Michael Claire, CEO of LoanCirrus Limited, has always been a business person. He enjoyed a long, successful marketing career in corporate America after graduating from Canada’s York University in 1994, even starting his own consultancy in 2009. His extensive resume includes stints at Assurant Group—a US$8 billion Fortune 500 company, where he was the Vice President of Global Consumer Acquisition, and Homeowners Loan Corporation, where he was the Vice President of Marketing.
He travelled to Jamaica at the start of 2012 to help a friend build a business. That was supposed to have been a six-month gig, but more than five years later, he is still here. Not only that, he has established two businesses of his own, software development companies SpiderCentro Inc. and LoanCirrus Limited, that serve clients all around the world right from Kingston, Jamaica.
SpiderCentro builds software for businesses specific to their needs. One of its offerings was implementing loan management systems for financial services companies. While going about this, Michael and his team began to notice some marketing inefficiencies in these systems and recognised some things that could have been done better. Thus, the idea for LoanCirrus, a cloud-based lending management software, was born about a year and a half ago. “What we found was that in the financial services sector generally, and more specifically in the micro-lending space, the software offerings that were there were typically getting close to their obsolescence.
They were distributed in such a way that they were high-touch, meaning that you had to have a salesperson who would contact you, and then you go through that sales process and pre-qualification,” he explained. “We found that the players that are in the market weren’t taking advantage of the technology to allow users to have easier access to software. And finally, we realised that the costing models that were being used were deleterious to the growth of the lenders—our customers.”
Making things easier for lenders
Michael leveraged his 20-plus years of experience in financial services and marketing, his understanding of competitor products and the needs that still existed in the market, and the technical expertise of his SpiderCentro team to build LoanCirrus, both the product and the company. The subscription-based lending management platform is distributed as a SaaS (Software as a Service) product. The core platform provides full loan administration, product configuration, documents management, communications management, client management, fees/penalties, risk scoring, data management, bulk and individual repayments, collections management, reporting and custom reports, user and roles management, fees and penalties management, workflow process management, and more.
“It’s a multi-faceted software and we’re going to keep building on it. It’s for anybody who operates a lending business, banks to microlenders. It’s also a connected system. Part of what we do now is ensure that we create the infrastructure that allows any other application to speak to loan service with ease. We see lending as an ecosystem and not as a product. Throughout this year, we’re building features that will allow it to operate in a larger ecosystem of lending. That includes banking systems, mobile money platforms, decisioning systems, and so on,” he explained. In addition, major feature releases and significant product enhancements are published every three months to ensure that customers are always getting the latest solutions to help them succeed in the lending business.
Michael and his team were able to finance the early stages of product development themselves, getting it to the point of putting a beta model on the market to secure some early customers and users, and establish clearly that the product worked, and that there was genuine market interest. “We thought we could finance it ourselves, but we just got to a point where, after spending about US$160,000 over the course of a year, we realised we were running out of money and we weren’t going to get it to the point where we start generating enough cash to sustain ourselves,” he said.
At that point, they approached FirstAngelsJA to see if the Angels would be interested in funding the company. “The timing was important. We weren’t going with an idea; we were going with a product that had been put into the market, even though it was still in beta form. There was enough there for anyone to reasonably see if there was real interest. Getting the capital from them wasn’t a challenge,” Michael said.
The Salesforce of Lending
LoanCirrus received the cash injection in January 2017 and started moving forward in earnest. “Since then, we’ve had good market traction globally,” he said. “One of the things that’s unique about LoanCirrus is that we started out being a global company. We have customers in over 20 countries right now. We have over 40 customers. We’ve grown our customer base eight times since January. Part of the goal is just to grow and have more customers in more countries.”
Michael’s overarching goal for LoanCirrus is that it becomes “the Salesforce of lending.” He said, “We want to be the de facto lending management platform. You shouldn’t be getting into lending and not have LoanCirrus on your radar as a credible alternative to whatever else is out there. In five years, we expect that we’ll probably be on the public market somewhere, and we’ll have thousands of customers around the world.”
