SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR INDEX NOMINEE: SOAR
We meet Andrew Duncan, Founder of Soar and one of our nominees for the Social Entrepreneur Index 2020.
What does your social enterprise do?
Over 3 million people in the UK rely on High Cost Credit such as payday lenders and loan sharks to make ends meet. Soar is here to play a part in ending this struggle for the most vulnerable in society. We’re cracking down on irresponsible lending with our white-labelled mobile banking app, web app and a platform hub that automates applying for loans for affordable credit providers such as Credit Unions and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI).
Rather than playing catch-up with other parts of the financial services sector, our technology helps these organisations to leap ahead whilst continuing to have a positive impact on their communities. Soar also allows these providers to be attractive challengers in the financial services market by offering them loan origination and transactional banking services that will allow their consumers easier access to credit when they need it the most.
What made you start your business up? When I was leading Soar’s sister company, Swarm Online, I was approached by several credit unions asking for mobile apps. It was at this time that the idea for Soar was born as I realised that this type of technology was really lacking in the ethical finance sector. From this realisation, Soar was formed, and we have been working with affordable credit providers ever since to build a better society where credit unions and other responsible lenders can gain access to innovative technology.
How do you measure your impact?
We evaluate our social impact by measuring the growth of the organisations we work with. Our technology allows them to give access to credit to more of their customers as well as attract in people who might not have otherwise known that this option was available to them. Therefore, we can evaluate our impact on the uptake of our technology from both existing and new, joining members. We can view this data from our platform and report on the findings.
We currently have over ten thousand users on our platform (which has only just launched) which means all these people are gaining more and more access to the financial services that they need from their affordable credit provider. As we watch this number grow, we can see the social impact we have is rising and more members need this type of technology to gain access to credit when they need it most. We can also see from our platform; how many people are applying for loans through their provider and as this number increases, we know that more people are likely to be turning to our customers instead of high cost credit providers.
What help did you have to start your social enterprise? I was keen to grow our business organically, so I built Soar with no external finance or debt. As we phased some team members from my previous company Swarm Online over to Soar, we had some help from Swarm in building our initial app until we finally had our own team together. We are also lucky enough to have support from Scottish Enterprise who have helped us to grow the business and our development team. We recently won the Affordable Credit Challenge from HM Treasury to help us develop our technology further for the sector.
How did you decide on what legal form would work best for your business?
Soar is a private business that operates in an ethical way. We want to demonstrate that a private business can have social impact at its core. Our aim is to help ethical businesses grow but we need to do this with a high level of rigor and due diligence, for example, with security standards and meeting regulatory obligations. In our experience, our customers are unable to get that level of ‘peace of mind’ from the social enterprise market. Being a private business also gives us more options when it comes to financing future growth for the market.
What’s the best thing about being a social entrepreneur?
One of the best things for me about being a social entrepreneur is taking something that I am passionate about and using it in a positive way. As a team, we have managed to build a company that continues to be experts in technology but one that also serves an ethical purpose. In the community lending market, it’s also just good to know that myself and the team are at the forefront of something great in the ethical sector and that all the work we’re doing is having a positive impact. It’s really allowing the industry to move forward, and this in itself is inspiring for us to be a part of.
What have been the three biggest challenges that you have overcome (or that you’re still working on)?
A big challenge for myself and the team has been entering into a very traditional market. Credit unions and other community lenders are run for the benefit of their customers, not shareholders, and will do everything they can to stick to their core values. However, some are hesitant to move away from their traditional methods of working even if it is what their customers want. Understandably, many credit unions are afraid that technology will take the personal service away from their members. We do not want to get in the way of this and work hard to bridge the gap and offer further education on how credit unions can get the most from technology.
Some other challenges I have found over the last few years have been finding the right team and getting others to believe in the vision. Having started as a small tech start up, I sometimes found it hard to find the right team members as it can be difficult to attract the best talent to a small and new business. Luckily, we stuck with it and now have a great team who believe in the journey we’re on. This also ties in with making others believe in the vision. Whether it be potential employees, partners or investors, it can be hard to make others see what you see. This is something we’re continuously working on as a company, but we’re getting better at it as the days go on, especially now that we are proving our concept!
What advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?
