“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”: Pablo Picasso’s words came to me often as I read through Anne Boden‘s Banking On It on a rainy Saturday.
The book brings together everything that is catnip to me — startups, technology, a regulated industry, customer-led innovation, and a spunky founder.
Anne Boden founded Starling Bank after a career spent in banking where she was alert to the legacy challenges from tech platforms to organisational culture, which stymied innovation in banking, sometimes despite the best will in the world. Never quite switching off the ideas bubbling in her head, Ms Boden sketched the blueprint of what she wanted to build while supposedly on a holiday.
Building the bank however was harder — complete with a near-death experience of nearly losing control of what she had built when an early collaborator chose to walk away with all the paperwork that had been put together in the creation of Bank Possible as it was then called. In an illustrative example of how words can matter so much, she snapped back into the realm of the possible with a brief exchange with an old acquaintance while she pondered her options in a coffee shop in Marlow (I could almost visualise this exchange as those were my own old stomping grounds but I digress).
The early fund raising experience was also not stereotypical. Her ability to say No based on principles may have nearly led to the circumstances where she lost her entire team but then again if they had not walked out, she may not have rebuilt with the team she was then more cautious to build. Due diligence in early stages of bringing a team together cannot be over-emphasised and yet when we are building in a hurry we often don’t have time to stop for it (in the letter I contributed to Dear Female Founder, I suggest a framework for thinking about it, of course, based on my own learnings as a former founder with the benefit of hindsight).
The book is well-written and the story-telling proceeds at a clip. Ms Boden has not felt the need to extol her own virtues nor shied away from highlighting some difficult moments thus addressing both my main gripes about business memoirs.
Certain key things stand out throughout the book: Ms Boden’s rich and global experience in the banking industry, her social capital in the industry and its ecosystem (you try to get two out of the Big4 to work for you on deferred fee basis for more than two years!), and — especially for women, who are often told “oh you need to work on your self confidence” — her self confidence. These are not things one can build overnight and hustling, that unshakeable shibboleth of the startup world, is an unlikely substitute.
The story is still developing, of course, so I hope there will be a sequel to this book at some point, discussing scaling/ growth, product innovation, internationalisation and perhaps an exit. But having read the book I don’t think Ms Boden is going to retire in the classical sense even after a stellar exit.
All in all, a good read in just over 4 well-spent hours.
Star rating: 5 out of 5
Usefulness note: Younger founders seeking to disrupt regulated industries as well mature founders, women founders, minority founders will benefit from this book.