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Talking Leadership: Karen Barrett, CEO of fintech platform Unbiased shares her start-up story

Karen Barrett is founder and chief executive of Unbiased, a platform connecting people with trusted, independent financial advice.

The mother-of-three’s career in the finance sector began as a Sales Development Executive with Mortgage Express, before she moved to Abbey National (now Santander) as a Marketing Manager.

It was during her time as Marketing Director at IFA Promotion, which promoted independent financial advisers, that she came up with the idea of how technology could provide a better solution for people looking for advice and Unbiased was born.

Karen, 48, was shortlisted for Scale-Up Entrepreneur of the Year at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards and Great British Businesswoman of The Year Finalist earlier this year.

She lives in Hertfordshire with her husband and three children aged 14, 12 and 7.

We caught up with Karen, who shares her start-up story and the hurdles she’s encountered and overcome along the way.

 

What is Unbiased?

Unbiased is an online service which connects individuals with trusted and impartial financial advisers.  Since its launch in 2009, it has helped more than 10 million consumers who can choose from 27,000 financial professionals featured on the platform.

The service is free to consumers, while advisers pay a fee for every enquiry successfully accepted.

Founder Karen Barrett, whose career background is in the financial sector, came up with the idea after one of her children became critically ill and she found herself totally unprepared, financially.

The fintech company, which raised £5.6m through Series A funding in January 2020, has grown from five to 70 employees.  Unbiased was recently included in private bank JP Morgan’s Top 200 Female-Powered businesses, ranking 19th.

 

What inspired you to launch Unbiased?

‘I was faced with the worst thing possible – my child almost died’

My son Dominic was born with a serious heart defect in 2009. His condition – transposition of the great arteries – meant blood that doesn’t have oxygen in it is pumped around the body, instead of blood which is oxygenated. It went undiagnosed for four weeks, so by the time the problem was identified, he was extremely sick. He was rushed to London’s Royal Brompton hospital and had his first open-heart surgery at four weeks old and the second at 10 weeks. It was a difficult time and because of the seriousness of his case, I stayed at the hospital for those first two months.

In the middle of worrying whether he was going to be OK, I was also anxious about practical things such as: Do I have health insurance? Will I be able to go back to work? If so, when is that likely to be? Will I need to stop working permanently, to care for Dominic? If so, how will we manage financially as a family? I was faced with an unexpected situation and found myself to be completely unprepared.

‘I had nothing to lose’

After two months, Dominic was discharged from hospital. He’s 12 now and very well. He goes for annual check-ups and may need a couple more operations in the future, but if so they’ll be minor, so we’ve had a great outcome for which we are extremely grateful.

Ultimately, what happened triggered me to set up Unbiased. Coming through the worst thing imaginable – my child being so ill that he could have died – left me with no fear of failure. I remember thinking: ‘I’ve got nothing to lose.’ I knew corporate life wasn’t for me. I liked doing my own thing and felt I was good at it. What happened just took away the worry I had about actually doing it. And having been in that situation myself, the experience taught me that there’s nothing more powerful you can give someone than confidence and security in their financial situation, so it’s empowering to help others achieve this.

‘People needed a free, easy-to-use service’

The idea for Unbiased was a result of three major experiences coming together in my mind. Firstly, my interest in tech which had started when I launched Mortgage Express’s first website. That had also opened my eyes to the scalability and opportunities of the internet, in terms of distribution of information. Secondly, my experience of the IFA sector, pensions, savings and mortgages meant I understood what consumers were looking for. What brought it all together was my experience with Dominic, where I’d felt completely unprepared financially for the situation I found myself in. That made me think: ‘There must be millions of other people who find themselves in this situation’. The concept of an easy-to-use, free, online service that can be accessed 24/7 from anywhere and which used technology to match people with the best, trusted professional advisers, suddenly made total sense.

 

Have you had to overcome any tough business challenges along the way?

‘Of course – but sometimes the only way forward is to take tough decisions!’

When we launched Unbiased, it had been sensible to outsource the tech and data functions to an external provider. But in a few years we’d grown and I thought: ‘If we’re truly a tech company, there’s no way we can do this. It’s so important and integral to our business – especially managing what we do in terms of product development, technology and data. We have to bring it inhouse.’

