really experiencing. So you've been in a funny circle for over a decade. How has the early stage small business, how has that changed over the past 10 years and what are some of the new entrepreneurs sort needing that is kind of different than a decade ago?

Lisa Jacobs  21:08

I think it is been a really challenging time for people to be in business. The types of businesses that we lend to are really amazing SMEs. They're typically quite established. And I think what's been really clear over this decade is we were talking before about people who can have relentlessness. They've gone through a very relentless time with Brexit, with covid, with cost of living crisis. And what I've seen really change is this growth in resilience that those small businesses have developed and that they've continued to pivot. And it shouldn't be a surprise in that these are entrepreneurs, but I see some really great pivoting through the pandemic where we had gin manufacturers doing corporate gin tasting, online uniform manufacturers starting to manufacture face masks. So I've definitely seen this increase, I think in pivoting in resilience that they exhibit in terms of that early stage growth. I think, I mean it's a very obvious thing to say, but everything's much more online. Things are starting out as digital businesses so much more and with no intention to ever build physical locations. And whether that's app-based businesses or whether that's just online or businesses. And I think that's actually a really big shift in terms of the businesses that we see. There's much less high streets and much more on your phone.

Nic Cary  22:49

And SMEs can apply for loans directly online to you guys. So talk to us a little bit about what the process looks like and what kind of customers are seeking funding from you.

Lisa Jacobs  23:01

Yeah, we have prided ourselves in being incredibly focused on SMEs and as I said, the variety of SMEs from restaurants to retailers to manufacturers, to doctors, dentists, and they can do a really quick online application. For us, it takes about six minutes For 75% of applications, we give an instant decision. So it's about nine seconds. And then businesses can have the funds in their account in 24 hours because what we found from all of our work with small businesses is actually the speed and the ease are the most important things for them. If you're running a small business, you've got six different jobs. You are the finance director, the marketing director, the sales director, the finance, you end up with so much on your plate that actually what you want to do is be able to use that money for your business purpose to help you win whatever winning is.

And so we've concentrated on how do we make that a very slick process? And some businesses come to us for term lanes where they borrow over up to five years for investment for working capital. Some businesses come to us for short term line of credit where they pay their suppliers and they spread that over three because cashflow is so important for small businesses and to get that right. And so this just really enables them to have payments on their terms, cashflow management that works for 'em. And the types of businesses we serve are established businesses typically, typically older than two years, they've got eight to 10 employees, about a million pounds in revenue. We operate in the US and the uk. So it's very similar dynamics in the US business, slightly larger, but we offer a really slick process and say would encourage anyone who is looking for finance to come along.

Nic Cary  25:01

Great. Well thank you for sharing a little bit about that. Okay, one final question. So taking the steps to pursue entrepreneurship can be a bit intimidating or scary, or whether that's a career change from a sure thing to something a bit more risky. What tips can you give our listeners on how to manage some of the stress that comes along with running your own business?

Lisa Jacobs  25:22

It's a very important thing to look after yourself. I think this is individual to everybody, but making sure you work out what helps you to be on top form and investing behind that. So for me, there's three things that have to work out. I have to get enough sleep, I have to eat properly, and I have to exercise. And if I find that one of those slips, then I end up in this downward spiral of sleeping less because I've not exercised enough and then eating rubbish because I'm trying to build my energy levels back up. And I think early in my career, I saw things like going to the gym, doing exercise as a luxury that I had to sneak into my time. And now I see it very much as a necessity to enable me to perform in my role. And I think entrepreneurial running a business, it's not a sprint, it's a marathon.

And you need to be able to pace yourself and make sure that you find out what those things are for you and you set aside time for them because it can be, as you say, busy, stressful. It can mean that you've got lots of things on. And then the second thing is making sure you've got someone to talk to. It can be lonely if you are running a business, if you've got the weight of all your business, your employees on you and you're struggling and things go wrong, actually having someone that you can download to and take a moment is vitally important.

Nic Cary  26:53

Alright, well thank you so much for all of your time and your thoughtfulness and exploring these questions. I circled a bunch of different things to sort of try and summarize what we discussed, but I think all of the potential entrepreneurs out there, you have it around you to get started today. There's little things that you can do to practice simple entrepreneurship and then you can pursue bigger opportunities. Sometimes requires doing some things in your career that you aren't going to do forever, to build some capacity up and to expose yourself to how business operates before you take that entrepreneurial dive. And that's absolutely an okay path. I think there were two things that you said that really resonated to me, which it's important for people to be agile today. The business climate is changing quickly and you have to be able to adapt. And so sometimes that doesn't mean being perfect.

It means navigating through one obstacle to the next to next and continuing through that relentless path. And the other is so important to just seek that feedback, especially from your customers. Then also from mentors and advisors and people that know you well, to find your blind spots and give you that motivation to continue when things are inevitably going to get really tough. And then it can't be said enough that you can't be there for your customers or for your team if you're not taking care of yourself. And I think a lot of founders, a lot of CEOs, they always talk about this without being too specific, but it's because they all have a few points in their career where they have really pushed it too far and they know they did and they've hurt themselves. And that vicious cycle of not sleeping enough, not getting the right nutrition and not doing whatever is important to you to stay in a physical condition, to be performant, can really lead to adverse consequences.

And so it is hard to know how to moderate oneself sometimes with your work when you're really passionate about it, but you do have to have that long-term perspective because if you're not healthy, then you can't approach it in a healthy way and you'll make poor decisions. And so with all that, I think that last bit of finding someone you can talk to is so key. And I am hopeful that anyone who's out there listening is having a hard time. Please feel free to reach out. I'm happy to always lend an ear. So in closing, at skys, we connect underrepresented entrepreneurs with volunteer business professionals for free one-on-one mentoring. We also provide guides for all of our members plus monthly funding opportunities. So you can sign up for free today and if you like what you heard, please subscribe and share. And of course, if you're a growing business, please check out Funding Circle. You can apply right now for a loan and you'll get an answer quickly. So appreciate Lisa's time today. Thank you so much.

Lisa Jacobs  29:40

Thanks, Nic.

Nic Cary  29:42

Cool, thank you.

Outro  29:46  

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