A Q&A with SteadyPay CEO John Downie

Startups Magazine had the pleasure of conducting a Q&A with John Downie, CEO of SteadyPay. SteadyPay is a UK-based progressive lending platform for people with unstable incomes. The AI-based solution analyses open user data to predict their creditworthiness. According to these forecasts, Steadypay tops up the bank account of a trusted and reliable platform user if their earnings fall below the average monthly income.

If you could go back in time, what one piece of advice would you give your pre-startup self?

Raise 2x more money than you think you need. Actually, I would say to my pre-startup self that it's all about relationships so the wider your circle the higher chances of success. Cultivate strong mentors and connections as these will be very valuable when looking for staff, customers or funding.

What is one failure you experienced during your startup journey, and what did you learn from it?

In 2022 a funding round did not complete as planned and we ended up with less funding than we had planned for that year. Lessons:

  • The only cash that counts is that in your bank account.
  • Moving quickly in the face of adversity. Make the imperfect call and keep moving.
  • Constraints breed innovation.

What specific market gap or customer pain point inspired your startup's inception?

While working in banking technology I was seeing numerous customers being declined for credit – “computer says no” - when it was obvious that they were creditworthy. I quickly realised that there was a huge and growing population paid by the hour, shift or gig that were underserved by traditional players.

So this started my mission to use my knowledge to change the financial lives of everyday businesses and workers for the better.

Did you make any assumptions about your market that turned out to be incorrect? How did you pivot?

Many. I originally thought that our target market was gig economy workers (4.7 million in the UK with strong growth). It turned out that almost all blue-collar workers are paid by the hour, shift or gig meaning that our solution works well across more industries than we thought: healthcare, hospitality, construction, grocery and even the British army.

We also thought that our market wanted financial education, they gave strong feedback that we are the experts and should take care of it for them, so we removed the education focus and instead continue to add AI features to automate and improve our customers' financial lives.

Describe a moment when you thought your startup might not succeed. How did you overcome this?

I had many people tell me early on that we were lending to the un-lendable and that giving away money is easy, getting paid back is hard. While in our beta we tried a few different methods of advancing money, including fully on-demand, which was a disaster.

With a lot of naysayers and a setback on one of our early experiments, it would have been easy to give up. I overcame this by filtering through the noise to the underlying customer message and the problem our solution was addressing.

How did you approach creating an authentic company culture, and what unique aspects of your culture do you think have contributed to your success?

Early in your journey I think company culture is organic and set by the core team. You have managed to convince some people to work with you on your crazy idea to improve the financial lives of millions in the UK.

Our ability to align on the mission has enabled us to have an open and transparent work culture. Everyone understands what success is, so even heated disagreements can be resolved through kindness and openness. As we have grown, we have written this down and made it more obvious for new hires.

What crucial skill do you wish you had developed more before starting your business?

Networking and storytelling. I don’t think I and many people are natural networkers or storytellers, like all skills they take time and practice. 

How has your initial vision for the company changed over time?

Not changed but refined. You start with an aspirational view which solidifies over time. For example originally we didn’t have small businesses in our scope but quickly realised that in addition to being the driving heart of the economy, many of our customers were businesses of 1-4 people.

What piece of conventional wisdom about startups do you disagree with?

You learn more from failure than winning.

Winning and working with or being mentored by serial winners teaches you how to win. You can learn from failure but it’s a slower path to success.

How do you balance the tension between growth and profitability?

I would add a third underlying driver to this tension: runway. From the outset I have focused on building a profitable business, this approach at times has been unsexy to investors. That said no growth or low growth is a difficult place to be for an early-stage business as it indicates product market fit or growth/funding issues.

For me, it is always about sustainable growth with a clear path to profitability. Ideally, you also want the levers in place to move profitability further out, in favour of growth or vice versa. This is a strong position for an early-stage startup to be in.

As the company grew and you've had to bring on more help or immerse yourself deeper into certain parts of the business, how has your role as CEO evolved? What advice do you have for other founders facing a similar situation?

More people management and less hands-on activities. You are the custodian for the vision and strategy of the company.

Get a coach or a mentor, ideally one that is not too far ahead of you. Someone who did it 5 years ago is less helpful than someone who had the same issues as you 6 months ago.

What missteps did you make in the early days that you wish you’d avoided?

Talking to investors too early. This is good and bad, but my advice is to always have a structured investment process – think of raising investment like a sales funnel.

Focusing too much on product build.

Looking back, what aspects of your journey do you feel you approached in the right way?

Finding a mission that both our team and our customers can buy into and making this central to the culture. This creates a long-term sustainable business.

As basic as it sounds, we did this initially by writing it down and then working with the core team to ascribe a set of company values (transparent, fun, trust, and helpful). We then use this as part of our team onboarding and as part of a team get together and other events. We also apply these as a litmus test when looking at our product or how we interact with our customers. Are we being transparent and helpful while building trust, for example.

What qualities in a leader inspire teams to believe in the mission of a company?

Authenticity and leading from the trenches. The team needs to know you believe in what you are doing, why you are doing it and who you are doing it for. You then need to be the first one to walk the walk, answer the phone, give out your Twitter to all customers etc. 

What were the best support systems you’ve relied on throughout your startup journey?

To be honest the best support I’ve had is from other founders. A lot of the time, as supportive as friends and family can be, founders get the struggle and can truly emphasise what you are going through. There are numerous groups both small and large. The best ones are founder-only (no investors or third parties) so you can be brutally honest and open.