Mutaz Qubbaj, Squirrel founder, took leap of faith
Family members struggled to understand why, in 2013, Mutaz Qubbaj quit a decade-long career in investment banking to become an entrepreneur, having only completed his Masters in Finance (MiF) at London Business School a few months before.
His parents, in Jordan, were particularly concerned that their son, who had worked at Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and Pimco after completing his electrical engineering degree on a scholarship to Boston’s MIT, should wish to sacrifice the job security and regular salary of an employment contract. He did not even have a start-up idea.
However, having had his eureka moment at one of many networking events in London’s bustling start-up scene and co-founded a financial management app business called Squirrel, Mr Qubbaj now claims to have a wealth of support, both from his family and former LBS classmates and tutors.
“One of the things I am most thankful for is the unconditional support of my family,” he says. “Yes, there was a question of what I was doing, turning my back on this more certain path. But once they grasped it, it has been overwhelming to see how proud they are of what I want to develop.”
One of the main benefits of going to LBS, before following the uncertain path of an entrepreneur, has been the support of the alumni network, particularly through the school’s online messaging portal.
A recent request for UK government contacts — Mr Qubbaj believes Squirrel could be offered as a free money management service to those on welfare benefits — led to a meeting with Whitehall civil servants within days.
“I had several responses back with people offering contacts as well as advice on ways to frame my request,” Mr Qubbaj recalls.
Having had a taste for entrepreneurship years before taking his masters qualification — he helped on a start-up during his undergraduate days at MIT — Mr Qubbaj made sure he took some of the entrepreneurship classes offered by the LBS programme. “I knew I loved working in financial services, but I also knew I loved the element of building businesses within the places I worked and I knew I loved telling stories formed around what the products did.”
Since graduating Mr Qubbaj has become a board member of the MiF programme. He sees this as a way of giving back to his alma mater by helping to shape the future content of the course so that it is even more relevant to people like himself.
Squirrel is described by Mr Qubbaj as a “financial wellbeing platform”, designed to empower people to regain control of their finances. “We partner with employers to provide employees with simple saving, budgeting and bill management tools that plug directly into payroll,” he says.
It is early days for the business, which, despite raising more than £1m through a seed round and grant funding from the UK government agency Innovate UK, is still only at the trial stage of rolling out its service. Initially it is marketing itself as a benefit that large companies can provide to their employees.
The business has also been helped by winning pitching competitions and accelerator programme contests, which has provided the team of eight staff with mentoring support and office space in central London.
Squirrel was one of 10 start-ups chosen from the 350 teams that entered the Barclays Techstars accelerator programme, run from a former East End department store close to the bank’s Canary Wharf headquarters. They are currently part of the Wayra UnLtd social enterprise accelerator and share an open-plan office in the West End with other ethically focused tech ventures. The 10 also joined Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, on a trip to the US to showcase London’s entrepreneurial talent.
“We are hoping for rapid growth in the UK,” Mr Qubbaj says. Squirrel’s aim, he adds, is to become “the responsible employer’s choice for a solution to address their employees’ financial wellbeing needs”.
Global expansion is already on the radar following talks with potential partners in the US, and Mr Qubbaj is considering setting Squirrel up as what he calls a “social” bank.
“What we are trying to build is very relevant for the current time, with people talking about austerity and facing job insecurity,” he notes.
Although Mr Qubbaj admits that there have been a lot of sleepless nights, which started when he left his job without any idea of what he was going to do, he has no regrets about following the path he has chosen.
“The greatest challenge has been making that transition from a salaried job to entrepreneurship, embracing the uncertainty,” he says.
“It is getting away from the mindset that one day I am going back to a steady pay cheque. It was one of the scariest decisions, but right now I am defining the structure of my life and that in itself is exciting.”