Lots of people have great ideas, ideas that could solve a common issue many are having. Yet, many of these ideas never come to fruition since it takes tenacity, stamina, and guts to survive the long journey of turning a thought in your head into a real-life solution. It can be very much like running your own business. Only the most motivated and determined are up for the challenge.
For Fiona Hastings, who helped build, launch, and now is the manager of Neo1, a spend management platform from American Express Global Business Travel (GBT), transforming a great idea into a product also requires a personal connection. That gives you the extra incentive to push past any obstacles.
“To make an idea come to life, to make it real,” she says, “I need it to come from a personal experience. When you experience something and think, “This shouldn’t happen,” or “We’ve got to make this easier,” a strong negative emotional response is triggered, and for me it is always the negative feelings that make me think of ways to make how I feel go away. If I can find an idea, a solution to change how I feel great, but it is my emotional response that gives me the drive to make the idea a reality.”
It was a personal experience that inspired Fiona to pour her energy into developing Neo1, a tool that helps small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) gain greater oversight of their total spend.
“I’ve always been surrounded by people who own businesses, and I’ve seen too many SMEs struggle and fail because of cash flow issues. So I felt I needed to do something for SMEs, the workhorse of our economy,” Fiona explains.
Growing up, she saw how her mom, a small business owner, would spend entire weekends doing processing work. Then her sister started a small business.
“It was fantastic. She was so talented and worked so hard, but her runaway cash flow crippled her business in the end. She just couldn’t easily see the correlation between income and expense, and there were no simple tools out there to help her.”
It’s a similar story for a lot of SMEs. Money problems – often avoidable ones – can destroy them.
“Many SMEs are founded on great ideas, people work very hard to make their ideas a reality, and many are profitable, but inefficient tools and practices to manage the timing of money going out is a common problem. And it is not the big expenses that trigger failure. It’s the sum of all the little expenses that seem to add up and cause an issue. SMEs don’t see them until it’s too late,” she explains.
Fiona realized many of the spend management tools available on the market that could help address this issue were not geared to SMEs.
“The companies that were selling technology solutions were focused on the big businesses, and they weren’t easy to register for or get set up on. ‘Oh, you can configure it however you want,’ and ‘yes, it does that,’ they’d say but they would not tell you it takes an engineering degree to figure out how and weeks of effort. Well, that doesn’t help SMEs. They just want it to be simple, easy, and now.”
Fiona had the opportunity to lead an innovation team at KDS, a provider of integrated travel technology, to build an end-to-end spend management strategy for SMEs.
Initially, it was just Fiona and a technical engineer, Pascal Danek, working together to create the vision of Neo1. The idea was to build a platform that could help SMEs with their cash flow by displaying total employee spend in one place.
Since Pascal lives in Paris, where KDS is headquartered, and Fiona, an Australian native, resides in London, they needed to figure out where they would meet. For this kind of collaboration, video conferencing simply would not do. They needed to be fully present, brainstorming and scheming face-to-face.
“So for a whole year, two days a week, I’d catch the Eurostar at 4 am to travel over to Paris. And I would be locked in a room with Pascal for the two days, creating and designing, talking and reviewing.”
It was decided early on that the duo would work as an incubator, and the two were given considerable support but also freedom to design and do what was needed to solve the SME spend management challenge by the executive team. “They realized if they try to run what they employed me to do as part of their existing business, it wouldn’t succeed because I would be drawn into its history and how it’s always been done,” she explains.
“It was probably the best time of my career,” she adds. “Here was this brilliant technical engineer just waiting for a great opportunity and then a business person like me saying, ‘I’ve looked at the market, I’ve been in the market, and I’ve worked for other companies. There’s nothing that solves this problem of putting all spending in one place.”
When Fiona wasn’t laser-focused on creation and design, she was out in the field, doing research, which involved interviewing 150+ business owners and their employees about the company operations and finances.
“I’d take them out for lunch and ask them questions about how they manage their expenditure, how they would manage trips, training, uniforms, office supplies. The more I interviewed these businesses, the more I realized how they handled it was a mess. There was no consistency whatsoever. It was all trust-based or involved old-fashioned, manual, time-consuming processes. No one could see what was going on.”
She also discovered how some businesses would treat their employees like a bank, expecting them to spend their own money and then take 30, 60, even 90 days to reimburse them. She relayed all this back to Pascal as they carefully designed a platform that would address these issues. Keeping things simple was imperative.
In the end, they developed a platform that brings together expense management, procurement, and travel booking all in one place, so SMEs don’t need different procedures and systems to manage total employee spend. It was all right there, helping business owners and finance teams gain visibility over every single employee expense while also giving workers the ability to purchase, within company limits, the items they need to do their jobs.
As Fiona and Pascal were building the user interface and getting feedback on it, they were hit with potentially bad news: GBT was acquiring KDS (now known as Neo Technology Group) as part of a broader investment strategy to develop traveler-centric digital services. Would Neo1 be a solution GBT would want to continue investing in? Spoiler alert: We wouldn’t be writing this article if not.
In fact, the acquisition helped launch Neo1’s pilot. That’s when the Neo1 team became acquainted with a division of GBT – American Express Meetings & Events.
“When we looked at the types of things you have to buy to organize an event, we saw a strong correlation with the sorts of things a business buys to keep the lights on,” Fiona says.
Accommodations, flights, meals, cleaning products, gifts, T-shirts, promotional kits – she says these are the kinds of items Meetings & Events purchases when facilitating events and the kinds of items an SME buys over the course of a year. Neo1 could be just the perfect solution for Meetings & Events.
“So Neo1 was deployed to the Meetings & Events group to manage its event spend across 18 countries globally. They were processing millions of dollars a week – in multiple countries, in multiple currencies.”
Incredibly, there was not a single outage.
“It was really a testament to Pascal, and the broader Neo1 team who designed and developed Neo1,” Fiona says.
After its successful pilot, Neo1 was ready to be unveiled to SMEs. There was just one problem rolling it out on a grander scale: GBT’s lengthy onboarding process. Generally, it can take weeks to implement a new client. Bigger businesses tend to have the time and resources to make sure their preferred suppliers are configured, agreements are reviewed and negotiated, and that the technical integrations to business systems meet their specific needs. An intricate process and lengthy timeframe would not work for smaller businesses. SMEs just want to click on one Terms & Conditions and get going to their next task,” Fiona says.
So, the Neo1 team got to work on creating a more streamlined process. Today, the tool – which enables employees to book trips through GBT and buy items from Amazon Business – can be implemented within two to three days.
“So right now, if a client clicks on the Neo1 website, within 48 hours, they can book a trip to New York and buy an office chair from Amazon Business. They can also manage budgets, log a mileage claim for driving somewhere, and spot audit spend outside default policy settings.”
Neo1 made its official debut in the UK in December 2019 and in the US in July. The reception has been positive, despite COVID-related restrictions dampening the business travel aspect of things.
“Although people weren’t buying flights, they were buying PPEs (personal protective equipment) and figuring out how to get that office chair to Jenny, who’s now working from home at her kitchen table,” Fiona says. “And oh, by the way, if ever your staff needs to travel, this product has the powerful backing of American Express GBT to look after all your staff, no matter where they need to go.”
Fiona credits GBT for seeing the value of Neo1 early on, noting everyone has been very supportive throughout the pilot and launch processes. Like KDS, GBT gave her team plenty of space to avoid having their innovation challenged by conflicting demands, and GBT continues to foster the Neo1 incubator of innovation.