Alexander Kohl – founder of Promis

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Alexander is a seasoned startup founder with a history of successful commercialisations. He grew his first venture, SolarPay Pty Ltd, to 22 employees and a $10 million annual turnover before a successful exit sale in 2009. During his time at Mobile Telecom Pty Ltd he contributed to a five-fold increase in company turnover in just one year, and he has since built Jet Convert Pty Ltd into a highly profitable business that has operated under management since 2015. Throughout his career, Alexander has focused on uniting efficient processes and passionate teams to deliver businesses that actively contribute to a better future.

Alexander has a strong personal interest in sustainability and has led a number of community-based initiatives, including Melbourne’s inaugural Sustainable Living Festival and the Sunshine Coast 1000 Solar Roofs Project.

His newest venture, Promis, is an easy online bill and invoice payment system, making it easier to manage and pay bills with one click.

… we are working towards open sourcing a lot of the code we develop, so that others can benefit from it as well. If we can learn to collaborate instead of compete as a species, the chances of peace and a healthy environment are much greater.

Can you tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?

The idea was really born from my passion for creating value. Creating value for my clients, creating value for my team and creating value for my community.

My community over the past 10 years have been small business owners who themselves are interested in creating value for their clients.

How I bring value is through systemising so that people have more time to connect with what is really important to them. This is what got me to help people moving from their offline accounting system to an online accounting system.

And while online accounting solves a whole lot of issues, the one part that is still a nuisance is dealing with supplier bills and paying them.

So it was not so much a plunge, but a natural progression on the pathway I was on anyway.

What is your business model for Promis?

We thought about this a lot. As we are looking after payments, a very simple business model would have been to take a cut of the payment fees (similar to the PayPal business model). However, one of our goals with Promis is to reduce the costs of transferring money. We are doing that by finding and integrating with the most cost effective ways to move money.

That left us with the realisation that we cannot earn on payment fees. Instead, we charge for where we create the biggest, most immediate value: where business owners save time (or money if they pay someone else) for data entry.

So we send invoices for free, have a free level of syncing invoices for micro businesses and only charge larger businesses that sync a substantial amount of invoices each month.

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next year?

We spent a lot of time understanding regulations in the payment space. There are 5 important government agencies who regulate in the area that we touch. As is the case with many innovative FinTech companies, it is really hard to get any clear indication of what we need to comply with and which regulations do not apply to us.

We have just figured out an approach that ensures our users security and lightens the regulatory burden for us (leading to lower costs for our clients).

What I am most excited about in the next year is the Australian government’s focus on innovation and reducing the regulatory burden for startups. Recently, the treasurer has published a report on supporting FinTech through a regulatory sandbox. And while I think it does not go far enough, it is movement in the right direction.

Apart from that, I am excited to learn about other FinTech startups that focus on the payment space. There is a lot of innovation around the world in how money can be moved between people and I look forward to connecting with the most reliable options available for our users.

Alex2

How do you make your ideas happen?

Making ideas happen usually starts with a quiet reflection period. It often takes some months until I feel I have a really good grasp on a problem and a real solution to it. In that time I read a lot and then evaluate my own ideas against ideas out in the market.

It usually comes down to finding some assumptions that everyone takes for granted, that I simply do not accept.

An example is the solar business I built. At that time, it was common practice to send a salesperson to clients’ homes to make sure solar would work for them. Most people got 3 quotes, so an average salesperson had to visit 3 clients to get a sale. That added substantial costs, but everyone was doing it, because the assumption was that you could not sell solar any other way.

What we did instead was create great content around how to decide whether solar is useful. This turned our website visitors into leads. We then used Google Earth to look at their property, which meant we could sell over the phone. That lowered our costs substantially, which we were able to pass on to clients, which created an actual financial payback very quickly. Now it is common practice, but 8 years ago when I started on this, it was completely new.

So the phase after reflection is all about action. I find it really useful to have tight deadlines to make things happen. It forces me to make harsh judgements around what is essential and what I can live without in the first version.

Usually, I am far too positive in what I think can be achieved. Reality needs a lot of patience and persistence to build a sustainable business. 

What role have mentors played in your business life?

