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

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.

Part one of the interview can be found here.

Why Bangladesh?

Fiona: We visited Bangladesh 9 years ago; we stayed for only three weeks and enjoyed the environment, people and buzz. We saw people working hard and their entrepreneurial life style. People were very friendly and welcoming.

We came to look into micro-finance, having read Muhammed Yunus’, “Banker to the Poor”. The family we stayed with, invited us to work here, we considered the invitation and 4 years later moved back to Bangladesh with our 2 girls. I have grown to love Bangladesh, its people and their relentless pursuit of opportunities.

Jerry: We sensed that people in Bangladesh have so much potential. As Fiona says, so many people are natural entrepreneurs; they often work through their lives to put food on their table. People have drive, commitment, and ideas but particularly for small and growing business and particularly in rural areas, they have very limited support. It became a natural fit for what we were trying to do with Tindercapital.

Aprakashi Image by OPEN

Aprakashi
Image by OPEN

What were a few of the obstacles you faced at the beginning and what did the journey look like for first few years.

Jerry: A major challenge was, and still is, working out a suitable and sustainable business model for Tindercapital. When we were in UK we did a lot of thinking about Tindercapital-its vision and its values and its high level mission. But actually translating that into reality: how are we going to make it work in practice and how to earn revenue from our activities has taken a long time.

Fiona: Every year has had obstacles and challenges, but always coupled with something certain and easier. For example, in the first year we learnt language whilst working with a business called Oasis Coffins. Second year greater involvement with Oasis Coffins with the challenges of beginning Tindercapital. Third year Oasis Coffins a strong company, and we began considering the OPEN accelerator, and so on.. It has been a rigorous journey and we have thoroughly enjoyed it

Jerry: There are lots of people in Bangladesh who are living in perpetual uncertainty with low income and job. We often reflect on that when we feel low and concerned about whether Tindercapital is going to run out of funds. This inspires us during our moments of doubt. Tindercapital may work or not but it is a risk worth taking and when you look at the people we are seeking to benefit, it does not look like that big a risk any way.

Fiona: We have met with people who have been a great support throughout the time. We are certainly not alone.

Jerry: Yes, the idea of OPEN came out from Tindercapital but it is a collaborative effort now. Our two partners, DRIK and Team Engine has been a great support. Shahidul Alam from Drik, Himika from team engine has been instrumental for streamlining OPEN. The pleasure of working at OPEN is that we are meeting with lots of likeminded organizations and people all around the country and we are very keen to collaborate to work together.

Fiona: ‘Ekmot’ isn’t it in Bangla? It feels like we are working for a common cause.

There are lots of people in Bangladesh who are living in perpetual uncertainty with low income and job. We often reflect on that when we feel low and concerned about whether Tindercapital is going to run out of funds. This inspires us during our moments of doubt.

Anything with law and policy?

Jerry: We have not faced many problems related to law and policy. You need to have good people to advise you. I know there are issues with this and the bureaucratic problem in Bangladesh is quite a big problem but we did everything properly and we report properly. We just set up a regular consultant business with a joint stock registration and BOI approval.

Lessons you have learned from your journey to date.

Fiona: It is a journey. We are enjoying the journey and we are not longing for the destination.

Jerry: A key lesson for me is that you learn through doing. As an entrepreneur it is important to plan and to do your research. However planning only takes you so far. You will learn most of the things you need to know after you start your venture. You need to be patient, persistent and ready to adapt to what the market wants and is prepared to pay for.

Fiona: The important lesson we have learned along the journey is that-at OPEN our work will make much impact if we go in a collaborative manner. So, working in collaboration with people and maintaining relationships with likeminded people and organizations is a big learning for me.

Tindercapital screenshot

Tindercapital screenshot

What do you look for when you decide to fund a startup/founder?

Jerry: Tindercapital doesn’t currently have our own fund and so are not investing directly in the businesses going through OPEN Accelerator. Instead we are working as an intermediary. So it’s about understanding the need of our investors and our entrepreneurs and connecting them together.

