It’s been exactly 6 years since I resigned from Nomura, to embark on the path to working in fintech startup life, initially with my main focus being The Thalesians and over the past three years with my full time focus at Cuemacro. On each anniversary that has passed, I’ve found it a good exercise to write about the lessons I’ve learnt along the way. If you’re in banking and are looking to contemplate startup life (or are already in a startup), hopefully, the points I make will prove useful. If you enjoy the article and are interested in hearing more about what Cuemacro can do for your business in terms of alternative data, transaction cost analysis and quant consulting and much more, let me know!
You have to start again rebuilding your brand
No one really likes to hear the following: when you’re in a large bank, one of the main reasons clients engage with you is because you are at a large institution! Of course, hopefully, you personally provide them with a valuable service, but ultimately it’s not just about you. When you’re outside of that environment, at a startup, you need to rebuild your brand. Of course, it helps having a good CV, but it’s not enough. No one “owes” you business, even if you have known them in the past in a big bank. You have to go out and prove you can do it as an independent. For me, that means going beyond what I think a large firm is offering, and giving the client a more personalised experience, providing excellent value and having an ability to be more flexible. Whilst it’s tougher to make your case when you don’t have a massive bank behind you, you do have the freedom to meet whoever you want, have meetings with them etc. In practice, I ended up meeting most of my Cuemacro clients after my time in banking. The key of course is to be hard working and to show what you can offer. If you don’t tell people what you do and illustrate how you can help them, then no matter how good your products or services are, they won’t buy.
You’ll mess up stuff along the way: learn from it
Lots of the stories you hear about entrepreneurs are the successes, the folks who dropped out of their undergraduate degree to be successful. You don’t tend to hear the many missteps along the way or the folks who fold after a year (or the undergrad drop outs who wish they’d at least spent an extra year to get a degree). Speaking from personal experience, whilst painful, the mistakes you make in a startup are lessons in themselves. I had initially planned on selling quant research subscriptions. The timing wasn’t particularly great, pre-MiFID II, but ultimately, I ended up pivoting along the way. I started Cuemacro with a focus towards more bespoke quant projects, and have also created products like data indices (on Fed communications and NDF indicators) and software, in particular TCA and Python based libraries. Ultimately, I’m still doing my “quant” thing, but changing how I sell what I do. I’ve adapted to the environment and the market, which has been important for my startup. There’s still a long road ahead, but I’m gradually getting there.
You’ll eventually find the right path
I remember when I quit my job at Nomura, someone very smart, who I’d known for ages at a buy side firm, suggested that I develop a transaction cost analysis (TCA) solution for banks. At the time, I had done similar sorts of analysis for traders at Nomura, but I didn’t end up perusing the idea. A few years later, I did a big project for a large European asset manager developing a TCA library in Python, which has now evolved into my tcapy product. In retrospect, it would have been better to develop a TCA product earlier, and to take the advice at the time. But the opportunity to do this eventually presented itself, so I finally took it. Basically, you’ll find the right path if you keep on going and have an open mind. Another lesson is, think very carefully, when smart people give you advice. They aren’t always right, but let’s face it neither are you (I direct this comment towards myself). Whilst arrogance might be inexhaustible, capital generally is…!
It’s not easy: you need to learn new skills
Lots of folks I know in banking want to try something else. In practice, banking is still a good occupation, despite all the changes in the market. Startup life is very different. You get more freedom, but equally, there are many challenges. You have so much freedom to do anything, which is a massive search space! Furthermore, you have to get comfortable with doing everything. For me, that means also doing sales and marketing. Sales and business development is key, without that, you can’t bring in any revenue, no matter how good your products might be. In terms of more core quant and coding skills, I’ve tried to continually improve them too. I’ve improved my Python skills over the years and am far more confident when it comes to the more difficult coding concepts, than I ever was when I was in a bank.
Do something you enjoy
Apologies for using a cliche! I could have totally changed what I do. But I really love markets, and have done for 15 years. For me it was important that my next steps still kept me in markets. I still want to check where EUR/USD is trading everyday when I wake up (ok, except Saturday and Sunday..), I still want to hear what Powell is saying and Draghi too! When I no longer do any of these things, I guess it means I’ll have to do something different. The beginning stages of a startup are very challenging. If it’s not something that you enjoy or inspires you, then it’s going to make it extremely difficult to get through the rough patches. I’m not saying it has to be in the same area as your banking career, it simply needs to be somewhere, where you believe your experience can add value.
Startup life is far more volatile than a corporate job. Most folks don’t stay the course, and quickly go back to corporate life after less than a year. There’s little way around the volatility. It’s important to celebrate the successes, but equally to keep going through the difficult patches and to keep going. If you can get through those periods, you’ll be stronger for it. I actually think having a trading mentality is helpful, because the whole concept of managing risk is an inherent part of trading. The same is true of a startup, although clearly the risks are often different. Ultimately, you’re long vol in a startup, and need to comfortable with that, but how out-of-money that optionality is, will depend on a number of factors. I’d also extend the analogy, to say there’s a different throwing someone else’s money at incredibly low delta options, where the market will never trade there.. or getting some ATM vol, with a more realistic but lower payoff.
Here’s to another year of startup life and an extra year closer to my goals. I’ve learnt so much. It’s difficult to truly learn how to create a startup, until you actually take the plunge. I’m sure reading about it can help, but it’s not quite the same thing – just like with coding, you can read as many books as you want. However, until you’re up to your eyeballs in debugging code, you really won’t learn. There is always so much to learn though, whether it’s coding, running a startup or anything really.