Adam Felesky is chief executive officer of Portag3 Ventures, a venture capital firm in the fintech industry, as well as a director of Wealthsimple. He holds civil engineering and political science degrees from McMaster University, where he supports students at the DeGroote School of Business through strategic initiatives.
Gordon Pitts is the DeGroote School’s business writer in residence.
Financial technology is the next great disruptor in the global economy, and yet Canada’s fintech enterprises face a distressing talent gap. The problem is not a lack of engineering and technical skills, but exists on the left side of the corporate organization chart – in marketing and business development roles.
Our emerging financial technology companies are often scrambling to find the combination of marketing and sales skills – quantitative and interpersonal – that they need to survive and grow. That lays down a challenge for not just fintech CEOs and investors, but to universities and colleges that train and develop marketing, engineering and finance graduates.
The classic story of fintech companies is that they are often founded by an entrepreneur, perhaps a former consultant or bank executive – and we certainly need to foster more of these company-creators.
But we also must look at who they hire. Their first recruit is often a technology specialist with a computer science or engineering background. Thus, Canadian companies develop quickly on the right side of the org chart, with the engineering and IT specialists who report to the chief technology officer.
The problem arises when they need to sell what they have developed. We see many companies competing to import marketing and sales-people from the United States or abroad, given the absence of local talent. This stunts our ability to develop a cadre of leading global fintech companies and managers, and leaves us nakedly exposed as we brace for the influx of international players into our market.
Part of the explanation for the aggressive international hiring lies in the sheer heft of enterprise outside Canada. But it also speaks to a fundamental Canadian malaise – our companies often hit a roadblock in the drive to commercialization.
We actually do well in product innovation, but the country lags in its ability to take these products to market, develop sales and marketing strategies, identify customers and find out what they want. Thus, we lack companies with the size and clout to compete both at home and abroad, and they are often taken over before they hit their stride.
Of course, it is part of the technology-development process for startups to be acquired – we expect promising firms to be bought out by larger players, and for founders to move on. But our Canadian hopefuls more often than not lack the breadth of talent to maximize their potential before these events.
The situation persists because of a fundamental challenge: We need sales and marketing people to be less obsessed with brands and advertising than in the past, and more comfortable with analytics and data methodology. With these means, companies can identify who really are their customers and who should be targeted in their approaches. Then, these professionals have to be adept at taking their hard quant thinking and building and integrating personalized sales strategies. Only then will they be able to engender customer trust.
You need the quantitative skill set to understand deeply who your customers are – but once you do that, you have to reach them in a personalized way through human interaction.
This prescription – hard analytic skills and soft skills in building relationships – is a difficult mix but absolutely essential for the careers of senior fintech managers – indeed, all managers. It will mean a shift in education, particularly at colleges and universities that are challenged to provide an underlay of data analytics and an overlay of interpersonal skills.
Graduates need to think about what is going to differentiate them in the future economy – and competencies such as leadership, relationship-building and creativity separate them from machines. Those are the attributes which universities and colleges need to develop in their students – even better, on top of a strong technical background.
There also needs to be a more substantive approach to teaching entrepreneurship and innovation in universities and colleges. Not all business students are wired to be entrepreneurs. But they should be able to discover their balance of aptitudes in their formative years, and hone those skills that are lacking. An understanding of how to develop a business plan or how to finance a startup can be useful in every organizational setting.
Universities, for example, should offer minors in innovation and entrepreneurship. These programs can be a place for young people to experience safe failure. A failure in a university project or simulation is not disastrous, and can be instructive for the future. Failure as an entrepreneur has more serious consequences.
In summary, universities and colleges must contemplate a reset of business education – if students are to have meaningful careers, and if emerging companies are to find their essential talent close to home.