I tend to fixate on a specific problem or task until I solve it, or at least until I reach some terminal understanding of the issue. At a startup, different people, tasks, and ideas constantly vie for your attention – it’s so easy to engage superficially and move on. You end up with a very large pile on that mental back-burner.
Aziz Lalljee is co-founder and co-CEO of Finom, responsible for business operations and development. He holds an MBA with Honors from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where he was a Stewart J. Foley Merit Scholar; at Booth, he concentrated in Analytic Finance, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management.
Prior to business school, Aziz worked at Tamarix Capital (a middle-market private equity firm) and at Navigant Consulting (an economic consulting firm). He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, with a BS in Economics (Wharton) and a BA in History. A naturalized American citizen, Aziz grew up in India and the New York City area. Fluent in Hindi and Marathi, his interests include tennis, history, theater, and Indian classical music.
Where did the idea for Finom come from?
To start with, it was personal – my co-founder and I both had terrible experiences with investment advisers that came highly recommended to our families through our networks. Poor investment management and poor communication by these advisers left us paralyzed, unsure where else to look or who to trust. As we dug deeper, we found that this industry has fundamentally been untouched by the explosion of data available in almost every other industry. It’s absurd that you can find every detail about the fit of a shoe before purchase and yet are really flying blind when it comes to one of the most important life decisions you can make: who to trust with planning and investing for your retirement. Also, it turns out that the best people and firms to plan and invest for your retirement are not necessarily the best marketers. The financial advisory industry suffers from a strong gravitational pull toward the biggest firms with the biggest marketing budgets and brands. We want to level the playing field and force advisers to stand on their actual investment management records. On multiple fronts, this is an idea whose time has come.
What does your typical day look like?
Most days take roughly the same form – one or two in-person meetings, a few phone calls, many emails, some internal brainstorming, often a networking event, and lots of follow-up. The actual substance of the work, however, has changed dramatically as our startup has evolved. I’ve focused, at different times, on business model development; regulatory compliance; investment adviser acquisition; product development; user acquisition and conversion; and partnership development. Every day, I feel like I’m juggling one or two large balls, along with four or five smaller ones.
How do you bring ideas to life?
The elevated answer is through visualization and conversation. I’m a visual learner and always find myself mapping out plans or ideas, finding the holes in the model, and then reaching out to people to help fill those gaps in understanding or to finish the job. A more mundane but equally valid answer is through relentless, sometimes irrational, optimism; I’ve heard it said that a pessimistic entrepreneur is an oxymoron, and find that to be true.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
The growing recognition of, and alarm at, systematic violations of our privacy by our government, and the invigorated defense of privacy rights by individuals and firms. As a citizen and libertarian, I’m heartened by the increasingly vocal, bipartisan defense of our Fourth Amendment right to “be secure in (our) persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” On a related note, as a consumer and entrepreneur, I’m excited by new businesses and business practices focused on protecting our online privacy, safety, and reputations.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I tend to fixate on a specific problem or task until I solve it, or at least until I reach some terminal understanding of the issue. At a startup, different people, tasks, and ideas constantly vie for your attention – it’s so easy to engage superficially and move on. You end up with a very large pile on that mental back-burner!
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
I’ve had positions – otherwise enviable for my age and experience – where the work was (a) both tedious and boring; (b) utterly predictable from day-to-day; and (c) seemed to make little difference to the larger world around me. These experiences helped me identify how I did NOT want to spend my working life, whatever the associated pay, job security or social cache. I resolved to work only at something novel, creative, and inherently meaningful. Any specific idea or company I’m involved with is a means to that larger end.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
Manage my own expectations better – each step in an entrepreneurial venture is often longer and harder than originally anticipated, and this hindsight would have helped on rough and frustrating days. Other than that, I would do nothing differently – each decision, right or wrong, was made earnestly, and taught me something.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I try to meet people – in person, as broadly, and as often as possible – and look for ways to help each person I meet. The unexpected connections and learning are special joys of the entrepreneurial life.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
Informal partnerships with people and firms who share our underlying interests. For example, at Finom we’re developing attorneys as one referral source. We help attorneys who, when asked by clients for referrals to investment advisers, are typically uncomfortable with making specific referrals out of a lack of real knowledge of an adviser’s practice and/or their client’s investment goals. By directing clients to Finom, or by directly using our platform to find advisers on their client’s behalf, attorneys reduce reputation risk, avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest, and ultimately serve their clients better. Finom’s interests are fully aligned with such attorneys, no money exchanges hands, and it’s a win-win-win outcome.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Finom is the first startup in which I have invested serious time, passion, effort, and money. We struggled for quite a while with deep skepticism in this industry about the value of data-driven decision-making for individual and small institutional investors. For example, we were initially told that no adviser would share their holdings information with us. We were then told that even if we had the data, we could not use it to power analytics that are meaningful to unique investors with specific investment goals and adviser preferences. Finally, we were told that investors would not care about risk-adjusted, after-fee performance records of advisers. With patience and passion, we’ve disproved the skeptics at each step.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Can someone build the Bloomberg for Indian health data? India has the right patient density, internet penetration, technological leapfrog potential, and profusion of lifestyle diseases to build a ‘health information super-highway.’ Roll out a tablet or mobile-enabled software that creates and services Electronic Health Records in hospitals and clinics across India. You can start with distributing free tablets with a user-friendly interface that doctors use to access and update patient medical histories and disease/drug information, and then layer it from there. There are multiple ways to monetize such a platform, and it can add real value to doctors, patients, pharmaceutical research companies, and NGOs working in public health.
Tell us something about you that very few people know?
I need seven hours of sleep each night. Without it, I’m seriously compromised the next day. I know this doesn’t fit the swashbuckling image of a manic founder thriving on forty winks, but it’s the real me…
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
The old, ubiquitous ones: Gmail – as the best free email; MS Excel – which is still so robust; and Skype – which continues to innovate and lead.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The best business books are ostensibly not about business at all. Here’s one I’m currently reading and greatly enjoying: “Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States” by Felipe Fernández-Armesto. This book turns the conventional Anglo-Saxon narrative(s) of American History on it’s head; provides an alternative, consistent and compelling Hispanic narrative; and makes interesting connections between these narratives. What does this have to do with startup businesses? Well, this mode of inquiry is a great model for an entrepreneur trying to understand an industry from both the inside-out and outside-in. It is a meta-tool to develop a systematic critique of conventional wisdom and conventional business practices in any space. Every entrepreneur wants to disrupt an industry through a new business model or technology, but such thinking gives structure to that imagination.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
My intellectual benefactors are not business people, and many are long dead. To name a few: Friedrich Hayek (political philosophy); Alan Charles Kors (intellectual history); Orhan Pamuk (historical fiction); and ‘Ghalib’ (poetry). Oh, and Calvin Coolidge is my favorite President!