home Disrupt the Disrupters Steve Austen from InLoop is living the start-up dream

Steve Austen from InLoop is living the start-up dream

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Margot Cairnes talks to Steve Austen about how focusing on customer experience and customer centric design helped Inloop to become one of the fastest growing start-ups in Australia. They have won several business growth awards including the BRW Fast100 in 2013 and 2014.

Steve co-founded financial technology company InLoop in 2005. The company provides payment platform services to a range of industries including government, education, health and the private sector. The company has grown to where it now services 650,000 active customers and manages over 30 million transactions.

InLoop incorporates FelxiSchools and LanternPay – dedicated payment platforms for the education and health industries respectively. Both Macquarie Bank and Westpac are minority equity holders in the business.

Steve’s working day

Steve’s Kingscliff office is 500 meters from his home and directly overlooks Kingscliff beach on the NSW Far North Coast. Most days, Steve walks to work dressed in board shorts and T-shirt. “I start at 7.30am and generally work until 5.30 or 6pm to have dinner with the family. The staff appreciates getting out at lunchtime and having their feet in the sand. It is a great way to recharge”.
Steve travels a lot for work. “From Kingscliff you can drive ten minutes to Gold Coast airport and travel anywhere in Australia. At the moment most of my customer meetings are in Geelong. I drive to Gold Coast, park right out the front and just walk in. Our office works really hard but we have a laugh all the time.”
Nobody works on weekend unless it is absolutely essential. Recently, Steve has used his weekends to get his private pilot’s licence.

Creating great customer experiences is crucial to success

“Customer expectations continually rise, particularly in technology. Platform-based services like Uber and Facebook are continually evolving and they have a very sharp focus on the customer experience. This raises customer expectations for all technology platforms and we have to meet them as they rise.”

“We have been working in financial technology now for 12 years. Back when we started smart phones were not even prevalent. As adoption spread we had to redesign our system – make it mobile friendly, then apps and then even the way people interact with those apps. You never rest – it is continual improvement.”

Rising expectations also allow for added profits. “With our school payments platform we had large, experienced school caterers telling us they could only charge $3.50 for a sandwich at very little margin. We made it so that the customer could order specifically what they wanted on their sandwiches. To get that choice they were happy to pay $7.50 and they saw great value in that.”

Customer centred design

“We always developed our software from the customer’s experience inward – before customer-centred design was a recognised methodology. Traditionally, software was built from the ground up; start with the data and functions you need and then finish with the customer interface.

“Nowadays it is completely the opposite. You start by understanding the customer- how they think and feel on an emotional level when they are using your product. You must remember that your product is not the most important part of their day. Then you think about all the points at which they are going to interact and the things that are most important to them at every single step.

“What do I show people? What do they care about when they’re at each stage of an interaction? You can only show a busy and distracted customer a very limited number of things.

Then you rapidly prototype that customer experience and get it into the hands of customers in days. Then you repeat and repeat and repeat and you never actually stop. Once you have designed all the elements of customer interaction, all the back end parts – design, code and data – fall out.”

Digital Disruption

Digital disruption is potentially more detrimental to high tech companies. “Technology allows you to disrupt an industry but then, because you have paved the way, it is very easy for someone to disrupt you. You have created this new market and technology moves so fast that you lose that first to market status very quickly.’
The only defence is constant innovation and constant customer centred design and product improvement.

Customer centred culture

“You have to stay open to customers by having a very close connection between the people building the product and the customer. We don’t have sales – only product development, operations and customer service. I guess I am probably sales and product development.

“I go out, meet and interact with the customer and then go back and make product decisions based on what I just heard and saw. People don’t know what they really want – so you have to do trial and error and stay open to feedback”.

Where most large companies go wrong is they don’t have a close link between customers and product development. Or they may have a customer-centred design consultant who doesn’t actually have any authority over product decisions.

Good techies have to be very people centred

“We only hire people who are people oriented – it is extremely hard to find people with technology skills who are people-centred in their thinking. They cost twice as much but they are 20 times more effective”.

“Our Head Office is in Manly but we have opened a small R & D hub in Surry Hills because the tech people we needed wanted to be there – together.”

The great thing about having a regional (Kingscliff) office is you get very high quality super-committed staff. A company in a regional area becomes part of the community and so people feel much more engaged with the organisation. InLoop’s whole office recently volunteered at an event for families with autism.

“We outsource to local companies for skills we don’t have inhouse, like graphic design, which is further engagement in the local community. People fight to come and work with you and it gives you a fantastic culture.”

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Margot Cairnes

Margot Cairnes is fascinated by digital disruption. An expert in rapid complex discontinuous change Margot helps individuals, teams, whole companies and communities harness the energy of change. Margot suggests that if you aren’t being disrupted you will soon be disrupted. The only sensible way to deal with change is to create it.