Not so long ago, Jonny Wolfson was like plenty of other contractors working in the City of London. Touting his coding skills, he'd jump from bank to bank every year or so and work on a day rate upgrading banks' systems. In the years 2005 to 2014, Wolfson worked at five different places: Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Citi, Bank of America (which had by then consumed Merrill Lynch) and SocGen. And then it struck him: he was replicating the same process everywhere he went.
"I built the same thing for different banks six times in six years," says Wolfson. "It was only when I started to do it a seventh time that I realized, 'Hang on, why am I doing this again?' I was a bit slow up on the uptake.'"
What Wolfson was doing was building data grids that underpin, among other things, the blotters that keep a record of the details of the bank’s trades. "Basically anything in financial services of any meaningful size has a data grid," says Wolfson. "- A table with rows and columns of data, which is similar to Excel but inside a larger system. A trader, for example, might have ten screens and eight of them will have data grids on display."
Although grids are integral to much of what banks do, Wolfson says banks historically liked to create them on a bespoke basis. "A dev like me would spend six months building a grid and every bank would have multiple teams doing the same thing." At one large bank, Wolfson says there were 40 dev teams each spending months building very similar grid systems.
His insight was simple. Why not build a generic grid that could be used across the industry? Wolfson's company, Adaptable Blotter was born.
"I knew it was a good idea," he says. "We were focusing on solving a problem that I could see a lot of people in the industry had. We can come into a bank and say, 'You're building 50-70 grids a year and it's madness. It's a waste of money and time and we can offer a solution."
After years of contracting, Wolfson went out on a limb. He gave up work and raised £480k from four "rich friends" in exchange for 42% of the company. In the next four years he focused solely on the product to the exclusion of all else: "We wanted to get the product out there and to get people using it to prove it was something people want," says Wolfson. Even today, he employs around 30 developers but hardly any salespeople: "We are badly run fintech in some respects."
In other respects, however, Wolfson is an example of what you can do as a banking developer if you see a niche and run with it. Adaptable blotter now counts 15 banks as clients, many of them in the top tier, and has 150,000 users working in financial services. His clients are global, although mostly in Asia, the U.S. and London.
Some of his clients have asked to buy into the company for amounts that Wolfson says imply an eight figure valuation. He hasn't sold, yet. Instead, he's now focused on working with other fintech partners to become part of an "ecosystem of webs technology," and pushing his grids into other industries with similar needs.
As might be expected, Wolfson is fairly cheerful about all of this - which is a contrast to his contractor friends "People are a bit down in the dumps in contracting now," he says, referring to IR 35, the UK legislation which is encouraging banks' to change contractors into employees and is compelling contractors to pay more tax. "When I was a contractor, I got letters saying you have 30 days to accept a pay cut twice," says Wolfson. "It's a cyclical thing in the industry."
Wolfson isn't the sort to advocate that everyone jump into the murky waters of entrepreneurialism. But if you can afford it, he suggests you too could try. "If you have an idea and the financial reserve, I would recommend it." Even if you fail, you might find it easier to get new contracting roles in future: "I think I am more employable now – both as a dev and as an IT manager," says Wolfson. Needless to say, however, he has no intention of going back into full employment: Wolfson is quietly very ambitious for his product, although as a professional developer rather than a professional salesman he doesn't always let on about it.
Photo by Fabian Grohs on Unsplash
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