At MOHARA, we’re fortunate to collaborate with innovative entrepreneurs who are continually pushing boundaries and positively changing their industries’ playing fields.

To celebrate these incredible individuals, we’ve decided to share their stories, spotlighting the transformative projects we’ve had the privilege to work on and offering insights for those starting their own entrepreneurial journeys. First up is Mia Woodford, one of the co-founders of Squirrelled.

Mia is the heart and mind behind Squirrelled, an ingenious cashback app. She is a true trailblazer with a background in advertising and a rich personal history that fuels her determination.

She started her career with Saatchi & Saatchi, went on to start and sell her own successful marketing agency, and then worked as a consultant for marketing agencies and startups for over 20 years. All these years of experience led to her finally founding Squirreled.

Born from a deep-seated belief in the power of education, Squirrelled is her answer to helping families in a world of rising costs. Squirrelled’s success isn’t just about building an app, but also providing a tool that empowers families to invest in their children’s education through everyday spending.

Join us as we delve into her journey, revealing the trials, triumphs, and invaluable lessons

What is Squirrelled?

Besides love, education is the most impactful gift you can offer a child. However, unlike love, education comes with a hefty price tag. According to the Guardian, a typical UK family can expect to spend about £74,430 on education-related costs, including necessities like uniforms, books, school lunches, and travel throughout their child’s primary and secondary education.

Despite 93% of UK children receiving state education, ‘free’ education isn’t cost-free. Parents still have to shoulder additional expenses, whether for lunches or extracurricular activities. Many families face the difficult choice between meeting household bills and providing for their children’s school activities and needs.

This daunting financial burden inspired the creation of ‘Squirrelled,’ – a unique way to build a savings cushion for educational expenses just by going about your daily life.

How does it work?

In its simplest form, Squirrelled is a modernised cashback system. It enables consumers to earn cashback from their everyday spending and channel those rewards into an education fund for their children.

When a customer shops with one of Squirrelled’s retail partners via their website or app, the retailer gives Squirrelled a commission for directing the customer to their business. Squirrelled, in turn, shares this benefit with customers by converting the commission into a cashback reward.

This cashback can be withdrawn, spent, or saved to meet future needs. It’s their unique way of helping you derive more value from your regular shopping.

What makes this product unique?

What makes this product unique is that this fund is flexible. It can act as an emergency fund (or a virtual ‘squirrel’ bank), with the remaining balance split between an ISA and a JISA for your children.

By consistently ‘squirrelling’ away cashbacks, a team of parents and grandparents could accumulate a significant fund right up to the time their child or grandchild eventually finishes school – which goes quite some way to offset education costs.

Much like an acorn growing into a mighty oak, your account grows steadily over time, offering you a practical way to manage educational costs.

How did the idea come about?

The origins of Squirrelled are deeply rooted in Mia’s personal history. As the daughter of a Jewish refugee who emigrated from Austria in 1939, her perspective on education was shaped by her mother. Her mother’s foster parents believed every child – even a young Jewish girl from a foreign land – deserved a good education.

This experience inspired her to ensure that her children received the best possible education. It wasn’t about accumulating GCSEs or A-levels. It was more about having a rich, fulfilling experience that would mould her children into well-rounded individuals capable of making a difference in the world and leaving it a better place than they found it.

Mia believes education is paramount in stimulating innovation and societal progress, and this has been the core inspiration for Squirrelled. The significance of education simply cannot be underestimated – it’s a transformative force.

As someone who spent a good chunk of her career in advertising and marketing, Mia had a knack for promoting big brands catering to kids and families. Over time, she noticed something odd. There were many cashback offers, but it seemed as if people weren’t taking full advantage of them. This got her thinking.

In recent years, Mia recognized a shift in the tech landscape. With digital tools becoming increasingly user-friendly, creating digital products is now more achievable than ever. She decided to chat with her friend Peter Jensen, an experienced financial professional – and this is how Squirrelled came to life!

