Up until early 2017 I’d spent more than 10 years working at SWIFT, a global fintech innovator established back in the 1970s that has since developed some of the advanced technology used by today’s financial institutions. In May of that year, I joined a fintech start-up that had only been operating for six months in Hong Kong. What made me leave SWIFT? There were many reasons, but the main trigger was that I was tired of witnessing and falling victim to the hunger games of office politics.
Soon after deciding to leave, I was standing behind the yellow line at an MTR station on the way to work when I spotted a familiar face waiting for my train. It was Alex Medana, who I’d worked with two years previously and who had recently co-founded a Hong Kong start-up called FinFabrik. We got chatting, re-established our friendship, and a few weeks later I took the plunge and joined Alex at his new company.
When you’re deciding whether to join a start-up, always look at who is in the team. Your potential colleagues should be at the top of your checklist. I joined my new firm only after meeting all the visionary leaders there.
When I started my new job, however, I felt as though I was in a deep swamp, and the ironic part was that I had let myself fall into it. The blood, sweat and tears of working for a start-up aren’t exclusive to the company founders – they are shared among the team. Lessons are learnt the hard way at a start-up, but these lessons stay with you for longer.
The work you do in a fintech start-up has almost no boundaries, is hyper hands-on, and consumes a lot of your energy. You take on multiple jobs across different areas – from tax filing and trademark registration to sourcing new office space and paying everyone’s salary. Sometimes working at a start-up is like patching up holes – you do wherever tasks you need to do, whenever you can.
But before you join a fintech start-up, ask yourself if you’re really ready to stretch yourself in this way and do things unheard of in your former corporate life. My own job is constantly defying what I learnt in my previous career – namely adherence to hierarchy, checks and balances, and the scattering of knowledge throughout the company so that work can rarely be done single-handedly.
Despite all the sleepless nights over the past year, I’m still happy that I made the move to a start-up. I think the longer you stay at a large financial institution (and benefit from the comfort and stability of your job) the more immune you become to new ways of thinking and working.
There is much more autonomy in the start-up world, because there are not as many rules set in place. My firm is still small and has a flat structure. Anyone who has an idea can just stand up, voice it, and then action it (if it makes sense for everyone else in the room). You don’t need to be senior, or even have experience in the particular subject area, to make a suggestion.
Feel the fear
I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection since moving to my start-up because I initially feared not being good enough at a job that has so many new and different elements to it. For example, I was fearful about doing a 20-minute introduction in Mandarin about the company in front of a mainland audience. But I’ve now learnt to be more mindful about these kind of fears. I acknowledge them, assign a more neutral connotation to them, and solve them at a pace that I am comfortable with.
Like at any company, you will face bad times at a start-up, and when you do, you should ask for help as soon as possible. For example, I recently found a career mentor who’s given me encouraging support. Holding onto too much stress after moving to a start-up (without discussing your problems and finding out the root cause of your stress) is a killer.
Working for a start-up is like having a second chance to start your career. It’s an opportunity to unlearn a lot of things that no longer serve you and learn new things that will help you. Above all, you need enormous amounts of patience to deal with the ever-changing company and market dynamics, and you must be open to embrace new knowledge and be comfortable with the idea that you don’t know everything about your job.
Connie Ma is the marketing lead at FinFabrik, a Hong Kong fintech start-up specialising in B2B white-labelling trading execution solutions for multi assets, including cryptoassets. FinFabrik is two years old today.