If Tindercapital were to start a fund, we would look to make early stage investments in innovative and scalable businesses which benefit low income groups. As well as checking out the business model and financial projections we would assess whether the entrepreneur was someone we liked, trusted and wanted to partner with.

Fiona: Tindercapital sometimes invests money into businesses. To date this has been our own money, so we certainly make sure the business is worth the risk of investment. On occasion our heart rules our heads, particularly if the social benefit of a business seems worthwhile. Investing our own money has been an excellent way of making careful decisions, we would feel the loss if things don’t work out.

Do you think there are secret to entrepreneurial success? If yes, what it is?

Jerry: I think it is having the passion. You want to change something with a rock solid passion and you come across a brick wall or risk something important to you but still the dissatisfaction of not being able to change something is what keeps you going in a moment of trying.

Fiona: Your job as an entrepreneur is to find a gap in market and then find a way to fill it. Think slightly off the regular road, keep unusual in your thinking, have confidence in your ideas. A good accountant is helpful and if you are married to one that’s very useful!

What makes an idea good idea, if there is such a category? Do you think there are good ideas and bad ideas and there are ideas that are inherently bad?

Jerry: Yes, I think there are good ideas and bad ideas. Is it needed, is it financially sustainable and lots of other determinants. You know there is also categories of good ideas. Occasionally there are good ideas that are really going to change something fundamental and scale as well and these are the ideas we get most excited about supporting.

Fiona: Ideas that don’t do any good to the society are not good ideas to me.

Have you ever failed throughout your path? Please tell one story from your failures?

Jerry: With OPEN in past years we learned so many things, so many things we would do differently if we were to do it again. To give an example, we’re traveling around the country to put together simple profiles of our entrepreneurs, we got lots of information about entrepreneurs from application forms and also from training camp but we did not bring it all together in one place. But after almost four months we are still working on this which is crazy, we should have done that in the training camp.

This is just one example. There are countless things we could do better. But I think it is only failure if you don’t learn from it. Hopefully, if we do it again we will do it a lot better. I really believe you only learn through getting the feedback and through learning the lessons.

Fiona: We fail regularly. Learning and creating out of these failures has been the fun part. An example: speaking Bangla is useful to what we do, it helps us understand Bangladeshi culture and its people and so helps with assessing rural businesses. I didn’t make enough of my first year of language learning, a personal failure. So am still taking Bangla lessons now, 4 years on!

Your job as an entrepreneur is to find a gap in market and then find a way to fill it. Think slightly off the regular road, keep unusual in your thinking, have confidence in your ideas. A good accountant is helpful and if you are married to one that’s very useful!

Jerry with a Participant

Jerry with a Participant

If a young person comes to you and ask for advice on starting what would you tell?

Fiona: Just try it. Starting something is incredibly hard work. I would definitely listen and encourage whoever comes to me with an idea. And if I had to give advice I would suggest to experiment and trial the product. Take a stall at a fair, set up on a street corner for a day, and use the web. Try to spend as little money as possible and get feedback, however hard to hear.

Jerry: I would agree with that. Just do your R&D, go out and understand your customers. Don’t spend too much time in planning and too much money in getting feedback. Try to understand how much people will like to pay for your product, how you are going to deliver it and all these real life questions. Test your business idea and no one is going to finance you and invest in you until you done that.

You will have to invest your time and work harder, and once you found your customers and understand how to deliver and understand your value proposition, and how big you can be and then once you need to scale you go for support and investment.

What book are you reading now? Tell us few names of your favorite books.

Jerry: I’m reading a book which I have been aware for years but never got to read, it is Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, I found the title pretentious but once I started to read it I found it really fascinating. I loved Made to Stick by heath Brothers, and Business Model Generation which really helped us with OPEN Accelerator and I mostly love classics.

Fiona: I’m a reading a book titled Chaos or Community by Martin L. King which is a pretty interesting book. He is looking at power: how power can do good and bad.

You will have to invest your time and work harder, and once you found your customers and understand how to deliver and understand your value proposition, and how big you can be and then once you need to scale you go for support and investment.

Credit: Interview by Ruhul Kader, Images by Tindercapital

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