As most small businesses will know, the traditional ways of borrowing money can often be cumbersome and restrictive. It can take weeks for an SME to get funding, in the wake of a labourious process of bank appointments, paperwork and waiting for decisions to be made. It’s not the most fertile environment in which to get potentially time-sensitive projects to take root.
It’s what convinced Esme CEO and co-founder Richard Kerton to set up the business loan company two years ago. “It’s not great for small businesses that are time poor and looking to make agile decisions to make their businesses grow,” he says when Business Reporter asks him about the challenges small start-ups can face.
(Richard Kerton, co-founder of Esme)
At Esme, SMEs can apply online at any time. The application process takes 10 minutes and, if approved, funds can be available within the hour. “It is what [start-ups] are really after – those quick decisions, so they can keep moving forward with their business,” Kerton says. “They can use it for working capital. They can use it to buy stock. They can use it to buy machinery – lots of different things which might enable them to move forward.”
Recent satisfied customers include Piglets Pantry, which Esme provided with funding to help recruit staff and purchase a glass chiller for the business, and communications firm Notion PR (pictured above), where Esme helped solve a cash-flow problem in two days, enabling the agency to develop a new website and hire needed staff.
Elsewhere, Pressure Drop Brewing was able to adapt to increasing consumer demand by purchasing a canning machine.
Life is one big project
The business world revolves around projects, says Kerton – and by SMEs getting access to funding quickly, it puts them in a good place to deliver these projects.
So how do Esme’s own projects take shape? Kerton explains that the company’s aims are dictated by customer demand, or new technologies coming into the market that can make the customer journey better and less frictionless.
How the company manages its own projects, Kerton says, is by “starting with a clear vision and breaking that down into a concise business plan. That plan is broken down into a series of sprints [a set period of time during which a certain task or activity is completed and then reviewed]. Normally they have one or two weeks to complete the sprint to deliver each milestone.”
Between two to five people are placed on a project, Kerton points out. There are daily scrums – a method of managing projects in a small team that involves quick development and testing – that come together to discuss achievements or issues that need to be resolved.
Kerton says: “The sprints have a very clear and concise plan. We escalate any issues and identify problems quickly and deal with them rapidly. We make quick decisions around them.
“The key for us is regular and open communication, so people feel comfortable to quickly escalate any issues they have and raise it to senior management to get a quick turnaround.”
The team tests and learns as they go along, explains Kerton, by building prototypes of products, which are refined following customer or broker feedback.
Kerton points to a new broker portal the firm is developing by way of example. “We have gone out to customers and brokers and identified what has worked well around that broker portal, but also what doesn’t work quite so well,” he explains.
The process then gets taken back to the office to work out the details. “We had a small workshop to identify some solutions around that feedback, and now have a six-week plan that is put into a series of weekly sprints.
“I have a team of four people working on that at the moment live – at the end of the first two weeks we will have a new broker portal built. They will take that out to probably three or four brokers to test for a week, bring the lessons back and refine where necessary.
“The following week they will push those refinements through, go back out, test and learn and make sure they are happy with it, and then we will push it out to the market.”
Since Esme started two years ago, the company has grown from a team of five to 38. Kerton puts this rapid success down to the firm’s own rigourous project management and, above all, clear planning, vision and communication. “We have got better and slicker in how we are managing projects,” he says.