Susan Cooney, Co-Founder, MahiFX, on Margaret Thatcher and Peppa Pig!

Susan Cooney is Co-Founder and Head of Marketing & Sales at MahiFX, a new proprietary-built foreign exchange trading platform which launched earlier this year and gives retail FX customers access to same tight spreads and cutting edge technology as institutional FX traders. 

Prior to founding MahiFX, Susan worked in forex trading at investment banks. In mid 2004, whilst she was working at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein selling e-FX technology to UK banks, Susan was asked by colleagues David Cooney and Tim Cartledge to join the team moving across to Barclays Capital. David was later to become her husband and co-founder.

In 2005 Susan was asked to recruit and head up a new team to expand Barclays’ institutional e-FX sales efforts in Europe, where she took the controversial approach of hiring people based on their character, rather than experience. In what was probably an Investment Banking industry first, Barclays backed this initiative and what was jokingly referred to as ‘Barbie’s army’ was born. 8 people were hired from all walks of life. The initiative was a success, which contributed to tremendous growth in Barclay’s eFX market share.

Susan went on to hire teams in Singapore, Hong Kong and the US. Susan’s e-FX career has taken her to many countries of the world, meeting many people and has given her valuable insight into the requirements of an FX trader. Insight that has helped her to contribute to much of the MahiFX functionality.

Susan and David Cooney married in 2008. Shortly after, she left Barclays to concentrate on her family and plan the next step in their careers - building the retail FX offering MahiFX. Susan and David have a 2 year old daughter.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for MahiFX and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?  

SC: I have been involved in forex trading since the beginning of my career, working for investment banks.  During that time we had some exposure to retail FX trading and could see there were many opportunities to bring the knowledge and experience we gained in the institutional space to retail traders directly.

TNW:  What makes your company different from your competitors?

As a market maker we have direct access to the interbank market. By controlling the vertical, we remove the middleman and are therefore able to provide our clients with extremely competitive pricing previously only available to institutional traders.

TNW: What is your business model?

SC: We facilitate client’s ability to access institutional spreads and service through ergonomically designed, intuitive technology.

TNW: When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?

SC: The ability to think laterally and be creative.  People with a high level of integrity.

We don’t focus on job titles or positions; it’s a very flat structure where everybody gets to contribute.  We focus on a person’s character over their CV.

TNW:  Who were your first customers and how hard was it to attract them?

SC: We found we initially appealed to a younger demographic, probably due to our online marketing activities and focus on design.  The platform does appeal to the technology and design-led generation. Fortunately our customers are amazingly interactive and continually provide us with invaluable feedback, which helps us develop ongoing enhancements. Some felt perhaps the offering wasn’t quite right for them at that point, but instead of walking away, they told us so we could enhance it, which we are grateful for and incredibly open to.

TNW: Who are your customers and partners now?

SC: There is a great mixture of customers of different ages and countries from around the world.  It’s incredible how the Internet makes the world feel so much smaller.

TNW: What is your marketing strategy and what has been the most effective source of new customers so far?

SC: One of the most successful marketing activities we carried out was our teaser campaign that we created while the platform was being built. We created an interactive Infographic to create brand awareness and give people the chance to sign up to be notified when we went live.

It went viral within days and was very successful, more successful than we could have imagined. It was incredible watching it shared across the world. 

It’s very important to us to continue to innovate with regards to marketing.  Forex is a very crowded market.

TNW: What is next for your company?

SC: We will continue to grow, enhance our offering, listen to our clients’ requirements and react to them. Our trading platform will continue to evolve, as we add more features over time. We would also very much like to expand into the United States in the future. Currently due to regulatory restrictions, we unfortunately cannot welcome American customers onto our platform.

TNW: Have you cme across any other exciting start-ups recently and what is it about them that appeals to you?

SigFig, the investment analysis start has grown out of out of stock portfolio manager Wikinvest is quite exciting.

Their social approach to providing the tools for everyday investors to manage and grow their money resonates with us. 

TNW: What are the advantages of gender diversity in a start-up? Are there any disadvantages?

SC: My husband and I co-founded MahiFX and we definitely approach things differently, which could be a function of intellect, experience or gender.I guess if I were to generalise I would say women certainly bring a high level of organisation and creativity to an organisation. We also focus on relationships within our team and dynamics in general. Traditionally women are known for communication skills, which I think is demonstrated in our focus on customer service. Ensuring that customer issues are dealt with quickly and sensitively is very important.

TNW: What lessons have you taken from your successes &/or failures?

To be disciplined and not too disappointed if something doesn’t go the way you plan. It’s important not to take things personally.

TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?

SC: Have strength and confidence in your decisions and be prepared to back yourself. Work as hard as you can and focus on doing a limited number of things well. Focus on your core strengths and delegate tasks that are not your core competency.  Be prepared for feedback and don’t take anything personally.

TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors?

In terms of someone I admire it has to be Margaret Thatcher. Whether you agree or disagree with her politics there is no denying she is an icon who achieved fantastic things for women.

