Brian Bissonette, the founder and CEO of WorkingGroupLink, a business-to-business financial technology company, rose to director in the investment banking division of Bank of America Merrill Lynch before starting his own software-as-a-service startup targeting commercial, corporate and investment bankers. We spoke to him about his career path leading up to his current venture and lessons learned along the way.
How did you start in investment banking? Why did you quit for fintech?
I was working in management consulting in the late ’90s, focused on healthcare, and I liked consulting well enough, but I wanted to do something more quantitative. As I was looking around, Montgomery Securities announced that they were bulking up in healthcare investment banking and had brought in two senior bankers from Morgan Stanley to lead the charge. So I cold-called them, and they hired me.
I worked straight through for 12 years – and two mergers – rising to director at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and it was great, but it became clear to me that I needed to do something else.
Startups are always low probability, but there are some statistics that suggest that your best bet as a founder is to build a product for an industry that you worked in for a long time and that you would have paid for. I knew investment banking pretty well, and I knew that the means by which deal teams kept track of one another and communicated was hopelessly antiquated. I’d been thinking for some time about a software application to fix all that.
What are some of the worst parts of being an investment banking analyst?
The hours are long. Everyone knows that. But I talk to analysts all the time, and if there’s a common theme to what they don’t like, it actually isn’t the long hours, but the hours spent doing administrative or low value-added work. That demoralizes them.
Most junior bankers are smart, ambitious and have a ton of energy. If they’re in the office on a Saturday night working on a model, valuation, selling memo or something substantive, they’re generally going to be OK with that. It can even be a badge of honor.
If they’re in the office Saturday night typing 50 people’s names, phone numbers and emails into a Word document, on the other hand, that’s not a good for them, not good for their firm and not good for the client. And they know it.
What advice would you give to junior bankers now, especially if they’re thinking of moving to fintech?
Well, the great thing is that they aren’t mutually exclusive. Fintech is probably one of the easiest fields to lateral into from banking, for reasons that are probably obvious. I’m biased, but I think investment banking analyst programs are great. You learn so much so quickly, both hard and soft skills. They open a lot of doors, and if you decide to stick with banking or jump to fintech, you’ll be making a very informed decision.
What’s the secret to success in banking?
I’ll never forget a senior banker once asking me rhetorically, when I was a junior associate, what the VPs were doing that I couldn’t do. I could think of a few things, but in fact not many. Not because I was some superstar – trust me, I wasn’t – but because I knew what the VPs did, and there was no magic to it. I always tried to do 100% of my job and 25-50% of my boss’s job. People who do that will always find themselves in high demand, and the decision to promote them will be easy.
What does it take to get promoted at an investment bank?
I don’t think the path from analyst to director has gotten much harder or easier than it ever was, market vicissitudes notwithstanding. But there’s a general view, which I agree with, that it has become really hard to make MD. As banks’ returns on equity have come under pressure, they can’t afford for people to ramp up. So the bankers that make it I think have started building relationships and pipelines early in their VP years, so that they’re getting mandated as directors.
How do you describe WorkingGroupLink?
WorkingGroupLink is a digital, mobile and email/CRM-integrated working group list application, purpose-built for investment banks and their clients. It’s an elegant, obsessively user-friendly tool that makes life easier for bankers. In addition to making deal execution more efficient, we help banks with two things they tend correctly to obsess about: being more accessible to their clients and avoiding compliance and disclosure pitfalls.
Do you expect to do any hiring this year?
Yes. We’re hiring in engineering and account management – not tons of people, but probably another three-to-four by year end.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities of being a software/fintech entrepreneur in the current environment?
Well, fintech is getting a lot of focus right now from investors, and from banks that don’t want to be blindsided by technologies that can put them at a competitive disadvantage. So that helps, but it doesn’t wash away all sins.
Fundraising is hard, and getting customers to pay for things is hard. I can’t speak too intelligently to the consumer side of fintech, but it seems like young people are totally comfortable with things like robo-advisers, peer-to-peer lending, online payments and some of the other spaces that are growing rapidly.
On the enterprise side, where WorkingGroupLink plays, there’s a similar level of receptivity to new technologies, but the challenge that we and a lot of enterprise startups deal with is a long, long sales cycle. Fortunately, we kind of anticipated that and were careful with our capital, so we can work patiently with our customers. But I’ve seen several of our peers throw in the towel.
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