I wanted to go to Wall Street when I graduated.

Well, at least I thought I did.

It was all super until I had my first interview.

See, I wasn’t the typical Harvard economics undergraduate. I was 21, married with 1 child and another on the way. As one of my classmates put it:

While we started out building our careers, you decided to focus on building your family.

That was a fair accusation.

My (limited) Wall Street Experience

Even more glaring, I was a misfit. I knew I lacked the aggressiveness and determination that success in that highly-paid den of alpha-males required. I had enough self-awareness to know that finding a job for me on Wall Street was like a 5’6” Jewish kid trying to play big time football (I tried that one, too).

But I persevered, found contacts within the bulge-bracket and was able to land interviews with all the big banks: Goldman, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and DLJ (remember that one?).

To make a short, boring story even shorter, my first meeting turned out to be my last. I believe it was an MD at Goldman that played the role of muse for me. It went something like this:

Him: What do you like to do in your down-time?
Me: (Thinking he wants to know about my broad and vast interests) Well, I like to read fiction, play the saxophone, engage in quality time with the kids, etc.
Him: That’s interesting (not).  You know what I like to do?
Me: (Thinking, hire me?) What?
Him: I like read BusinessWeek. That’s it. I read BusinessWeek.
Me: That’s cool.
Him: Zack, you don’t want this job or this life. Look in the mirror and find that in yourself.
Me: (tail between my legs, hollowly) Not true, I took the Vault i-banking course and did like 5 practice interviews!

I think back on that day and think what a favor he did for me. I could have landed a job — everyone was at that time — done an associate’s bucket-filling-spilling-filling for a couple of years and then learned that the Wall Street life/career path wasn’t for me.

Instead, I’ve carved my own way through different jobs in the investment field, including running business development for Seeking Alpha and a stint as a buy side analyst.

But that Goldman MD accelerated my learning.  For that, I’m entirely grateful that he taught me that lesson so early in the process.

What’s going on

The financial field looks nothing like its former self. While there are still those stiffs who go through the requisite 2 year associate stint, get their MBA and return for more punishment before heading to the buy side after 6-10 years, they’re many of us making it, finding our own roads.

Have you noticed the big VC rounds for companies like Personal Capital and Motif Investing? Have you seen that they’re based on the West Coast? Have you registered that they don’t really have any traditional investment pedigrees?  I’m not saying these two firms are any better or worse than the rest. But they’re taking a shot.

Other professionals have skipped over the sell-side completely and landed jobs on the buy side (this whole move away from brokerage to RIAs with fiduciary responsibilities has some muscular legs).

A new model for careers in finance

Others are just starting their own firms and paving their own paths. Mebane Faber who can brag about having the most downloaded research paper since papyrus was invented merely started his own firm. Then he wrote a book. I don’t know, maybe it was the reverse order.  He’s had a hand in research platform AlphaClone.  Then he moved into ETF land. I’m curious to see what he does next.

Couple of words of advice

If you’re set on a career in finance and want to do it ex-Wall St., here’s a couple of pointers.

  1. domain expertise: you don’t have to have hands-on experience or even enjoy managing money to make money in finance.  We need all the awesome marketing and sales people we can get our hands on.  We need people who can pitch new deals.  We need A-team product managers for crying out loud.
  2. financial startups are exciting again: The first stage of Web 1.0 saw (in retrospect) some really silly business models.  This time around entreprenuers understand that it’s very hard to attack the head of the snake.  Finance is such a large, entrenched, somewhat monolithic industry that successful  new firms can attack just a piece of it and call that success.  Aim for evolutionary, not revolutionary.
  3. education: what’s old is new again: we’ve moved from democratization of financial news and data (think Yahoo Finance) to actionable opinion (think Seeking Alpha, StockTwits).  I believe we’re moving into the next phase of financial media and that’s experiential learning.  Tradestreaming is all about learning the investment process from experts.  It’s just one way to help investors truly understand the complexities of the investing process.

We’re entering into an exciting time for startups and people with ideas. I hope you’ll have the confidence (the sack, really) to make a difference. There will always be people lining up for a cookie-cutter, droning life on Wall Street (hey, I’m not bitter).

What are you working on? Let me know in the comments or drop me an email.