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Max started his career on the trading floor of Lehman Brothers in London, he has an MBA from Harvard Business School and co-founded and scaled several FinTechs. Prior to founding Ultimate, he was the CEO of Germany’s largest crypto exchange (Börse Stuttgart Digital Exchange).
You started your career at Lehman brothers in 2006. What motivated you to go into finance?
I’ve always been fascinated by finance and couldn’t have been more excited to join Lehman on the trading floor, feeling the pulse of the market every day. There’s also an immediate appeal to do something so inherently driven by numbers - you can see your results daily, and how you measure up against your peers. In trading, your success or failure is transparent on a daily basis. It’s a hyper competitive space and that was a really rewarding experience for me.
Was traditional finance what you expected?
While many parts were exactly as I envisaged them, one thing I found very surprising was that it was much more manual and “hacky” than I expected - even in a world leading investment bank. For example: I worked on the Oil & Gas trading desk, and the entire commodities trading industry was run on Yahoo messenger back then, which is crazy from a compliance point of view. There simply wasn't any good messenger software to link buyers and sellers of OTC derivatives. It took almost 20 years for that to go away!
Did 2008 change the way you thought about finance?
Not really. And I don’t think the core DNA has changed a lot since then. I always knew that banks are at the edge of innovation and pushing the envelope when it comes to highly complex structured products. To be more competitive, everyone had to take more risks. Lehman really wasn’t any more unhealthy than other banks, everyone had a lot of toxic loans on their books, Lehman was just the first to fall.
So you went onto Monitor Deloitte, and eventually an MBA at Harvard. Did you always know you wanted to start your own company?
Absolutely. Even back at Lehman I was reading tech blogs like TechCrunch daily. But I never had the guts to take the plunge to start my own firm. Back then, it wasn’t as easy as it is now to start a company - the VC ecosystem was infinitely smaller, capital was scarce. When I graduated from Harvard Business School in 2012 it was now or never.
So then you founded your first company, and sold it within two years, that’s impressive!
Me and my co-founder bootstrapped that company and it was a great journey. It was a plugin for ecommerce stores to help create social shopping layers on top of their inventory. We found solid traction but it wasn't a good fit for me personally. I found myself spending a ton of time in financial markets and trading a lot on the side. So my co-founder and I decided to sell the company and started UpTick - a mobile-first CFD brokerage.
Was UpTick one of the first social trading apps?
This was 2014, and retail trading platforms were incredibly difficult to use. There were many mobile trading platforms but they were technical, high-fee, zero delight, and not mobile optimized. This was around the same time that Trade Republic started. Actually we had a similar story to them: starting with paper trading, then doing trading competitions, then partnering with a broker to offer real-money trading. We allowed trading of stocks, FX, and from 2016 onwards crypto entered the retail trading scene.
What was the neobroker thesis in 2014? How has it changed since then?
You can’t compete on UX/UI anymore. The market is very commoditized and oversaturated with good products. There's no such thing as a “neo” broker anymore. Zero fee is now the norm, even for bigger brokerages like Schwab. Crypto is a bit different, since it hasn't gone through that phase yet but we are already seeing fee compression and a push towards more user friendly retail products.
So after four years UpTick was acquired by a German asset manager Quantumrock. What’s the story here?
Competition was heating up back then and Trade Republic was racing ahead. The market was moving to zero fee trading and many retail brokers started to offer similar offerings. Quantumrock is a tech-driven asset manager that just started to build out their retail offering in the crypto space which was our largest volume driver. Interest in crypto was exploding and UpTick was a great fit to accelerate their offering for retail traders.
Your next stop: CEO of Börse Stuttgart Digital Exchange, which was 1 year into building the first regulated crypto exchange in Europe.
It was an exciting value proposition that Börse Stuttgart offered: they are Germany’s second largest stock exchange and have a very strong reputation in the market. Crypto suffered from a lack of trust and Börse Stuttgart offered a trusted and known venue to buy Bitcoin, Ethereum and other tokens. While under the roof of a larger organization, we functioned independently as a tech unit. Everything was custom built: the orderbook, matching engine, everything was built in house.
Why did you leave Börse Stuttgart?
I saw the writing on the wall that DeFi will be the future of the capital markets - a much bigger opportunity than building a centralized trading layer on top of crypto. We had a dream team of co-founders with CTO Peter Grosskopf having previously built Europe’s largest tech bank (Solarisbank) and Director of Engineering Omid Aladini who has deep experience building trading products as the chief architect of the BSDEX matching engine. Also there were many high-caliber people that wanted to join our mission and jump over to DeFi. The time felt right.
You’ve served in the co-founder/CEO role at every company. Has your management style changed over the years?
I’ve always worked in quite small companies, so I’ve always used a pretty similar management style and stayed deeply involved with the product. I am very hands on which however can also be a curse at times.
You’ve built a lot of companies already, but you’re not done yet: What keeps you motivated to keep building new things?
To build something that has the potential to be really really big and change an entire industry. DeFi is one of those once in a lifetime opportunities to build something truly fundamental that can change the entire capital markets as we know them today. Working on big problems and big opportunities, that’s what drives me.
You recently became a dad, how do you juggle that with your co-founder/CEO role?
With the opportunity to work from home and reduced need for continuous travel, it works really well. I don’t feel like I am missing out on the early years of my kid. I am pretty strict about spending the early evening with my son and carve out time and most importantly headspace. The latter is the hardest but I manage.
You’ve recently moved back to Berlin, you must like it here?
For sure, I really enjoy the ecosystem here - there’s a lot of hustle to build. In the US, it’s even more pronounced. Everyone is thinking bigger and pushing the envelope, trying to build world changing companies. We have to remind ourselves as German entrepreneurs to think outside our local market, and aspire to build internationally recognized companies. Berlin is a great base for that with fantastic access to talent and capital.