Interview With Jerry Nicholson And Fiona Nicholson of Tindercapital & OPEN Accelerator [Part 01]

Jerry Nicholson and Fiona Nicholson are the husband wife duo behind the wonderful impact investment firm Tindercapital and awesome accelerator program called OPEN Accelerator for rural entrepreneurs of Bangladesh. Jerry & Fiona came to Bangladesh four years ago to pursue their dream which is in simple: supporting people with dream of making ideas happen come true, especially in under-served communities of Bangladesh. We are immensely dazzled and incurably inspired by their initiatives.

Months back in a fine morning we sat with Jerry and Fiona at a local coffee shop to discuss, understand and dig deep into their journey, story and knowledge. It went so well that we decided to run the interview in two parts. Here is part one. We can assure this will literally kick your ass and make you to run towards you dream now. Happy making.

Tell us about yourself and your passion

Jerry: We are from UK and we moved to Bangladesh with our family 4 years ago. We are passionate about supporting capable but under-served entrepreneurs. We want to assist them to achieve their goals and go to their full potential. The way we do it is by linking them with investors, mentors and other people who can help them.

Fiona: My passion is to bridge the gap between rich and poor whether that’s through communication, access to finance or any other way. That’s actually what we are doing at Tindercapital.

Nine years ago we went to Tajikistan in central Asia and we looked at micro credit and how it was impacting lives of people. That’s how we came to know about Grameen Bank and got interested. We read ‘Banker To the Poor’ by Professor Yunis and we got interested to understand it more. From central Asia we came to Bangladesh.

Tell us briefly about your journey, about your path to becoming what you are doing today

Fiona: Nine years ago we went to Tajikistan in central Asia and we looked at micro credit and how it was impacting lives of people. That’s how we came to know about Grameen Bank and got interested. We read ‘Banker To the Poor’ by Professor Yunis and we got interested to understand it more. From central Asia we came to Bangladesh.

We saw people were coming out from micro credit and building small businesses out of good ideas. We had the idea of starting something like Tindercapital but not exactly in Bangladesh. But when we saw this trend we realized actually Bangladesh could be the better place to start in.

So, we went back to UK for next four years. Those four years we spent to get ourselves together. During those four years we conceived the idea of Tindercapital and its concept but we did not consider how it might work. We waited to arrive here four years later.

In our first year we tried to learn the language which we are still learning. We tried to get our children along and make sure their education. And we were seriously thinking about building this bridge, how money can come to Bangladesh and help out people for this purpose. Then we made a small investment into Oasis Coffin that became a really interesting case study for us. After that few impact investors get interested in our works. We realized we can really get involved and work in this area. We can find potential entrepreneurs with proven business model and can help them to have access to finance and maybe we can help in other ways to grow their business like mentoring and market access and connections.

We thought whether we want to get involved with one or two entrepreneurs or we want to create and build a platform where we can serve a large number of entrepreneurs.

Jerry: We thought whether we want to get involved with one or two entrepreneurs or we want to create and build a platform where we can serve a large number of entrepreneurs. That’s how we conceived the idea of OPEN Accelerator to build a platform for capable and potential but under-served entrepreneurs and to link them with investors, mentors and more and to help them to grow.

Briefly tell us about Tindercapital and OPEN Accelerator Program

Tindercapital screenshot

Tindercapital screenshot

Jerry: We spent two years working with Oasis Coffin to develop their business. Then we thought we can create a platform to serve more entrepreneurs with similar problems. That’s how the idea of OPEN Accelerator came. The idea of OPEN evolved and changed pretty much from what it was at the very start.

At the beginning we thought it to be a business plan competition and then it morphed into an accelerator program. We are refining and changing and adopting it every day. Its focus is to help high potential rural businesses to prepare a business plan and then to introduce them to relevant investors.

Fiona: We are trying to find entrepreneurs who have potential to do more but are failing to reach at their potential because of lack of investment, opportunity or education. At Tindercapital we are very much keen at seeing how we can better serve this group of entrepreneurs.

There are already lots of works going on in this area (entrepreneurship development) but you have chosen a particular segment of entrepreneurs who are not in the scene, kind of, and nobody is especially talking about them. Moreover, many people think working with them is difficult or even impossible at times. I’m talking about under-served rural entrepreneurs you are working with.

Jerry: Yes, we are working with rural entrepreneurs and businesses but as we said we are not working with all rural businesses. We are working with fast growing rural entrepreneurs who have potential to grow big but could not due to limitations that are soluble. We aim to work with this segment of rural entrepreneurs and help them to grow. So basically we work with a special type of and pretty unusual rural businesses. We are not working with rural businesses that are bumping along and don’t have a clear vision. We are working with rural businesses those are established, proven in market and have significant ambition and potential to grow.

We could have worked with entrepreneurs from Dhaka which might be the easiest way to do it. But we deliberately chose to be an accelerator program for rural businesses and all of our programs are specially designed and customized for their need.

Yes, we are working with rural entrepreneurs and businesses but as we said we are not working with all rural businesses. We are working with fast growing rural entrepreneurs who have potential to grow big but could not due to limitations that are soluble. We aim to work with this segment of rural entrepreneurs and help them to grow.

We have a founding sponsor for OPEN Accelerator which is a Dutch impact investor called Incluvest. They exclusively invest in agro-businesses which create opportunities for people, especially farmers. So, it’s actually their request that we focus in rural areas but as we have done that we are really delighted that we have very interesting and potential business which have a limited support.

You invested in Oasis Coffin and it’s now doing pretty well, right?

Jerry: We invested in it four years ago. It was a loss making company back then. Employing about 30 people from Nilphamari. It had good products and a great entrepreneur. But they were really struggling for market access and also running out of money. Then we got involved.