Securing Funding

Mia and Peter decided early on to launch their start-up independently and not involve family and friends. Instead, they tapped into their professional networks and found a group of five core institutional investors with a shared passion for education.

Among these investors was Lord Stanley Fink, the so-called “godfather of hedge funds.” His business career has allowed him to donate to causes he deeply cares about, one of which is education. Lord Fink co-founded Ark Schools in Birmingham, which provides much-needed educational resources to underserved communities.

The first financial milestone for Squirrelled came from the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS), a UK government initiative that promotes investments in early-stage start-ups. This scheme allows individuals to invest up to £200,000 annually, offering a 50% tax break as an incentive.

Looking ahead, Squirrelled is preparing for its next funding round through the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS), the big brother of the SEIS.

Under this scheme, eligible investors can claim up to 30% income tax relief on investments up to £1 million per tax year. The founders of Squirrelled are optimistic about this prospect; they plan to raise £600,000, which they believe will allow them to fully launch their app and leave them with sufficient operational runway beyond the launch.

💡Expert insight:

How to get in the door with investors?

When we sought advice from Mia for anyone embarking on the hunt for investors, she strongly recommended a smart, focused strategy for sourcing start-up funding. Mia suggests swapping out the scattergun method – which is blindly reaching out to many potential investors, praying that one of them might bite – for a more thoughtful and targeted approach.According to Mia, success lies in doing your homework, understanding who might genuinely be interested in your mission, and specifically targeting those investors.

Before reaching out to potential investors, figure out why you think they’d be a good fit for your start-up. Maybe they’ve invested in similar businesses before, or maybe they bring some special skills or connections that would be really helpful.

Even though this might seem like a lot of work, it’s worth it. Because when you do reach out, you’re talking to people you already know are likely to be interested. This way, you’ll hear “no” a lot less often, and have a much better chance of finding investors who are interested in your business and can help it grow and succeed.

In short, when looking for funding, be choosy! Know the right investors and why they’re right, and reach out to them at the right time.

Key takeaways

1️⃣ Know your audience: Understand who you’re speaking to before walking into any pitch. What are they invested in, and what are their passions?

2️⃣ Understand your business inside and out: Investors will ask detailed questions. Be prepared to answer confidently and demonstrate your deep understanding of your business.

3️⃣ Communicate your vision clearly: Investors want to know what makes your business unique and why it will succeed.

4️⃣ Practice, practice, practice: Practice your pitch until you can deliver it confidently and convincingly.

From Idea to MVP

From the very beginning, the priority for the Squirrelled team was to create a product that truly catered to their customers’ needs. They dove deep into qualitative research with diverse focus groups scattered across the UK to achieve this.

They engaged various kinds of families in these discussions – dual parents, single parents, and grandparents. Each group discussion was recorded and then dissected for insights – all part of a meticulous process involving thirty groups and extensive response materials.

At that stage, they didn’t have a minimum viable product (MVP) for these user groups to interact with, yet. Instead, participants were invited to simulate using Squirrelled in their daily lives, taking notes about how they might use the platform and the savings they could make. This experiment allowed them to visualize and understand how Squirrelled might fit into their everyday lives before it even formally existed.

Alongside conducting extensive user research, they also deeply understood the cashback and card-linking landscape. This was essential to gain insight into what mattered most to potential users and shape their offerings accordingly.

A crucial revelation from their research was that users desired a sense of community in their efforts to build funds for their children’s future, since everyone’s goal aligned – to provide the happiest possible future for their kids.

This led to the integration of a team feature in the MVP. The insights gained from their research played a pivotal role in shaping the final product.

Challenges along the Way

When Squirrelled’s founders dreamed up their exciting start-up concept, they quickly realized they were missing a crucial piece of the puzzle: technical expertise. A fact that Mia mentions did not go unnoticed by potential investors!

