For the next interview in our Founders in FinTech series, I had the pleasure to meet with Axel Coustere, Co-Founder of HUBX, to discuss the inspiration behind the business and the importance of building a finance function within start-ups. Let’s hear his thoughts…
What inspired you to start the business?
My background is in capital markets and investment banking. I spent 10 years working for bulge bracket firms in London, helping large public companies raise and restructure debt and convertible bonds. In 2007, I resigned from my banking job to learn how to code and apply new technologies to what I had learnt so far. This was about 6 months before the 2008 financial crisis, and everything was going well in my career – some people told me I wasn’t thinking straight. I went on to spend a few years building platforms for corporate finance firms – refining my knowledge of technology, growing a development team and learning more about how private deals are executed. I was struck by how professionals still work manually today in the private markets: little has changed in 30 years. I saw a huge opportunity to help bankers become more efficient to connect their siloed networks. This led me to start working on HUBX in the second half of 2014, before establishing the company in 2015.
What is your role within the business and how has this evolved along the years?
Stephen Ong and I co-founded the business. As a successful trader working for large banks for many years, we had some common ground but interestingly brought different skills to the table. While we initially spent most of our time on strategy, the fact that I had learnt about different technological frameworks, naturally led me to focus on that aspect of the business. These days, we have our own development team, so I spend most of my time working on strategy and advising clients about how to leverage our capital raising technology. Stephen and I typically get involved in discussions with our bigger clients. Closing deals with larger institution is a lengthy process which also means we grow to understand the business in detail. Much of my time is also focused on managing the team. When we started, HUBX only had 3 or 4 employees, but we have now grown substantially. It is important that our culture remains consistent, especially between our 2 offices in Belgrade and London. That’s a challenge.
I noticed you currently do not have anyone in finance, how are the financial needs of the business managed?
Today, a few people work on different aspects of finance. Our COO, Pablo is really the one at the heart of finance-related projects and activities. Pablo was a senior Treasurer at Rabobank and BNP Paribas Capital Markets, so he’s very skilled at managing it; particularly in the regulated context in which we operate. Simultaneously, we also leverage our accountant as well as relevant software. Also, a few in our team used to work in corporate finance, which will become more and more relevant as we grow.
What are the key skills and characteristics you look for when hiring for the business? Would this be the same for a finance team?
Of course, we look for different skill sets for different parts of the business. However, everyone needs to have a genuine interest in working in a fast growth company and doing things differently. Our team members are very curious and love learning about every aspects of the business; from private capital markets to design, data science to blockchain – even away from their expertise. That way, they often find ways to contribute to solving an issue. We also look for a certain energy and curiosity, but it is crucial we have people on the team we can trust.
When it comes to an internal finance position, we will often be sharing sensitive information: how the company makes money, how its staff are paid, etc. Attention to detail is obviously also paramount. As is being comfortable with technology and being able to use some of the great tools available. It is also useful to have an understanding of tax implications when it comes to our business, especially as we look to expand to different countries. Our clients are increasingly global. All those points are very important. We are a very open team and all sit next to each other. So we need people genuinely interested in every part of the business.
What have the impacts been on you and the wider business from not having an in-house finance team?
Not having an in-house finance team has meant that we have had to rely on the most senior people for some of these tasks. We have all been very hands-on and while some processes could probably be redesigned to be more effective and streamlined, our fast growth means we have had to implement a practical approach. Outsourcing helps but it isn’t always ideal to have turnover at your providers’, which may impact the business. I wouldn’t say it’s affected us directly, but it is something we are aware of and it’s always something we are reviewing.
How, do you think, would a finance team benefit the business and its growth?
A finance team would free us bandwidth and help with tracking certain KPIs and metrics which can be tricky to extract; finding ways to save money or allocate resources more effectively. Ideally, someone with experience can answer questions quickly without relying on external advice, which is useful when making quick decisions. As we grow, I see the benefit of having someone who can centralise more of our accounting between office locations, in order to track client invoicing more seamlessly, for example. In terms of technology, we will also look to automate where possible and keep searching for the best software.
What does the future hold for HUBX?
We’re having very exciting discussions with some of our partners and clients. They are likely to help us accelerate significantly some of our work. We’re also doing a lot of work on product development and will soon be launching new solutions targeting different categories of clients. We also expect to scale our business internationally and to make several hires this year, with an ambitious road map both in London and Serbia. We will be focused on growing the business and team without diluting our culture.
What advice would you give to another Founder starting in the FinTech space?
Surround yourself with people you trust and who give you good advice. As far as I am concerned, having a co-founder has been very helpful. It’s a tough journey so it’s important to have someone with whom to share it. It helps capture more angles. Also, anyone starting in the space should seek advice from those who can help you avoid certain mistakes on questions such as ‘how do you set up a company?’, ‘How do you think about funding?’. Ultimately most answers are not set in stone, so there is no substitute for experience. You can spend a lot of time reading up on such matters, but it can also be a huge waste of time. I wouldn’t hesitate to challenge conventional wisdom when it comes to the way in which you decide to grow and finance the business.
Always think about the commercial application of your project: building a great product is essential, but before you embark on that journey, it’s important to think about what you’re doing at every step and the commercial implications. Does the product make sense? Will you be able to grow it? Is it something you can see developing in your country, or is it a global proposition? Is your chosen technology stack appropriate, for how long? As long as you expect to revisit and challenge every one of your assumptions regularly, you should be on the right track.
Axel co-founded HUBX in 2015. He spent his career in investment banking and capital markets at Goldman Sachs, BNP Paribas and Barclays. In 2007 he left banking to learn about new technologies and he has been passionate about applying tech to finance ever since. He graduated from LSE and HEC Paris.