The Entrepreneurs Behind This Multibillion Dollar Company Share Why Success Is Nothing Without a Partner You Can Rely on
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Editor's Note: Entrepreneur's "20 Questions" series features both established and up-and-coming entrepreneurs and asks them a number of questions about what makes them tick, their everyday success strategies and advice for aspiring founders.
Managing money and making it grow can be a confusing and expensive proposition.
Baiju Bhatt and Vlad Tenev started their investing platform Robinhood to try and make even the most novice investor feel comfortable and figure out a system that works for them -- whether they are going for more traditional stocks or working in the world of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Etherium.
Rather than make a commission on those investments, Robinhood’s business model is based around a monthly premium service Robinhood Gold, which allows users to increase their buying power and gain access to after-hours trading. It also brings in revenue by collecting interest on the cash and securities in user accounts, similar to how banks treat cash deposits.
Since launching the platform in in 2013, the company has grown to a user base of more than than 4 million users and over $100 billion in transaction volume. To date, they have also raised $539 million in funding, valuing the business at $5.6 billion.
We caught up with Bhatt and Tenev to ask them 20 Questions and find out what makes them tick.
1. How do you start your day?
Baiju Bhatt: I’m usually out of bed by 7am and try to get to the office early, which gives me a couple of uninterrupted hours to work on my individual projects. Tinkering with, and building the products Robinhood ships brings me joy.
Vlad Tenev: I wake up at around 6:30 am and spend some time with my wife, Celina, and our 1-year-old daughter, Nora, who enjoys crawling around the house as I get dressed and ready for work. Spending time with my family before I get to work is an essential part of my morning routine, and gets me motivated and ready to tackle the work day.
2. How do you end your day?
Bhatt: Most nights of the week I make it a point to get home in time to have dinner with my wife. It’s a simple routine to maintain my work-life balance.
Tenev: I try to come home around 7:30 pm, in time for Nora’s nightly bath. Sometimes, I come back to the office around 9 pm, or work a bit more from home until I go to bed, usually around 11:00 pm.
3. What’s a book that changed your mind and why?
Bhatt: Brighter Than a Thousand Suns by Robert Jungk and Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! by Richard Feynman were both books my father purchased for me when I was in high school. Both left a lasting impression on me, because they chronicle the lives of some of the most creative scientists of the 21st century.
Tenev: I recently read Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who is probably better known for writing The Black Swan. This book discusses systems that actually improve as a result of volatility and external stressors. The general concept is applicable to many fields beyond biology, for instance finance, economics and monetary policy.
4. What’s a book you always recommend and why?
Bhatt: The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin. I’m fascinated by the privatization of the space industry, and Zubrin’s literature provides an inspiring perspective on what the colonization of Mars could look like.
Tenev: I like the classics such as The Republic by Plato and The Art of War by Sun Tzu. I think there is something special about books that have stood the test of time and been read by millions of people over millennia.
5. What’s a strategy to keep focused?
Bhatt: I limit how often I let technology interrupt my day, which given my line of work, isn’t always easy. So, for example, I turned off all notifications on my phone a few years ago. I also prefer taking notes with a notebook and pen rather than in an app.
Tenev: Over the past few years I’ve become much more deliberate about how I spend my time. At work, this involves scheduling time in advance to prepare for important meetings and also just to think. Outside of the office, I rarely stay up late or go out at night. I make sure I am well-rested and at the top of my game, even on weekends.
6. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
Bhatt: I wanted to be a physicist. When I was growing up, my father worked at NASA and he would buy me science books for my birthdays.
Tenev: My childhood dream was to be a writer. When I was in sixth grade I remember being very upset by the ending of Animal Farm by George Orwell. I wrote a full-length sequel [to the book]l in which a group of kind and just animals take back control of the farm.
7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?
Bhatt: I’ve only had one real job in my life before I started my first company with Vlad, so I haven’t had a bad boss experience. Hopefully, it stays that way.
Tenev: I never had an actual boss because I mostly did research prior to starting my first finance company. I wish I had a lot more hands-on mentorship from the research supervisors that I worked with.
8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?
Bhatt: Vlad. He’s persistent, creative and cool-as-a-cucumber in the most stressful of situations.
Tenev: Baiju is probably the person I’ve spent the largest amount of time working with, and I try to emulate whenever possible. I admire Baiju’s strong product intuition and ability to drive us to build products that customers really love.
9. What’s a trip that changed you?
Bhatt: I’ve taken quite a few road trips across the country as an adult, and each time I’m reminded of the diverse backgrounds and experiences of Americans, and the abundance of our natural resources.
Tenev: When I was in high school I went on a school trip to the Galapagos Islands. I learned that there are places in the world that are basically untouched by humans, and I yearn to return.
10. What inspires you and why?
Bhatt: I’m inspired by those whose creativity has changed the world -- from Alexander Hamilton, to Richard Feynman and Steve Jobs.
Tenev: I’m inspired by great entrepreneurs, scientists and creative builders who have changed the world they inhabit through grit and determination.
11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
Bhatt: Before we launched Robinhood, our first joint startup business was offering tools for hedge funds and banks to build automated trading strategies. This was the precursor to Robinhood, and inspired us to bring existing technology to the retail brokerage market.
12. What was an early job that taught you something important or useful?
Bhatt: The summer after my senior year of high school I worked on a particle accelerator at Jefferson Lab. I learned the importance of being able to figure out how to get stuff done even though I had jumped into the deep end.
Tenev: When I was in elementary school my friend and I set up a stand in the neighborhood to sell household tools. Selling is a basic skill that unfortunately isn’t taught in schools.
13. What’s the best advice you ever took?
Bhatt: Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech. “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”
Tenev: Choose a great life partner! True for both my co-founder and my wife; they make me better with each passing day.
14. What's the worst piece of advice you ever got?
Bhatt: In the context of Robinhood, we’ve gotten advice on the rate at which we should grow our team. Robinhood has been able to scale by hiring the right people, not the most people.
Tenev: When we first started the company, we got turned down by about 75 investors. If we had listened to most of the advice we were given then, Robinhood wouldn’t be what it is today.
15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
Bhatt: Take lots of notes. Details matter.
Tenev: Write everything down.
16. Is there an app or tool you use in a surprising way to get things done or stay on track?
Bhatt: Maybe it’s not that surprising, but having a notebook and a pencil handy is all I need.
Tenev: I’m not really answering the question here, but for the past several months I have been keeping my phone in a different room when I sleep. Also, when I have my phone with me I keep it on Do Not Disturb mode. There’s nothing worse for my productivity than constantly being interrupted.
17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
Bhatt: Having the mental space to focus just on work at the office, and just on family and relaxing at home.
Tenev: I try to optimize my life around working and spending time with my wife and daughter, which is what I enjoy the most. Everything else I put on the backburner.
18. How do you prevent burnout?
Bhatt: Daily exercise and spending time in nature.
Tenev: Try a scene change -- go to the gym, on a hike, or take a vacation.
19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating?
Bhatt: I like debating and challenging my assumptions, especially on tough problems. I like working with people who come to different conclusions, and seek to understand their thinking.
Tenev: Ignore the problem for a few days, get the subconscious mind working on it. When you’re doing something totally unrelated, the solution might just pop into your head.
20. What are you learning now?
Bhatt: I’m learning to be a better public speaker and leader of people. As the organization and headcount at Robinhood has grown to over 150 employees, it’s a fascinating new challenge.
Tenev: I have been learning the Irish Whistle and trying to teach my daughter how to play it. It’s a small, recorder-type instrument, and it should be easy to play. I’m excited about teaching my daughter the joy of music.