Having worked in several large investment banks during my 20s in London, some painful (and pleasant) memories surged back as I read Julie Meyer’s excellent Welcome to Entrepreneur Country.
Meyer pulls no punches in describing how lonely life can be when you think like an entrepreneur, especially if you are working in a large organisation for others who do not share your boundless enthusiasm. She is bang on the money in including salaried employees as entrepreneurs too (you do not need to own your own business and work for yourself to call yourself one).
I smiled as I read about her meeting with the HR director of a business she used to work for, at which she was told her “problem” was that she behaved as if she worked for herself. I view this approach as a plus, obviously an HR department would take a very different view. Meyer’s book will not be to everyone’s taste, because it is optimistic, ambitious and at many times highly personal and focused on her own experiences, unlike a dry, third person business school textbook.
Believe it or not, entrepreneurs exist within bulge bracket investment banks, despite every effort made to pigeon-hole young professionals into non-client facing tasks until they reach a designated level of seniority. I was one such entrepreneur, and Meyer’s book succeeds perfectly in describing the perils and pitfalls involved with having a highly independent mindset in a large organisation. I wasn’t alone either – like Cuban bandits hiding in the hills from Batista’s security forces, other independent thinkers had somehow slipped through the graduate recruitment net.
The moment I decided bulge bracket banks were not for me was when a colleague told me he had found a small treasure trove of up and coming European TMT companies for the bank to market its services to. I said “great, that is a seriously good idea, when do you fly over?”. He told me that he had discussed it for a grand total of 20 seconds with a senior colleague, who, in a nutshell, said: “Look, you aren’t here to think, please don’t try stepping outside your pay grade again like this, just go back to preparing those presentations and information memorandum documents like a good chap.”
I knew I was destined to leave at that point. I was too unpredictable, too independent, too much of a lone wolf. At my core, I thought several years ahead, most of my European and US colleagues were driven forward like rowers under the lash in a Roman galley ship by their annual bonus cycle. If the deal wasn’t going to happen in the next 12 months, it just didn’t swing their dial.
Like Meyer, I have always been perfectly happy working away furiously in the office or on my laptop travelling, entirely on my own, asking for advice and feedback where necessary from others, but fundamentally working under my own steam.
During an infamous spat with a much more senior banker who wanted me to pull a lot of unnecessary material together for a French counterpart who got his kicks from pushing us London folk around, I famously told him that only three people in the world at that moment “could give me a direct order which must be obeyed at all times” – (i) Mum, of course, back home in Dublin, (ii) the most important lady in my life, my girlfriend at the time (now, happily, my beloved wife), and (iii) my direct boss, the head of the team I was in at the time.
Needless to say, colleagues ducked for cover and hid under their desks at this truculent display on my part. But the world did not collapse, my desk was still there, I still got my bonus that year, and life carried on. It wasn’t my finest hour, but I could not live with myself if I just rolled over and prepared a pile of rubbish that wasn’t even being requested by our client.
This “Tally Ho” attitude is precisely the gift that Americans have which puts them at an advantage to Europeans. In America, when you drive past a large pair of gates at the end of the driveway to a big mansion, you think to yourself “one day, I’m going to live in that mansion”. In Europe, you think to yourself “one day, I’m going to get that bastard”.
One of the best observations in Meyer’s book about the UK business environment is the way that the media enjoy attacking high net worth individuals as if they are in the same league as international terrorists or child molesters. If these individuals are not championed and encouraged to take a more active role in society as investors and drivers of changes, a massive opportunity will be lost.
Meyer hits the nail on the head in the chapter titled ‘Belief Is The New Currency’: Americans don’t take no for an answer (as I am married to one, I can tell you she speaks the truth...). This refusal to lie down and accept defeat is one of the key lego bricks to make a successful entrepreneur, what Meyer refers to as the inner core of steel. She is right. Without this, it is difficult to survive as an entrepreneur because nothing will come easily or for free, you have to fight for every paper clip, post-it and staple.
Until us Europeans get on board Meyer’s train and start believing in our ability to build new economic models for creating wealth, we will never pass through the gates of this mansion. I am (naturally, as an entrepreneur similar to Julie Meyer) optimistic about the future.
David O’Reilly is the managing director of Hampton Court Capital.