How I Did It - I Left Finance To Found My Own Machine Learning Startup

5 Min Read

In our How I Did It Series, we profile entrepreneurs whom we admire at Solid State Group, especially those who’ve made the leap from corporate life to founding their own businesses, or go above and beyond to support London’s tech industry.

Richie Barter thought he’d spend a year in finance after he graduated, make bank, then head out on the gap year trail. Instead, he stayed put, and worked on million-dollar deals until one day, he realised he didn’t actually want his boss’ job, or anyone else’s.

His next move had to be an entrepreneurial one and here he tells us why he made that move, and the processes he uses to create a technical team capable of building big data analytic tools at the forefront of algorithmic technology. His thoughts on hiring that team are gold dust.

Here’s how he did it.

How did you end up running your own business?

From day 1 I’ve always been one of those types of people who’s more motivated by the challenge than anything else. I’m the one who always wants to know: what can we learn and build here? More so than than looking for security or stability.

It did take a while but I realised I wanted to go out on my own and I took that leap. It’s now 6 years into that journey in a small startup environment, which is so radically different to the corporate life that I had.

How did you know that over 6 years ago was the right time to leap into entrepreneurship?

There are three real drivers to this.

  1. I do a fair amount of introspection and I’ve always been open about sharing where I am. For example I shared my journey with my boss fairly early on, when I was realising that in my day to day job I was spending more time in middle management strategy meetings than doing anything interesting. It was really stifling to me in my early thirties. You ask yourself, do I want my boss’s job? What’s the 5 year goal here? I didn’t see anyone there that I wanted to end up becoming and in your early thirties you should have a sense of it.
  2. Then, some of the motivations in the financial sector just didn’t resonate with me personally.
  3. And thirdly, I wasn’t married. I didn’t have a dependant, no mortgage. It was a unique window personally where I could take a risk and if it didn’t work out and I ran out of savings, I could get a job again.

At this point we got diverted by a tangent on what drives entrepreneurs, it’s often called passion, but Richie broke down that slightly fluffy word with this advice:

People underestimate how much of yourself you have to put in to the business. The values of my company, AltViz, are integrity, curiosity and tenacity. You have to keep fighting for so long. I was speaking to another entrepreneur who’s earlier on in the journey and I said you can’t underestimate the amount of effort and drive you need to continue to put into it long beyond everyone else caring, if you don’t no one else will.

I agree you need to know that you’re passionate enough in the idea before you start putting in all your effort, but your role evolves. Any entrepreneur has to have multiple hats and as the team grows or retracts you give those hats away and you have to evolve your passion along with them. I’m getting into scaling the business now and I’ve started recording our history as a company so new joiners can see the background story, the culture. Our new people don’t have the 5 years of fighting in the trenches, so, yes you need passion, but it becomes more nuanced.

I feel that hunger to work on hard things and solve difficult things that I wasn’t getting before

How did you come to start AltViz?

A lot of people leave their corporate careers and feel like that they have to have a fixed idea of their product, that it’s got to be a thing. I didn’t actually have that, I looked at it more as an exploration.

I dedicated a year to exploring different avenues including social enterprise, attending meetups to spark new ideas, and spending hours working through coding courses, and they ultimately converged into technology in the London space. AltViz has allowed me to work with some very interesting people and customers and continues to challenge me every day, I feel that hunger to work on hard things and solve difficult things that I wasn’t getting before.

For serial entrepreneurs, it’s less the ability to identify good ideas and more if they can bring scalable processes to bear

What were the good skills that your corporate life gave you?

First I was required to jump contexts a lot. One minute the phone would ring and it’s an Irish tax authority, or a lawyer or a risk manager. You had to be able to manage different threads across different disciplines in your brain very quickly. That helps at AltViz because I have to be involved in many different things from marketing to algorithms to sales. I try to maintain a decent general knowledge of each one of those - I was just on a call working how to improve a voice-to-text tool, then I was thinking about targets for an event, Now I’m talking to you. You’ll own 25 different projects and luckily my corporate life prepared me for that.

Secondly, coming from finance, I received an appreciation of how fundraising works, the negotiation around that, and how to describe what you’re doing in a way which appeals to financial people.

The corollary to that?

