- Starting a company inside Deloitte
- Launching a fintech product during the COVID pandemic
- Translating public accounting skills to other roles
- Working (and growing) at a startup
Matt Spoke is the founder and CEO of Moves. Matt has one of the most unique Big 4 experiences we've come across yet. Read about it below!
Thanks for having me. Hi everyone, my name is Matthew Spoke. Today I am the founder and CEO of a tech company called Moves. I'm sure we'll get into how I got here in my career, but to start at the beginning, I’m Canadian and went to the University of Ottawa where I got a bachelor’s of commerce degree with a specialization in accounting. I have to say - when I started my education, I didn't know that I was going to go down this path of accounting. In Canada, you can start a general bachelor's of commerce and then decide which track you wanted to dive into and specialize in. So a couple of years into my undergraduate degree I realized that I was doing particularly well at my accounting courses. And it just seemed to make sense. I wasn't 100% sure I was passionate about it, but I thought it made sense to focus where I was getting good marks.
I finished my degree and ended up at Deloitte in the tax department. Within a year of being at the firm, I started asking partners to task me on international tax projects. In those scenarios we would play a role in helping configure the right corporate structure for whatever the business might be. So that was interesting and it got me one step closer to creative problem solving as opposed to just compliance work and things like that.
When I got started at Deloitte, it became obvious pretty quickly that I wasn't going to stay in that career. But I wanted to give it three years or so because I had spent my entire education preparing for that. As I was getting close to the end of that three-year period I was considering my options. My primary option was to leave the firm to go and do my MBA. I figured, what better way was there to rebrand myself? I got accepted into a few that I was excited about and was slated to go to this joint program between the University of Hong Kong and London Business School.
It just so happened that around the same time, Deloitte launched an internal competition for employees to submit innovation ideas. So I wrote a submission about Bitcoin. I was getting particularly interested in that world. I figured if it had legs, there would be repercussions in the public accounting world if everyone was operating on a new type of financial system. This was in 2013, early on in the world of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies. Long story short, my submission was selected as one of the finalists across the firm. I pitched the CEO and they were interested. I had already notified my partners in the tax department that I was leaving to go do my MBA. But one of the partners on the executive team approached me after that competition and offered for the firm to fund my idea. So I scrapped my MBA, cancelled my enrollment and over a course of a year built a team of 12. They gave us a lot of rope, we branded ourselves differently, built our own website, and had our own office space. We wanted to live and breathe as if we were a startup and we were just learning about blockchain.
It was a pretty cool opportunity to dip a toe into that space without having to take the ultimate risk of being an entrepreneur and walking away from a stable job. We were the first team in the global Deloitte family of firms to zero in on the Bitcoin world. Rubix became this brand that other member firms around the world wanted to associate with. We started doing engagements with Deloitte Australia, Deloitte China, Deloitte Luxembourg, who were all starting to get questions from their clients about this new blockchain thing.
It was a unique experience, for sure. We ended up going in and having to make the case for the global executives. The chief innovation officer for the global firm was starting to seriously evaluate the firm’s global strategy for this space. It became clear that the more popular the topic became, the more likely it was going to be that they were going to parachute in a bunch of partners to oversee it. I wasn't going to have the same amount of autonomy. They weren't going to give a multi-million dollar budget to some 27 year old senior consultant. At that point it was losing that sense of being a startup within the firm, it started becoming more bureaucratic. All of a sudden I had 15 different bosses that I had to report into that were partners. That's when I started thinking about leaving.
A pretty clean follow onto what I was doing at Rubix. Other than being a domain that was new to the firm, Rubix was also developing technology. We had a software team that was building pretty interesting intellectual property. We were building on top of Ethereum and trying to apply the technology to enterprise applications. Deloitte didn’t know what to do with IP. They’re a professional services firm. It's just not in their DNA to go build product, develop technology, and sell licenses.
Anyways, part leaving was negotiating with the firm that I could take the team and the intellectual property with me. That started as a discussion around Deloitte having an equity position in whatever business I started next. I wasn't in love with that idea, because I thought he might constrain me from working with Deloitte’s competitors. But fair is fair, I developed a lot of this while I was at the firm. Fast forward about six months through an unnecessarily complicated legal negotiation and Deloitte ended up walking away from any claims on equity because they couldn't get it through their independence. It put them at risk of conflict of interest with some of their clients. So I got cut loose in a very positive way. A couple of my old partners ended up being some of my first angel investors.
So I started a company called Nuco that was going to build technology for large companies to be able to interact with blockchain. That business pivoted a few times. The blockchain industry was maturing and it wasn't obvious like where the opportunities were. And so we just adjusted along the way. We ended up building and launching a pretty significant cryptocurrency business called Ayaan. So I ran that for a number of years. And more recently, I started a company called Moves FinTech space.
