He left the world’s best-known investment bank for N26, a German fintech start-up that's backed by Peter Thiel and Li Ka-shing, a few years after picking up a master’s degree in finance at HEC Paris.
William no longer enjoyed the long hours typical on Wall Street — highlighting a key challenge investment banks face in hiring and holding millennials who place a high value on work-life balance.
Investment banks have long been likened to workhouses and they’ve taken drastic measures to improve recruits’ quality of life, prompted by the death of a Bank of American intern in 2013.
Fintech start-ups meanwhile are lauded as fast-moving ventures free from corporate rigidness but with a better work-life balance than at a bulge-bracket bank, and a sense of fulfilment or “purpose”.
William’s story will pique the interest of anyone considering a career in high-finance or at a fledgling fintech start-up. MBAs are warming to such ventures that promise to disrupt incumbent banks, like Nutmeg, Funding Circle or Digital Asset Holdings.
In a wide-ranging interview, William gave us a behind-the-scenes view of the working culture at a large financial institution like Goldman and a nimble start-up such as N26.
Here’s a snippet of the best bits:
A lot of business students would kill for a job at Goldman Sachs. Why did you jump ship to N26?
Everything is a question of perspective. Goldman Sachs is a great company and I’ve definitely learned a lot. I spent five years working there in London, which is a relatively long period of time when I look at the people who joined at the same time as I did. When you work such long hours, after some time you forget to ask yourself the questions that matter. I came to realize that I was no longer enjoying my job and no longer excited by it. As I could not see myself being a banker five years down the road, I decided to leave Goldman.
I didn’t feel like going into private equity or a hedge fund. For me it was the same [as investment banking]. I wanted something different, a new challenge. I wanted to contribute to building something. That’s why I looked for a smaller structure, something more dynamic, more operational, but neither on the investment nor on the advisory side; something more entrepreneurial, but that would also allow me to capitalize on my previous experience. I was covering financial institutions for Goldman. Fintech was the obvious choice.
N26 is probably one of the hottest fintech start-ups in Europe at the moment, backed by prominent investors. We’re trying to do two things: build the pan-European bank of tomorrow and build a fintech hub. All the while we always concentrate on creating a simple product that is easy to use and really makes banking enjoyable for customers. So if you want to work in the fintech industry, N26 is a pretty good place to be, as you get large exposure to the space.
How would you compare the working environment at a large corporate financial institution with that of a smaller, nimble start-up?
There are some obvious differences. In a start-up, the environment is less hierarchical; it’s much easier to interact with all the stakeholders. The stakeholders are also more diverse than in banking. Decisions can be taken much more quickly. As a consequence, it’s easier to take responsibility and ownership of a project. You really are in the driving seat and that’s thrilling. Those are the points that matter in my view. The other start-up perks that people have in mind — such as free drinks, food, ping-pong tables — are only a nice to have.
But then, you also have some similarities between the two. The start-up world, like the banking world, is composed of young, smart, hardworking, driven people. Usually you spend quite a lot of time with your co-workers inside and outside of working hours. Over time you build strong and lasting relationships.