By Anna Chan
Having studied Accounting and Finance at university, I naturally ended up working in finance. At the beginning, it was a thrilling few years:
- The super financial model I built, that would take 10 minutes to open (if I was lucky)
- The long hours and all-nighters
- The crazy touch rugby breaks at mid-night with your fellow colleagues
- The feeling of “being important” by being in the room with some heavy hitters
- The fancy celebratory dinners after closing a deal
- And I would not mention the strip clubs — that would be too stereotypical
I thoroughly enjoyed the intensity and the intellectual challenge from my banking and consulting days.
The main reason I decided to move from banking to startups
As much as I value the “lifestyle” and experience that banking had offered me, I missed the creativity aspect of work. By lifestyle, it was all about the work-party balance — trying to manage 5 hours of sleep between work, partying and more work.
When I was little, I had always been very creative. My parents were fine art and antique dealers, so I grew up with colours and imagination. I never took art seriously, but when I did, my work was always selected for exhibitions and recommended for competitions. I never had the chance to pursue the creative drive that was in me. It wasn’t until a few years back when I started painting again. I realised I was really missing that creative headspace. And as bizarre as it may sound, I wanted uncertainty.
By chance, I stumbled across the startup scene in Copenhagen. I fell in love with it. I realised that I took creativity too literally when I rediscovered my love for art. Being creative doesn’t mean you have to paint, draw or compose a new song. Building a startup is just as creative as these conventional artistic endeavours. I believe it is just as rewarding when you have created a solution for a problem that people can identify and pay for.
So I set myself a goal: I will combine my business and financial skills and bring my creativity to life.
The most valuable thing I did to prepare for the new industry/role.
I don’t think I prepared anything in particular for the career change. I think it was the change itself that prepared me to handle my day-to-day job. A Change gives you motivation. A Change gives you energy. And change gives you the thirst to learn.
Nonetheless, my analytical skills, business acumen and work experience definitely gave me the credentials to work for a startup.
I look after business development at EasySize. It is certainly quite different from analysing financial statements and calculating returns on investment. Besides using a lot more soft skills on the job, I also have to be analytical, but in a different way. We have to measure everything at EasySize in order to understand what is working and what is not. I am used to all the financial ratios and business drivers, so it has been really handy when I need to come up with our internal sales metrics at EasySize.
I am not involved in fundraising for EasySize, because our CEO is handling that. Regardless, I think one of the most valuable skills I can transfer over is that I understand the lingo from an investor’s perspective. It might not be directly related to startups, as most of the transactions I was involved in were for very established businesses, but at the end of the day — we still need to speak financials and the numbers need to add up.
Some of the stark differences from working at a bank to startup. In some way, I think the two are quite similar and yet so different…
The people. I loved my peer group when I was working in finance and consulting. I have to admit that I had trouble loving some of the senior management, or partners in the firm or bank. It was probably because of the size and the nature of banking and consulting because sometimes you are just a number and can easily get lost in the system. That being said, I was lucky enough to have some amazing line managers that I am still friends with.
At a startup. Your team is your family! You are in the battle together. If the startup doesn’t perform, your whole team’s job would be on the line. It forms a natural bond between the founders, you, and your colleagues. Being a young startup, we have more young people on the team… so now instead of being the mentee, I am the one that is helping some of our team members grow. This is very rewarding!
Workload. I don’t think anything could compare to banking hours. But, it doesn’t mean that we get less done at a startup. It is about efficiency. I am still improving on that front, aren’t we all? ;)
Table tennis table. I love playing ping pong with my colleagues every day. It is the world’s no. 1 “brain sport” according to the legendary New York Times puzzle creator Will Shortz. I am becoming more and more “Chinese” as I get better at it.
Intellectual challenge. I have met and worked with some really smart people through my previous careers. If not, some of the smartest people that I have met in my professional life. They are amazing at their jobs with outstanding analytical and people skills.
In contrast, the tech community allows me to connect with some of the brightest scientists, makers, futurists and visionaries of today. The ability to apply existing knowledge and create something in the unknown is very inspirational. I am very excited to be a part of this gastronomical action.
Is there a trend of banking professionals switching to the startup world?…
YES, and I want to categorise them into three camps.
Ones that make the jump. For whatever reason, be it a true calling for creating your own startup, be part of the hype or just simply sick of banking and got burnt out. I have been lucky enough to meet some very talented women that have made the jump — they not only inspire me on a daily basis, they also remind me that I am not alone in picking this road less travelled. Salone Sehgal, a close friend of mine who went from running multi-million dollar deals to become the CEO of TrulySocial. She has recently published a blog post about “Behind the veil the truth that all entrepreneurs bravely hide” — I recommend it! Aigerim Shorman, another dear friend that quit her investment banking job in New York and started a number one ranked travel app on the Apple App Store before joining Facebook last year.
Ones that talk about the jump. They like the idea of being part of a startup but it is difficult to let go of the current financial security due to lifestyle choices and family commitments. Often these professionals don’t know where to start looking and question whether their skillsets are actually transferable to a startup.
Ones that read about others making the jump. They will only look for startup jobs that can compensate them at market rate. This is not really going to happen unless you are the founder and you pay yourself a high salary. Startups are no longer startups when they can afford to hire a banker at market rate (even after substantial pay cut). These are corporates like Facebook, Google and Zendesk.
There is only a handful of banking friends that I know who have crossed the ditch (maybe because I don’t know enough people! I may need a bigger sample). I do see the majority of my banking and consulting friends belonging to the last two categories, perhaps more people talk about it than read about it.
If you are one of these people who is sitting on the fence, please do me a favour and ask yourself: “would you regret it if you wake up at 50 one day, and said to yourself ‘damn, I wonder what would’ve happened if I started or joined a startup that really would have made a tiny dent in this world.’”
Banking will always be there if everything else fails. That was the last thought that went through my head before I handed in my resignation letter.
What if you want to make the jump as well? Here is my advice…
To be honest, a career change is not for the faint hearted. I wanted to leave banking 3 years back but I wasn’t prepared. I was probably still not prepared for it when I resigned in 2014 but because of a hard deadline (my visa was about to expire), I had to make the jump and move to Copenhagen.
It was a lot of change in one go. I moved countries, switched industries and changed roles. But I have never looked back. If you want to change career, then the best advice I can give is Just Do It ( Nike, sorry, have to borrow your slogan ). There is never a perfect time to do anything drastic. It is like becoming a parent, my friends told me that there is never a perfect time to be a mother, you will be ready when you become one (okay, I am not talking about having a baby while you are still in high school. But it might work for some, you never know!)
For those that are a bit less risk averse, I know chartering into the unknown is scary. Trust me, I know! I grew a pair when I made the jump. One of the beautiful things about banking is that you are often well compensated, so I did prepare myself financially. I had enough savings for my “between jobs” period.
Lastly, when you are so green in a new industry, don’t expect to get compensated handsomely at the beginning. These are startups that you are going to work with, cash flow is their bloodline, they will not shorten their runway to hire an ex-banker (we need to come back down from cloud nine once you leave that revolving door). So you have to expect to go down in compensation should you decide to jump from banking to startups. That being said, you are essentially swapping bonuses for options, high salary for a more exciting opportunity to build something that you feel passionate about, high-flying lifestyle for flexible working hours (well, this differs between startup to startup).
I definitely am living the life that I have asked for: uncertainty, excitement and a huge exit! The last one was for joke, but it would be a bonus!