It’s time to stop the wave of media articles screaming that Wall Street banks are entrepreneurial dream killers where you go to waste your life (you can read one here).
Everyone seems to give the same bad advice – “If you want to be an entrepreneur, go do a startup after college” and “Finance is for people with no souls”. College students deserve a little more perspective than that.
My advice is: if you want to be a tech entrepreneur, join the Army, then work in investment banking in Morgan Stanley’s technology group, THEN start your company. You’ll have the management experience, financial skills, personal discipline, sector expertise, and fundamental ability to execute that are the bedrocks for making dreams a reality. Take a risk with the odds stacked a bit more in your favour.
I graduated from West Point, the U.S. Army’s Airborne, Air Assault and Ranger Schools, and served in the Army as an infantry platoon leader. This included a tour in Afghanistan where I led 40 men in combat patrols on the border of Pakistan. After the Army, I joined Morgan Stanley as a 27 year-old ANALYST, with a bunch of other 21 year-old college graduates. Once I got there, I fought my way into the technology investment banking group (passing through securitization and equity derivatives along the way).
Here’s why I believe this is a path to successful entrepreneurship:
1) Learn from the “Best of the Best” (and find your co-founder!)
Everyone in the infantry volunteered to be a “grunt”. They knew the pay was the same as other jobs in the Army for more tiring and dangerous work. And that’s what attracted them. These were the people I wanted to be around. The other officers and enlisted men in my unit pushed me to outperform every day. Competition to be the best soldier, officer and platoon was intense and drove us to excel.
The same intensity and high calibre of performance existed at Morgan Stanley. I studied Literature and Philosophy at West Point and sat next to a guy in the technology investment banking group who had a BS and an MS in Computer Science from MIT. He dreamed in 0’s and 1’s while the last thing I used excel for was to add up the gallons of water my troops needed for a two-week mission.
He also helped me one night on a financial model from 2am to 5am. When I went home at 5am and came back at 8am (after a 2-hour nap and a shower), he was still working on his own project. Tian He is now the co-founder of my company. I saw him crush it 20 hours a day and sacrifice his own sleep to help a friend when he was down. If you want to go to the business world’s Ranger School, join investment banking. As an analyst. There you might find someone worth going to battle with. Its how people act when the chips are down and life sucks that matters. That’s when you’ll see what they’re really made of. And, more importantly, you’ll see what you’re really made of (just in case 4 years of 3 day a week classes and beer pong wasn’t enough to really test you).
2) Surround yourself with people who are passionate about technology
When I joined the equity derivative group, I covered mostly technology companies. I joined my boss on trips to Palo Alto, meeting with CEO’s of the biggest and best tech companies in the world. And I loved it. I also worked very closely with the technology investment banking group in New York. They were a small team where everyone was excited about technology companies. They were also probably the only group at MS who worked more than the group I was already in. That’s where I wanted to go. When I told my boss in equity derivatives, three months after I joined his team that I wanted to change groups and join New York tech banking, he told me to keep my head down, work hard, and he’d make it happen. I did that and he kept his word and moved me one year later. Thank you, David Oakes, Managing Director at Morgan Stanley. There are good people in finance.
When I got to the tech banking group, everyone talked about tech companies all day long. We ate breakfast together. We ate lunch together. We ate dinner together. Find me one family in America that does that for a year straight. And when we ate, we talked tech. During one of these meals Tian and I gave birth to our startup Gojee.com (think Mint for Food). We are funded and launch in a few weeks with a real customer – D’Agostino’s supermarket chain in NYC. Stay tuned on that front (plug!). Jake Levine, who is a great friend and was an awesome analyst joined in these meals and discussions (check out his recent post here for another point of view on the banking experience). He later left for the TheLadders, another great NYC tech company. Morgan Stanley’s tech group hires people who love tech for a reason; it’s part of their culture. Leaving banking doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means that after training in the gym, we’re stepping into the ring for the fight (and yes, your training should be harder than the actual fight).
3) Learn how to lead, manage and EXECUTE
If you want to guarantee yourself a job at a “startup”, join the Army Infantry after college. You’ll spend a year in very hard schools (where they teach you how to fail – think about that), then be handed your own 40-person startup (read: Platoon) with more execution, personnel, and leadership challenges you can dream of. And you’ll be 22. And you’ll deploy to a foreign land. And you’ll lead these people in combat. You want to talk about pivots? Try getting dropped off by a helicopter in the wrong field next to the wrong house during a dawn raid to capture someone who’s been killing UN workers. Now fix that broken mission (we did). That’s a pivot. Show me the office in Silicon (V)Alley that gives you this experience. In the Army, and in finance, you’ll be surrounded by great leaders and horrible leaders. It’s your responsibility to learn equally from both to form your own leadership style.
To be fair to the critics, Morgan Stanley did not hold a candle to providing the leadership and management skills I learned in the Army. Mentoring people and developing leaders is not the purpose of that organisation, making money is. And that’s why their focus is on relentless execution (startup skills anyone?). I asked John Mack (CEO of Morgan Stanley) one day why some managers at Morgan Stanley didn’t do a better job managing. His response was “Why don’t you do a better job demanding to be managed?” Welcome to banking.
Millions of dollars were on the line every day, and these guys focused on execution, sometimes slamming the guys underneath them to make it happen. That’s brutal business. Does is create churn? It sure as heck does, people cycle out. And when they do, there are 100 people waiting to fill that spot. At least. The ones who leave are better and stronger for having gone through it, even if it wasn’t for them.
How many entrepreneurs tell the story of their first 3 failed startups before they got it right? The time to fail is not when you start your first company or when you take your first platoon into combat. I failed Ranger School the first time I tried and had to do it again. I’m glad I got failure out of the way then and didn’t fail my platoon when it mattered.
Our investors didn’t invest so we could learn (although we do, every minute of every day). They invested because we have an experienced team with a proven ability to execute in high stress situations and they expect us to win.
And we came from banking at Morgan Stanley.
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