I caught up with Michael Rolph, CEO of Yoyo Wallet.
Rolph spoke about the challenges that come with turning an idea into a viable business, shared his top advice for successful fundraising and gave a general update on Yoyo expansion plans in Europe.
Q: What’s your background? What were you doing before Yoyo?
Before founding Yoyo in 2014, I was an advisor at Azimo, a mobile and internet money transfer company, as well as a mentor at Seedcamp, where I helped jumpstart the entrepreneurial community in Europe.
Prior to that, I was a non-executive director at The MoBank Group, which specialises in creating and operating transactional systems for mobile commerce, banking and payments. I was also director & EiR at Anthemis Group, a specialist advisory firm for growth-stage companies in financial services, markets and technology. And before all that, I did stints at PayPal, First Data Corporation and Barclaycard Business.
Q: How did the idea for Yoyo come about and why?
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The idea of Yoyo came about as mobile payments were beginning to emerge back in 2012. Having previously worked at PayPal and Barclaycard, I could see that mobile payments were set to play a vital role in the future of retail and customer engagement. What I couldn’t see was anyone embracing the full potential of the innovation, though.
We knew the question to answer was not how do you make payment relevant for mobile, it was “how do you make mobile relevant for retail”, but it was not until Starbucks came along and cracked the code with their mobile loyalty experience that we started to get excited.
So, we set out to democratise the Starbucks experience, aiming to bring that mobile payment and loyalty experience to customers across, not one, but multiple-retailers.
Additionally we wanted to add deep value for the retailer, so we decided to strive for Tesco Clubcard-level insight (customer basket data) with every transaction. With those elements combined, we had a winning proposition!
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Q: In your experience, what’s the hardest part about taking an idea and turning it into a viable business?
Having an idea is the easy part. Turing that idea into a concept is where the real work starts.
Our first hurdle to clear was finding customers who would validate our thinking. At the time, a closed university campus environment made sense. After all, students are always going to be the generation that leads the way – they’re the ones that end up changing the behaviour of the masses.
We approached Imperial College with our idea and they took it seriously! What’s more, once we toned down our initial astronomical “we’re going to change the world” thinking, we were able to get down to what Imperial’s retail outlets and students actually wanted.
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We soon found that the problem was physical cash. Cash has actually been a long-term problem. It’s the centre of cost, loss and friction between the customer and a retailer. Imperial said they wanted to be the first university in the world to roll out a mobile wallet solution for its students and retail outlets that would remove the need of physical cash. And they wanted Yoyo to do it. This is a good problem to have when you’re at the beginning of your business journey. You have an idea, you find a customer, you build your product around both.
Within two years, Yoyo was present in more than 70 university campuses and over 200 corporate canteens. Hundreds of thousands of transactions and automated loyalty was going through the app from a fantastic mix of students and workers and that’s when high street retailers like Planet Organic, Wrap it Up and Caffè Nero came along. They could see the new type of retail experience was going to be big!
Q: You’ve successfully completed a series of funding rounds. What’s the key to your success and what advice would you give to other entrepreneurs looking to do the same?
After a successful trial at Imperial, Touchstone Innovations (then known as Imperial Innovations) led two Seed rounds (totalling around £2m) for Yoyo in 2013 and 2014. Once the investment was gained, the Yoyo app was built and rolled out to all 32 of the university’s food and drink outlets, where it soon represented around 30% share of payment transactions.
Going through Series A, startups need to prove that they have had a strong product market fit and can show early signs of revenue generation and growth. Yoyo was soon in a position to meet such criteria. We’d signed more universities, moved into closed corporate canteen environments and, most importantly, began to implement our solution onto the high street. We were able to show VCs just how much our numbers were growing – with over 200,000 app transactions processed each month at the time.
Seeing the size of the potential, Touchstone Innovations returned to lead a £6m Series A round.
Series B is about proving you can really grow your business. Your sales, business development and marketing functions, as well as your values as a company, now need to bulk up to provide a clearer vision of where the business is heading.We had grown from 20 university clients to more than 70, from a few dozen corporate accounts to more than 200, and from a small presence on the high street to winning retail partnerships with Planet Organic, Harris + Hoole and HOP Vietnamese, as well as the UK’s third largest coffee chain, Caffè Nero.
From this growth, monthly Yoyo app transactions shot up from 200,000 to 1 million by June 2017 (we’re now at 2 million transactions a month). Owing to such rapid growth, Yoyo raised £12m in a Series B round in July 2017.
When it comes to advice, remember that for a startup that is disrupting the market, there will be no one investor that fits perfectly, so make sure you have a convincing story to tell. And the more investors you come into contact with, the more you’ll get to know the industry and the greater the chance of finding the ones that are most suited to what you want to achieve.
Q: When you closed your Series B in June last year, you said you were going to use the funding to expand across Europe, how is that going? What challenges have you faced throughout the expansion process?
It’s going really well. We’ve made a lot of investment in our technology; part of which was to create an international platform that supports local languages and currencies, etc. In fact, we’re already live in a few European countries, with more set to launch in Q2 of this year.
In terms of challenges, figuring out the best way to automate translations has been fun. Everything else has been pretty straightforward. Just lots of stuff that needs to get done.
Q: Have you had any mentors? If so, who and how have they helped you as an entrepreneur?
I’ve been lucky to have plenty of mentors along the way in my career, and still do. Mainly, they’ve been people who have experienced the same challenges that I do as an entrepreneur and all that that entails. They’ve also tended to be people that I’ve worked with or for at some point, so they know me well.
I believe you can learn a lot just by listening to others stories – it’s a really valuable way to reflect on similar challenges that you may be dealing with.
Q: What three pieces of advice would you give to other entrepreneurs looking to launch a business in the UK?
Ideas that just rest in your head are not great. It’s only through trying to make them a reality that you can look back and say “that was a great idea”.
If you’re thinking about starting a business – do it. The longer you leave it the more likely it is that someone will beat you to it.
Persevere and always keep learning.
Q: What can we expect to see from Yoyo throughout 2018?
A lot. We have some incredible product announcements coming up that are truly game-changing. Our user numbers are going through the roof, which means we’ll be processing millions more transactions every month.
And I wish I was able to share a bit more with you, but until we make our announcement at Finovate Europe I have to keep quiet.