Sigga Sigurdardottir, leader of Asto, is an innovator who has spent her career changing businesses from within. Sigga saw an opportunity with Open Banking to bring all of the technology and insights together and build something that could transform the way small businesses are run, becoming the leader of Asto, a tech startup backed by Santander. Asto is brings together all the financial and non-financial tools that technologists and fintechs have created but which haven’t been applied to fixing the very real pressures of running a business and hosting them all on one powerful platform. We sat down with Sigga to talk about the new venture:

What inspired Asto?

Asto was built on the belief that no good business should fail for want of time, insight, support or access to finance. The challenges facing business owners today are very real – and they haven’t changed much in the last thirty years, despite ever-increasing access to technology and innovation.

Technology has revolutionised the way we work, making it more flexible, more accessible, more connected – even possibly global. But when it comes to running a business – being a business owner or a sole trader or a freelancer – technology simply hasn’t delivered the transformation that we’ve seen in other areas of our lives like music, shopping, or personal finance.

Right now, there are around 5.7 million small businesses in the UK, employing 15.7 million people, and creating an annual turnover of over £1.8 trillion (just under half of all private sector turnover). But around 50% of these companies will not survive for longer than five years. With Asto, I want to see this change. We want to help businesses to thrive, to help the people running those businesses to get back time, and we’re using the latest technology to do so.

How has your previous experience shaped you and pushed you into what you are doing now?

I’ve spent my career innovating companies from the inside – working in big businesses to help them develop and change, to create solutions for customers that streamline and simplify their lives.

However, I also grew up with parents who ran a restaurant, making me familiar with the problems people face when they’re trying to build and run a business. My parents would divvy up the work between them, but I would see how much time was spent on things like admin, payroll, accounting – hours pouring over papers, long after the kitchen shut for the night.

This is the kind of thing that technologists have been working to solve – there are now amazing solutions out there, start-ups building products to make accounting simpler and faster, invoicing more automated. Yet from my position as an innovator, I also see that whilst these products exist individually – no one is pulling all those different products together and creating a genuinely useful experience for business owners. They might have to download ten apps, sign up for half a dozen websites, and download huge amounts of software before they can get half the tools they need or want. It’s far from simple or streamlined.

This is the juxtaposition my background taught me to see. People don’t want an app, they want a simpler life and more time to focus on the things that matter. This is why Asto is bringing together all the financial and non-financial tools that technologists and innovators have created but which haven’t been applied to fixing the very real pressures of running a business and hosting them all on one powerful platform.

How do you plan to inspire me with the app?

With Asto we want to give business owners back their time – time to focus on the business, on what they love doing and what inspires them to get up in the morning or keep working long into the night. Because usually that isn’t the paperwork. If people are able to do more of what matters to them, that’s a win for us.

What’s the main goal of your company?

I think it all comes back to our name. Asto is a derivative of the Latin word ‘to stand by’, ‘to assist’ and was chosen by the team because of our desire to build something that can empower business owners and help them to run and grow thriving enterprises. My belief is that no good business should fail – so with Asto, the aim is to provide a holistic platform that can address the different pressures facing small businesses.

Central to this is the fact that Asto is built upon the principles of Open Banking. Open Banking is an initiative that was launched in the UK at the start of 2018, demanding all banks develop technology that enables customers to connect their banking data to the financial tools that can help them. For example, in your personal finances, you might want to connect your current account to an app like Moneybox so that when you spend, your spare change is rounded up and put into savings or investments.

The same goes for Asto, but for businesses. Using the technology that now exists through Open Banking, instead of having one app to create invoices, another to capture your receipts and another to give you information on payments to or from your account, our customers will be able to find all those tools in one place. Plus a lot of helpful insights to keep them on top of their business finances.

We believe collaboration brings innovation and that by building an app that not only provides a platform for small businesses but also connects those companies to the best tech solutions available, we can reach our goal and make sure that no good business fails.

What’s holding small businesses back from growing?

There are four main reasons why businesses struggle to grow – lack of time, too much admin, absence of support networks, and difficulty accessing finance.

Time is a massive issue; in our research, business owners told us that they spent the equivalent of one working month per year on financial and non-financial admin.  Imagine if we could, via our Asto app, give them back some of that working month – the benefit for the individual and their business.

Our research also tells us that less than 4% of business founders find the resources available online and in the media useful – there’s a real sense that people want to know the answers to how to better run their business or want support in certain areas but turning to Google just isn’t enough.

This is why we want to build products that deal with the financial stuff and the non-financial stuff, and why we’re so focused on building a community, on providing digital resources, that will help connect people and mean they no longer have to trawl the internet but simply ask and get an answer.

What inspires you in your day to day life?

People and how they go about their life. When you understand people, you’re able to create beautiful experiences for them, to solve real problems in meaningful ways.

What’s your experience been like being a woman in business?

As a woman in business I have actually been lucky to have had some amazing mentors and sponsors throughout my career. They have enabled me to grow and develop, giving me the confidence to have a seat at the top table.

However, I also believe in paying that support forward – I’m an avid campaigner for diversity and inclusion and strive to create a diverse team not just from a gender perspective but from all backgrounds and walks of life. This drives diversity of thought and ultimately enables us to deliver brilliant customer driven innovation.

Because there is just so much more to be done in terms of representation and diversity. When I go to conferences in fintech or tech in general it is still very much a male dominated field with limited social and ethnic diversity too. The stats reflect this – we need to help women and people of diverse backgrounds up the pipeline. It drives innovation and delivers better business results, so it is good for business.

What’s your goal for Asto in 2018?

Our main aim for 2018 is to launch open beta later this year – this is when anyone will be able to sign up and start using the app whilst we’re still building out the functionality. We want to open up so that we can also grow our community, start really solving those pain points and talking to more and more business owners about how we can help them.