The founders didn’t know how to transform their idea into a technological reality or pick the right developer for the job. Mia candidly describes their initial process of searching for a developer as: “We kissed a lot of frogs!”

The game-changer came when a Squirrelled co-founder threw MOHARA’s name into the mix. When Mia met with Richard Sams, Co-Founder and CEO at MOHARA, there was synergy from the start.

Mia recalls that their intense ‘Dragon’s Den’-like meeting with MOHARA was one that put their knowledge of and commitment to the project to the test. The team from MOHARA quickly grasped the core idea behind Squirrelled, and this shared understanding and a good measure of palpable excitement made MOHARA the perfect fit for a venture partner.

The meeting was a defining moment; with the feedback propelling them forward, the Squirrelled team didn’t hesitate to go for it and they partnered with MOHARA.

Navigating the twists and turns of the start-up journey has been challenging for Squirrelled. But after their initial meetings with MOHARA, their roadmap came into sharp focus. Their sights are now firmly set on integrating card linking and gearing up for a full-blown launch in October 2023.

Working with a venture studio

When questioned about her experience collaborating with a venture studio, Mia underscored MOHARA’s action-oriented approach. “About ten minutes after the meeting, everything was in writing, and I realised this was happening! It’s helped push us along. And we’re all very motivated people. But it’s incredible to work with people who are equally as motivated as we are and much better organised!”

Biggest Learning Milestones from This Process

Mia’s unique journey has provided her with a wealth of knowledge about starting a successful business. We asked her what her biggest learning milestones have been throughout this journey:

Turning problems into opportunities

Turning problems into opportunities is a crucial mindset for entrepreneurs. Here are some points inspired by Mia’s experience with Squirrelled:

➡️ Identify the problem:

Before you can turn a problem into an opportunity, you need to understand the problem. Keep an eye on societal issues, customer pain points, or gaps in the market.

For example, the post-pandemic cost of living crisis highlighted a significant issue – families struggling to finance their children’s education. Squirrelled identified this problem and sought to address it.

➡️ Innovate solutions:

Once you’ve identified the problem, think creatively about how to solve it. This is where your entrepreneurial spirit shines. Consider unconventional solutions or ways to combine existing ideas in a new manner. Squirrelled took the concept of cashback and put a new spin on it, directing it towards children’s education.

➡️ Test your solution:

Before fully launching your solution, it’s crucial to ensure it addresses the problem and is viable in the market. Use focus groups, surveys, or beta testing to gather feedback and make improvements.

➡️ Seize the opportunity:

Go for it once you’re confident in your solution! Launch your product or service, market it to your target audience, and continue to seek feedback for ongoing improvement.

Mia mentions, “We are sense checking that all the time, and we tweak it daily, weekly, monthly, and do news releases. And it’s not like whatever we produce is set in stone forever”.

➡️ Learn and adapt:

Even after launching, you’ll encounter challenges. Adopt the mindset of seeing these as opportunities for growth. Learn from each challenge and adapt your business as necessary.

➡️ Don’t underestimate the task:

Mia emphasises the need not to underestimate the challenges of starting a business. It’s not just about a great idea and some starting capital. The process involves a range of complex steps like market research, financial planning, branding, and dealing with unexpected hurdles.

It’s important to understand that starting a business is a tough journey that requires resilience and determination. Being aware of these challenges up front allows you to prepare and arm yourself with the right mindset and resources to navigate through your entrepreneurial journey.

Let’s Talk!

In this article, we delved into the story of Squirrelled, a cashback app on a mission to support UK families with education costs.

Mia, the founder, exemplifies true innovation, passion, and grit. By overcoming technical hurdles and forging a strategic partnership with MOHARA, she brought her vision to life.

Her journey is an inspiration, demonstrating that with the right idea and a little help, anyone can make a difference. Do you have an idea? Mia’s story could become yours, too. Get in touch with us and let’s make it happen.