These days, it’s fairly easy to set up two environments and launch one while the other’s phased out. But it wasn’t like that in 2013. We had to hire someone inhouse and close down the entire system for six months, so that we could rebuild it. It was scary because we were worried all our customers would suffer and ultimately leave. That was probably my biggest challenge, but it was also the best decision I’ve ever made.

 

‘I knew raising finance as a female founder would be a challenge, but I know more about my business than anyone else’

As a female business owner, securing investment finance is traditionally challenging.

Only 9% of funding goes to women – so from the offset the odds are stacked against female-founded businesses in raising money to grow – but I know my business better than anyone else and see being female as an advantage.  Everything we know about business tells us that investment in women means more innovation, economic growth and social benefit for the nation. After all, who better to cater to the female half of the population than women?

When we did our formal Series A fundraising round in January last year [2020], I was aware of the stats, so ensured I worked with people who’d been through the process before and knew how to negotiate with investors to obtain the best result for us as a business.

We spent a long time making sure we had a high-quality business plan, financial forecast, and that the business was trading well as we went out to market. Preparation was key in not only securing funding but also selecting the right investor partner who’d work well with us post-deal. We had a fair few meetings with potential investors and although a few were dismissive, it was overall a really positive experience. I really enjoyed learning from each meeting – both in terms of honing the delivery of the pitch and my ability to field questions.

We achieved five offers, which was a great result. After selecting one and completing due diligence, we raised £5.6m to invest into the growth of the business, enabling us to bring our service to more customers than ever before.

It was an incredible boost to have my faith in the business validated, and a real vote of confidence in the business opportunity.

 

‘Being a woman has brought it’s own challenges, I’ve had to say ‘Excuse me, I’m still speaking!  But there are advantages too.’

Throughout my career in the finance sector, I’ve gone to events and been the only woman in a room of a hundred men. But there are advantages to being a woman in fintech – you stand out and have the opportunity to have your opinions heard. I’ve been in meetings when men have talked over me and have had to say: ‘Excuse me, I’m still speaking’ but in general, I believe that being a female-founded business has got us more interest than we would have otherwise but at the end of the day, the business has to perform well, as you will always be compared to the market.

 

What’s your secret to staying at the top?

‘It’s a team effort’

I recently made it to the final of the Great British Entrepreneur Awards in the Scale-Up Entrepreneur of the Year category, the Great British Business Woman of the Year and Unbiased has just been included in the JP Morgan Private Bank Top 200 Female-Powered businesses. It’s rewarding to have recognition of what the whole team at Unbiased has achieved together.

 

‘We’re hiring smart, passionate people’

Half of our senior leadership are female and across the business there’s a high level of diversity. We were a diverse group at leadership level from the beginning and as we’ve grown, that’s cascaded through. There’s no bias in how we hire, although I’m conscious we can always do more. We’re trying to promote financial advice to people who don’t know they need it, and the overall population is diverse. If we as a team are also diverse, it means we have a greater range ofviewpoints to help us understand our customers – consumers and professional advisers.

One of the highest scoring ratings on employment engagement studies is that our employees enjoy working with their colleagues. I think that means we’re hiring smart, passionate people who don’t see colour or gender or religion, just good, positive people they want to work with.

As we get bigger, we’ll need to keep making sure we’re on track and not rest on our laurels. For example, we’d like more women in our tech team and because not as many women apply, we need to work harder to make sure we encourage applications from women.

 

‘Leadership Matters: who wants to be overlooked or have no impact?’

I always make a point of giving credit where it’s due. If someone in our team has a great idea, it’s important to say: ‘Well done, you!’ That’s come as a direct result of my own experience. Who wants to be overlooked, or have no impact? It’s joyless and I don’t want to be that sort of leader.