It is still in a very early stage and there are lots of challenges for a small business. But it has been profitable for last 18 months. Cash generative and it repaid Tindercapital’s loan earlier this year. It’s employing 100 people and has a healthy turnover and profit margin. And it just secured land in the EPZ. And we have just raised finance to build its own factory.

What do you look for when you invest in a company or in a founder?

Fiona: I look at how passionate the entrepreneur is. His/her potential to grow as a person. To me entrepreneur is more important, his character, passion etc. Jerry of course looks for his own things.

Jerry: I agree with Fiona about the character of an entrepreneur. We also look at the business model whether business model is sustainable, scale-able, and realistic.

Well, what do you mean by Character?

Jerry: People who are going to operate their businesses well, going to do it transparently, and respectfully. We like entrepreneurs who look after the interest of all of his stakeholders not only care about quick buck. It’s also businesses that are going to create opportunities for people.

Fiona: An idea in a right entrepreneur is extremely powerful. Someone who really has a good idea and also care about people he works and lives with is an excellent person to bet on. We believe caring for people is really important and we have even a name for it. We call it compassionate businesses-when a business becomes passionate about serving its people well.

A business that cares for its people and country at large is something that has a way greater possibility of success. This kind of entrepreneur and business really motivate us. Well, it has to be really a good business but you know there are lots of good businesses. But a business with an extra edge really helps in decision making.

OPEN Accelerator

OPEN Accelerator
Image by Open Accelerator

How OPEN Accelerator program works?

Jerry: First of all, this is a pilot year. We are doing it for the first time. We are learning lots of new lessons. At the start we had to find rural entrepreneurs, we worked with three organizations which are Drik, Team Engine and Venture Investment Partners Bangladesh to find entrepreneurs for the program. We took help from these three organizations to find capable rural entrepreneurs. We trained a team of scouts from these three organizations. We briefed them about OPEN and purpose and about how to do it right. Through this way we found 150 rural entrepreneurs for the program.

After that we went through a very rigorous selection process and selected 20 entrepreneurs to work with. One of the 20 entrepreneurs could not attend our training camp due to personal problem, so we are working with 19 entrepreneurs in training camp.

Training camp happened in May 2014. There were 19 entrepreneurs. We had 5 trainers in the camp including a lead trainer from Netherlands. We have 15 experienced men and women coaches to coach the entrepreneurs. Training camp remained for four days in order to mentor entrepreneurs and put together a simple growth plan.

Now we are in networking phase where we are seeking to link them with investors and other people who can help to grow.

How the mechanism works? Say, when you invest in a venture, or someone of your investors invest in a project, how the deal works?

Jerry: At OPEN we are a kind of link maker, connector or intermediary-if you will. We don’t invest directly rather we connect entrepreneurs with investors.

Oasis was different. We invested directly in Oasis Coffins UK Holding Company and I Chair the UK holding company. I spend about a day a month with the founder and MD of that business. I act as a sounding board helping him think through, mainly about strategic issues about how to grow the business.

However, at OPEN we literally are doing match-making service.

Samantha of Hathay Bunano coaching Entrepreneurs at Open Dhaka Meetup

Samantha of Hathay Bunano coaching Entrepreneurs at Open Dhaka Meetup

What is the revenue model for OPEN then?

Jerry: Revenue model for OPEN for this moment is a sponsorship revenue model. This Pilot for OPEN is largely funded by a Dutch Impact investment firm called Incluvest. Their reason for funding is they want to see and invest in potential and sustainable rural businesses in Bangladesh. They are trying to find opportunities for themselves.

We are also looking for other sponsors. We are looking for more philanthropic sponsors because it’s still in a R&D stage.

But once we really move forward and show the model is proven we would bring in large Bangladeshi Corporate partners and probably a bank. Their reason for engaging in and sponsoring would be new business opportunities, an opportunity for highlight their support for fast growing rural business. That’s how we are planning to monetize. And also if we can make the connection, investment or new market access, we are also expecting to get a referral fees or match making fees. That so far is the plan.

Fiona: There are sort of four sections. We have proven that finding and bringing in fast growing rural entrepreneurs is possible back in May by even bringing in some of them in the training camp. And in the training camp we trained the entrepreneurs on growth and they have prepared their growth plan. These two components of the program are already proven.

Now, we are in the mentoring round and linking them with investors and different stakeholders. This part of the program is not proven yet. This might take a long way but this is an essential element. Most of these businesses need tweaking before they are invested in. At the investment round-it’s like match making service for investors. So, we will be bringing in impact investors in contact with the entrepreneurs they normally can’t find. We are just in the first year and I think we will need to tweak the program more.

There are two serious questions: one is whether OPEN can link rural entrepreneurs to investors. The other thing is can we actually finance OPEN Accelerator, so that it becomes a sustainable project.

Jerry: We are helping entrepreneurs to prepare themselves and present themselves to investors in way that investors can understand. We are not actually doing anything when investors and entrepreneurs meet. That entirely depends on them.

Fiona: We are actually making the bridge but we are not the bridge.

Jerry: An interesting aspect of OPEN is that we are also trying to involve Bangladeshi expatriates living in the States who want to invest, mentor and help rural entrepreneurs with market access and also hoping to fund development of OPEN accelerator. So that’s another possible source of funding.

There are two serious questions: one is whether OPEN can link rural entrepreneurs to investors. The other thing is can we actually finance OPEN Accelerator, so that it becomes a sustainable project.

A business that cares for its people and country at large is something that has a way greater possibility of success. This kind of entrepreneur and business really motivate us. Well, it has to be really a good business but you know there are lots of good businesses. But a business with an extra edge really helps in decision making.

Credits: Interview by: Ruhul Kader & Maeesha Tahsin | Photos by Tindercapital

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