The Personal Impact Of Leaving A Corporate To Create A Startup
Running a fintech startup offers a unique chance to change the world.
I was 29, working in investment banking for HSBC in London, and had opportunities to travel around the world. I was on a great career path. But in 2015, I gave all of that up to start a fintech startup in the Middle East, NOW Money. Why?
Any job has many advantages and many disadvantages. For me, my job in banking gave me the primary advantages of money, progression, and structure. But it also gave me the disadvantages of a lack of independence, a lack of meaning, and a lot of bureaucracy.
On paper, the advantages should have outweighed the disadvantages. The money was great (although I didn’t fully appreciate this at the time!), and on the face of it, I led a jet-set lifestyle. I had flown around the US in a private jet at age 27. I come from a modest background where people just don’t get these opportunities. But I was unhappy, and I didn’t know why. I felt like my life was slowly slipping away, and dreamed of feeling like my life had more purpose and meaning. It is only now, almost five years in to my journey as an entrepreneur, that I understand why I felt what I felt in my banking job.
Leaving the security of such a job, starting a company from scratch, and moving countries is hard. It is only through the process of going through the lowest of lows -and the highest of highs- that I have learned so much about myself, and what drove me to make such a dramatic leap. When you leave your job and start as an entrepreneur, the first thing that happens is the money stops. When you’ve earned a good salary consistently for years, the impact of this disappearing -and the speed that you start to eat through your savings- hits you mentally. All of a sudden, time becomes the most valuable asset, and something you’re acutely aware of - and how little of it you have before you will need to get a salary again. My co-founder Katharine Budd and I, when we started NOW Money, naively thought we’d be able to pay ourselves a salary again within six months. However, it took 15 months before we got an income again, in which time we’d had to support ourselves and the company in Dubai, each burning through US$90,000 in the process, which was all we had. We were broke- had it taken one more month to raise seed funding, we’d have had to go back to corporate jobs to support ourselves again, and NOW Money would never have happened. Exaggerating the new pressure of time is the feeling of having to start from nothing. With your HSBC Investment Bank business card and an email address ending with “@hsbc.co.uk,” you get a swift response from most people you write to. At the time, you feel it’s because of you and your expertise- but without it, you quickly realize people were responding mainly to the corporate brand. Replacing this takes time, and a lot of effort, as there are no shortcuts. An example of this is that at HSBC, every law firm wanted to work for us. I assumed this was what law firms were like.
Then, when we had started NOW Money, we met and spoke to every firm we could in Dubai, and found only one firm that would even open a meaningful dialogue with us. It was the same story with potential investors, banks, partners, clients. Everything had to start from scratch. Every ounce of respect and traction was earned with hard graft- we got no head start with anyone. A big thing that helped for us was moving from working from Katharine’s front room to a co-working space, where we were all of a sudden in the middle of a network of people experiencing similar issues, on whom we could lean on to help with advice and contacts to get issues sorted. The time pressure, lack of money, and feeling of having to start from nothing inevitably have an impact on your personal life. We closed a funding round whilst I was on honeymoon (In hindsight, this was not a good idea!), been issued with legal notices at Christmas, and my daughter was born at the most stressful time running the business to date. Some of these, I’ll look back on as real milestones; all are, I know, great learning experiences, but none are particularly enjoyable for anyone that is close to, or relies on, you. I am fortunate to have Lucy Dillon as my wife, who is the most wonderful and supportive person I know, but I have no doubt I have tested her to the limit!
Writing this, I could go on and on about the challenges faced as an entrepreneur; however, I think the point has been made- it’s tough. So, why am I not back working in banking now? Firstly, it is in countering these challenges you learn more than you could any other way, and come to understand yourself. In doing so, you come to respect yourself so much more. I’ve been put in the most adverse, stressed scenarios that impact every facet of my life, and come out of them with my head held high, knowing I acted in accordance to my beliefs. Not everyone has this- I take some kind of strange comfort in knowing that when pushed to the absolute limit, I will act calmly, with dignity, and stay true to what I believe in- because I’ve been there. Secondly, slowly but surely, it does start to get easier.
Four and a half years after we started, we’re now awash with law firms wanting to work with us. Katharine and I have been able to pay ourselves a salary for the past three years- albeit a modest one, with a couple of gaps! We also have some of the world’s leading venture capital firms as investors, and we have a team of 12 that I believe are some of the best people I know. It still feels twice as hard as working in a bank, but I’ve made peace with that now! Finally, running a fintech startup offers a unique chance to change the world. We’ve had a rollercoaster in getting here, but we’re the first and only in this region to launch effectively a branchless bank, we’re bringing hundreds of previously unbanked workers into the financial system every month, have been a part in changing the whole financial services landscape in the GCC, and promoting the realities and opportunities in region to the rest of the world. It’s been uncomfortable, and I may never be as financially wealthy than if I had of stayed in banking- but I feel wealthier in every other way. I am thankful for everything the last four and a half years has brought to me, and I am excited for what lies ahead in the future. Would I be able to say these things had I not changed course? Almost certainly not.