How an entrepreneur and Fortune 500 CEO taps into hard earned lessons as a FinTech mentor

02.05.2018 - New York

Written by Cris Conde, entrepreneur-in-residence at the Fintech Innovation Lab. Previously, he founded Devon Systems and served as CEO of SunGard. He remains an active investor and advisor for early-stage companies.

As I write, I’m just completing five days of intensive interviews in London with candidates for the Lab here. In my role as an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Fintech Innovation Lab, these experiences are often dizzying in one respect, bracing in another. I’ve never seen a wider extent of innovation and opportunity any time in my career. Additionally, quality is extremely high across the boards. With these chances to provide fintech entrepreneurs with feedback, I tap into my own experiences to help management teams scale. My contribution touches on areas that range from the intangible to the highly tactical. I accomplish this partly by giving pointers, partly by removing impediments, partly by coaching and partly by telling my story.

In terms of my own career, I began as an entrepreneur at 23. By 42 I was CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But the line between the two was anything but straight. Early in my career I micromanaged with laser focus, but my management style wasn’t sustainable personally. One year, I was on the road 302 nights. It also wasn’t helping the business, as I wasn’t scaling as a manager. I soon hit a wall and realized I had to reboot. I decided I had to do a full 180o and began to manage through mutually agreed upon goals, delegating as much as possible to those on the frontline. Changing the DNA of the company to one of accountability wasn’t easy, but resulted in a dramatic improvement in staff turnover and results.  I emerged from the transition as a CEO, not an entrepreneur.

Openness to personal transformation is one lesson I try to drill into Lab participants

The secret is recognizing that to change you have to put yourself outside your comfort zone and review yourself in a comprehensive, practical perspective, not through the prism of your own zeal and enthusiasm. Then you must have the humility to let go and allow your team to step up and make decisions.

Properly embracing sales presents another critical mindset adjustment. Entrepreneurs need to understand sales is not an art, nor a talent with which one is born. Sales and sales management can be mastered if approached as an engineering discipline. I use the Lab experience as a way to show entrepreneurs who may have had some success improvising sales based on their own talents that a scientific approach pays much greater dividends.

I also counsel entrepreneurs on tactical actions and how not to waste time on dead ends

For instance, it’s important to properly qualify the prospect before agreeing to do a half-day demo.  A meeting with an entrepreneur can be a very interesting experience for a financial institution—whether they have spending budget or not.  Realizing that means startups should develop a list of criteria for prospects, which would include the purchasing process, and hold demos only when the qualification score is big enough.

Finally, what do I gain as an entrepreneur in residence?

First, the Lab is important to me because the sponsoring banks, insurers and asset managers all have to walk in a startup’s shoes during the process. They have to leave their comfort zones and grow along with the entrepreneurs. The Lab gives sponsors a different perspective on their existing systems and purchasing practices, and in some cases a sense of new possibilities. Often, that’s exactly what they need and it’s gratifying to be a part of the process.

As a person who’s curious by nature and early training as an astrophysicist, the Lab provides me with an endless sabbatical. I’m bombarded by people with ideas, who want to disrupt old systems with a new view of technology. All I have to do is offer approaches that make sense, that help entrepreneurs to simplify things or help them understand when to say, “No, that’s not a market-standard request.” From time to time, I do invest at the end of the Lab, but that’s not my reward as much as the process of helping management teams scale.

On that note, I’ll close this reflection in New York, where the 2018 Lab is just beginning. Few things could be more uplifting for a foreigner like myself (having emigrated from Chile) than being able to mentor international and local entrepreneurs alike in New York and knowing we will be creating jobs in one of the most accepting, multi-cultural cities on earth. I would volunteer for that any day.