The Big Interview: John Cushing, founder and chief executive of mnAI

John Cushing explains why mnAI’s speed at finding promising investments and M&A opportunities has become as valuable as ever.

Cushing says that operationally, Scotland will always be key in the continued development of the platform. Picture: contributed.

Glasgow-born John Cushing is the founder and chief executive of mnAI, which is described as a fintech “revolutionising” the due diligence process for deal-makers worldwide. mnAI says it is the world’s first artificial intelligence-powered mergers and acquisitions (M&A) deal-flow search engine – cutting the time it takes to identify and understand relevant businesses and individuals from months to minutes.

It harnesses more than 55 million financial records of UK companies from the past decade, and allows users to determine future-based core earnings, for example. Cushing previously founded the contracts division for Probe IT. He then moved to start PPR Solutions, and proptech firm Opun, both of which had successful exits to ByBox and John Lewis respectively.

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What does mnAI do – I see you offer a “five-minute challenge”.

We’re nearly at the point where the platform will be ready to scale internationally, says Cushing. Picture: contributed.

mnAI is a data platform that provides insight, research and due diligence on all unlisted companies in the UK. We hold more than 7.5 billion data points on 6.4 million UK companies, applying a wide variety of machine learning algorithms and filters that enable users to access targeted information far more rapidly than is currently possible, completing what used to take months of work in minutes.

Our target audience includes private equity, M&A, wealth-management, family offices, property, professional and financial services – although, in practice, you can extend this to anyone who requires information on companies and related people in the UK.

Initially, the platform was designed to provide detailed insight and analytics at a company level only, but with an expanded dataset. We added bespoke industry insights and analytics that a user can self-generate. The platform also offers detailed information on officers and shareholders that can further be filtered by gender, enabling very precise targeting of an industry, companies, directors or shareholders.

As for our five-minute challenge, it’s evolved since launch, but it all stemmed from a conversation with the managing partner of a private equity firm who said he’d give us five minutes to impress him, and if we did, he’d sign up with us. Five minutes later, he signed up.

Funnily enough, people now challenge us in other ways – particularly around testing how quick our searches are. Recently, we were challenged on LinkedIn to see which was quicker – the platform or a professional chef slicing and dicing an onion. Safe to say, the platform won.

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What prompted you to start the business?

Frustration. Over the years, I had looked for a way that would help me identify potential investment and acquisition opportunities, and really struggled to find anything suitable that had the breadth and depth, let alone the speed that I needed… and it became an obsession.

It became apparent that I wasn’t the only one. From investment professionals to corporate analysts, and private equity firms to privately held companies looking to grow through acquisition, the overwhelming response was that most research was nothing more than a Google search and spreadsheets. For example, the average length of time it took for a private equity analyst to produce a targeted shortlist based on various criteria was 126 hours… and that was before moving on to the next stage of the process. So I decided to do something about it.

Fast-forward two years, and mnAI is an award-winning business that’s backed and supported by fantastic people who continually deliver innovative solutions. We’ve been able to build a platform from scratch through a design-first approach that is both user-friendly and highly scalable.

How did your career progress before this – did you always want to have your own business?

My wife believes that I’m addicted to being an entrepreneur and she’s probably right. My earliest memory of running my own business was the school tuck shop run (I was the kid running up and down the road selling sweets for a profit) and it’s just gone from there.

Post-graduation, I was very fortunate that my first job taught me a lot about how to run a business commercially, and as soon as the opportunity to run my own company presented itself to me, I took it.

I was 25 at the time, and in our first 12 months (2005/6) we generated just under £1 million of revenue. Growth was fast, and consistent, and we averaged just over 30 per cent (compounding) a year for five years before we were approached about a potential sale of the business. This ultimately led to the bidder taking a 51 per cent stake before they acquired the rest of the business within the two-year agreed period after we had doubled revenue again.

At this point I was 32, and needed a new project to get my teeth into and so, in 2014, I formed Opun, the home improvement platform that was acquired by the John Lewis Partnership in the summer of 2018.

Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t been plain sailing, but I have loved every minute of what I do and for that I’ll always be very grateful. Since then, I’ve become a mentor for the US accelerator Techstars, I sit on an advisory panel at Silicon Valley Bank, and have became a non-executive director to other tech start-ups.

mnAI launched in the UK earlier this year – how do you plan to progress here?

Our main concern recently has obviously been the health and well-being of our employees as well as the wider community due to Covid-19.Like many other businesses in the current lockdown, we are still learning the rules of the new game and adapting where needed to ensure operational efficiency.

However, as a pure tech business, our entire infrastructure is cloud-based, which allows us to continue the development of our technology – especially now that the base layer of data is complete. A good example of this is our recently released Insight platform that enables our customers to generate their own industry reports, which is something they otherwise would have had to outsource.

Looking ahead, we’re nearly at the point where the platform will be ready to scale internationally, which I’m sure will be a huge challenge, but one that I have no doubt the team is ready to meet.

Looking at Scotland specifically, where you have a presence, how do you hope to expand?

Operationally, Scotland will always play a vital role in the continued development of the platform – not least as our data centres are located here. In addition, we have a growing customer base of Scottish companies, mostly in the financial sector so far, which rely on our software and we will continue to market mnAI to other industry verticals.

Some believe the current pandemic is creating strong M&A opportunities – what is your view on this?

I would agree with this. Industry press is already rife with actual and rumoured take-over deals and investments by both companies and funds. Even the very best companies have been adversely affected by the pandemic and may welcome an approach; others may prefer to do the approaching! Adversity always creates new opportunities for deal-makers with the right tools to make strategic acquisitions.

What has been the most pivotal moment to date for mnAI?

In a tech start-up, every week can be a pivotal moment, but if I had to choose one, then it would be my co-founder Andy King quitting his corporate job to lead the development of our platform.

Andy had been in his role for 11 years and has a family to support. Whilst no “job” is ever safe, jumping ship from a corporate enterprise with international travel and all the perks that it brings to co-found a start-up, armed only with big ambitions and a confidence in the service offering, will always be viewed as risky.

At the end of his first day, having heard all his plans on how he was going to build something that no-one had ever done before, was the moment that I stopped worrying about our technology. Starting a business is always hard, but doing it with people you know and trust makes it that much more fun.

What is the biggest challenge for the business?

The biggest challenge that we’re facing lies in brand development and raising awareness of what mnAI can do. Globally, very few companies can do what we’re doing, and certainly not at our price point, and we need to get that across to prospective clients across our core industry verticals to let them know how we can help them improve their working practices, reduce their costs, and deliver efficiency by saving time and manual labour.

Many sectors are starting to adopt new technologies and resulting innovations, but their ability to realise the full potential of data has been limited so far. AI platforms such as ours can greatly enhance large data analytics and processing, combining data in new ways to discover trends and outcomes. It enables companies to identify the right targets sooner, understand the risks and opportunities better and unlock growth.

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