Fintech Startups Face Harsh Odds, Big Competition

This article originally appeared in eFinancialCareers

Following the social-networking apps craze, Silicon Valley is now hosting a new tribe: the FinTechpreneurs. A deluge of East Coast tech talent from investment banks has traded their ties and jackets for flip-flops and sunshine. Since 2009, more than 7,500 fintech firms have been launched globally, with hundreds popping up in the Bay area alone. Annual funding of fintech startups jumped from $5.1 billion in 2009 to $28.4 billion by 2015, according to Accenture.

While the fintech craze was born mostly from business opportunity, many banking technologists have left the sell-side for personal reasons, as well. For one founder, launching her own financial startup was a no-brainer, considering the quality of life with her former employer, a major British bank.

“Having very few moments for yourself and your personal life was very difficult,” says the founder, requesting anonymity. “I wasn’t prepared to do this sacrifice for the job. Unfortunately, there was not a good balance between work life and personal life no matter what management was trying to implement to improve it.”

While choosing to launch a startup was an obvious choice for the young CEO seeking a better work-life balance, the heyday of fintech may now be in the rearview mirror. New entrants to the industry—many with traditional banking backgrounds and no experience with startup culture—have been surprised with the lack of traction they’ve gained. Market saturation, a lack of recent fundraising and the growing presence of their former employers—bulge bracket banks—have made life difficult for many fintech entrepreneurs.

“Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. It’s an awesome ride but it’s a wild one,” says one French-American founder based in New York. “You have to be OK to live with uncertainty. You never know what will happen tomorrow, next week or next month.”

Indeed, less than 10 percent of startups are still running after two years. Industry professionals tell us the odds aren’t much better in fintech. Many banking technologists get tripped up dealing with fundraisers, a key aspect of the job they had no exposure to in their previous life.

“Venture capitalists are complaining about longer return on investments. They are more wary—some of them even say fintech is not that ‘hot’ anymore,” says Robert Naess, CIO of Nordea Bank and head of its portfolio. Many VCs look at fintech as highly likely to become “a bubble,” he adds.

VC investments in fintech in the U.K. actually declined by a third from 2015 to 2016, despite the fact that the number of deals increased by 5 percent over that time, according to Accenture. The activity is there, but the idea that fintech will foster the next round of startup unicorns is starting to fade. It’s not 2015 anymore.

The reality is that success for many fintech companies is not disruption, but simply being bought out by large banks that incorporate their technology. So far, the deals haven’t broken any records. Others have been forced to partner with investment banks to get their product off the ground, and not necessarily through traditional investments.

J.P. Morgan operates an in-residence program that acts as an incubator for fintech startups—typically launched by former employees—where the bank ultimately decides whether to go to market or keep the technology proprietary. Many competing banks have jumped on board, embracing Blockchain, A.I. and cryptocurrencies, further crowding the field with companies that have near-unlimited financing and huge existing customer bases.

In order to stay afloat, many fintech startups have no other option than to look to big banks. But fintech CEOs have struggled with traditional institutions’ lack of agility, willingness to partner and culture fit, according to the Capgemini World Fintech Report.

The end result is more stories like that of Jonathan Birnbaum, a former star Morgan Stanley trader who made Forbes’ top 30 under 30 finance list before quitting the firm to launch a financial-tech startup. Just six months later, he returned to finance at hedge fund behemoth Bridgewater Associates. Working in fintech isn’t all roses, it appears.

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