Jay Ferst corrects us when we tell him that Ferst Capital Partners’ (FCP) sprawling financial tech hub is unique for Montreal.
“Canada,” said the successful tech entrepreneur. “It’s unique for Canada.”
According to Ferst, FCP will be the biggest hub for fintech startups by 2018, the nation’s shining example.
Nestled in a remodeled factory in St. Henri, a dozen startups and FCP’s own venture capital fund work out of the space every day. Jay and his brother Dominique founded it in 2012, years after making most of their money in tech and finance.
The space is bustling with activity on a Friday afternoon just before Christmas.
There’s a no-fee banking startup here. Over there, a startup run by former PayPal competitors is simplifying cross-border payouts for online marketplaces. Another has created an app that syncs to a person’s bank account, rounds their purchases to the next dollar and invests the change in exchange-traded funds. Still another is trying to simplify and improve online insurance buying in Canada.
The solutions are endless, it seems, all hand-picked and mentored by the Fersts and their crew of financial brainiacs.
Jay Ferst is a very wealthy, confident man who made his first million at the age of 24. He later retired at 37 after selling his online trading company to Scotiabank in 2007.
He speaks in direct tones, doesn’t seem to have time for BS and acts like a person who thoroughly enjoys what they do for a living.
Ferst said the reality is that it’s very hard to build a successful fintech company in Canada’s regulatory climate. Beyond that there’s also the issue of trust with customers: “You’re not a bank, so are you even allowed to do what you’re doing?” is a question Ferst has received often.
But there are other things that bother him.
Canada’s financial services industry is a “broken system.” Canada, he says, is about four years behind Europe and two years behind the United States in terms of the financial innovation. He wants to change that.
“Anything that’s different or weird in Canada, we cant wrap our minds around it. We don’t have a culture of true innovation and risk-taking,” he said. “We’re so far behind, and in Montreal it’s actually frightening. We’re dealing in an insecure environment,” said Ferst.
It’s a convincing act all around for Ferst and his fintech startups.
Convincing Canada’s government and regulatory bodies to make changes to adapt to the rest of the world. Convincing banking consumers to trust young, unproven, upstart companies working to offer more transparent solutions. Convincing the startups at FCP that their ideas will “fundamentally change” the way people use their money in Canada.
The Ferst brothers immigrated to Montreal from England when they were kids, where their Russian-born father set into construction. Jay was already working around Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood at 14, “hustling.”
In the early 1990s Jay and Dominique built one of the largest eastern Canadian Internet service providers (ISPs), Odyssey Internet. In 1997 that company was acquired, and the brothers were officially millionaires before their mid-twenties.
“We were young, very private and we did extremely well. We had tens of thousands of clients and most of us went in all different directions after we sold,” he said.
The brothers went into financial services out of necessity.
“We had never made money in our lives before and we said, ‘Well, let’s figure out how to manage it.’”
With all that cash and energy, they created TradeFreedom Securities in 1999, an online brokerage boutique. They were the first company in Canada that brought online trading down to $9.95 per trade and lower. TradeFreedom gave people direct access to the markets and the ability to execute in real-time. Scotiabank acquired the business in 2007.
It was the first “pure-play fintech on a consumer side acquisition in Canada,” but Ferst said tech media paid no attention at the time.
“Financial services weren’t sexy,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t realize the fundamental changes that my brother and I and our team made. By the time we sold our business we were doing six per cent of all trades in this country.”
“Our competition were the largest financial institutions in this country and I can guarantee you they were trying to take us out constantly. We [nearly*] went bankrupt three times in seven years,” said Ferst. “We learned a lot. What we learned was this was just the beginning.”
Ferst was retired before his 40th birthday. Like many successful tech entrepreneurs with time and energy to burn, the brothers did the next best thing.
They became investors.
“Everyone has their strengths and mine is the ability to see something in the future and map it back to get it done,” Ferst said as our conversation neared its conclusion.
Skip ahead to 2012 when the brothers officially unveiled FCP. The investment arm would provide strategic capital and support to startups as well as providing a “startup foundry,” the physical space in St. Henri for fintech ventures.
Part of the Ferst’s investment fund came directly out of their pocket: $10 million of primarily the brothers’ own money, with a bit from family and friends.
Today FCP has more than 20 startups in its expanding portfolio, including Mylo, the company that invests rounded up change into ETFs, Zensurance, which hunts out the most effective online insurance for business owners, Koho, a no fee, modern online banking platform, and many more.
FCP will undergo a massive expansion in 2017. But Ferst wouldn’t divulge details.
He did say that now is the time for Montreal, a place that’s beginning to emerge as a very strong data hub, a city where “real innovation” is happening within fintech.
Ferst said 2016 was the proof-of-concept year, one in which FCP finally became more known to people after flying under the radar since 2012. The year showed the brothers that their test idea is working.
“It’s going to be the biggest thing in Canada,” he said. “2017 is when we’re going to take this thing to a completely different level.”
“We want to be agnostic, non-conflictive and bring everybody to the table, from government to regulators to financial institutions to fintech startups to research/universities. It’s going to be a big deal.”
Just what that means, we’re about to find out soon.
*Update Friday December 23 – “Nearly” was a requested addition into this quote made by Ferst Capital Partners.