BR-DGE founder: A startup’s biggest enemy is time

BR-DGE founder Brian Coburn

Brian Coburn is the founder and chief strategy officer of BR-DGE, a payments infrastructure company based in Edinburgh.

Coburn founded BR-DGE in 2018. The payments orchestration platform acts as an intermediary between someone making a payment and other providers like PayPal or Stripe. BR-DGE connects to more than 300 technology and payment providers and expects to process £1.5bn in transactions this year.

Coburn began his career as a trainee at Stagecoach at age 16 before working his way up to become chief technology officer. It was during this time that he noticed the challenges merchants faced navigating complex payment systems.

In this week’s Founder in Five Q&A, Coburn explains why “the biggest enemy of the startup is time”, the importance of delegating as your company grows, and shares lessons learned from wanting to be a rock star.

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

Brian Coburn: The journey is about the people. Surround yourself with great people from the start, create a positive culture and always look to set the bar as high as possible. Encourage and support them in their own journey, enabling them to push themselves without blame when things don’t quite go to plan, to fail fast and learn.

Before you start to really scale the business and each new resource is a major investment for the company, it’s helpful to think of building out teams by visualising a set of overlapping Venn diagrams, with each circle representing a team member; they bring their own set of skills, but look to hire where inbound skills overlap with the existing team. This can help reduce single points of failure and break down knowledge silos, both of which can be a real challenge as a startup.

Not all people who start the journey will end it with you. Look to move forward quickly, and if someone isn’t the right fit and you don’t see a way forward, it’s ok to part ways. The biggest enemy of the startup is time – there’s not enough of it, so spend it wisely, with the right team and the right customers.

2. What’s a common mistake that you see founders make?

BC: Founders naturally have a really strong vision for their company and product/service, and it’s their drive and belief that they have the next unicorn in their hands that gets things off the ground, secures early funding, draws like-minded people to the journey and secures early sales.

The challenge comes when founders need to begin to let go and delegate decisions and responsibilities to the team that they’re building. In the early days, a founder likely wears most hats – I was CEO/CTO/CFO/CCO/COO. This early iteration of the business is common, with founder CEOs embedded in every decision being made across the business and leading every conversation, from hiring to product direction.

It becomes very difficult to let go as more people come on board as there is a strong instinct to protect the things you’re building with your blood, sweat and tears! Unfortunately, founders can be lulled into a false sense that continuing to make all the decisions is a scalable strategy.

The approach that worked for me is looking to build out a leadership team that can take responsibility for those roles as early as possible in the journey and begin the process of delegation to ensure decisions are made as quickly as possible, supported by the appropriate guidance. This becomes much more scalable but it’s a big step for some to let go of the minutia and trust others with your baby.

3. In another life you’d be?

BC: I’m pretty much an open book – what you see is what you get! That being said, asked me if this is what I was planning to do in life, I’d say no – I’m sure a lot of fellow founders would say the same. My original plan was to be a rock star!

I played in a band in my twenties, we wrote our own songs, recorded, gigged heavily and had a pretty decent following – but it didn’t lead to a major label deal and stardom unfortunately. I did, however, learn a number of really useful lessons and principles that transferred across into business life.

We were never afraid to try new things, but were very critical of our songs and the quality, setting a high bar for those that made the cut. We also made sure that we were very well rehearsed and that we delivered 100% each time we hit the stage. This approach also supported the early stages of our business.

We set out to build and deliver the highest quality, enterprise-grade capability suitable for large organisations, and for that, we couldn’t turn up “unrehearsed” in front of our paying customers. We needed to be immediately credible, delivering robust software, rigorously tested and fit for purpose first time.

4. Excluding your sector, which nascent technology holds the most promise?

BC: In the entertainment sector, a technology that really interests me is the evolution of digital rights management for music performances. It’s amazing how seeing a band “live” for many people isn’t actually dependent on the band or act in question actually being present in the room. The experience of being in the venue with like-minded individuals, enjoying the atmosphere everyone is creating is the important element – a good example being ABBA Voyage.

The potential for any number of current artists to migrate the traditional live experience to a digital commodity able to simultaneously play gigs in hundreds of locations, 365 days a year is a highly likely direction of travel. It can earn the artist more revenue, eliminate the need to travel with huge entourages around the world, reduce the carbon footprint, and it ensures the digital capture of your image can continue to perform at the highest level, even when you are no longer able.

Feels like a very different world for recording and touring artists over the next ten to twenty years than when I was touring in a van, playing smoke-filled venues back in the day!

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

BC: Coming from the world of public transport before starting up my business, I still have a soft spot for that sector. There’s a lot of good technology beginning to appear in transport, and for me how the learnings from self-driving cars transposes to the mass movement of people will be really interesting.

As large conurbations move to reduce the ability (and practicality) of private motor car usage on a day-to-day basis, current public transport systems will not be able to cope with the corresponding modal shift in travellers. It’s likely that the road infrastructure will still be relied upon, but possibly by more automated self-driving, passenger-carrying vehicles.

We’re still some way off the legions of Audis driving within inches of each other as portrayed in iRobot, but I can see the benefit (despite being a self-confessed petrolhead) of a move towards a more automated, algorithmically managed traffic flow supporting self-driving vehicles to optimise travel times.

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.