Learning lessons the hard way and forming a tight-knit team through adversity

Enzo Ottens is one of three co-founders of Earnr - automating tax returns for the self-employed and side-hustlers

Can you give me an overview of what you do at Earnr?

We help side hustlers and self employed individuals in the UK with their admin, starting with automating their tax returns for them. 

Is there a plan to do more than that in the future? 

Yes! We want to help people spend more time creating great content, rather than the admin that comes with having your own self employed business.

Whether it’s “What kind of insurance do I need? When should I start a limited company? What kind of tools should I use to manage my business?” These are the kinds of questions that we want to automate for them. 

It's really interesting, isn't it? People want to spend time being creative rather than doing the admin tasks in life. Is that the reason why you started Earnr?

I didn't start the company by myself. All three of us have had different side hustles, so we've all had to deal with the difficulty of having to do a tax return and the pain that comes with it.

I used to work for Deliveroo for a little bit, my other co-founder is a mastermind when it comes to eBay, and my last co-founder Anil collects and sells stamps. 

All of us, I would say, are quite good when it comes to finances but as soon as you start working on something you’re not 100% sure on, you get very nervous and spend way too much time on something that should be quite straightforward. 

Do any of you have a background in finance?

I studied finance and economics before working in financial services for seven years, so I have a lot of experience in it. 

Fair enough. So you basically found a pain and wanted to solve it. 

Exactly. The way we started our business was a little bit different in comparison to other startups. The three of us found each other at an accelerator programme and knew that we wanted to start a business. 

We weren't 100% sure what that was going to be, but eventually landed on this problem that we all faced at some point.

So you didn't know each other before the accelerator?

That's correct. We didn’t know anybody there but we knew that we wanted to become entrepreneurs, start a business and help people. We just needed to find a good problem to solve for them!

And did you connect the original ideas that you had for the accelerator together to create the business you're running now?

Yes, the last challenger bank I worked at was focused on helping people do better with money; helping them save more and put money aside into different pots. 

That’s a space that we found interesting and tried to flip on its head by making it easier for people to earn more money rather than save more money. 

We found that more and more people want to earn money outside of employment and diversify their income streams, especially during the pandemic where people have realised employment can suddenly change from one day to the next. 

De-risking your financial life is starting to become something on people’s minds. 

If you didn't know each other before you met at the accelerator, there has to be quite a big level of trust to join together to create a business. Would you say that's the case? 

Yeah, we’ve raised a little bit of trust with each other because we don’t just shake hands and say ‘let's start a business!’ We do have some opportunities to discuss what we're interested in, discuss our backgrounds and what we’re good at.

Before joining the accelerator, there would’ve been some vetting done. For us to get in, we had to write an essay and do three rounds of interviews. 

We put some trust in the process itself - that they’ve chosen the right individuals to put together to start a business. 

The 10-12 weeks that you’re in the accelerator is a great time to see whether you’re a good match when it comes to co-founding a company. 

You get placed in a lot of stressful situations - things that would normally take 6 months to explore together, you would do in a very short amount of time. 

It’s a leap of faith to some extent but you build on top of that. 

Can you remember the time that you realised that the three of you are probably going to join together and build this thing?

I met one of my co-founders before the programme, we had a cup of coffee and I could already feel quite a good connection with him. I met the second co-founder two weeks in - the more time we all spent together working on different activities, the better the fit felt. 

The accelerator eases you into it by giving you several challenges to try out. 

Thanks for exploring that a little with me. How many other people do you have on the team?

There’s six of us at the moment, three co-founders, two engineers and a person that looks after marketing growth. 

How did you find the three others? 

All through my network! Everybody came from recommendations or we used to work together.

Our head of marketing, Danny and I used to work together at a previous startup called Loot. 

Our back end engineer used to work with one of my co-founders and Camille who’s our front end engineer was recommended by the CTO of the business I used to work for beforehand. 

So it’s who you know, not what you know, right? 

Yeah, in this case it has been. And it’s worked out quite well!

I’m sure all your colleagues know a lot as well as knowing each other as well. 

Yes, for sure. 

We don’t just jump straight into who we know. When we interviewed for these positions we quickly realised how difficult it is to assess if somebody’s good at something or not. 

By having worked with somebody that has worked with the person being interviewed - it gives you so much more confidence in their ability to do the job. It’s so important this early on in the company’s history. 

We can’t afford to mishire somebody. So that’s always in the back of our minds. 

And how long have you guys been going now?

Almost a full year. We started the accelerator back in September of 2020 and then properly started working on the business in December of 2020. 

In that case, you’re really quite young.

Yeah, but we're moving fast.

That's awesome. So in that very short period of time, what wins have you had as a business?

A big win for us was having all the right regulatory statuses in place for us to offer our business. We connect with a person’s bank account, but you need to be regulated by the FCA to access that data. 

We worked with a partner to set that up and having that accessible was quite a big win. 

The first time our app was in the app store was quite nice to see. Going on the App Store and looking up Earnr after working for so many months was quite a big deal for us.

