Ethical business has always been important to Greg Ellis, co-founder of money lending company Nimble and a successful entrepreneur.
The idea for the industry-disrupting company was born when Greg and his friend, Sean Teahan noticed a sizeable gap in the finance market.
“We were talking about how there are no options if you just want to borrow a small amount of money,” the Griffith Business School alumnus explained.
“You’re either annoying your mother, going somewhere suboptimal, to put it lightly, like a pawnbroker. Or you’re racking up a $10,000 credit card with a series of small borrowings, which you generally don’t repay, or pay interest only.”
He says the company’s initial goal was to lend to working people without getting them into a cycle of debt. “It was for people who wanted an ethical, comfortable alternative for a small amount of money and then it was about paying it back shortly thereafter and then it’s done. If you need it again it’s there and if you don’t it’s not. Whereas with a credit card it tends to be an accidental long term commitment.”
But the former Bachelor of International Business student says even though he and Sean had a clear vision at the outset, paving the way as an entrepreneur was a difficult job.
“It’s ten years ago, so you look at it with a degree of nostalgia now, but it was not fun!” he says with a laugh. “During it, you’re the sort of good guys in a space you’re disrupting, you can get caught in a bit of a crossfire of well intended legislation.”
He explains that initially the government changed lending laws several times and, although the changes were aimed at irresponsible lenders, it affected Nimble which was was then known as Cash Doctors.
And in a story that will be familiar to many who’ve tried their hand at starting a business, the early days involved doing a combination of odd jobs and getting government assistance.
“Right at the start we were on the dole and there was a point where you couldn’t be on the dole anymore,” Greg says. “And they asked us to come into Sarina Russo and learn how to find a job and do an interview and write your CV and I was like, ‘Well, we are actually starting a company so we’d better peel out’
“We were probably mowing lawns for the first two years just to scratch together $300 a week each. We mowed lawns one day each week just for pocket money to keep going!” he says.
But then it came to a point where even though the idea was working well and the company was turning over lots of loans, there wasn’t really a margin for error. “We were flying a bit close to the sun,” Greg says. “We had millions in debt funding we were lending out but we had very little equity because we were making small profits which were being reinvested. We had no buffer and we were leveraged to the absolute gills at the time.
“If we had three bad months in a row or something, we wouldn’t have survived,” he says.
But then the company decided to raise their first $1 million of equity and form a board, which changed everything. Pretty soon they rebranded as Nimble, started advertising on television. They’ve now catered to more than 250,000 borrowers, who’ve been able to quickly access short-term loans using their advanced, online-only platform.
Greg, who also has a Griffith degree in Commerce, adds that what set Nimble apart from other lenders was a sense of ethics and a real connection to the consumer. “What traditional finance providers – whether it’s a bank, a credit card provider or even an alt-finance provider – they just really try to make money and serve shareholders, not serve the community. They don’t emotionally connect or really try to solve people’s problems.
“There are a lot of times where we have just could have made more ‘commercial’ decisions but it would have been at the expense of our social conscience. I think having a social conscience and being customer centric is a top priority … embracing transparency and feedback from customers and staff, rather than having an ivory-tower type mentality … I think that more or less has been one of the secrets to our growth and success.”
He also credits a lot of the company’s expansion to an investment in financial technology, an area that traditional lenders were ignoring when the business started 12 years ago. “Nimble is now one of the most advanced fintech start-ups in Australia,” Greg says.
He says budding entrepreneurs can learn a few things from his journey to success, which occasionally includes not doing what he did.
“Don’t avoid accountancy at uni!
“I had to go back after university and learn it out of a book and from Sean. I think a solid understanding in that, whilst not enjoyable for everyone, is one of the things you have to graft even if you’re not that way inclined if you want to be an entrepreneur.”
Greg says that the most important thing for future business-starters and industry disrupters is to do what excites you.
“Do something that gives you the tingles; something you actually care about.
“Also find two or three like-minded people you can be excited about, and start a family of sorts. We got a lot out of having that sounding-board type of relationship.”
As for what’s next, Greg is getting ready for a new chapter having recently parted ways with the company he founded with Sean. But it’s only a matter of time until the entrepreneurial itch will need to be scratched again.
“After co founding nimble nearly 12 years ago with my friend Sean Teahan, it’s been agreed between Nimble’s board and myself that now’s the right time to step away from active leadership and board positions, leaving it up to the new CEO.
“During the next few months, my focus will be on surfing, yoga, brushing up my Italian, riding my bike and trying to get my golf handicap down,” he laughs.
“Then when I’m good and ready and my brain is fallow and starting to sprout, I’ll start exploring some ideas and think about rounding up a band of talented people to execute a new project that I’m in love with – but not before then!”