The PIE: Can you tell us a bit how Blackbullion came about?
Vivi Friedgut: My mother’s father died when she was 11, and he hadn’t signed life insurance papers. And so in 1950s South Africa, my grandmother found herself in this crazy financial position of having three kids with no money or job, without protection. It really shaped my mum’s view of money, so I was raised to be financially literate. I made my first stock purchase at 15, for example.
Then as I grew up and friends asked, ‘how do you get a mortgage?’ and ‘what does the stock market mean?’ I realised how lucky I was to have been raised understanding it all. Up until the financial crisis in 2008, there was no market for this. Afterwards, I realised the unrest within the sector gave us an opportunity to educate people about money in a business setting. I’ve got huge respect for charities, but I tend to believe that when you’re a business that gets paid for your services, it means that you are outstanding because if you’re not, people won’t pay for it – and the money makes it very transparent. There’s no third party with us – a bank isn’t paying our bills somewhere in the background so that we can push their agenda. Blackbullion itself launched in 2013 as a lecture series – I used to go to universities and lecture on it. A few years later, we became a digital solution. It’s been a real evolution of the business.
The PIE: Since the launch of that digital solution, what’s the growth been like for you?
VF: We work with just under 50 universities and colleges in the UK – 90% of our business is here. We also were starting to go to Australia and New Zealand before Covid happened. We have a lot of content specifically for international students because, of course, they face their own challenges when studying in a different country. We have 115,000 users on the platform. It went from a slow to rapid growth, because in the early days, financial wellbeing wasn’t a thing – the language wasn’t there. Universities didn’t see it as part of their agenda, through no fault of theirs.
“Many mental health problems can be driven by financial difficulties”
Mental health then became a big topic, and many mental health problems can be driven by financial difficulties. If you’re not marrying those two things together, then you often lack ability to fully solve the issue. I also wrote a book about that during lockdown last year, about how financial well-being, mental well-being and physical well-being all tie in together for the process – universities have really taken that concept to heart. As a consequence, we’re now the leading provider in the [UK]. It’s been really fun to see.
The PIE: Blackbullion now has two facets to it – you have the money skills side, but can you explain the other?
VF: Almost half of those universities using our financial wellbeing learning platform are using our financial planning system, which is just under 12 months old. We’ve also recently launched our instant payments facility, so a student can discover, apply for, be assessed and receive the money all through Blackbullion. Pre-Covid, applying for emergency funding meant you had to submit 30, 40 pages of documents and evidence. Technology though, has made universities’ lives so much easier. Students can just now upload everything into the system where universities can access it and save time. We’ve saved staff 625 hours of admin work just by stopping emails going backwards and forwards. Essentially, almost two years’ worth of time has been saved in the last 12 months, just from the emails – that’s not even the processing.
Students can now also receive money instantly instead of in two weeks. This is where technology can add capacity – instead of having staff doing boring work that they aren’t excited about. They always tell us what they want to be spending time proactively supporting students.
The PIE: How do you support those staff in an ongoing capacity, and how do you support student platform users?
VF: We have a customer success team – and know every single one of our clients, by name. For students, we have a support line which is strictly technical – we don’t offer tailored advice. We do webinars during term time – one mortgages webinar we ran had 800 students on it – 90 questions were asked in 50 minutes. Currency sessions get 500 students, financial planning sessions get over 1,000 – students are really interested and staff often don’t have the capacity or expertise to provide this training.
We want to help them so that they adequately help students who are in crisis.
“If we want young people to come out of tertiary education ready to face the world, we need to give them financial and mental resilience”
A lot of them don’t know how to do some things until they have to do it – they could hear things like ‘your credit score is terrible’, which could hinder your chance at a mortgage. Teaching this isn’t the university’s job, but it’s the best time to learn, so the institutions we work with are essentially investing in their students’ financial futures. There’s a safety net there that disappears post graduation. If we want young people to come out of tertiary education ready to face the world, we need to give them financial and mental resilience. And that means that universities almost have a bigger obligation than they used to. If they can outsource that to experts like us, they can focus on their core work.
The PIE: What would you say is the most important skill or takeaway that you would want students to have moving forward?
VF: If there’s one takeaway that students can get from everything that they do with Blackbullion, it’s that they are their own biggest asset. The best thing you can do at university is to build your network of people, and get the best possible marks that you can. But if the student thinks of themselves as an asset that can be constantly appreciating in value, then they will always be in a position to be able to take that next step in their career. Students have all the time in the world, so they have to think of themselves as an asset and invest in themselves while they can.
The PIE: How has Covid has affected the business?
VF: Covid is still hurting a lot of people in a lot of ways, but the move to digital is something that the education sector has been quite remiss at doing in some ways. In a sense, Covid has almost forced the sector to re-examine the potential of technology and how technology can be used. I’m not saying that technology can solve all the problems, but it is a great enabler. Covid’s ‘net positive’ for education is that its giving individuals on campuses who are more innovative the opportunity to explore things that they’ve long known would be helpful. Prior to Covid, one of our partners had a safe in their office with [supermarket] vouchers for students that needed food. That’s the sort of thing that should be digital, but the student had to come in and sign for it. Then when Covid hit, they had tens of thousands of pounds worth of vouchers in a space that they couldn’t access because they weren’t allowed on campus. So in that sense, I think it’s forced the sector to really examine some of the ways in which technology can be helpful.
“Australia, New Zealand are very much an ambition for us because the student experience there compared to in the UK is actually relatively similar”
The PIE: Now that Australia is going to be opening up borders somewhat, will things start moving on that front, as you mentioned Australia and New Zealand as target markets? What does 2022 hold for Blackbullion?
VF: Australia and New Zealand – and I say this as an Aussie – have just been a nightmare during Covid because of the borders. We manage the clients that are there and service them, but we haven’t put our energy into outreach because we can’t travel there. Australia, New Zealand are very much an ambition for us because the student experience there compared to in the UK is actually relatively similar. So, while we haven’t cancelled the plans, we have just put them on pause until the borders properly reopen. Our ambition is to really expand into all Commonwealth countries. Financial wellbeing is a global problem, and it’s not just for young people – it’s a global, multi-generational issue. Our plans are that every young person on the planet has access to effective, engaging and useful financial education. We’re not stopping with the UK.