Despite the fact the current circumstances meant the traditional awards ceremony for the 2020 Norfolk Business Awards...
Member Spotlight with James Russell, Co-Founder and CEO of Brisk
First of all, can you tell us about Brisk? How did the business come about?
Of course. My background is in insurance and consulting. My cofounder Greg Duffield has got 20 years’ experience as a business owner himself. We got together in 2018. While I was at Aviva, I was seeing small to medium size businesses really struggle to stay on top of everything – especially the risks and opportunities associated with keeping their business safe. These are necessary things that one has to do, but they’re not front of mind when it comes to growing your business and doing the things that business owners want to be doing.
Then Greg, as a business owner himself, was also experiencing the frustration of having to spend more time than he wanted making sure that he had the right protection and insurance in place. So, what we put together in Brisk was essentially a virtual risk manager for businesses. It’s almost like having another pair of hands, but it’s driven by data and technology. As a business owner, while you’re spending time focusing on what you want to be doing, Brisk is in the background watching your back and keeping your business safe. For the name Brisk, I have to give credit to a close friend of mine. The idea comes from helping businesses save time managing risks.
Are you a techy person yourself? Have you been developing Brisk, or did you have the idea?
I had the idea while I was at Aviva and then got together with Greg. Greg is cofounder and chief technology officer, so he is the tech side of it. I guess I’m the business side of things, but both of us are as mischievous as each other in terms of having ideas and looking where we can apply the technology and the ideas. So, we both have to keep each other on the straight and narrow to stay focused.
As you say, the idea and the potential gap in the market was identified at Aviva. Was there support from them? Did they help you to develop?
Yes – I had the idea and I tinkered with it through 2017. I entered it into an internal hack event. I’d been one of the judges in 2016 and then I thought: ‘Right, I’m going to have a go.’ I entered and got a team together. We built a prototype of Brisk in 24 hours, based on an Aviva client, and they turned out to be our first client.
The business is a plant hire business, they actually said: ‘Wow this is really great.’ They are a 115-employee business, but they didn’t have people around who could look at things like employee safety, cyber risk, cash flow, late-paying customers and things like that. He saw real value and potential in the idea of having a technological solution that would do that automatically. He said to me: ‘When can you go build it?’ and I said: ‘Well, this was just a hack event.’ So, I ended up pitching it to Aviva.
At the time, Aviva was very focused on doing things like cloud migration and moving from legacy systems to strategic systems. Building an AI-powered virtual assistant was a few good years away on their road map. But they have a stake in the start-up incubator Founders Factory in London, so they sponsored me to go and join that for 9 months in 2018.
My wife said that it was just me having a midlife crisis! But I went down to London and incubated the project. They ended up wanting to invest in it further, so that culminated in me leaving Aviva in March of this year to carry on with it independently. But Aviva remain involved; they’re a partner, we’re doing a number of proof of concepts with them. Many corporates are starting to get their head around that now – thinking about how large corporates can work with start-ups. They both need each other.
You mentioned the incubator in London; are there any other programmes or incubators that have helped you on this journey?
Yes, I was part of the Invest East programme at the beginning of this year. That was hosted out of the enterprise centre at UEA. That proved to be very helpful for me to plug some of the gaps, especially around fundraising. I also learned more about how to set up as you leave the safety of a large corporate or incubator. Sharing experiences with other entrepreneurs who are at all different stages was really powerful.
I also got to meet some of the other start-ups in the region that are supporting businesses, for example Callum Coombes at Safepoint. We stay in touch and I’m looking forward to collaborating with them in the near future.
Is there a sector that you would say has embraced AI more than the others?
The group that I see running with it is medium sized businesses who have grown rapidly and are technology natives. Since they’re in the tech space anyway, they grab it and will quickly use the features that we push out.
One client of ours is in the industrial Internet of Things. They gather data from sensors on machines in factories, and they use that data to run analytics to help the business owner predict maintenance needs and prevent damage and down-time. They completely get it. Businesses that have a lot going on – they might have lone workers, they might have a fleet of vehicles, or they’ve already got data flying around from telematics, black boxes in vehicles – they’re quite used to the idea. What they really want is to harness it and see how it can be used to improve operations.
Do your clients see the security component around AI as an obstacle to using your service?
In a word, no; it’s not the primary thing they worry about. I think in our line of work, data security is a given. We are a business that’s regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority; we have a license from the Information Commissioner’s Office. It’s an absolute must-have to be secure. As a small start-up, you can start as you mean to go on with the latest encryption technology. We’ve made sure to put that in place, so clients haven’t raised concerns over that.
