Banking now on start-ups instead of bank jobs

Now banking executives may jump ship, where once it was less likely to find staff leaving banking jobs in the finance sector for the start-up world. Among those who have made the switch are (from left) Ms Ngoi, Mr Loh and Mr Twoon.
Now banking executives may jump ship, where once it was less likely to find staff leaving banking jobs in the finance sector for the start-up world. Among those who have made the switch are (from left) Ms Ngoi, Mr Loh and Mr Twoon.ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN

Getting stuck on the Causeway on Christmas Eve with a car boot full of parcels was a far cry from the cut-throat trading floor.

In fact, it was about as different a life as it was possible to imagine for Ms Lianne Ngoi, who gave up a good banking career to take a very different path.

The Causeway mayhem befell the former associate director at Swiss bank UBS soon after she left in 2015 to join logistics firm Ninja Van as its regional head of sales and partnerships. "My peers said I was insane," recalled Ms Ngoi, 29.

She added: "A lot of people started talking to me and telling me, 'I never thought you'd do this. I heard you were driving vans in Malaysia and didn't think it was your thing.'"

Until a few years ago, it was almost unthinkable to leave supposedly cushy and glamorous banking jobs. The sector has always been portrayed as the place to go for the talented who want to make big bucks and a name for themselves.

Now, start-ups are the next big thing and becoming hotter than ever, with firms beginning to attract talent with big wads of cash.

Tech start-ups, for instance, are offering interns the same six-figure annual salary a long-suffering investment banking intern would get, with perks like a well-stocked pantry and sleep pods.

Until a few years ago, it was almost unthinkable to leave supposedly cushy and glamorous banking jobs. The sector has always been portrayed as the place to go for the talented who want to make big bucks and a name for themselves. Now, start-ups are the next big thing and becoming hotter than ever.

The Guardian reported last year that Snapchat pays summer interns US$10,000 (S$14,300) a month and another US$1,500 for housing.

But Ms Ngoi is cautious about what she sees as "the over-hype of start-ups", saying: "A lot of people think start-ups are the next best way to make money. After working in one and seeing the company fund raising, I've realised very few start-ups end up succeeding.

"As my boss always says, on a risk-adjusted basis, you'll probably end up worse off than being in a financial institution, but it's dangerous how everyone thinks joining a start-up is the thing to do."

Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority data showed that, at the end of 2015, about a quarter of tech newbies had failed within their first three years. Tech services start-ups had a failure rate of 28 per cent, while 22 per cent of tech manufacturing start-ups said goodbye.

However, former banking executives who made the leap are undeterred. They knew they wanted a completely different challenge.

Take Mr Benjamin Twoon, 28, formerly a management associate at an American bank, who co-founded financial technology firm Fundnel in 2015. He noticed a digital transformation happening in the bank and, frustrated by the red tape he had to go through, started to think about doing it on his own.

"You spend a lot of time trying to figure out who in the layer you should be connecting with, to get to the next. People change or move and you start the whole process again. It's exasperating sometimes.

"It's not hard to understand why people say big organisations don't move fast enough, as a lot of communication gets lost or delayed in between. It was one of the big push factors for me."

And working in banks gave these former executives the skills they needed to survive.

Mr Andre Loh, 31, who used to be a management associate at DBS Bank and co-founded e-commerce firm ShopInSEA in 2015, said: "Banking's a good training ground. Bankers are trained to take a lot of stress, learn and think fast, and these are traits that have served me well."

He was used to joining a new department every seven months. "Every rotation meant we were forced to adapt and get up to speed," he said.

"It gave me the confidence to jump out, knowing I survived and did well in such rotations in a challenging organisation."

Even so, it took some effort to change mindsets and lifestyles to become part of the start-up community. Ms Ngoi took a 50 per cent pay cut, while Mr Loh and his co-founders have been living on their savings since setting up ShopInSEA.

Despite that, the worst day they have had in a start-up still beats the time they spent in the bank.

Looking back on her first disastrous Christmas with Ninja Van, Ms Ngoi says: "I had just started and was bringing on clients, and felt a lot of personal responsibility to them. I only had a few hours left, but there was no point crying as no one could hear me anyway.

"In the bank, you don't see or feel things like that because you're working on a transaction. I completely enjoyed the markets but in a start-up, you're helping things move and I can really see the purpose in what I do."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2017, with the headline 'Banking now on start-ups instead of bank jobs'. Print Edition | Subscribe