Welcome to Ctrl F – a brand new newsletter dedicated to finance leaders who have worked across the PE and VC space. Our inaugural edition is a catch up with Suzanne Ley.
Suzanne worked on Wall Street for over fifteen years, building up a wealth of experience and knowledge, particularly during her time at Barclays given the impact of the 2008 Financial Crisis.
Suzanne reached the heights of Director-level for Corporate and Investment Banking, before transitioning into the world of tech and start-ups! Suzanne then dived into the world of Crypto to develop her understanding of the intersection between tech and finance. In addition, Suzanne set up her own consultancy practice in 2019 to provide strategic advice to early-stage companies, management consulting firms, venture capital and private equity clients.
To top this off, Suzanne is also a Subject Matter Expert on Venture Capital by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, as well as Course Instructor at the University of Chicago, leading on their FinTech programme covering a wide range of key areas including Risk Management, Venture Capital, Alternative Finance, Crowdfunding and wider Finance.
These experiences helped offer guidance to Suzanne later in her career, particularly with the economic uncertainties of COVID and the Ukraine Crisis.
‘The challenges that we've had in say the last year, year and a half through from the pandemic through kind of some of the current bank crises. We just have better tools and those of us who are now in more leadership roles have, we have that experience of being earlier in our careers, and seeing what, what worked, what didn't work. From, from the private sector side, we just have better tools from a risk management and crisis management perspective, and government sources.’
‘As terrible as the financial crisis was, we all learned a lot from that experience. We had to learn crisis management in real time which wasn't ideal but clear, decisive and thoughtful decision making became critical skills that well all honed during that terrible time.'
Here’s a run through of Suzanne’s journey into finance and the key lessons she’s learned across her career for working in venture capital startups.
How Suzanne’s experience in Investment Banking helped shape her pathway in the world of start-ups:
One thing I realised from my time in banking is the hierarchical structure in banking. In tech, it’s a lot more horizontal. You have to work with founders, work with products, marketing, VC. It’s a much more horizontal sort of decision-making organisation. That’s really hard for people coming in from established Big 4 consulting, or big corporate environments. We’re just so used to the hierarchical decision making – evolving into new decision-making paradigms is really hard. It requires a tremendous amount of maturity and humility. You either sink or swim based on that.
I started getting involved in the startup ecosystem, maybe 2015, 2016, with just advising some companies for fun and learning about learning about the ecosystem. It was a really interesting sort of dynamic. I really enjoyed. The high energy, the agility of leaders within the tech community, especially to be able to create new products and new services and, and new ways of doing things.
I think the best models that I've seen are organizations that can take the best of both worlds of, my background in business building and in risk management and looking at strategic planning and looking at situations from lots of different corners. At the same time really capturing the tech innovations that these amazing tech executives are creating at the same time. When those two worlds can, can create levels of synergies, great things can happen.
The best organizations that I've seen have found ways to really empower both the tech innovation, strategic planning, and risk management to really propel organisations forward.
I come from the world of serving clients. It’s in my DNA that my end goal is to serve clients. I think sometimes in startups, that can get a bit lost as you’re just moving so fast 24/7.
When both tech and the business side can work together in collaborative ways, amazing things can happen. I’ve been part of teams that have done those things and had great exits. Great exits can come when you can build great tech and great business at the same time.
I really enjoy being able to come into clients that really need what you have to offer and you’re able to serve their need. I’ve been involved in many transactions over the years, where the company wasn’t happy with the service provider or the bank. We came in, returned their calls, gave outstanding service and grew a relationship based on a true market need. That’s what I take very seriously as a professional. It’ not just about winning the deal, it’s about the follow up – delivering on the promises you made to your client.
Reputation matters. Whatever you do in life, your reputation stays with you. You can fail at things, but if you fail elegantly, you’ll be okay. Doing the right thing is more important to me than any amount of money that I make, because making the right decision in even the hardest scenarios will always serve you well. I always try and get especially young professionals to think – what’s the long-term consequences of that particular decision?
How Suzanne Approached and Adopted Values to Risk:
I’m a problem solver. I’m constantly talking to people about what the pain points in their organisation are. What problems are they trying to solve? How does that intersect with what I can bring to the table? One issue that I’ve seen recently is the challenges organisations face with fundraising and filling the gap SVB had in the venture debt market. That’s a huge, huge problem, particularly if the organisation doesn’t understand how the banking system works.
There’s a lot of people in venture capital who know how to build certain technologies, but they don’t understand the intersection of what it means now that SVB is no longer in the market. That’s a huge issue I’ve seen within startups, also within government spaces and banking institutions. How do we fill that gap? That’s going to be a huge problem going forward. The broader ecosystem of venture of banking, private companies, government is really going to have to grapple with billions of dollars that SVB used to have – a virtual monopoly of the venture debt space. If you don’t understand the banking system, and only know how to build some great tech, you’re going to miss out on a whole avenue of funding.
Nobody is immune to macroeconomics, rising interest rates, competitors failing. My advice is to find that right balance and engagement with your VCs and other investors. Find the right path, because a sustainable business is better than having a business that runs out of cash. You don’t need to be a financial expert to see what’s going on around you, if your competitors are imploding and having problems. That means you need to sharpen your pencils, look at your accounts and maybe push back on the more aggressive tendencies at that particular time. If you can manage growth in a way that’s more sustainable, especially in challenging times, you’re going to make it through.
I’ve seen virtually identical companies – one made it, and one didn’t. It’s because the ones that make it really figure out how to manage through difficult times. The other ones, they just bury their head in the sand and say that they’re immune or exempt. If you can find that happy place between great innovation and really prudent financial management, great things can happen. That’s what I’ve always tried to do – how do we do right by our clients but also push the needle a bit?
If you’re a startup leader, be honest about your goals and objectives are. What are your timelines? Be honest with your investors and your VCs about your risk appetite. It’s like a marriage – you’re going to have to live with these people for seven years on average. You have to be aligned with your goals and your risk tolerance. You have to align your risk tolerance of your investor group with the aggressiveness of the CEO or founder.
Suzanne’s Main Drivers behind a VC Model Currently:
Some of the startups that maybe 10-15 years ago, or even during the .com crisis, they just burned through cash. The concept in the early 2000’s was just burn through as much cash as possible. I think there’s been some adults in the room in the last few years saying ‘we need to preserve cash’. We do believe in our business but things can go sideways in any industry, and you have to be prepared for that.
Very often VCs are going to push you to spend money. As a banker, you don’t want your client spending money like a revolver. In the world of VC, they basically force you to spend it. That I think is part of the problem – even when the market isn’t necessarily there, the game in VC is we’re giving you $100 million, go and spend. I think that the push and pull of prudent financial management within a lot of the startup ecosystem is coming to roost. A lot of the conversations I’m having with startups now is really around how do we balance all of these?
Biggest Advice to Someone Starting Their Finance Career?:
Always make the right decision. It’s really easy in the world of super cutthroat business to cut corners. Your reputation matters because you will get into a situation where you will need somebody’s reference. I didn’t come from the pedigree that a lot of other people came with, but I hustled and dug in – I focused on work ethic and my reputation.
Advice to Your Younger Self?:
Take more risks at work and take chances looking at different opportunities. When I came through business school, there was a path. You went into business school and went into banking. That path has fundamentally changed with technology. For me, I wish I had maybe taken a bit more risk earlier in the path of exploring.
If you're a finance leader or investor and would like to take part and contribute, don't hesitate to reach out to Oscar!