Chris Nicola: Being Co-Founder and CTO
One man’s meat is another man’s poison. In other words, in the WealthTech and FinTech sectors, what’s helpful for a CTO is sometimes of no interest to a co-founder. In this article, I tell the story of Chris Nicola, a great entrepreneur and technology visionary who co-founded WealthTech startup, WealthBar; a financial robo-advisor and an online portfolio management service with his wife, Tea Nicola, where he currently works as CTO. Nicola is an extremely good case study of what differentiates the path and thinking of those who’ve grown their startups from the ground up.
It all starts with a background and Know-Your-Customer
Chris studied communication theory, coding, and data compression at Queen’s University and graduated with a degree in applied math. He started his career in IT and systems administration and moved on to building software for wealth managers and insurance organizations. Working with a number of start-ups as a software developer led to founding WealthBar.
As the son of a financial services industry veteran, John Nicola, Chris had the chance to observe and work for multiple businesses in the industry. He realized that most financial institutions were more inclined to cater to wealthy investors than to everyday Canadian investors. WealthBar aimed to change that by providing ordinary investors with access to pension-style asset allocations. By combining ETFs and private asset classes, WealthBar wanted to offer diversified portfolios with low fees and low-risk exposure.
Chris knows who their customer is, as well as what previous experience do they have and what challenges did they face. Nicola has an in-depth knowledge of customers and a desire to give them something that doesn’t exist otherwise. This differentiates Chris from his CTO colleagues, who joined the company after it was founded. He employs customer-centered thinking rather than processes-centered thinking, and this makes him a success.
The clear and integrated development process
As the co-founder, Chris wants to make sure that development and deployment processes are fully transparent and integrated. He wants it to be as easy as possible for his software developers to deploy new code or new services for testing and staging, as well as to make it easy for his design team to see things that are about to be implemented, verify them, and provide feedback. This desire is reflected in the way WealthBar organized their development process.
WealthBar utilizes the Kanban approach for the product-development flow and work-tracking systems. Limited work in progress, a principle of Kanban, is applied to avoid creating a large backlog of work that does not get completed on time. The team focuses on top priorities, meaning that only when the first task is finished do they move onto the next. By building different queues for different areas of the product, the company does not just focus on one aspect of development improvement but improves other internal processes as well.
“The interesting thing about being a start-up is that your product-management approach evolves quickly as the team dynamic changes.”
Chris’s enthusiasm towards lean manufacturing led to these principles being applied in the company’s software development. Chris created a culture of continuous improvement for the product team in which they can constantly see, observe, and measure themselves so as to get better with each process cycle.
Motivation through personal touches
Every CTO should be up to motivating their teams. To boot, a co-founder who is also a CTO knows—perhaps better than anyone—why it is important for employees to walk a mile in their clients’ shoes. Chris took it a step further and came up with a way to combine motivation and knowledge of customer needs.
WealthBar has a mandatory savings account set up for every employee that the company funds as part of the employees’ compensation. This account is a flexible group or a retirement-savings plan. In addition to compensation, the aim of the program is to put them in the shoes of the company’s clients by making them use the platform they work on. Through their own experience, it becomes easier to understand how saving money and investing money into a portfolio works. And what’s more, they get a real sense of what it is they do for their clients.
Moreover, software developers, when working on a feature, know who the stakeholder is. It is usually somebody from the finance team who has a deep understanding of the topic. They can go and ask this person questions or clarify things they do not understand. By explaining how the math and the code that calculates the rate of return work, developers gain an even deeper understanding.
There are a lot of opportunities to share and build domain knowledge at WealthBar. According to Chris, cross-pollination and a very high degree of communication within the company has tremendously benefited their growth.
Prioritization is a specific challenge
A co-founder doesn’t have tasks set by someone else. Instead, they investigate what should be done to improve products and look several steps ahead. Thus, they have more specific tasks and challenges compared to their hired-in colleagues. For Nicola, the greatest obstacle is prioritization.
“There are so many things we can work on to improve our software. The questions I ask myself are what to work on first, how to determine what is working, and what is the next big thing we can do for our clients or to improve our internal processes? It is all about understanding the problems that we can solve, and then prioritizing which ones to solve first.”
However, some of the challenges present themselves to all CTOs, regardless of their co-founder status. Chris believes that scaling is the hardest thing for any robo-advisor to deal with. For example, traditional financial advisors and wealth managers deal with a small number of large clients, whereas WealthBar gets hundreds of new smaller clients every month. Prioritizing which technology development to scale is an important part of future-proofing the company.