How to get into fintech, by the ex-CIO of UBS

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If you work in fintech – or you want to work in fintech - Oliver Bussmann is the person to know.

A mentor at London-based fintech accelerator Level 39, Bussmann’s familiar with the tenuous world of the tech start-up. A former chief information officer at UBS, he’s also very familiar with the ossified architecture of global banks. While at UBS, it was Bussmann who highlighted to the world the potential for blockchain technology to disrupt the banking industry. Following his surprise resignation from UBS in March this year, Bussmann was credited with revolutionizing the Swiss bank’s use of technology.

Away from UBS, Bussmann could surely have had his pick of CIO roles. Instead, he’s turned his back on corporate life. This month he set up Bussmann Advisory, a company that describes itself as offering ‘consulting, coaching and thought leadership services in the areas of digital transformation, innovation and business model re-creation.’ A tech consultancy, basically, but with a difference.

Orchestrating fintech’s future

“This is the next level,” says Bussmann. “It’s about working with banks and with fintech firms so that banks can bring the fintech ecosystem into their new business development process. The $20bn of investment in start-ups isn’t going to go away. Banks need to learn to harness it.”

Bussman sees himself as an “orchestrator:” the middle man between the banks and the tech start-ups; someone with links to the venture capital firms that fund the latter and the regulators that rule the former. “Banks and high tech firms are starting to realize that they have to orchestrate how they work with fintech start-ups,” he says. “They need to know the trends in the start-up community, to help with ideation, to help provide funding and to explore and validate the ideas as they’re put into a product and service lifestyle.”

For the moment, Bussmann Advisory is just Bussmann, but this will change. “I expect to grow my business,” he says, “And to partner with other thought leaders. The differentiator in future is going to be the ability to tap into executives with a track record – who can brought into discussions with banks and offer a perspective on how a market and technology will evolve.”

Bussmann on Brexit

Despite being a key player in fintech, Bussmann has never really been based in London for a long period of time. At UBS, he worked out of Zurich. Prior to that he's in Frankfurt. Now he's in Zurich again.

Is the City doomed to irrelevance post-Brexit? Not at all. “London is still the top fintech centre in the world,” he says. “The advantage of London is that you have all the players together. The strong, innovative financiers, the UK government, the regulator. It’s incredibly hard to beat. Singapore is following the UK approach and the community in Berlin is strong – but I don’t see the regulator or government participating as much in Germany.”

Even so, Bussmann says the pace of new investment has slowed in London as the world waits to see how Brexit pans out. And while he spends a few days each month in the City, he’s also working in Vienna and Singapore, and – of course Zurich. “There’s a lot of demand,” he says, and not just from banks – from insurance companies and consulting firms too.

Blockchain and AI

Asked to predict the next big thing, Bussmann naturally points to Blockchain or distributed ledgers (“Distributed ledgers have the potential to significantly reduce costs in trade finance, post-trade settlements and global payments systems.”).

In front office banking terms though, he says artificial intelligence (AI) is the game-changer: “It’s all about processing big data so that you understand the investment signals.” Banks are particularly interested in start-ups that can build artificial intelligence algorithms: “They’re teaming up with start-ups and hiring engineers and scientists and building joint teams of business and IT people to work on this challenge.”

Why fintech firms fail

Does this mean you can skip the analyst and associate programme in an investment bank and go straight into a start-up building a self-teaching trading algorithm? No. If you want to mine the seam between finance and technology, Bussmann says finance is still the best place to start.

“I mentor a lot of start-ups that are very tech heavy – they have a really deep understanding of the tech, but they know a lot less about the business,” he says. After three to five years working in a bank, you’ll understand their business processes, the regulatory system and nature of the issues the banks are dealing with, says Bussmann.

With this kind of operational experience, Bussmann says you’ll be better placed to answer the question that every start-up should ask (but that few do): ‘What’s the value proposition? What are you actually proposing to do that will improve things for the customer?’

The fintech start-ups that do define this often come up with a, “very technical proposition that takes banks a long time to digest,” says Bussmann. This is no good: “Businesses want to know what’s in it for them, plain and simple. I spent a lot of time mentoring start-ups on their USPs.”


Photo credit: Ladders by Jared Yeh is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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