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Leading innovation in Australia, interview with Mark Robberds

posted 15 Feb 2017, 21:28 by Stuart Jones

Building on the successful innovation breakfast seminar held for our clients and colleagues in October 2016, The Leading Partnership’s Stuart Jones interviews Mark Robberds, CEO of MarbleBlue Finance, about his experience leading innovation through building and launching start-up businesses in Australia.


As the founder and CEO of MarbleBlue Finance, a fintech startup, Mark is responsible for creating a business plan around a vision of the product, creating a team that can bring the vision to life, and of course find the right investors to back the idea and managing those relationships.

Stuart Jones is a Director of The Leading Partnership. Stuart has a deep interest in innovation and working with clients to achieve strategic change. For his PhD, Stuart researched barriers to innovation and strategies for overcoming barriers using techniques such as action learning cycles.

Stuart Jones: Mark, thanks very much for coming along and talking to me about innovation.  As someone deeply involved in finance industry innovation, what does innovation mean in your view?

Mark Robberds: When I think of innovation I think about better outcomes for the customer. I think that's something that the finance industry is not always well known for - dealing with the customer in in a way that they are happy and satisfied.

When you look at innovation in the finance sector and what’s happening globally, it’s usually about faster response times and better rates, be it a loan, or be it an interest bearing deposit or similar.  It's the customer that's often been neglected and that's certainly something that we're looking to rectify.

Stuart Jones:
So Mark, what is ‘fintech’... what are the elements of a fintech innovation company that makes it different from just another finance company?

Mark Robberds: When I think of fintech, I think of a lot happening in the background, a lot of reasonably complex processes and systems to make it very, very simple for the customer.  So when you look at some of the best fintechs around whether it be here or overseas, there's a lot of compliance that has had to go in the background to make that happen because it is it's an area where you really can't cut corners on compliance.

That then requires a strong correlation between the compliance teams and the tech teams to make sure that you can scale something that is going to be simple for the customer. Fintech brings that combination of complex background processes with a simple innovative, intuitive front end that somebody can just follow what's happening and intuitively know what the next step is going to be.

My experience is that it hasn't really taken hold yet here, and it's in its very early stages. I think it's really an interesting area to be talking with people about and bringing in some change and making an impact.

Stuart Jones: Can you tell us a little bit about your experience leading innovation the finance sector?

Mark Robberds: We are a fair way down the track now in setting up a peer to peer lender with a focus on renewal energy.   There's a number of reasons for that.  Our research into the peer to peer space focused on peer to peer lending at first, and we thought that would be a great opportunity.

It’s a very efficient way of getting loans to customers and it's a very efficient way of investors, small retail investors having a better return than they would have in the bank. That’s the core thing about peer to peer lending that's very exciting and strong.  

Then we unpeeled that a little bit and thought, well, what's going to be unique about what we do? What's the next layer beyond that? That’s when we started researching the focus on residential renewable energy and looking at home based solar installations and some of the opportunities coming up in in that space where there is the type of customer base you want to be building up so from a business perspective it made sense.

You're increasing demand for solar in people's homes. You're doing something that's good for the environment. From the perspective of the type of people that are attracted to your business whether it be investors whether it be employees, it opens up a whole new group of people who are keen and want to support what you’re doing.

That combination is really quite compelling and that is what we are working on at the moment.  We are very excited about what the future brings.

Stuart Jones: Looking back, can you describe a successful innovation you have led or been involved in?

Mark Robberds: I was involved in online auctions in that space many years ago. It's quite mainstream now but we were talking about it before they existed online. I set up one of the early online lenders in Australia, so there was, once again something very similar at that stage, there was really only one player.  You could have a process where you could actually go and obtain a loan purely online, and have all the credit checks and ID checks and everything done in the background. There was quite a lot to that, but for the customer it was a very simple process.

Stuart Jones: And why do you think it was successful?

Mark Robberds: It was simple for the customer. It was a very, very simple ten minute application form online.  Up until that point lots of additional documentation was required during the application process. This completely transformed it, and in ten minutes you could get an answer on your application.  It was quick, it was easy and it was also private.  