They gave me a lot of a freedom in my role in finance, so in running my company I’ve had to get better at formalised processes. I used to think, ok we have to build a thing, but now it’s more “ok what’s the process“. It’s the same with marketing and sales, I didn’t have a set of defined processes I could use. I was lucky to learn the difference by hiring smart people into the business, who have very strong processes and they showed me that there could be a better way.

I wonder if for serial entrepreneurs, it’s less the ability to identify good ideas and more if they can bring scalable processes to bear.

Why did you take the technical route that you did?

Originally during my days in finance I was exposed to a lot of quantitative and statistical software, I did a tiny bit of coding to help with day to day things, and I worked with talented engineers to help us with complex big data trading systems. I was exposed to the best and worst of multi-million dollar IT projects.

So that sparked my interest, I asked, why don’t other companies make what we do at the bank? It was an abstract idea of taking data and making better decisions with it. So, how to build it, I had heard horror stories about outsourcing and I had a small budget so I set out to find a technical co-founder. I did reach out and find that expertise through a mutual friend and though he’s now left the business, he was instrumental in building it.

I was conscious I wanted to know enough to be dangerous in hiring technical team members, in product discussions with customers and throughout funding conversations.

The first thing I look for, which I’ve learnt through experience, is that process is everything

I looked around and found this MSc at Oxford which is part time, they target more junior devs who want to jump up the ladder, or non-techs like me who can prove a technical aptitude. You can do a couple of modules and be graded and see how you get on, it helps you understand if you can keep up with the material. That MSc was a foundation for me in terms of cloud computing, designing scalable data systems, algorithm selection etc, but I knew I wouldn’t rely on it day to day and I dont code now nor for years.

Also, my thinking was I’ve got this much money, if it runs out at least I can say I have this degree to show for it.

The first thing I look for, which I’ve learnt through experience, is that process is everything

You found your technical partner, any advice for others building a technical team?

If you’re hiring a CTO, you need to get them in place so they can grow the team they want.

The first thing I look for, which I’ve learnt through experience, is that process is everything. So you want to know what process are they going to bring, what’s their delivery, their deployment process, their hiring process, their learning development process, the good measurable confident processes.

Before we grew out our team under our new lead developer, Jason, who incidentally became AltViz CTO, I never knew with surety how long a feature or product would take to be delivered. This made it difficult when negotiating with clients, and led to extreme stress as we tried to deliver to an arbitrary deadline. Now, through Jason’s diligent use of engineering and product development process, I know that every sprint has a two week window, and every task in the sprint will have a defined number of points. The total number of points across the sprint gives an idea of how much we are trying to achieve that sprint, 28 points is generally sprintable with a team of our size, 40 is tight. I generally know when a feature will be ready to go and gives the entire organisation so much confidence.

When you’re hiring, look for senior leaders who can articulate those processes

We’ve changed our hiring process dramatically. Now we start with the job spec, then we also take a step back and think what their personal KPIs should be, what’s their learning development plan. If you share those KPIs early in the interview process and discuss whether they’re achievable, and ask the interviewees to formulate their own L&D plan, this sets a deliverable expectation around their role within the organisation and it formalises their personal development process from day one. It’s a very transparent framework. From day one they absolutely know where they stand. In their monthly one-to-ones we can see if they’re on track and once a week the whole company has access to a forum saying what they’ve done, what they learned that week.

So when you’re hiring, look for senior leaders who can articulate those processes. Can I rely on this person? Can I hold them to account?

Those are the questions to ask to get everyone pulling the same direction, creating an environment where everyone is attempting to continually learn new things, whatever their role or seniority.

Anything about what you do that you’d mention to your friend in the pub?

It’s very hard! I was lucky enough to work with sums of money in banking far beyond what anyone needs, hundreds of millions of dollars. Let me tell you, there were very few nights I lost sleep over my old corporate day job. Since I started my own company, the number of times I wake up at 4am because of a certain issue… the years 3-4-5 really impact you in all sorts of ways. Those are the years where you’re getting to a place of stability and with any new business, it takes a long time and it’s a slog along the way.

But the good news if you can’t sleep at 4am, podcasts are your saviour.

We’ve interviewed more of London’s fantastic entrepreneurs who left a corporate career to found high growth businesses. Visit our blog to see other stories from ex-lawyers, consultants, accountants and more.

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