Moves is a social finance platform for independent workers. I’ll try to unpack that a little bit. In 2019, one of the big stories coming out of California was pressure on companies like Uber, Postmates, and others. There was a new law being proposed called California Assembly Bill 5. The state was proposing legislation that would force gig economy companies to reclassify their workforce as employees as opposed to independent contractors. The law passed and became effective January 1st, 2020. This caught my attention and forced me to dive deeper into what was going on in the gig economy. It became pretty obvious that gig workers were a growing demographic and they did not have any of the protections or safety nets of traditional employment. There were significant businesses being built on top of their labor, and governments were starting to question if that was creating a systemic risk in labor markets.
After going down that rabbit hole, we decided to launch a business. The key insight was that gig workers are marginalized, unappreciated, and unrepresented. We asked ourselves, what can we go out and build and provide value to gig workers? That started us interviewing gig workers, getting the bank of Uber’s, doing food deliveries just to get a guy on our doorstep so we could ask them a question. It became clear that gig workers had a really crappy time getting access to financial services. They felt a pretty significant sense of isolation and not having anybody looking out for their best interests. Typically, gig workers have a dependence on these companies but they don’t like them. They feel like second class citizens because most of these companies primarily focus on building value for the consumer side of the model, and take for granted the supply side.
We had started building a product that was an alternative to a payday loan. We saw ourselves having to take 4-5 months to get a first version of the product rolled out. This was around March 2020 and it was increasingly clear that the pandemic was going to hit North America. Within the course of a week, Uber and Lyft drivers saw the demand for their work plummet by 95% almost overnight. People weren’t getting in cars anymore, lockdown orders were popping up in major cities. People who relied on rideshare driving as a primary source of income were stuck. So within a two week period, we rolled out a really crappy version of our first loan product. We had some capital and figured we could make it available to gig workers. So we rolled out a $2,500 loan product that you didn’t have to pay anything back for three months, and the rate would be cheaper than your credit card. We got a decent amount of interest and attention, we put out a large number of loans in a very short window of time.
The reactions were pretty positive, as if the market had never seen a company that is positioning itself to care about gig workers. So we got a lot of time and attention from gig workers. Frankly, even if we lost all the money that we rolled out in those couple of months, it would have been worth it just to establish that we are on their side and we’re here to solve their problems.
Later that year we ended up canceling our Canadian products mostly because the Canadian government ended up catching up with a lot of its relief programs. Initially, Canada’s unemployment program didn’t apply to people who didn’t have employment status. But they ended up broadening the criteria so independent contractors could get access. It was a pretty fast reaction by our federal government, so kudos. We also realized that the market in Canada was smaller than the opportunity in the U.S. Building a fintech product requires a lot of work to develop relationships with banks, get regulatorily compliant, et cetera. If we were going to do all that work, we wanted to make sure we were doing it in the right market. So we shelved our Canadian product and put 100% of our focus on the U.S.
Yes, we’ve since rolled out a significantly more mature version of our product in the U.S. It’s a banking app through which gig workers can get access to a cash advance - same day pay. We aim to be the primary account of gig workers. One characteristic that’s unique to this demographic is that, if your primary income is from the gig economy, you’re generally doing it across multiple apps. So you drive for Uber, and you drive for Lyft, and you deliver for DoorDash. So we created a product that allowed you to pull all of that into a single account and access funds when you need them.
It’s been going really well. The product has been in the market for about two months. There’s still a lot of work to do. But the big legal and regulatory obstacles are behind us. Now it’s continuing to iterate on the product for our user base. The team is 31 people and we’re getting ready for another fundraise. It’s been a pretty wild year and a half since starting off.
One of the things that is really obvious now is that an education in accounting and corporate finance is a really solid foundation on how to build a business. Everything we do impacts our costs, our revenues, our bottom line. Whether it's a marketing conversation about customer acquisition, a vendor conversation around a software that we need - all these things end up becoming cost accounting conversations. I can very comfortably have those conversations and lead that type of thinking. And I noticed that with colleagues or with peers, in those same discussions, it's not imminently obvious to people who don't have a good solid foundation of income statements and balance sheets. To me, it’s like a second language. And I take that for granted. I forget that it’s not a very common skill if you didn’t study that or spend the time developing that knowledge.
Every business can be boiled down to understanding its finances. The costs, where you make money and where you can optimize. To me, there’s a really obvious path for accountants to venture outside of accounting. Executives in any function need to understand the dollars and cents that roll up into what they’re building or selling. However, it’s difficult to understand the skills required to do something other than what you’re familiar with. At Deloitte, I’d get to the office and crank out returns, write tax memos, and analyze legal precedence on specific tax situations. At the time, it wasn’t obvious how those skills translate to leading a team or building a product or fundraising. But whether you realize it or not, you’re developing skills that are valuable outside of the world of public accounting.
