Alice Kahrmann talks to the co-founder of the platform that is disruptively innovating the investment space.

It’s the dilemma of liquidity, what to do with your cash and where to put it? All those hopeful for a good return, but attuned to the moral schism of web incumbents who have proved themselves to be, well a little less than shady, have surely pontificated when it comes to tales of corporate practice. Yes, it’s the age of moral investing, where you can make money and feel good about it (finally), which brings me to Abundance, the investment platform where the man on the street can start with as little as five pounds, and the companies who have passed through the due diligence process, can access the paradigm shifting benefits the platform offers.

So here I am talking it through with co-founder, Bruce Davis, fitting for those battling New Years’s Resolutions of the financial kind. He is one of three who set about disruptively innovating the investment space with a view to offering a cleaner, more moral alternative to the incumbents in practice. Initially it was all about wind turbines, an easy business to assess, so clearly ethically and environmentally sound, perfect for his target investor. ‘The way we are set up,’ Davis says, ‘we do a site visit, talk the model through with the company. With wind turbines it’s relatively straight forward. With other companies it’s a more complex scenario that can take anything from six weeks to six months.’ An offer letter of around thirty pages is made to potential investors, and then they are ready to roll, to jump into bed with the myriad investors Abundance offers. ‘We want to show that you can meet your financial needs, and make a contribution to a greener cleaner economy and so on. We’re trying to bring together a win-win.’

Peer to Peer lending is Davis’s background, but despite a solid background in financial services the process has not been without its challenges, namely getting the regulator on board. ‘Louise Wilson,’ he says, ‘was a very senior banker at UBS, who was looking to work on something in sustainability and led us through the process.’ The development of the platform became a sort of regulation ‘filigree’, played out against the background of the financial crisis. A two year process that set the bar for many other fin tech companies who followed.

But back to those crucial five pounds... One of the platform’s key USPs, is the low entry point. ‘We wanted people with very little money to invest on a par with people with a lot of money. They are both valuable to us.’ In the end the average amount of money invested is around twelve thousand pounds, a healthy sum in these fear driven times, where Brexit alone threatens a dystopian nightmare from which the UK might never recover.

The challenge for Davis is how to grow a financial services business in the long term. ‘There was no off the shelf technology to create Abundance,’ he says. ‘We broke away from the norms of the investment industry... We did not want to paint a picture of investing that is too focused on wealthy people getting wealthier, as opposed to ordinary people meeting their financial needs.’ He regularly refers to the idea of democratising the investment process, of allowing people to make their own decisions. ‘That was one of the hardest things to convince the regulator. That people do read the paperwork and understand the risks, that as long as you communicate things clearly and in a simple way, they can understand them.’

Abundance has two separate websites, one for the companies looking to harvest investment and the other for the individuals looking to build a portfolio. This happy marriage is key to the founder’s mission statement. ‘We want to create an alignment between ourselves, our issuers (the companies who come to us), and our investors. All three have to be aligned.’

Which brings us onto Facebook, my current bete noire. Is there a kind of karma at work, with rapidly falling shares, I wonder? A deus ex machina, a direct result of their unethical corporate practice? ’If something is making that much money,’ Davis says with gravitas, 'it’s always at the expense of someone else. If you go into ethical investing you might not earn the big bucks, but you have to ask yourself what the cost is?’ Quite, needless to say the Abundance business model is as far from Facebook as it is possible to get.

Next we segway to literature, ‘I tend to ignore books written by economists about money, because I think they have a particularly narrow view of it,’ Davis says. ‘If you want to think about money, the best way is to think about how you use it yourself. I had a conversation with someone recently, who earns relatively a lot of money and out of the two of us, he is the one who finds himself lying awake at night worrying about it. The value of money is what you do with it..’

Bruce is the one who should write the book I venture, he has a succinct easy way of translating the key issues that would work wonders for the layman. ‘If your money and your values are not aligned then that is when money causes problems,’ is a perfect example. ‘It should do something you believe in and make a return. If it’s doing those two things then you feel happier about your money.’ Quite.

As the interview draws to a close, Bruce speaks movingly of his own mentor, a key figure in the eventual evolution of Abundance. ‘His name was Richard Duvall, he was the founder of Zopa, the original peer to peer lender. He was also one of the original founders of Egg. He was a great entrepreneur, who unfortunately died of cancer at the age of forty-four. I know that I would not be on this path that I am on now, without his encouragement, advice and general enthusiasm. He directly impacted what I do for a living and how I spend my time.’

‘His impact was enormous,’ Bruce continues. ‘I think there are a lot of people who work in my area who were directly or indirectly influenced by him. Conversations I had with him contributed to what is now a ten billion pound industry in the UK and in the hundreds of billions globally. We first met up at his house in Seer Green where he lived. A small group of like-minded individuals then met regularly each week in his barn (we called ourselves "New Barn Studios"), drank coffee, ate muffins and talked about stuff till an idea happened.'

Bruce is visibly moved by the memory, which brings me to ask him what his overriding life philosophy is, if it can be summed up in the thirty-seconds we have left. ‘I think always have had a strong philosophy in life that you should take ownership of your life and decisions,’ he says with certainty. ‘My view is that you should take ownership, even if that creates risk for yourself. I think that’s what driven us, that we haven’t taken the easy path. It’s always tempting because you could make a lot of money doing that, but that is what makes us different I think.’ Indeed it does, abundantly different, one might say.

January 2019

Interview by Alice Kahrmann