My most important mentor has the ability to listen in a really amazing way. We usually meet when I am uncertain about a decision. In most cases, just telling my mentor about my uncertainty, clarifies it in such a way that I know without a doubt what I need to do.

He has helped me greatly in making some really tough emotionally decisions (around firing some people that did not create value for the rest of the team). And often I would come back from a session and take immediate action on something that I might have worried about for days or weeks.

My daughters are also good mentors. They are not even teenagers, but when they understand some complicated concept that I work on, I know that I have simplified it enough to use it in marketing.

What does your typical day look like?

I would love to say that it starts with a walk through the Noosa National Park and a swim in the Ocean. But the reality is that I only do that once a week, instead of every day. But I usually walk to work (along the National Park) and really enjoy this time with nature to help me get clarity on what to focus on that day.

Then I am on my PC for half the day and in meetings with my team members the other half. When I have some writing to do, I prefer working from home to get that undisturbed time.

In the evening, I get home for dinner, spend time with the children and my wife. Some days, I do some more work (or work related reading), on others I watch a movie before going to bed early, so I can enjoy the sunrise the next day.

What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?

Australia is absolutely amazing to start a company in. Coming from Europe, it feels so easy here. And it does not matter if you fail, others are just as supportive.

One challenge was how early research often indicates that everyone loves an idea, but then the buying behaviour is actually quite different. I think this is just the way Australians are: supportive rather than critical.

The other more serious challenge is finding experienced team members. I think this might be due to being regionally based, rather than in Sydney or Melbourne. But the underlying difficulty might be true everywhere: when growing a business, I find it quite hard to decide whether spending less and training someone or spending more and getting someone experienced is the right thing to do. I find that beyond either extreme, the attitude is the single most important trait on which I hire. And I have been lucky enough to find some amazing people that way.

What is one idea you are willing to give away for free? 

I think sharing ideas is really essential and I have long overcome my fear of someone stealing ideas. The value I get from feedback is far more useful than the risk of someone implementing them. And I care more about the final outcome and value that is created for clients. The business I create around that is only a vehicle and not important in itself.

So even if someone stole my ideas and implemented them better and faster than me, I would have achieved my desired outcome anyway.

In Promis, we are working towards open sourcing a lot of the code we develop, so that others can benefit from it as well. If we can learn to collaborate instead of compete as a species, the chances of peace and a healthy environment are much greater.

The idea I would like to give away is to focus on the value we create, not on the financial measure. At the same time, financial success often allows us to have bigger impacts. That is why I think business is such a great vehicle for positive impacts. 

What people, companies or organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry in Australia at the moment?

Xero has done amazing work in transforming an industry. Where accountants have been the most conservative and backwards looking people, they are now actually leading their clients towards more automation and better business processes. All of that has been possible through the vision of Rod Drury and the Xero team. The vision, and the ability to deliver.

What about internationally?

Brad Feld (www.feld.com) and Alex Turnbull (www.groovehq.com) are two blogs that I really look forward to. They always make me feel like I really want to get to know these two people personally.

What role do you think business can play in affecting social change?

To me, small business is the powerhouse of affecting change. The only requirement is for head, heart and hands to work together.

Is there a particular charity or social enterprise you support?

I have worked with the Sustainable Living Foundation in Melbourne and the Sunshine Coast Environment Council. But I feel that I can add more value in a business setting where the enthusiasm of team members is honored with payment. It leads to more joy, rather than burn-out.

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?

I would really like to talk to some smart mathematicians with experience in financial risk management. Our vision goes way beyond automation and we really want to make our financial system more efficient and fair. One part of that is to eliminate the cost of moving money around.

Otherwise, the best way to get involved is to sign up to Promis (www.promis.co) and tell us how we can solve your issues around automation, so you can stop wasting time on the tedious.

We’re aiming to build a community of Australian idea makers helping each other. If you could have one question answered about startups, marketing, social media, accounting, monetization, product development etc., what would it be?

I am really keen to find a way to align the interests of clients, team and investors in a business. So if there are any smart ownership mechanisms that make that possible, I’d love to learn about them.

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?

It would be Sushi Yah Man in Noosa

 

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