Early this year we raised £650,000 pounds in our pre-seeds fundraiser from several investors in the UK. 

What was the silver bullet that helped you achieve that last hurdle you just explained?

I don't think there is a silver bullet when it comes to fundraising. 

Having a support network really helps, people who can help you get to the right story and get you talking to the right investors. 

You only really have 20 to 30 minutes to convince investors that the problem you’re solving is worth it, so honing in on what makes your business different and being able to communicate that to investors in a short space of time is so important.

I think those are the two fundamentals.

And what was it that enabled you guys to come across that point of difference in order for you to get the funding?

Focusing on people that are extremely underserved in the UK. We initially focused on side hustlers and no one really focuses on a product just for that customer segment, and it’s a lot of people. Around one in four people have some form of extra income stream in the UK which is huge. 

I also think that is why our investors decided to invest because we looked further into how we can make the experience 10x better rather than just a little bit better for these people. 

When we thought about setting up the product, we wanted to make sure we did something that our competitors are going to go to in the next five to ten years, not necessarily what we think they’re going to launch in one or two years time. 

You guys have had a meteoric rise. In the last year, you've started the business, got it funded, going really, really well. What's not gone so well in that period of time?

To be honest, every week, there's something that doesn't go well. 

Whether it's our app going down for the day and going into crisis mode to make sure everything goes back up again, whether it’s building a feature that we felt was quite important but nobody really cares about or one of our engineers leaving at a crucial time and then having to find a replacement - every week is different. 

I don’t think there is one major thing but just a million lessons that we’ve learned along the way. 

So how do you take those lessons and figure out ways of not doing them in the future?

We write down what we learned from it, what we would do if it happened again, and how we would solve it.

For example, two weeks ago we lost access to our Instagram account for three days. So we were completely banned from Instagram! 

Instagram is really important to us because it’s one of our major acquisition channels. 

What we’ve learnt is that we don’t know when this kind of thing is ever going to happen again because it’s completely out of our control. 

We try to follow all the guidelines but even if it does happen again we know exactly what steps to take to get the account back again and hopefully it won't take as long as three days.  

How do you get an Instagram account back again?

By learning from other businesses we’re in contact with. 

Try and bombard Instagram through as many channels as possible. Try to use your contacts. If you know someone who works there, that would be ideal. But it might be a stretch. 

Raise as many questions as you can through these channels. 

Make sure that you’ve properly reviewed everything you’ve posted so that you have an answer for any potential questions they may ask you later. 

When you say raise questions, what kind of questions are you raising?

Asking them what we could have done to prevent being banned. Don’t keep asking them how long it’s going to take to get the account back! 

We haven’t been very creative in our communication with them. It’s just important to be humble with Instagram and make sure that you haven’t crossed any community guidelines because they find that really important.

You guys in the co-founding team haven’t known each other for long - there’s potential for miscommunication and maybe for you to get annoyed with one another. Is there a way you’re handling the dynamic between the three of you? 

Building a startup is really stressful and putting people in stressful situations leads to conflict. 

Something we always push for is to jump on a call when someone is frustrated rather than to try and type it out, and be as open as possible. 

We make sure to discuss everything as quickly as possible so that we can resolve it rather than let it simmer, and because we have that embedded in the team, things don’t fizzle in the background. 

Yeah, that's really important. You know, often teams come together really quickly if they've gone through adversity. It's really difficult and you'll bond as a result of that.

Yeah. Early on in the accelerator programme, we were given a questionnaire where we had to write down the most important things for us in building this business. 

What did we want to get out of it? How many years did we want to work on it? What excites us outside of work? 

The point was that you need to make sure that you align personally, your skills are complementary and that you have a similar goal and vision for what company you want to create. 

Those three things are key before you even start talking about what problems you’re going to solve. That helped us quite a lot early on in the journey.

You've mentioned that you listen to podcasts regularly. What would you recommend?

The podcasts that I thought were really good were  ‘How I Built This’ with Guy Raz. I sometimes think it’s a little bit rosier than the real startup journey but it’s super entertaining! I love ‘Masters of Scale’, I’d say those are the two main ones. 

Apart from that, I now listen to history podcasts instead, just to keep my mind off of entrepreneurship a little bit. I like ‘Stuff You Missed in History Class’. That’s a great one. 

Is there anything from the history stuff that you listened to, that you have learned from and applied in what you're doing at the moment?

As I studied more about the things that have happened in the past, you see this cyclicality of the same thing happening over and over again. 

Therefore, applying that to startups - whatever we’re facing, there’s someone else that has dealt with that problem already. 

There’s probably someone I can speak to that will have some good advice. Nothing is novel when it comes to startups. 

Thanks for speaking to us, where can people go to find out more about Earnr?

If you want to know more, you can check us out here.

NB: Interview edited for brevity

James Parris

Managing Director

James was recently poached from the world of elite sport bringing his wealth of experience developing high performing teams to Rbbl