“Chicago’s aim to become a 21st-century fintech center is at best limping along.” Such was the pronouncement made in the May 27 issue by Crain’s Senior Reporter Lynne Marek, who pointed to slowing VC activity and a stalled World Business Chicago initiative as supporting evidence.
As someone who moved here from Silicon Valley to launch my fintech startup, M1 Finance, I disagree strongly. Certainly, some of my decision in coming here was personal—I did want to be closer to my family. But ultimately I chose Chicago because it is, without question, the best place to launch a financial-technology company.
Read more: Chicago should be a fintech hub. So why isn’t it?
Don’t just take my word for it. Look at the evidence. Chicago was recently ranked among the top five global fintech hubs by Deloitte and the Global FinTech Hubs Federation, thanks in part to FinTEx Chicago’s strong advocacy. Further, fintech and financial services companies even account for 14 percent of the 50 fastest-growing companies in the region, according to Crain’s 2017 Fast 50.
And most important, the financial sector is driving real job growth in the city. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that as of March, year-over-year employment in Chicago’s financial sector grew 3.6 percent—more than double gains in the next-highest industry. That also trounces growth of 2.2 percent in the financial sector nationally.
Strong job growth is indicative that a depth of talent exists here, a critical element because a startup cannot succeed on a founder’s vision alone. It needs a deep and stable workforce, which we have in Chicago. Instead of constantly looking to jump from startup to startup in the hopes of getting in on the ground floor of the next new thing, employees here commit to companies and products. Employers are able to reward that by providing a good living for workers.
The same cannot be said for Silicon Valley.
Read more: Crain’s 50 fastest-growing companies in 2017
Having consistency across employees can make or break a startup in its early days and massively de-risks the venture for the founder and investors. That matters.
Additionally, as company builders in a highly regulated industry, we are heavily reliant on experience and expertise. In that regard, Chicago is unmatched. This community built innovative brokerages like OptionsHouse, OptionsXpress, Thinkorswim and TradingBlock, and created pillars of the financial community such as CME, Morningstar and Citadel.
The legal and compliance talent to disrupt financial services is here. Apex, a clearing firm that provides the backbone for major fintech companies such as Betterment, Wealthfront and Robinhood, has a second home in Chicago.
And all of this matters. In the past two years, three new brokerages have launched—interestingly, all focused on different markets. Tastyworks created a platform for active equity options traders with ultra-low commissions; Tradovate deployed a subscription model to futures trading; and M1 Finance brought automation and customization to building long-term portfolios.
And what about VC activity? Of the three new brokerages, just M1 announced a corresponding fundraise. Dough, parent company of Tastyworks, last raised money in 2014, and Tradovate appears to be bootstrapped. As are other innovative and growing fintech companies.
But there’s another wrinkle that separates Chicago fintech—notably, that it is driven as much by established companies as it is by startups. There is not an established fintech company in Chicago that doesn’t rely on a giant team of sophisticated engineers. The innovation done in house rivals any work done in any startup across the country. For example, Citadel just created a position for a head of artificial intelligence and machine learning, pulling an established Microsoft veteran to the fintech world.
I’ve also not mentioned innovations in insurance, payments and other areas of fintech that Chicago companies have fostered, from Braintree to Avant and Insureon.
However, just because we are on strong footing now doesn’t mean that it will always be the case; other cities are gunning for us. Our city and state leaders need to arrest the outward migration that could be taking key talent away from Chicago. And industry leaders could more willingly embrace and support collaboration as spearheaded by groups like Currency, which can foster best practices and lessen the learning curve.
Now is not the time to be complacent. After all, there are still four cities above us on the global fintech ranking.
Brian Barnes is founder and CEO of M1 Finance, an automated online brokerage.