Why the financial meltdown may be the best thing that ever happened to us.
Tim Chen, Founder of NerdWallet, was formerly a hedge fund analyst specializing in payment processing companies, and technology companies. His goal is to create the most unbiased credit card site on the web, and become the number one stop for credit card information.
Back in 2000, I was on my way to Stanford to study computer science. The Internet was in vogue, and the press was chock full of stories about the overnight millionaires being created in a latter-day California gold rush. Even everyday “code monkeys” at established tech companies were living large, and I dreamt of becoming one of them. Of course, we all know how that ended – It was only a year before my dream came to a screeching halt.
By graduation, the giant Amazon and Microsoft booths at career fairs were being largely overshadowed by those of Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns (God rest their souls).
At that point, any reasonable 21 year old looking for the quickest path to paying off his student loans didn’t go to Silicon Valley; he suited up and took the 4/5/6 to Broad Street. Predictably, I and way too many of my friends did exactly that. We joined investment banks, hedge funds, and proprietary trading desks, where we were promised large, binary, option-like payouts. We were told to take risks, and if they worked out we’d make off like bandits. If they didn’t, we’d just move to a different bank. It was a pretty sweet gig until someone took the punchbowl away.
The first strike was layoffs. Starting in 2007, more than a hundred thousand financial service employees were pink slipped, with most of them being right here in NYC. This left tons of entrepreneurial, hard-working, and risk-seeking people wandering around New York looking for their next gigs. Many would eventually go back, but plenty would completely change course and go on to start new businesses, adding fuel to the NY startup community’s Renaissance.
Before long, I became one of them. On Christmas in 2008, I got an email from my boss along these lines:
“Dear Tim, hope you’re enjoying your holiday because you might as well stay there for a while. Merry Christmas.”
Left with a bad taste in my mouth, I made the decision not to go back to that life, and so NerdWallet was born.
I decided I wanted to build something of value for consumers everywhere, rather than chasing elusive paper profits. So I taught myself how to program again, decided on a business model, and went to work. Since so many of my friends had suffered the same fate, I had plenty of cheap labor from volunteers wanting to keep busy while hunting for new jobs. It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and the best learning opportunity I could hope for, so I’ve never once looked back.
After the layoffs, the next devastating blow to Wall Street was the drastic change in incentive structure. Even as the economy seems to be stabilizing and hiring is picking up, Congress is going for the jugular on compensation. The mind-boggling bonuses and high-flying risks of yore are being supplanted with a renewed focus on stable salaries and risk management. While no one at Goldman is going hungry any time soon, this just isn’t nearly as sexy of a sales pitch to prospective employees. Meanwhile, Silicon Alley is moving in to each Wall St’s lunch, hiring like gangbusters and making headlines with Aaron Patzer-like payouts. Now the new wave of Stanford graduates is a lot less likely to spend 100 hours per week building Powerpoint presentations, and will instead be encouraged to invent, build, and disrupt.
Thanks to the financial meltdown, there is a sea change going on in the American business landscape. The brain drain is coming to an end, and banking behemoths are being undermined by new, innovative small enterprises. We’re on the verge of a new era in technology and entrepreneurship, and the future will see our best and brightest wanting to change the world, rather then packaging structured derivatives products. I can’t even begin to imagine the possibilities, but I’m excited to play my own small part in it.
Now let’s just hope it’s 1995, not 2001!
Find Tim on Twitter @NerdWallet