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Disruption is an overused concept in the tech world. Not many upstart firms really are truly disruptive in their sector. Global Shares, however, is busy truly transforming its niche in fintech and radically improving employee share ownership all over the world. Not only that, but it is firmly on the path to becoming a “unicorn”, with an expected valuation of over US$1 billion by 2024.
Unusually for a fintech firm on the fast track to the big time, Global Shares is headquartered in West Cork, a picturesque rural area on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. “We have a good work-life balance here,” says CEO Tim Houstoun (pictured above), “it’s pretty chilled out.”
Another upside of the scenic location? Potential clients have to stay the night when they visit the Global Shares HQ, giving the team plenty of time to demonstrate its software and show its approach to account handling.
Of course, it’s not just the Global Shares ‘West Cork welcome experience’, lush green scenery and sea views that win over clients. Global Shares stands out in its sector as its offering is global, nimble and state-of-the-art, in a sector where most competitors are weighed down by legacy systems and are limited to regional or domestic offerings.
Deep expertise in employee share ownership also helps Global Shares to sign up household name clients such as GSK, L’Oréal, Bosch, Krispy Kreme, and Sage, says Houstoun. “We focus 100% on employee share schemes, whereas they only comprise 1% of Morgan Stanley’s revenue. We don’t sell insurance or pensions. We just sell share plans and we understand them very well. Half our workforce is in R&D and IT, and we are investing all the time in improving our offering.”
This offering includes Global Shares’ proprietary global technology platform, administration, brokerage, financial reporting, global compliance and more. With 16 offices around the globe including operations in North America, EMEA and Asia, the firm supports client employees in more than 100 countries worldwide. It is a MiFID and FINRA regulated firm.
Houstoun joined the Global Shares team in 2008 and has steered it through the transition from being a service business with low margins and limited prospects to a leading global fintech provider of employee equity management solutions. He led the company through a comprehensive software development phase and numerous rounds of fundraising to the point where it now has US$57 billion in client assets.
Before joining Global Shares, he set up a number of successful companies, including Business Direct Group Plc, which he IPOed. He also served as chairman of Fast Track 100 Specialist Mail Services Plc and is a board member of the American Coalition of Stock Plan Administrators (ACSPA).
Global Shares has been quite ringfenced from the effects of COVID-19 — as a software firm, its income model consists of contractually recurring income. Even though some new business deals have been delayed due to HR Managers being focused on COVID-19 issues, Houstoun says the company is substantially ahead of its new business target for 2020.
“Our field sales force were in lockdown for seven of nine months in 2020,” he adds, “so we are not sure how that will affect our pipeline going forward. To mitigate any risk, we are employing a new digital strategy and building our inside sales team.”
As a regulated broker, Global Shares is seeing a reduction in employee share sales this year as a result of COVID-19, but the assets are still in place, and Houston sees the key impact as one of timing rather than a net reduction in sales.
Houstoun describes the company culture as “entrepreneurial”. “It’s tougher working for a small company and you have to be dynamic, but people join us because they want to make a difference. We recently hired leaders from Morgan Stanley, because they want to make that difference.”
He acknowledges that maintaining the vibrant corporate culture is a challenge in a fast-growing company — the company has doubled its workforce in the past year, currently employs 370 and expects that figure to rise to more than 1,000 by 2024. The cultural challenges are compounded during the pandemic. “We recently employed 70 people who haven’t met their colleagues yet. They have no office to go to and have had to train online, so that is pretty difficult.”
Regardless, Houstoun is confident of being able to hold the Global Shares team together as it grows exponentially. “The difference is that everyone in Global Shares is a shareholder. Our whole workforce has equity. It’s been said before, but if you want your team to act like owners, you have to got to make them owners. Given we are trying to promote employee share ownership around the world, we make sure we are practicing what we preach.”
Global Shares is a true export business, with 98% of its revenue coming from overseas. It has collaborated with Enterprise Ireland for many years and benefitted from grant aid for job creation, business development and research and development projects, along with advice on new market entry, support with office launches and more besides.
“When I first worked with Global Shares,” says Houstoun, “we wouldn’t have survived without the help they gave us at the outset. Fundraising was critical at that time to overcome the incredibly tough early stages of starting up a high-potential, export-driven tech business.
“They also helped us all along the way and in all the regions. The offices in countries like Japan, Hong Kong and China not only supported our sales efforts but also helped us to understand the business cultures of these countries.”
Over the next five years, Global Shares plans to continue its focus on accelerated geographical expansion globally and on ongoing significant investment in its technology platform and new product development.
It also aims to consolidate the market for its new Cap Table product, which enables companies to see investor details, percentages of ownership, equity dilution and the value of their shares. The table automatically updates after investment rounds and makes it easy for companies to track shares, options, warrants, convertible notes and more.