Nikolay Storonsky left investment banking two years ago, but he’s working harder than ever. The former Credit Suisse and Lehman Brothers trader quit in 2015 to launch Revolut, a fintech that started life as a payments app, but has since evolved into something few start-ups achieve – an actual bank.
“As long as something needs to be done, I can work 12 hours a day, I can work weekends and clock at least 85 hours - it is not a problem,” he says. “It was intense on the trading floor, but this is intense squared.”
Revolut has raised a massive $83m in venture capital since its launch in July 2015, and has just applied for a European banking licence to make the step into the mainstream. It’s been expanding at a rapid rate; Storonsky says Revolut hires 25 people every month, and that it now has 300 people working there – up from 200 in August. 50% of these people work in technology roles, but more recently it’s been hiring for business development, product management and people to lead expansion into individual countries.
Storonsky says they want “motivated, driven” people who are willing to work as long as it takes to get something over the line. If that involves a 14-hour day, so be it. While this sounds like a vocation suspiciously suited to investment bankers, used to burning the midnight oil and being at the beck and call of their employer seven days a week, Storonsky is not interested in hiring them.
“People who have worked in investment banking usually simply can’t handle the pace of a start-up,” he says “We come up with the idea for something and just build it to see how it works. Corporates, especially banks, over-think projects and take years to execute. We do something in two weeks that would take a bank two or three years to complete.”
It’s not a question of work ethic, he says, but more one of the right mentality.
“I wouldn’t say people in investment banking work as hard as we do,” he says. “We’re much more motivated to build things and change the financial services industry. In banking people are demotivated – even if you have good ideas, it’s very difficult to execute them in a large bank. If you’re any good, you should leave for a start-up.”
Revolut has hired a handful of former investment bankers, however. Last month, George Robson, who spent 16 months on the UK and Ireland coverage division at Morgan Stanley, joined Revolut’s product team. It has also recruited from J.P. Morgan and RBC Capital Markets over the past six months.
But Storonsky says that former investment banking employees usually have some start-up experience, and are “young, and hungry for success”. The average age of Revolut employees is 28, and Storonsky has said previously that he likes to hire people who want to "grow themselves" and that "growing is always through pain".
“The reality is that if you’ve been working for a bank for seven or eight years, it’s very hard to switch into a start up,” he says. “They tend to be less agile and can’t think outside of the box. If you’ve worked in banking for two years, you have some good training, are motivated and it’s easier to shift your mentality.”
Revolut falls under the growing roster of ‘neobanks’ challenging traditional players with slick technology and low-fee services. It started out as an FX app, but has since expanded into business accounts, retail accounts, loans and mobile phone insurance. Storonsky says the focus is now on growing beyond Europe – initially to Canada and Singapore – but admits that it will “take a lot of time”.
Some large retail banks appear comparatively sanguine about the new breed of fintech challengers. At a conference earlier this month organised by New City Agenda, Barclays CEO Jes Staley said that regulation was often too big a hurdle for most fintech start-ups.
“Most technology companies who get involved in finance…only up until the point when they’re about to be regulated,” he said. “I think if you go to a tech company and ask do you want to do CCAR [Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review] testing in the United States or have the PRA [Prudential Regulation Authority] with you every week…they stop.”
Storonsky, however, believes that big banks have got it all wrong. Regulation, like anything else, can be tackled with technology, he says.
“Banks approach to regulation has been to throw armies of compliance staff at the problem,” he says. “But they’re weighed down by legacy technology. For us, compliance is a technology issue that can easily be solve by an automated system overlaid with artificial intelligence. We can do as much as an army of compliance professionals with one good data scientist.”
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