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.
I have met the most competent and diverse batch in this school. These people not only thrive on their own but also makes sure that you are doing it with them. The professors will take your had and walk you through all milestones and make sure you are not left behind. I have found their extracurriculars extremely engaging. There was always a room to have social life after academic life. The only hindrance is the location of the school, it is slightly outside city and living in city is expensive.
Internationality and diversity of opportunities
About my programme I would say it is very international and flexible: we have the opportunity to choose exactly the courses we want. But at the same time, the frame of the campus is crucial in students' life and enable us to create friendships.
Great selection of people
While HEC's MBA is highly selective, I really enjoy the type of people HEC's selects to make sure everybody gets the best out of their MBA experience and networking opportunities. Not only it's an incredibly diverse pool of people (~60 nationalities) but most importantly they make sure to let in friendly empathic and curious people.
Best in France for Grande ecole
A prestigious business school. Languages are important. It is better to have a scientific baccalaureate with excellent grades in high school and good assessments. The courses are well designed as per the latest trends and practicality of learning in stressed upon. Overall, a very good experience.
Diversity and quality of fellow students
Very international and interesting place to be and opens a lot of opportunities, however the administration is very french and facilities are subpar (gym, classrooms) meaning the academic affairs is pretty much useless and lastly we are graded on a curve which can create a toxic environment because of the competition. With that being said the pros outweighs the cons by far.
The quality of the teachers, the campus, the clubs
The school is very international indeed, we have courses with international students and share things with them within the extra academic life (in the social clubs especially). We have great career prospects if we prepare ourselves well - however, the global curriculum is still very finance-oriented, which is a pity for other interesting domains of the company world, which does not rely on finance only. The social clubs are good practice for the management and for now, are quite independent.
HEC Paris awaits you
HEC Paris is really a nice place to do a master's in business. Many classes are useful and interesting (corporate finance, financial accounting, contract law…), some are less - but the curriculum is to be reviewed in the year to come. Regarding the student life, it is incredible, with about 130 clubs, lots of great parties with even greater people. The Jouy campus offers a lot of opportunities to do sports, and you can breathe fresh air every day. HEC also helps a great deal to find an internship or a job.
A dream institute
Enrolling in the HEC MBA was by far the best decision I made for myself. The people and faculty are great, with lots of opportunities to meet people and expand your horizons. Very nice campus where I have had some good running sessions. The alumni network is superb and very helpful. It also has a good support system for entrepreneurs. Would definitely recommend it!