Switzerland and the UK have a lot in common. Both are “sort of” in Europe but keep their own currency. Both have economies dominated by financial services.
As a Brit who now lives in Switzerland, I decided to go to Zurich to meet Fintech fans, to hear first hand out what is going on.
Many Zurich Fintechers had made the trip to London, the emerging Fintech Capital of the world, to see at first hand what is going on there. The overriding sentiment was:
“I wish Zurich was more like London”.
The London contingent might be thinking:
“It sure must be tough with all those great mountains, prosperity and perfect rail infrastructure”.
Specifically, the Zurich Fintech fans would like FINMA to be more like FCA. They would also like a tax-advantaged scheme like SEIS to encourage angels to open their checkbooks.
However, even if government in Switzerland were to listen to the Fintech entrepreneurs in Zurich and give them what they want, it might not overcome what many in Zurich told me was the biggest problem, which is the deep-seated risk aversion of Swiss people. A frequent complaint I heard was that the big banks and Google paid too much to developers. I did point out that this was a complaint that one heard in London and New York as well.
However there was one difference that was impossible to refute. In Switzerland, working for a big bank is still considered a rock solid safe job. Tell that to anybody who worked at Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers. I vividly recall the Web 2.0 Conference in New York in September 2008 when the financial market was having its cardiac arrest moment and seeing the ashen-faced Lehman refugees lurking in the hallways polishing their resumes to present themselves as “more Tech than Fin”. The Bear Stearns refugees (collapsed earlier) were already pitching their startups and seemed more composed.
The meltdown was almost as bad in London. From that trauma was born the motivation to change that drove the Fintech ecosystem. Zurich did not suffer a similar trauma in September 2008.
Even if you did not work for a bank that collapsed, In New York and London you witnessed mass layoffs all the time and never felt that your job was safe. However, to date, we have seen very little of that in Switzerland. Everybody said that the banks in Switzerland were facing headwinds, as they are everywhere, but if that is the case it is the frog in gradually boiling water problem; right now the frogs say the temperature is just perfect.
Paul Graham (of Y Combinator fame) famously said that all you need for an innovation center to flourish is “geeks and rich people”. I would add one qualifier to that which is that the rich people should have made their money from something similar to what the startup is pitching. In Silicon Valley, rich people got rich by founding or investing in tech startups. In London, most rich people got rich in Financial Services and so a Fintech startup is not too big a stretch.
The same is true in Zurich, but the Fintech startup scene there is still more nascent. There are Fintech startups. Some had reached a serious level of maturity and many looked very promising. There are Fintech Meetups. There are people passionate about building Zurich into a thriving Fintech center. However the reality today is that investors in Zurich are looking to invest in ventures based in London (for example, one of Nutmeg’s investors is Swiss) or Silicon Valley or New York. And entrepreneurs are looking to those same centers in order to raise money.
About a year ago, a visitor to London would have made pretty similar observations, so these things can change fast.
This is one of a series looking at the Fintech scene in different cities around the world, based on the idea that “bits don’t stop at borders but money has to show its passport”.