Warning: This article compares football to Fintech. If you are not a fan of tenuous links between two seemingly unrelated things then avoid this. You have been warned
Part of my day often involves thinking about how to explain complicated subjects and concepts. My go-to is usually a simple to understand analogy, for example, “Building an app without a plan is like building a new house without any architectural blueprints.” This is not one of my best I have to admit.
A comparison that I find myself drawing more frequently is between 2 of my passions, Fintech and football. Specifically, the comparison between building a product-focused Fintech, to a team trying to win a premier league title. Bear with me. The analogy will become clearer…
1. It’s a marathon, not a sprint
There will always be losses or bumps in a title race. To highlight how rare a season without losses is: Arsenal are the only team in Premier League history to go a whole season (38 games!) without collecting a single loss. Most league champions take losses during the season but also go on winning streaks. Losing is fine (and nearly always unavoidable), but it’s how the team bounces back from the loss that matters most.
Similarly, when building a startup, there will be losses. There will be difficulties and there will be trials. Whether it’s a fundamental difference of opinion with a co-founder, bad foundational technology decisions causing major rework, losing that huge investor or missing a key deadline. As long the loss doesn’t derail what’s being built, the team can still work together, and everyone believes in the vision, then the loss is just temporary and will be seen as a blip.
2. You need a strong squad, not just a great first 11
The teams that win leagues usually have strength in depth, i.e., when a player is injured, fatigued, or you just need to shake things up, there are strong players that can step in and keep the momentum going when called upon. An easy football example is Ole Gunner Solskjær. Man United’s ultimate super sub. When United needed that little extra boost to get a win, they’d bring him on to give the team something different.
The direct comparison to a Fintech startup isn’t obvious- but stick with me. It’s not like there are loads of developers sitting on the sideline waiting to be subbed in (mainly because it’s not financially viable). But throughout the course of a build, there’ll be people who leave, folks who get burnt out and times where you’ll need to bring people in as part of the growth of the product. When adding to the team, it’s important to keep that high standard and make sure that the new team members are as strong as the people who were playing at the first whistle?……….
3. Experience is fundamental: “You can’t win anything with kids”
So, this retro clip is after a makeshift Man United team lost to Aston Villa very early in the 1995/96 season. The losing United team contained a lot of raw, talented young players that hadn’t had many first-team games and were considered inexperienced. Academy players like Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and David Beckham had minutes in the game and were the guys that Hansen was referencing in the famous line “You can’t win anything with kids” (United went on to win the title that season with the academy players having key roles and going on to become megastars).
Even though his statement seemed like it was proven wrong -United went on to win the title that season with academy players in key roles, going on to become megastars-, many have backed him and clarified what he meant. “You can’t win anything with ONLY kids”. Taking another look at that 1996 team, as well as the talented youth, they had plenty of experienced players like Schmeichel, Cantona, Pallister, Bruce, Irwin and Keane as the core of the team. Along with enthusiasm and raw talent, you need experience and battle-hardened people who have been there and done it.
This same principle applies to Fintech builds. Having talented technologists is key but ensuring that there are also people who have domain experience is critical. Basically the ‘Fin’ part of Fintech. Before founding Starling Bank, Anne Boden had spells at RBS, UBS and Lloyds among some other big banking institutions. There’s no doubt that her experiences at these institutes both the good and the bad, made Starling what it is today.
The experience doesn’t have to lie with the founders and C-level team though. Peppering teams with relevant experience from Tech & Product to Ops & Marketing means that throughout the organisation there are people that can be leant on when problems arise (see point 1). And these battle-hardened folks can use their previous experience to help steer the whole team in the right direction.
NB: Here are a few examples of folks who gained valuable experience at Monzo & Revolut and used it to help launch their own startup
4. The manager has to take responsibility
This is a well-trodden football phrase, often used after a team loses a game and especially when there was an error in tactics or the way the team has been set up. The buck stops with the manager. The manager decides who’s going to play, how the team will be set up, researches opponents/competitors among other things. They are also the ones who have to regularly face the media- win, lose or draw.
Fintech CEOs & Founders have comparable responsibilities. They are on the hook for the key decisions, have to ensure the team is set up correctly for what they want to achieve (right ratio of experience, skillset etc), have to stay ahead of their competitors and have to face the media & public.
A key distinction here is that many Fintech Founders and CEOs have full autonomy on how they set up, as they usually have full control of the company early on. Football managers often don’t, because many have a board and owner sitting above them. But as the startup grows large investors come on and boards are formed, they become more and more like a modern-day football club with similar management structures.
End of season review
So for both Fintechs and title race hopefuls…
- It’s a marathon, not a sprint -Both have to stay the course and bounce back from blips to ensure they reach their end goal (pun intended)
- Strong squad – Both need strong people to support at various stages in addition to the main teams!
- Experience is fundamental: Both need to have experienced people in the team at key places throughout the core.
- Managerial responsibility: Both are at the forefront and responsible for the success of their respective teams.
Well, I started by referencing ‘tenuous links’ but actually I think they’re pretty strong. Let me know if you have any more to add or an even more apt analogy to make.