Blackbullion CEO: ‘Only raise funding when the opportunity cost is right’ – Fi5

Blackbullion founder

Vivi Friedgut is the CEO and founder of Blackbullion, a digital financial wellbeing platform for young people.

The edtech platform provides an overview of available student funding and gives financial skills training. It can be accessed for free by over one million students at nearly 50 partner universities, colleges, and other organisations, worldwide.

Founded by Friedgut in 2014, Blackbullion’s tech platform is embedded into student support departments to help with fund distribution. Partners include Imperial College London, the University of the West of England, UA92 and Central Queensland University.

Friedgut, a former wealth manager, is in the process of closing her third round of funding, having raised more than £1m to date. In April this year, the London-based scaleup made its first acquisition, buying social enterprise The Scholarship Hub.

In this week’s Founder in Five Q&A, the Blackbullion CEO explains why marketing was her first hire, why startups should only raise funding when they really need it and why govtech is ripe for disruption.

1. What was the most important early hire you made?

Vivi Friedgut: Our chief marketing officer back in 2016. I hired a marketing person first because we had to get the language around financial education and wellbeing out there. At the time, talking about money was still taboo. Certainly, nobody was talking about financial literacy outside of schools, and some charities – the conversation’s snowballed in the last five years.

We were building a category. So, the product was essentially secondary to creating the right conditions for Blackbullion to exist and grow into. It’s why being distribution-focused has been baked into how we’ve done everything. Ola Szaran, our CMO, has been critical to that.

2. What funding advice would you give to a first-time founder?

VF: Bootstrap as much as you can and raise as little. Taking too much funding, from too many people, too early, means you simply lose too much control of the business.

You always want to be building. So, raise only when the opportunity cost of not getting funding is bigger than securing it.

Observationally – and from experience – if you’re a woman, give yourself more time. This is my second raise, and yes, we were oversubscribed, but the fact of the game is it still took me months longer than I’d aimed for. That’s another interview!

3. How do you prevent burnout for yourself and your staff?

VF: How does anybody get through a raise without burning out?! I’m one of those people that thrives on a higher level of stress but this has been a 10-month sprint – I lost my voice exactly two hours after we closed.

Regular breaks and recharges are how you reward yourself because it’s impossible to sustain this level of intensity. I read a lot, I cycle, I box, and importantly I try to make sure I get seven hours of sleep.

My team’s wellbeing is honestly my top priority. We’ve always had a super-flexible culture and  I’m obsessive about respecting out-of-office working hours. A few times a year we close the company for a team-wide personnel day.

4. What’s a fact about yourself that people might find surprising?

VF: I’m a huge fan of solo daytrips. Breathing in different – non-London – air boosts my mood, feelings of gratitude and perspective and gives me mind a chance to recover and think creatively

I’ve been known to take off to the seaside or Paris or something as simple as a solo theatre trip – that time out helps me absorb any lessons thrown at me, so I can take the positive and use it as a growth piece.

Take fundraising, where you come up against so much resistance. With every no, I asked “What do I get out of this?” It redirects you. Self-awareness is key to being a founder – but you need to be charging your resilience battery along the way.

5. Excluding your own, what’s a sector that’s ripe for disruption?

VF: I think govtech is an exciting space right now. How we use technology to better influence government policy and outcomes, create more transparency, accessibility, and accountability. And at the same time counter attacks on our democracy.

It blows my mind when I think of where this planet would be if great minds and smart tech were being brought to bear to solve so many problems in our society – from the climate emergency through to inflation.  The opportunity for innovation here is simply huge.

Founder in Five – a UKTN Q&A series with the entrepreneurs behind the UK’s innovative tech startups, scaleups and unicorns – is published every Friday.