She had incredible strength and didn’t see her gender as something that restricted her. I doubt she even thought about it. I am definitely inspired by her.

TNW: What does your day look like?

SC: It’s a great big juggling act between motherhood and my work. We have centres in London and Christchurch, NZ. As soon as I get up there are several things to action from the overseas offices, customer queries to respond to, meetings about marketing activities and platform enhancements. Like every other working mum I balance this with looking after my daughter and attempting to maintain a reasonably orderly household!

TNW: What is your top tip for balancing motherhood with a career?

Don’t try to do everything by yourself, accept help where you can and don’t feel guilty about being a working mum.  I’m also personally very grateful to Peppa Pig!

TNW: Do you lie awake at night sometimes thinking about the company? What aspects of it specifically keep you awake? 

SC: In the early days I worried a lot of whether people would like the product and if anyone would want to use it. I have since realised its always evolving and people genuinely wish you well with a new venture and want to help it succeed.

TNW: Do you have any pet projects as an entrepreneur?

 I’m an amateur sofa psychologist so I love studying trends in marketing and trying to understand people’s motivations.

TNW: If you could get on a soap box and get something off your chest about the world of entrepreneurship, something you’d like to change, what would it be?

SC: I think that sometimes there’s a little too much focus on one person.

Of course it takes the entrepreneur to come up with the idea and often a specific character to make it take shape but it’s generally a whole team that creates the success.

If you take Apple for instance, Steve Jobs was incredible but there were many other people in the Apple story who were equally incredibly talented and deserved the spotlight.

TNW: If you hadn’t chosen entrepreneurship, what alternative career path might you have pursued?

SC: I have always had a passion for advertising and design so I probably would have pursued that.

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it? 

SC: It’s not just about having a great product, it’s about how you commercialise that product.

The greatest challenge is breaking through in an already crowded space. How do you differentiate yourself? 

I think we have done quite well at being creative and trying to approach the market differently.

TNW: Is there a moment in the history of your company, which you remember as the highlight so far?

SC: I think it has to be watching the first trade come through the platform.  We have wanted to create this business for many years and it was incredibly hard work getting there.  Seeing your vision come to life and watching the customers engage with it for the first time was special.

TNW: Do you have plans to expand internationally? Which countries and when?

SC: Yes we do plan to expand into different markets. The US is of interest, in particular the west coast. I really admire the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of that region.

TNW: Do you envision an exit, how and when?

SC: We are committed to building the best business we can right now so are not focusing on the exit.

TNW: Briefly describe your history in raising investment for your company

SC: We are self funded

TNW: Do you believe it is better to find customers then funding or vice versa?

SC: One of the luxuries of being self funded means we can devote all our attention to finding and satisfying our customers.

TNW: Do you think that attitudes towards female entrepreneurs are changing?

SC: Yes but it probably doesn’t depend on the country and industry. New Zealand for instance has had a female prime minister, like Britain. I don’t know if that contributes to acceptance of female entrepreneurs but in my experience, it certainly feels like these places are very open to them.

TNW: What do you think could be done to increase the number of women entrepreneurs?

SC: I think it starts with school education. I was very inspired by strong, entrepreneurial women as a young girl but never really had the opportunity to hear from them as speakers. It was mainly men presenting traditionally male jobs.

I think it’s very important to teach young females that there are no restrictions on them and they are free to pursue any career they wish. The female icons of our time also tend to be actresses, models or reality TV stars so I think it would help if the media highlighted women in business more.

TNW: Do you believe that it is easier for technical women founders to achieve venture funding than non-technical? If so, what are your reasons for this?

SC: I don’t see why this would be the case. I think it ultimately would come down to relationships and ability to demonstrate the commercial proposition. This can be done if you are technical or non technical.

TNW: How would you describe your leadership style today?

SC: I hope that I lead by example and that my team sees that I’m not afraid of hard work. I think I’m pretty relentless in my pursuits. 

TNW: How has your leadership style changed over the years, and why?

SC: I used to struggle a lot with delegation and always felt I needed to oversee everything. You quickly realise that this is not possible and not fair on your team.

TNW: What is one lesson about leadership you learned from a boss or mentor?

SC: To have confidence in your views, follow your instincts and be determined.

TNW: What is one lesson you would like to pass on to other women leaders?

SC: I would say that as females, our strength is one of our greatest assets. For centuries women have endured hard times, worked, cared for children and their families and battled inequality. 

We still to some extent face these battles today and I think when we come up against these challenges we need to remind ourselves of the strength of our ancestors – our mothers and grandmothers and all the great women before us.

TNW: What is the best career or management decision you have made?

SC: During my time in investment banking I tried to ensure I always challenged things and didn’t just do the things the way they always had been done just because that’s what people were comfortable with. I strongly believe that skills can be taught but you can’t teach character. I set about finding a team of staff with the right characteristics to sell effectively and I trained them in e-FX trading.  During that time it was inconceivable to hire inexperienced people outside the industry so it was reasonably controversial and I met a lot of resistance along the way. The team went on to achieve a lot and we proved a concept. I was also fortunate to meet and work with some fantastic people during this time.

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