I would always tell aspiring social entrepreneurs to consider your customers, your business and the impact you’re having on everyone that you serve. It’s still possible to do great business while thinking about the social impact that you’re having. It doesn’t need to be difficult either, there’s usually always something good that you can do that will be within your capabilities and it can even be the impact you have through the suppliers that you use.
This outlook will also encourage a certain type of person into your business and these will most likely be the people you want to be helping to build your company. After all, the success of your business has as much to do with the quality of your team as it does your personal efforts.
Why do you think social enterprise is important?
It’s a different way of being in business and a social enterprise can connect you to your purpose. It not only serves those who you are aiming to help but it also allows you to be connected on a personal level too. Social enterprises, I have found, also focus on the customers’ exact needs rather than just trying to push a product on them that might not fit their exact requirements. Soar, for example, has worked with a number of credit unions to make sure our product is exactly right for that market. It may have taken us a little longer to build because of this but we know we have a product that is needed and will be used.
What’s been your most rewarding experience as a social entrepreneur?
Seeing the impact of our technology on the organisations that we’re working with. We see so many community lenders going from long, painful processes to revolutionising their businesses and fulfilling their social purpose at the same time. We want to see more people turn to these community lenders when they’re in need instead of high cost lenders and we’re now starting to see this happen as our technology is making organisations such as credit unions more accessible than ever.
What information sources would you recommend (books, websites, organisations?) to help someone just starting their social enterprise journey?
I would definitely recommend going to/joining as many events as you possibly can regarding social entrepreneurship and your own market. These are the best places to learn about being a socially responsible business but also about your customer too. You’ll gain some great advice from people who have done this before and most likely meet some useful contacts for the future.
Social Enterprise UK is a great place to find some inspiration in their blogs and articles and they run some informative webinars and events for you to utilise. Gov.uk is also a good place to find some useful pages on setting up a social enterprise to get you started.
What’s been the most surprising thing about creating a social enterprise?
The support that is available to those looking to run a business that is trying to tackle social issues. This support is not just from our target audience either, but from technology partners, to funding initiatives to media partners, the interest and support from everyone has been amazing and has definitely helped us get to where we are today.
What are your plans for the next 2-5 years?
In the next few years, we would like to not only offer a solution to credit unions but also to others in the ethical finance sector. Our solution will deliver a key difference to society so that credit unions and other organisations can compete more efficiently with major financial service organisations and they can continue to have a positive social impact on their members and communities.
We are currently working with credit unions around the UK and we’re in talks with a number of CDFI’s about offering our solution to the wider market. We are also looking to expand our product into the Irish credit union market too – we are working with Scottish Development International to achieve this. Our aim is to have everyone across the country being able to access some form of affordable credit and as we continue to develop our product, we are also developing our means for getting our technology out into the market. What is the biggest change you would like to see in the world?
Our aim is that everyone in society have access to affordable credit as nobody should have to go without or fall victim to unfair interest rate. This continues to drive us forward and as we begin to enter into the CDFI market too, we can see more of a need than ever for our technology, not only for consumers but for the organisations themselves. This change would make such a difference in peoples’ lives and is something we would like to see happen sooner rather than later.
What have been your three proudest moments as a social entrepreneur?
Working at Soar has brought a lot of monumental moments, which has been extremely rewarding considering we are still a relatively young business. Very early on in our journey we gained the UK’s largest credit union as a customer and for me, this was pivotal as it meant we were going to be working on fulfilling our mission of making this market more accessible.
Soar also gained some well-deserved recognition when we were awarded a research and development grant by Scottish Enterprise and with this came a ministerial visit from the, now Cabinet Secretary of Finance, Kate Forbes MSP; this was definitely a proud moment for myself and the team.
More recently, we were announced as winners in HM Treasury’s Affordable Credit Challenge with Capital Credit Union. We were up against some amazing projects and initiatives so to win and be allowed to further our work in tackling high cost lending was one our biggest achievements to date.
What would you say to encourage more entrepreneurs to consider the social impact of their businesses?
There’s always an option to do some good while running or creating a business. Even if your business doesn’t seem to have an obvious route for social impact there may be a way you can still fit it in. There are so many initiatives, charities and programmes that are supporting social enterprises, so the help is there if you need it. It’s okay to start small too; Soar started to help credit unions reach more of their members and now we have evolved our mission and we’re part of an entire movement that’s taking place across the UK.