I don’t think the firms do a good enough job of broadening the horizons of their employees to what that skillset is well suited for outside of public accounting. The firms obviously have an interest in keeping you, they invest a lot into your education, training, and domain specialization. So it’s not really in their interest to do this, but more could be done to make it obvious to accountants that there’s a whole world outside of the firm. And your skills don’t need to translate over to a director of accounting, finance, or tax. The background should not pigeon hole you into that.
Yes - I thought if you looked at my resume, you saw an accountant and would only consider me for accounting roles. I thought the only way out of that was to go get a different education, to get an MBA. Then people would see me as an MBA, not an accountant, and would think of giving me a role outside of accounting. I think a lot of people go back to school to come back to the workforce with a blank slate, a new corporate identity. When I was first looking for jobs outside of the firm, the only roles I’d search for were tax, accounting, finance. I remember looking at a tax manager role at Uber in the Netherlands. I thought that would be a cool role, but I wouldn’t let myself think outside of that very specific box. I already knew I didn’t love tax, but I thought that was my foothold outside of the public accounting firms.
I probably have a bias towards startups here, but one thing that I particularly love about startups is that very inexperienced people can have a disproportionate impact. Generally, the startup world is a whole bunch of junior, inexperienced people naively trying to do something that a more experienced person would probably roll their eyes at. Some of that naïveté is necessary. You go in with these unfounded assumptions, wanting to change an industry that somebody with any real experience would never even think to try because it sounds so ridiculous.
We've hired people over the years that are jacks of all trades, where we need somebody to come in and help us solve problems. Their background doesn't really matter. We're looking for aptitude and personality. Somebody who has this roll up your sleeves, critical thinking, problem solving mentality. Most problems in startups don’t have a specific domain associated with them. But you have to be able to understand what’s happening, see what solutions other companies have applied, roll up your sleeves and implement that solution. Public accounting can prepare you well for those situations.
This is pretty unique to startups. Large companies have a tendency to want to hire people with the brand that they're looking for. But I think there’s a huge open field in startups. They’re desperate for people that have maturity in how they approach problem solving, and startups don’t care about credentials. They don't care about what your diploma says. They don't care about where you went to school. They just care that you're willing to roll up your sleeves and help solve problems. So early stage businesses are a great place to start rebranding yourself. Depending on how much experience you have, you might have to take a salary cut, swallow your pride, and go back into the workforce as a junior contributor. But startups are really good at allowing for career progression to happen really quickly. Really junior people end up with very significant sets of responsibility. It's not uncommon to hear of companies that are three years into building their product, they've raised tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, and their executive team is a bunch of 28 year olds.
I don't think so. I got lucky in that I avoided big decisions that would have taken me down very different paths. For example, the decision to skip my MBA was significant. Had that not happened, I would have come out on a very different path than I am today. After you've spent $120,000 on your MBA, it's difficult to take a risk at that point. The time to take a risk is early in your career for a bunch of reasons. One - the salary that you're risking is not dramatic. Two - in the worst case scenario, your education would allow you to come back and fall back on your feet. You could always come back to the firm. I think people underestimate that the firm needs you more than you need them. They're always losing people. They're always turning out high quality talent. So don't underestimate the fact that if you left to take a risk and it didn't work out, your job would probably be there waiting for you if you needed it again.
I think the right framing for the MBA decision was to compare the money you’d spend on that education versus money you might spend taking a risk. There’s a good argument that you should spend that money on trying to start a business. You might learn more doing that than getting an education, and might actually build a business that turns into something that’s durable and sustainable. If it blows up in your face, call it tuition. You just got an education that most people only dream of.
Sure, my career goals include continuing to try my hand at being an entrepreneur. I say try my hand because you never know how many tries it's going to take. I think we're on to something pretty important and I think there’s probably a good 10-15 years in front of me that's focused on the business I'm building right now.
But I also have developed an interest and an aptitude to do more than one thing at the same time. So I find myself wanting to have a portfolio of things that I spend my time on.
I sit on a few boards and an investment committee. I find myself wanting to get involved in helping somebody else start a business. I’ve started doing some angel investing. Which, more than anything, forces you to pay attention to stuff that's being built outside of your industry. It also forces you to form an opinion on somebody else's business, which I think is a good mental discipline to go through.
So some combination of building my own companies and helping people build their companies. The world of building things really excites me and there's lots of roles to play in that world. I find that being in that world, you get surrounded by people who think differently. Surrounded by people who are excited by identifying and solving problems. And that, to me, is a fun career regardless of what direction it takes me.