Another week and another profile. This week we have John O’Hara from Taskize.
Co-founded in 2012 by financial technology veterans John O’Hara and Philip Slavin, Taskize provides a unique service for banking operations staff to get work done faster.
Our questions are in bold.
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Who are you and what’s your background?
I grew up on the family farm in County Antrim, Ireland. An early interest in electronics led to me getting one of the first 8-bit computers sold in Ireland at the age of 11 and I was hooked – part of the “Wizz Kid” generation. I was coding games for CP/M in assembler when I was 12.
I studied Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Aston University, one of the best systems courses in the country and was sponsored by Ford Motor Company. Ford was great fun, it brought me to the South East of England and had lots of added interest for a young guy – driving the bosses’ RS Cosworth put a smile on my face! Fords also had some great tech for then; early photo-realistic CAD was just starting to replace full-size clay models of cars. I programmed the PDP-11 driving the 3D clay model digitizer. Then Fords had a bad year and I took voluntary redundancy in the hope of starting my own business. But a chance visit to a special event in the Waldorf hotel led to me being hired on the spot by JPMorgan and my life was transformed.
In the 90s, JPM quipped that it had “more PhDs than NASA and more developers than Microsoft”, and it was true. I will never forget my first time at 60 Wall Street looking out over a sunny Hudson to the Statue of Liberty and thinking “How did I get here”? I was one of the top technologists in the bank and my peer group is still defining how technology works at the banks today. The CIO, Mike Ashworth, gave me the latitude to invent AMQP, which became hugely successful when both Microsoft and Red Hat adopted it. There were a lot of amazing projects I can’t talk about, but spending $1bn per annum building one of the best banks in the world gives you the idea of what we were up to.
What is your job title and what are your general responsibilities?
I’m the founder and CEO. My job is to realise a vision that delivers value to our clients and investors by growing a talented organisation full of people that believe and can deliver the promise. The buck stops with me.
Can you give us an overview of your business?
Taskize connects the right staff performing the right roles in the right firms right now. This shortens settlement times, reduces risk and improves controls. Through economies of scale wecan deliver this at a price-point that is lower than a bank could do for itself. Also, Taskize integrates legacy systems and processes and doesn’t require huge spend or rip-and-replace of old systems.
We have a couple of unique inventions at Taskize; a Smart Directory that learns who-does-what in an organisation, secures micro project workspaces we call ‘Bubbles’ – a way of managing literally thousands of manual tasks per day and a built-in understanding of the structure of these complex businesses. All packaged as an easy-to-use utility with simple subscription pricing.
Taskize is a network business and kick-starting any network is tough work. But I think my experience with AMQP and FpML will stand us in good stead, plus it’s one of the reasons we took investment from Euroclear.
Our customers have to be in the financial services industry to use Taskize. This is a niche market and incredibly difficult to penetrate with demanding, regulated customers. So, in addition to making a compelling solution, we have to be able to talk to the banks in their language and deal with them to their arcane standards.
Today, and despite numerous attempts to perfect automation, there are literally tens of thousands of people working behind the scenes in investment banks. Those people are starved of effective, modern tools. Next time you visit a high street bank, look at the tech the teller is using. Most likely it will be quite antiquated. Also, banks aren’t well connected in the back-office despite the fact they need to work with each other frequently.
We’re really excited about what we can do for banks – and so are the banks and their customers. We’re entering a pilot phase now involving half-a-dozen or more banks, and we will then be opening to other market participants.
Banking will get better and safer because of Taskize and operations staff may even get home to their families earlier each night!
Tell us how you are funded.
Taskize ran super-lean during its early years while we were validating the business and building our MVP. There were three of us in the early days and we did contract work with the likes of BP and VMware to make ends meet. When we started to talk with banks the interest was huge and we realised that we were going to need an industry partner. Now we have Euroclear as our investor – they see the value in what we do as a great strategic fit for diversification and geographic reach. We value them for their neutrality and their huge experience as a utility. Euroclear leave us to our own devices and they have been fantastic to work with. Of course, Euroclear Bank is our first paying customer, too.
Why did you start the company? To solve what problems?
Taskize builds on a lot of themes I’ve experienced during my 20 years in this peculiar industry.
When I invented AMQP at JPMorgan, I worked with many firms. One of those was RabbitMQ. Alexis Richardson, their CEO and founder, got in touch out of the blue one day and said “We’ve implemented your spec”. It was really interesting to watch Alexis build Rabbit into a huge success…
I wanted to do what Alexis had done; to see a vision through from conception to full commercialisation. So I looked at the industry I knew best, banking, and looked to the place where there was a need that was being underserved – operations. Everyone else was doing low-latency in the front office. At this point I was at Bank of America Merrill Lynch and was considering an offer as Technology Fellow at perhaps best name on Wall Street. Then my father suddenly passed away and that spurred me into action. I stepped out into the cold lonely world of starting-up in January 2012.
Who are your target customers? What’s your revenue model?
Taskize aims to be in operations in every financial services firm in the world. Period. There are about 3,500 such firms registered at the FSA in London, which is why London is such a great place to do business in FinTech – everyone that matters is here. There are thousands more regional FSI firms around the word; maybe 35,000 in total. That’s who we’re serving.
We have laser focus on operations. Back office operations is totally different to the front office, and I’ve dealt with both. The culture, the people, the processes, the complexity, the technology, the cost sensitivity – all different. We even have a head of ops from one of the big name banks on our staff now. Operations is in our DNA.
Taskize is a subscription business. We want people to join the club and reap the benefit. We want there to be no impediment on extending use within a firm once they’re on board. Like all good clubs, the members make it what it is. We think we’ve got a compelling offering.
We’ve grown from two to 19 people in the past 12 months and we’re all based in London.
Finally, the sales cycle in banking is brutal – never less than nine months. Taskize is entering a pilot phase now involving half-a-dozen or more banks, then opening to other market participants.
If you had a magic wand, what one thing would you change in the banking and/or FinTech sector?
Banks need to industrialise. The days of fat margins are gone. Banking needs to be a lean industry with lean processes. Selling to them should not be as hard as they make it. I think a bank could easily spend the cost of a Taskize subscription just administering the procurement process. That needs to be fixed!
What is your message for the larger players in the Finance industry?
The CIO’s I’ve met are smart people playing against hard constraints. I’d invite them out for a good breakfast, because they need their lunch for work. If any CxO wants to take me up on that offer…
What phone are you carrying and why?
Samsung S6 – I like open ecosystems and there is nothing that device cannot do.
I’m not sure I like just how much the device is watching me, however!
Where do you get your industry news from?
The Telegraph and the FT for curated news. However, all the juicy stuff comes from my network.
Can you list anyone you rate from the FinTech sector that we should be following on Twitter?
I’ll cite Kirk Wylie and John Davies. They’re both smart technology leaders who do stuff they believe in. So much of FinTech is noise and me-too – these guys are not.
What’s the best FinTech product or service you’ve seen recently?
FreeAgent got us started with our accounting needs. Very neat and could be perfect. But we’ve out-grown it.
Finally, let’s talk predictions. What trends do you think are going to define the next few years in the FinTech sector?
I can tell you what it is not – it is not blockchain!
There are simpler and faster ways to the same result blockchain has some major weaknesses, none of which are technical.
FinTech can make a big impact where there are direct peer-to-peer transactions. TransferWise is a great example. Most other FinTechs are highly dependent on the underlying legacy infrastructure; which is disappointing since that legacy is in deep need of an overhaul.
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