When you think about online banking now, a lot people don’t even want to go into a branch.  I can't remember the last time I went into a branch myself and so there's people just like to go and do a lot of these transactions privately and so that was a key difference.

Stuart Jones: Why do you think innovations can fail, even good ones?

Mark Robberds: Sometimes they're a little bit ahead of their time I think that's often there is the leading edge and the bleeding edge.  The very, very early players can suffer, if they don’t have enough capital behind them they can be learning all the hard lessons that the second and third wave can learn from.  I think this applies to many, many areas.

It's also about execution and it's about the people you have around you - the team that you have.  In the example of the peer to peer lending business, do you have the right combination of tech talent who can work with you to design and build scalable systems? Do you have that with the right combination of people who know about renewable energy, and people that know about credit risk? They're very different areas and they’re very specialist skills. It’s about having the right mix of those.

Stuart Jones: And if you don’t, it can be a cause of failure….?

Mark Robberds: Yes, you are going to end up where your weakest link is, and it's about covering off on all the areas. In the fintech space….. thinking of all the people that I've talked to, I've seen some people with very, very strong finance backgrounds. Some others with very, very strong capital raising investment, they've been playing in the markets for a long time. They're very strong in that space, or they’re very strong tech, and the trick is to have the combination of those and it’s not easy.  But that's part of the opportunity because if it was easy then everyone would be doing it.

Stuart Jones: That's a really interesting insight. In my PhD research on innovation I looked at at the conditions that need to be in place for innovation to succeed. Two big factors were the diversity of experience of the team, and how much related experience that team had. If you bring that all together, do you think it boosts your chances?

Mark Robberds: Yes, it certainly does. And you've got these little snippets from each area that you learn from to build something new. You know there is talk about innovation. It's very unlikely you are going to do  something that's never been thought of in every area before, but it’s about building on what’s happened in the past in unrelated areas and developing that I think is the key.

Stuart Jones: How do you think we can better support innovators across all aspects of our society?

Mark Robberds: Ok, I think that that at a leadership level, a government leadership level, we are seeing a lot of talk about innovation. I think it has got to start there. And that’s then fed through into a lot of the work that AusIndustry are doing now, the R&D grants that are available for companies that are doing some innovative work.

I also I think that there needs to be higher regard for engineers and software developers in this country and then promoting a lot more of those kind of skills in the education sector, and the courses.

Stuart Jones: Why do you single out those types of roles and career skills?

Mark Robberds: I think whenever you look at people to do your development or your code, invariably they’ve been educated overseas and been brought here, or you're actually outsourced to overseas and that in itself is OK but I think we should be building a lot more of that here in Australia.

Stuart Jones: What would a more innovative Australia look like to you?  

Mark Robberds: There is a lot of government support for companies that are trying to do innovative things but I just think we could be a lot stronger in the education sector about promoting these types of career opportunities because you know if that's where we're going as a nation and we have to, then we need more and more of those of those people into the future.

In my previous role as setting up one of the first online lenders in Australia, that was for a Finnish company, and I spent a lot of time in Finland over the years. They talk about the ratio of lawyers to engineers in that, the number is basically the inverse of what it is here in Australia - there's a lot more engineering going on in Finland and other countries in the region, and a lot less lawyers. I'm not in any way biased, but it’s indicative of where the focus is of their economy and their education sector, and I think that that's certainly a place that we could learn from.

We need to be focusing a lot more on the kind of vocations that we're looking for a lot of people to be in, to be starting to think about that. Engineering for example.

Stuart Jones: In your experience, has that engineering skill set been an important skill set for the innovative ventures that you have been involved in and had experience in.

Mark Robberds: Yes, definitely. If something's not going to scale, it doesn’t matter how nice it looks. Anyone can process three applications in an hour, but to be able to process thousands and tens of thousands in the same timeframe you need very, very good coders to build that platform. The problem that we often face is we have to import a lot of that code. That work and those jobs wouldn't be lost if we were exporting a lot more of that.

Stuart Jones: Mark it has been really great talking with you and thanks very much for your time.

Mark Robberds: No problem at all Stuart.