The word ‘relentless’ was mentioned three times in my last peer review – I’m not sure if that’s good or bad but I’ll take it as a compliment! I think my friends would say I’m fun, a bit annoying and very ambitious. I’m quite self-sufficient and not easily swayed by others. I also know I’m a talker and could listen more. And as Unbiased grows in complexity, I need to make sure that communication is kept straightforward and transparent. I tend to make decisions quickly, based on gut instinct and informed opinion. Nine times out of ten, they’re the right ones, but as we grow and the risks get bigger, I know I’ll need to adjust the way I operate and make sure checks are put in place.

 

How is your work/life balance?

‘Good enough has to be good enough’

I’ve had to learn to delegate at work and at home and that ‘good enough is good enough’. If you’ve asked someone to do something and they don’t get it exactly right, let it go. I love my work and think I’m a better mum for not being with my children all the time. Much as I love them, crawling around on the floor picking up toys isn’t living my best life. I was lucky that I was employed when I had my eldest, so I had nine months of paid maternity leave. When I had Dominic, the opportunity arose to set up Unbiased, so I went back to work after six months and luckily by the time I had my youngest, William, I was running my own business so could do it on my own terms which was much easier. I had a meeting with the government’s Money Advice Service in 2014 when William was three weeks old and I was still breastfeeding, so I took him with me.

 

‘I’m on my phone ordering tiles when I should be sleeping’

I love property and have renovated quite a few to date. I really enjoy managing the numbers and have the knack of being able to visualise how a place will look once it’s been stripped back, redesigned and redeveloped. After you’ve refurbished a couple, you work out what works well and then replicate it, like a formula. It feels amazing to take a run-down house that hasn’t been touched for 60 years and make it perfect for a family. I go to bed and I’m on my phone ordering tiles and carpet when I should be sleeping. I’ve not got one on the go right now, but it probably won’t be long before I get the urge to do another.

 

Why does access to financial advice matter?

If you have financial security, you have choices’

People need independent, trusted financial advice for all sorts of reasons. ‘I want to ensure that my mum is cared for in her old age,’ ‘I want to make sure I have the funds to make sure that my children are privately educated’ or ‘I want to make sure I can retire comfortably.’ It’s usually about having the confidence of knowing you can look after your loved ones, which is something that applies to everyone. It’s incredibly empowering because if you have enough financial security, it gives you choices.

 

‘Women need to pay more attention’

Married women or those in a partnership often take time out of the workplace to have children and it’s not uncommon for them to stop pension payments because they can’t afford them. But with higher rates of divorce, it’s not a given that things are going to end up how they expected, so they could be putting themselves in a very precarious position.

If I could wave a wand to change one thing, it would be to persuade more women to start managing their own finances. It’s not a man’s job to look after the family money, so rather than thinking ‘I can’t be bothered with all that paperwork, thank God I don’t have to deal with it’, women need to play an active part in managing the money and making the choices about where to save and spend.

 

‘Financial advice isn’t just for the very wealthy’

We did some research with a group of 60-70-year-old ladies who talked about their retirement experiences and not one of them had gone to a financial adviser because they didn’t feel it was relevant to them. But house prices being what they are and with the threshold for inheritance tax at £325,000, many more people than you’d think fall into the category that could be helped with advice. Does anyone want to give away money to the tax man that they could be leaving to their nearest and dearest? No! I think there’s a myth that to seek, or benefit from, financial advice you need to be swanning about in a Downton Abbey-style pile. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If grandma lives in a small terraced house in South London, that will be way over the inheritance tax limit.

 

‘People risk losing out by making the wrong decision’

There are so many people who are underserved when it comes to financial services and the ageing demographic in the UK means far more will need advice. People are living longer, meaning making savvy decisions around retirement can have a lasting impact.

In contrast, the positive social impacts that come with managing money wisely, whether that’s early retirement or cruising around the Greek Islands, are huge. The baby boomer generation have been lucky in terms of endowments, pension benefits and house price growth so they’re often sitting on significant wealth. To get that cascading nicely through the rest of the generations, it’s vital that they’re given the right advice, which will help them make confident and sound decisions.

 

About the author

Karen Barrett is CEO and Founder of Unbiased, connecting people with trusted financial advice. With more than 10 million people helped with professional advice on everything from starting a business to retirement planning, now’s the time to find your perfect financial adviser. www.unbiased.co.uk

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