Specialise in: fintech startups
Arguably, starting a financial technology company is unlike setting up a business in most other sectors. Defined as an industry that seeks to disrupt traditional financial services through technological innovation, fintech is undergoing evolution at pace. Fintech startups are challenging institutions that, in some cases, have had a business presence for hundreds of years.
Meanwhile, as the technology develops and spreads globally at speed, challenging long established patterns of consumer behaviour and ripping up corporate playbooks, regulators are in hot pursuit trying to write new rules.
Not surprisingly then, working in the sector can be a high-speed experience. ‘I love that I am always at the edge of my seat,’ says Zann Kwan FCCA, co-founder of Bitcoin Exchange and Deodi in Singapore.
Particularly in the early days, a founder will be involved in every facet of a young business: back office, front office, business development, overall leadership and being the face of the company. Roles might change over time as the company grows, more staff are taken on and leadership is delegated to allow an acuter focus on core areas and targets.
It’s vital to develop a strong team from the ground up, while also raising the funds that will spark the development and growth of not only the business, but of the personal development, motivation and wellbeing of the team. You also need to able to swiftly and astutely identify team members that do not fit well with the business’s ethics and culture. That means starting out with a strong idea of the kind of company and culture you want to build.
Lastly, startups are not for the fainthearted. You need to expect the unexpected and be ready to navigate potentially fast-paced growth in a rapidly evolving regulatory and commercial landscape.
Kwan says: ‘One of the most important attributes for startup founders is embracing uncertainties and the unknowns, and to acknowledge the limitations of “not knowing what we do not know”. Founding a startup is similar to driving a car at night in bad weather, with a rough idea of where you would like to go, while steering with instructions from team members inside the car and advice from mentors outside of it.’
Being a successful founder requires virtually all the qualities that define a good business leader. You need to be visionary, empathetic, energetic, commercial, inspirational, communicative, patient, clear, driven, strategic and ambitious.
‘Working in a small team in an early growth company magnifies the importance of soft skills. I would add awareness and gumption to the list – awareness of knowing what is going on in various parts of the company, and the gumption to ask for help and resources,’ says Kwan.
Few people carry such a complete set of skills and attributes, whether naturally or through training and experience, so you need to be capable of adapting and learning on the go. Kwan likes the fact that she’s always picking up nascent technical knowledge, sharpening soft skills and sharing experiences with like-mind entrepreneurs and domain experts.
One attribute not yet mentioned relates to technological capabilities, but the vision and the business acumen to execute it are far more important for a fintech founder. Of course, it pays not to be technologically illiterate, but the idea is you build the team of tech wizards to make your vision a reality.
Similarly, a finance background is not necessarily a fast track to a better fintech product. In the running of a financial services business, though, it can prove invaluable.
Getting in and getting on
Anyone, anywhere can have an idea for a fintech business, but relevant experience can be the catalyst for a strong vision, the confidence to execute it and the ability to win all-important funding.
For example, Kwan’s core strengths in accounting and finance allowed her to work in investment management and real estate portfolio management. That in turn opened doors to more technology-driven projects and eventually to cryptocurrency and blockchain.
Depending on how hands-on you want to be and how big the company grows, you can remain integral to its running and leadership, or take more of a back seat as the enterprise takes on a life of its own.
Founders can take on board-level advisory roles with both corporate and non-corporate organisations, and become guest speakers and thought leaders on conference circuits. For some founders, exit strategies (which can include IPOs and M&A) may be a priority; other founders may be serial entrepreneurs, full of ideas and driven by the sheer buzz of launching startups.
Author: Neil Johnson, journalist
This article was first published in AB magazine December 2021