Investment bankers often dream of quitting the industry to start up their own venture. Some of the more altruistic even want to tackle a problem that benefits society. Mutaz Qubbaj has managed to do both.
Last year, he left behind a 15-year career in financial services and decided to ride the fintech wave, launching “financial well-being platform” Squirrel after being inspired to tackle the “extortionate” influx of pay-day loan companies in the UK.
“Pay day loan companies prey on the financially vulnerable, but most of their customers are employed. The sad fact is that a lot of people in the UK have less than £8 disposable income a day and one in four have £50 left over at the end of the month. It’s easy to get into trouble,” he says.
The idea of Squirrel is that your finances are in order before the pay packet hits your bank account. Bills are budgeted for, savings are taken and the pay cheque is staggered to ensure that you live within your budget and don’t run out of money before month end.
Qubbaj decided to leave Pimco last year after over 15 years working in financial services in 2014. He started out on Morgan Stanley’s residential mortgage-backed securities derivatives trading desk in New York during the height of the dotcom boom. Top investment banks were scouring the campus of MIT, where Qubbaj gained a degree in electrical engineering and computing, convincing scores of quantitative graduates to take up financial services careers.
“I spent a year working for an internet start-up, but at that time the barriers to entry bringing a product to market were much higher and it would have been an leap of faith to take the entrepreneurial route,” he says. “I opted for the pay cheque, and the multi-national company making it much easier for me to gain a visa to work in the US. I was happy to be a cog in a big machine.”
Qubbaj has thrown himself into the entrepreneurial world with the same rigour and enthusiasm you’d expect of an investment banker. He also has a salesman’s touch and name-drops all the accolades Squirrel has received over the past year – beating 350 companies to get on to the Barclays Fintech Accelerator programme, winner of the Pitch@Palace programme arranged by the Duke of York as well as Wired Magazine’s 2014 Pitch competition, a month with Boris Johnson in New York…
“The accelerator allowed us to access over 100 mentors, but we had people every day essentially asking us the question of why we existed,” he says. “It’s quite humbling, but really helped us generate belief in the product and refine it.”
For all the talk of the philanthropic benefits of Squirrel, Qubbaj is still keen to point to the opportunity offered by the market. He knows his stats and drops into the conversation that 20m people in the UK make less than £25k a year and that their resulting stress and workplace absences cost companies 4% of their bottom line annually.
Like most start-ups, Squirrel has not been without its teething problems – Qubbaj points to a hairy few months when they hired new employees but were still relying on their own money. The hours have been predictably long, but at least they’re now on his own terms: “I wake up at 2am with a new idea on how to improve the product, and spend an hour sending an email to the team for an hour before going back to sleep.”
Qubbaj says Squirrel is hiring – currently it has just eight employees but is on the lookout for developers and designers with a “passion for finance”. “If you’re a left-field talent who can work at lightspeed, maybe we can have a conversation.”