A New Perspective: From Finance in London to a Startup in Medellin

Reflections from a finance guy turned startup entrepreneur in Medellin.

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Well, for the first time since arriving in Medellin almost three years ago, I actually have time to sit down with a cup of tea and write down some reflections on my “new” life out here. When I first got here in April 2011, having said adios to BlackRock in London, I thought life in Colombia would be all coffee breaks and long lunches. I was looking forward to that “slower pace of life” everyone back home in London seemed to be craving. However, it doesn’t really matter whether you work –­BlackRock, Bank of America or Bancolombia. The financial sector, be it investment banking, fund management or stockbroking, just seems to suck you in and leave you with little time or energy for much else.

We all love to read the blogs of those lucky ones who’ve escaped. And, no doubt, we’d like to write a little bit ourselves. In the age of omnipresent social media, many people in finance want their voices to be heard as well. However, with open plan offices pretty much ubiquitous in banks nowadays, the last thing you want is for one of your colleagues to lean over to chat with you about something as you’re writing your latest blog post. And more than likely, any fun pages, such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., are all blocked in your office anyway, thanks to an overzealous compliance department.

So are you going to sit down in front of your computer to write your blog in your precious time after the office? Not very likely. If going out for a drink straight from work isn’t on the agenda, then it’s probably fighting traffic to get home, getting changed for the gym, beasting yourself in a CrossFit class, getting home to shower and then cooking dinner, feeding the kids, taking the dog for a walk, etc. And before you know, it you’re ready to collapse into bed. On a very rare night, you might get a couple of articles read in The Economist. If you’re lucky, you’ll squeeze in a few pages of  whichever finance/management/self-improvement book your boss recommended to help you “further your career.” And all the while, you know all you’d really like to do is see if Walter’s figured out a way to kill Gustavo yet. Who knew Breaking Bad could be linked to entrepreneurship?

After 10 years, I’ve left all that behind and entered the exciting world of tech startups. My good friend Chris Dover started Geniusly  in May of 2013, and I have joined their team to be the VP Biz Dev. There’s not a stuffy office in sight anymore , nor are there any loud trading floors. Now, we choose the office set up we want to work from on any given day – a desk with multiple monitors in the team office, a lounger out on the terrace in the sunshine, the great café down the road or even the comfort of our own apartments.

Co-working spaces with fantastic, buzzing atmospheres are popping up all over the place in Latin America, in Medellin, for example, you’ve got Atom House and Espacio. And accelerator programs have not been slow in tapping into the LatAm vibe for startups, the list including 500 Startups, Socialatom, Start-Up Chile and GITP. Twitter, TechCrunch, Venture Beat, Pando Daily and Hacker News are all required reading, and blog writing is encouraged. Venture Deals and Running Lean have become my bibles. I take the dog for a run whenever I want, and thanks to Codeacademy , I even have time to teach myself a little HTML.

That’s not to say that there is less work in a startup than a traditional job. There is much, much more. Companies don’t reach billion-dollar valuations with the founders just sitting in Starbucks (Juan Valdez down here) all day sipping tall lattes. There is money to be raised, whether it’s angel, seed, Series A or beyond. There are developers to be hired, talent to be attracted, customers to convince on beta testing, and a million other tasks to juggle that are part of getting a startup off the ground.

Work life has blended into social life as well, as my wife is part of the startup scene down here and is herself a highly successful entrepreneur. However, no matter how many tasks you have to do on any particular day, there is the freedom to manage your own schedule. There are no set office hours to adhere to, and you quickly learn that you are building your own path to success, not dancing to someone else’s tune.