How I broke into Fintech from Finance (and how it feels after a year and a half)

A few weeks ago Alex Konrad at Forbes tweeted a column written by Jake Saper at Emergence Capital about how to break into the tech startup world as a non-technical person. In the article Jake shared his secret sauce that takes 3 steps: find a fast-growing but later-stage company, focus on a function where you can leverage certain skill-set, and then broaden your network with VCs and recruiters.

Jake came up with these ideas from observations from VC perspective but he hasn’t tried these on himself. As someone who shifted career from traditional finance to fintech, I think it’d be interesting to compare Jake’s points with my experiences.

For background, I’m a liberal arts grad (Carleton College ’11) with econ + math degree. I was born and raised in China until after high school. By the time I was looking for startup jobs, I was at the end of my 4-year tenure at Franklin Templeton Investment’s Global Macro team, one of the best and largest global macro investors in the FX and sovereign debt world, which managed about $200 billion at the peak and made headlines because of our investments in Ireland in 2011 and Ukraine in 2015.

Step 1: “Hop on a rocket ship”

Tactically, this makes perfect sense. For a person in a large traditional financial institution (e.g. mutual fund, bank, insurance etc.), a super-early stage company is too risky and very likely not a good cultural fit. Most large corporates are operationally risk-averse, but a startup is constantly fighting to survive for even the next 3 months. Also, if you already got used to working within a specific role in a big corporate, it is challenging to shift gear and adjust to a role where you have to wear different hats all the time.

More mature companies such as Facebook or Google were not in my consideration, because they are too far beyond the “startup” phase. So for me, it was an intuitive decision to look for middle-stage but fast growing ones.

How to find them? Back then, there were fewer lists similar to the one Jake mentioned, so I had to keep reading TechCrunch and other tech media to create my own list (just like when I started reading Wall Street Journal and Financial Times when looking for banking/finance jobs in college). Pay special attention to those who recently raised money (within the past 3–6 months) — it’s always a good indicator that the company is expanding into new markets or new products, which means hiring is needed.

This is exactly how I found out about Adyen — TechCrunch reported that it raised a massive round of $250 million from General Atlantic and Temasek to fuel expansion in the US and Asia. And then the company posted the job opening for Business Analytics Manager in its SF office. Of course, there were several companies on the list, but what made Adyen stand out was because of my interactions with people I know there, which I’m going to touch on later.

Step 2: “Find a function and focus on it”

The thought process of is similar to writing a personal statement for business school. First you need to know what your strengths are, including hard skills such as language, data, marketing, sales, strategy, etc., as well as soft skills such as multi-tasking, communications, flexibility, behavior under pressure, and so on. Then you’ll have to figure out if it fits your career goal and your vision.

For my case, my education and work background gave me pretty solid data skills. Another strength was from researching on economic fundamentals on many countries during my Franklin Templeton years — I was familiar with cultures, consumer patterns and financial markets of many countries. Also, my previous job was a great balance between the technical world (most of the people I worked with are Econ PhD’s with policy-making or IMF/World Bank background), and the business world (well, you have to deal with the bankers and investors to survive in the financial market), so I have the perspectives of both worlds.

All of these indicate that I am a great fit to the Business Analytics Manager position at Adyen. Adyen needs someone who has a good understanding of global financial system (since its a fintech company) and who is knowledgeable on global consumer market (since most of its clients are the likes of Facebook, Uber, Netflix, and Burberry who deal with consumers globally). Also, specifically for this job opening, an ideal candidate would have great data skills (bread and butter for the work) and business sense (since the role is client-facing).

In addition, fintech would be a great field to get into from a career goal perspective, since it’s a booming sector and interesting thing are happening there. I can see myself in fintech in the long term working on analytics, strategy, and partnership.

Step 3: “Lever up your search”

Networking with recruiters is something I didn’t try back then, but I did use some help from my girlfriend who was working in tech investment banking (she is going to be my wife next summer — after dating for almost 9 years.). She met Adyen’s CEO at a tech conference her bank hosted, and mentioned to him that I was applying for a job there.

As for networking with VC, I’m not sure how much it would help for Adyen’s case. Since it’s an Amsterdam-based company, and since most of the VC’s here are more familiar with American fintech startups such as Square and Stripe, many of them had never heard of Adyen back then.

The most relevant network would be with the company’s employees. It’s essential to go through your LinkedIn and ask for introductions — both to see if it’s a good cultural fit (the most important factor in startup hiring) and if the person could be a referral (this is a tricky one to ask since that person’s reputation is at stake, although there’s referral bonus). Luckily I found a friend at Adyen who told me great things about Adyen, thought I was a great cultural fit, and was happy to refer me. I enjoyed talking to everyone during my many rounds of interviews, and eventually joined the team.

How do I feel now?

The past year and a half has been amazing. Traveling to Amsterdam a few times every year is a great perk, especially when you can hang out with Adyen people working around the world. We have been growing extremely fast, and at the same time thinking how we can scale our business for the long term. This means we are constantly working on improving our infrastructure, strategizing and optimizing our solutions for more than 250 payment methods in more than 180 countries, as well as partnering with great clients such as Facebook, Uber, Netflix and Spotify (the list is simply too long)… to tackle new challenges. It feels rewarding working with these amazing colleagues and being part of this wonderful team.

Hope you find this post helpful in their career-change process, especially if you come from liberal arts background who lacks technical skills, or if you are in a traditional industry and would love to pivot to tech.

Views = my own.