“But what if I want to invest just $50?”
Sharesies all started with a problem and a conversation between friends and colleagues. Now, over half a million Kiwis use their investment platform every day.
We hear from Sharesies co-founder and co-CEO, Leighton Roberts, about how they turned a lunchtime chat into one of New Zealand’s most successful startups now worth more than $500M.
Two mates throwing ideas around
It’s not often you come across a startup with six co-founders at the helm. In 2017, the minds behind Sharesies – founders Leighton Roberts, Brooke Roberts, Sonya Williams, Ben Crotty, Martyn Smith and Richard Clark – were working together on different projects but had never all met, and never explored the idea of an entrepreneurial relationship.
That was until Sonya began to question why investing was not accessible, easy or even possible unless you had a significant amount of money. The average Kiwi was missing out.
At the time, Leighton happened to be running an investment group as a hobby. Each week, he and a handful of others would deposit $50 from each person to invest together. Sonya caught wind of it, and after a few coffees and inviting 4 others into the conversation, they came up with their business idea: they wanted to financially empower Kiwis and give everyone equal access to investing, whether they had $5 or $5 million.
The leap of faith deadline
In 2017, Creative HQ and KiwiBank teamed up to launch the KiwiBank FinTech Accelerator. The programme gave the founders a deadline of sorts, to give up their day jobs and start working full time on the startup.
They took the giant leap of faith, being granted three months of unpaid leave from their employers to tackle the startup head-on. At this point, they knew they wanted to create a platform that provided a balance of financial education and access to investing for everyday New Zealanders. They needed a programme to focus the idea and develop it into a product.
“If you want to take a good crack at it, I think it is important to go all-in on your business dream if you are able to. It was a big decision since we were all pretty happy in our careers, but we decided quickly that we wanted to take the leap of faith and really throw ourselves into it. Even though I was only going on three months’ leave from KiwiBank, I made it clear that I had no intention of coming back”
The accelerator would provide them with the dedicated time and space to launch into startup mode, where they were given access to expertise, training, mentors, and potential investors.
Among other things, the team spent the first weeks of the three-month programme identifying their purpose, values, and priorities as a business. With the wide range of experiences offered through the accelerator, the team was able to cherry-pick what best suited their needs and would be most valuable to them.
“During the accelerator, there is so much choice in front of you, but you really need to own the experience because you’re there to create a business for yourself. There is no recipe, no rules to creating a successful startup, but the accelerator presents a bunch of the ingredients you need to get there. It creates a great environment to start a business – you’ve just got to make the most of it because you’re there for a very finite period” says Leighton.
With their vision, purpose and elevator pitch polished, it was time to begin building the Sharesies platform to enable everyday Kiwis to access investment, with no minimum dollar amount required. While startups in Creative HQ programmes often launch their businesses before the end of the accelerator programme, the Sharesies team knew that they weren’t quite ready for go-live.
“When you’re dealing with people’s money, and high-risk stuff, you’ve absolutely got to make sure that you wait until the time is right to go live. And we knew that we weren’t ready to launch at the end of the programme – you’ve got to cut your own path and do what is right for you. So, the day after the accelerator ended, we turned up to Creative HQ for our official first day of work on our own” says Leighton.
The team ended up working out of the Creative HQ co-working space for a month after the accelerator ended. When the Sharesies team moved into their own office space after a total of four months at Creative HQ, they also brought on their first employees – Nat, their legal counsel and Renae, a part-time support staff.
“Arriving at our own office is still one of our proudest moments as a business. Looking back on our growth, it felt slow at the time, but it moved fast. In that one year, we moved around a lot because we quickly outgrew the spaces we moved into” says Leighton.
Renae Williams, Sharesies’ longest-running employee, can remember Sharesies’ first Christmas party in 2018 when they were crammed into their first office space which their team had rapidly outgrown.
“I remember turning up to work at Creative HQ’s space when I first started out, and then the excitement of moving into our own Sharesies office. But we quickly grew from just me and the founders to a dozen new hires. We were shoulder-to-shoulder in that office during our Christmas party on a hot summer’s day!” says Renee.
When it becomes bigger than you
Twenty-twenty was the year when Sharesies skyrocketed from employing 40 staff to 180. Expanding this quickly in your first three years does not come without its challenges. Leighton is quick to point out that while the founding six are still very present at Sharesies, the contribution that the rest of the team makes to the business is far greater than them alone.
“You’ve got to grow with your business and realise when it has become bigger than you. Of course, we are still aligned to our purpose, but it has grown with us. It has definitely been challenging at times, but we are fortunate to have been able to evolve” says Leighton.
Nowadays, Sharesies is home to 230 full-time employees and provides an investment platform that is used by approximately 550,00 people in New Zealand, 40,000 of whom are children. That’s over 10% of New Zealanders.
Across the ditch and beyond
Recently valued at $500m, it is safe to say that Sharesies has been hugely successful in New Zealand. They currently hold approximately $2b in their custody, with approximately $30m moving through the platform on a daily basis.
Despite its huge growth and success thus far, Sharesies still considers itself a small company but has grand ambitions for the future. They’ve recently launched in Australia, and are keen to continue growing the number of Australians currently using the platform. The team have also set their sights on expanding to other countries in the future.
The six Sharesies co-founders are keen to keep evolving the services they offer too.
“Strategically, we’ve solved the access issue – anyone can put 1c into anything they like on Sharesies. So, we’re confident that people do not feel locked out of investment. The issue we’re still trying to solve is getting people motivated to invest, and building their confidence to make financial decisions. This is the territory we’d like to move into. We don’t know exactly how to solve these problems, and we might never fully get there, but we will try every day.”
“We’re also looking for other problems we could try to solve – we love to be creative and to delve deep into user experience and customer problems,” continues Leighton.
The ingredients are all right here, in Wellington
Sharesies is one of many FinTech startups that has gotten off the ground right here in Wellington. The capital has all the ingredients you need to make your idea into a reality, thanks to the talent pool and access to the regulators.
Of course, the startup incubators and accelerators here are eager to lend their expertise and give innovators a helping hand.
Leighton says their biggest piece of advice to anyone starting out is to keep your purpose front of mind because you need to be able to clearly articulate what impact you are going to make.
“A common misconception about business is that you cannot be equally motivated by purpose and profit at the same time. At Sharesies, our purpose is what got us started, and our profit is what will enable us to grow. They are equally important, and we will be keeping them as parallel priorities in our business going forward. There is absolutely no need to sacrifice one for the other, they work best together.
He also says that you need to brush off scepticism from doubters because you will be told ‘no’ over and over again.
“One piece of advice that I give to anyone starting out is, if there are loads of people telling you that it is going to be too hard – that your idea is impossible to execute, you should absolutely go for it. You need to think ‘it sounds impossible’. But what if it’s not?” says Leighton.