In addition to the financial investment that has helped the company move towards its goals, LoanCirrus is also benefitting from the guidance and expertise of its investors and board of directors, which include FAJ Co-Founder Sandra Glasgow, a governance expert, and Joseph Matalon, who has decades of experience and knowledge as a successful businessman. “To me, the real value of the investors at FirstAngelsJA—and generally speaking—is not so much in the specific thing that one investor does or doesn’t do. It’s in the understanding that you have at your disposal all the time. That is priceless, especially when you’re starting up a business, that you have people of their calibre that you can call upon, whether it’s to open a door, or clarify an issue, or to seek advice or counsel, they’re there for you,” he said.
A unique relationship
LoanCirrus’ connection with FAJ is a little different from the other companies that have received investment in that Michael is actually an associate member of the angel network, which he was invited to join in 2014. “They needed people who had expertise in different areas, who could help with the evaluation and assessment of opportunities. I had a lot of general business acumen and technological know-how, so they saw that it would be a good fit to assess and evaluate opportunities that come to them that required more technical evaluation,” he shared.
“Secondarily, it was also an opportunity to be part of something that will help to build the country. At the end of the day, I’m a big believer that Jamaica is not going to be built because of government programmes, but because of entrepreneurs—people starting businesses and hiring people and creating opportunity. Anything I can do to help that, I’m there, because it speaks to what I truly believe: business is the engine of growth. And it’s a great organisation that helps to mitigate risk and provide support to entrepreneurs, so I don’t know how I could have not been a part of it.”
As both an investor and investee, Michael knows exactly what Angels are looking for when entrepreneurs approach them seeking financing. The biggest challenge he has noticed is that many entrepreneurs present with ideas—not even actual businesses—that are not fully formed or thought out. “What do you need to do to get somebody to take your idea, in its very nascent form, seriously? The first thing is having some understanding of what a good idea is, and whether that good idea can be a good business,” he said.
In the absence of a wealth of life and/or business experience, particularly for young entrepreneurs, he suggested that they surround themselves with people who have this kind of wisdom to share, to point out whether or not the idea or business is strong. “The first thing I would say to an entrepreneur looking to see if their idea is investible is pressure test it by talking about that idea to other critical business people.
What a lot of young entrepreneurs go through is this fear that if they talk about their idea with somebody, they’re gonna steal it, and that’s just immaturity. Entrepreneurs understand that ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is what matters. And there are very few new ideas anywhere in the world, so it’s about somebody’s ability to execute an idea well,” he said. “Frankly, if somebody can execute it better than you, then in a true market environment where the fittest survives, they should have the business, not you.
Entrepreneurs should focus more on exchanging ideas with people, sharing ideas to see if theirs is actually good. That alone can help you begin the process of getting your idea to become more investible, because now it will benefit from a collective of experiences.”
A Jamaican pioneer
The next crucial question is, ‘Does the business align well with who I am?’ If the answer to this question is ‘no,’ and money is the sole motivation, they should be prepared for a difficult ride. “One of the most difficult things as an entrepreneur is to be doing something that doesn’t fit with you. It’s probably not going to work, because what it takes to build a business takes so much of your soul that if it’s just money that’s driving you, you’re gonna give up on it, or it’s gonna give up on you.
When you go to any investor, whether it’s an Angel or a Venture Capitalist, or the bank, one of the things they want to see is not only do you believe in this thing that you’re trying to do, but does it align well with who you are?” He pointed to one of his investees, Patria-Kaye Aarons and her company Sweetie Confectionery, as a good example of such alignment. “Whenever I see dissonance between the person’s characteristics, their proclivities, their interests, their competencies, and what they’re talking about spending their time doing, it gives me cause for pause.”
There is certainly no dissonance where Michael and LoanCirrus are concerned, given his background and commitment to Jamaica. His company is pioneering an entire industry locally, as it is the first global SaaS business built in and operated out of the country. The product was built in Jamaica, from conceptualisation to engineering, and the entire team is based here.
Michael is hopeful that their success will be a catalyst for others in the local technology industry to use as a guide. “It’s not just about building an app. It’s not just about building software. It’s about building a business around that,” he said. “Where I see a disconnect locally is that you have a lot of people with programming skills, but that’s all they have. That’s not gonna get you a successful business. What you need to understand is that yes, you can build an app, but that’s not the same as building a business. The app is just the product. They need people to help them understand how to take this piece of technology that you’ve created and figure out how to make that a business. Hopefully, we can help to be an inspiration for that.”
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