You know where a bit of nervousness sometimes comes in? Those who follow the early adopters. They will be a bit more cautious and worry about what data can do and how it might be used against them. I think that’s natural. You’re always going to get that mix. The early adopters are of a mindset or an age where downloading a personal financial assistant that connects to your bank account is normal. Those sorts of people won’t think twice about using technology that allows them to meet savings goals or analyse what they’re spending money on.
What we’re trying to do is to work with businesses to say: ‘Look, this is all the data that is out there about you already.’ Some of them are quite shocked. ‘How do you know all this stuff?!’ We have to tell them that it’s already out there, so it’s more about asking them how we can help them harness all that information that’s out there about their business and make it work for them. We use the data that they have internally to get the right data profile out there for their business. The people that serve you, like your insurance company or bank, can then use that one version of the truth to serve you accurately. That ensures that you’re not underinsured or over insured and paying more than you should.
Moving to you personally and your experience with coaching. Do you find that the work that you do there is helping with Brisk and the way you’re pushing the company forward?
It is, it’s a really interesting one. Coaching is all about unlocking potential in others. A key lesson from my training was that what I do as a coach must always be in service of the client. So, if I’m asking a question or suggesting something, I have to be clear on that. Is that question or activity helping them move forward in their own thought process? Will it unlock the answer that is already in their head?
As a core principle, that translates well to Brisk, because we are trying to work with businesses to unlock their data and the potential within their business. When they haven’t got time to exploit that potential, everything that we do in Brisk should be about helping that client. Again, it must be in service of them. It’s not about harvesting data to then go and sell it and exploit their openness to another business. This is about helping them use their data so they can punch above their weight and get the best that they can from their insurance company, their bank and so on. So, it is a really happy coincidence in terms of those skills.
Is it a similar story with the work you do with young people in schools? Is it about unlocking the ideas and the potential there?
Yeah, definitely. I’ve got two young children myself. I’m almost trying to get an eye on the future, so I’m prepared when they get to the age of GCSEs and applying for jobs. One of the things I find fascinating is sounding them out about how they see the future, and the things they take for granted and what they worry about. It gives you a perspective on that generation coming through.
We talked about some of the programmes the accelerators and groups that you’ve connected with, but what about the Norwich tech scene? How are you integrated there and is there a specific reason that you stay in Norwich instead of moving to London full time?
I’ve often used the term having the best of both worlds. I ran a subsidiary of Aviva called Bluecycle which was an internet auction business that started up in 1999. That was based in London, and people in London would be fiercely protective of not letting things go to the corporate mothership. It was a cultural shift, but actually saying ‘Look, as a small business, we don’t need to be threatened by being part of a large corporate. Embrace it, make the most of it, they need us, and we need them,’ helped bring us closer.
So, we got the best of both worlds. I say the same thing about London and Norwich. A lot of what we do is connected with business partners based in London, and in terms of investment and Insurtech, London is completely there. There’s a marked difference between London and Suffolk or Norfolk. I am part of the London scene for those reasons, but equally, I want to do my bit as a resident of Norfolk to help build the Norwich tech scene. There are some fantastic businesses around the region. It’s not until you’re immersed in it that you suddenly uncover these hidden gems.
I did a lightning talk a couple of weeks ago and I love having the opportunity to network and bring together the different capabilities we have in the region. We can actually help the local businesses. We’re doing ongoing work with the Chambers of Commerce and Chris Sargisson was a big supporter, encouraging me to take the leap and leave Aviva and set Brisk up. We continue to want to work with the Chambers of Commerce.
I’m also part of the nor(DEV) group. Paul Grenyer has done a lot of good work to get that group together and get us local businesses talking. Still, I definitely think we could and should be doing more as region to look at ways to harness our separate capabilities and unify links in a much more cohesive way. The term ecosystem is used a lot in technology circles. That is a really good way to describe what could happen if businesses learn how to connect and collaborate.
You mentioned that it was only the beginning of this year that you left Aviva and really pushed forward, so it is still early days. Nevertheless, we’d like to ask – where does Brisk go next?
That’s right, we’ve gone through those phases. I liken it to going through levels in a game. You start on level 1 and look at level 10 and think: ‘How am I ever going to get there?’ But you get through the levels and you keep moving forward. We’re now at the stage where we have paying customers on the platform. Those are a combination of insurance brokers, accountants, security advisors.
So, where next? It’s about looking at which other sectors or groups could benefit from using Brisk as a platform to help monitor and advise their clients. The lovely thing about what we’ve built is that it goes across insurance, accountancy and IT advisory. We haven’t looked at health and safety yet, but that could have potential. It’s about exploring those other verticals. As we build on more features and capabilities, we need to get that out to more small businesses. They generally will be the clients of those advisory partners that they’re working with, so that they get to take advantage of the technology we’re building. Then they can get their virtual protection assistance, or, ‘another pair of hands’ for their management team.