Wealthsimple Co-Founder and CEO Michael Katchen on Simplifying Finance Services

"One of the funny things about starting a business is that your goals constantly evolve—the goal post is something that constantly moves forward"

As a changemaker in Canada’s financial services sector, Wealthsimple entered the arena in 2014 as a digital investment platform. Today, it has evolved tremendously into a company modernising the user experience with one overarching goal in mind—money, simplified. 

“We offer core services to help people grow their money, but we also offer the tools to help file their taxes, manage their daily transactions and cash accounts,” says Michael Katchen, Wealthsimple co-founder and CEO. “Our goal is to support people in navigating the myriad of financial choices they’ll face over a lifetime and be their trusted source to do so in one simple, seamless and unified experience.”

As an industry mover, Katchen has received a number of accolades over the course of his career—named one of Toronto’s 50 most influential people by Toronto Life and one of Canada’s “Top 40 Under 40.” Today, he’s credited for redefining investing for a new generation and disrupting the outdated behemoth of Canada’s financial services industry. As Canadian Business’s leader-in-residence this month, Katchen sat down with us for a discussion on his entrepreneurial journey, keys to successful leadership and details on what he’ll be bringing to the stage of the upcoming How I Made It talk series

Venturing into the world of business is no easy feat. What drives you?

There was a great talk at Harvard University a couple of years ago where the dean spoke about how there is no greater form of dignity than financial freedom. That is something that deeply motivates me at Wealthsimple. Generally speaking, I understand business to be one of the best ways to bring about the change you want to see in the world. 

September marks eight years since Wealthsimple’s launch. What do you attribute your success to, and is this where you hoped the business would be?

If you had told me eight years ago today what Wealthsimple would become, I would have been shocked. But the truth is, we still have so much further to go. That’s one of the funny things about starting a business—the goal post is something that constantly moves forward.

Our success boils down to building something that people really want. It’s a classic ethos for any startup that in order to build a successful product, you need to focus on who your customers are. This is our vision for the financial services space. While I don’t think people would historically describe it as delightful and frictionless, we’re trying to make the experience of managing your finances exactly that. The Globe and Mail named us the most trusted brand among young Canadians in financial services, which I think reflects our efforts to deliver a seamless experience that helps our clients achieve great financial outcomes. 

Why do you think young Canadians have especially been drawn to Wealthsimple? 

I think technology plays a big role here. This is a generation that doesn’t want to, or see the need to, walk into a branch and deal with paperwork and long lines. For a long time, that wasn’t something you could avoid. When we launched the company, for example, you could not access a financial advisor unless you did so in person. Over time, we’ve been able to build the right products and also change the regulatory landscape to enable the kind of experience that clients today definitely want and value. 

Wealthsimple has grown to over 1,000 employees. How do you approach leadership today? 

I think that leadership is one of those things that constantly changes, especially in a high-growth environment. The leadership I need to exhibit now is much different than it was when we were only at 100 employees. So, it’s important to always adapt and allow your style to evolve. Just yesterday, I was in a meeting and Elénie Godzaridis, a manager on our engineering team, put it perfectly—“leadership is caring about things publicly.” At this scale, her comment certainly resonates with me. It’s about determining how you set up the behaviours that you want to role model and encourage your team to exhibit. 

Amid changing market conditions and times of volatility, where do you find resilience?

I remind myself to stay focused on the mission. We used to spend a lot of time on the five simple rules of smart investing, and I think rule number three was to drown out the noise. I think that wisdom around what smart investing looks like is reflective in what building a business looks like. There is a heck of alot of noise out there and the best way to build is to focus on the mission, the strategy and execute your way through the changing market cycles. We believe in the long term opportunity here and so long as we deliver against that, it will work out. 

What would you like the future of Canadian financial services to look like? How do we get there?

Ultimately, rather than finance management feeling opaque, complicated, expensive and frustrating, I want a future that prioritizes frictionless user experiences, and for anxieties around finances to be demystified.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Most career advice goes along the lines of “follow your passions,” and I always hated that because I never knew what my passion was, and found that idea very overwhelming. So, honestly, the best advice I received has been to focus on people over passions and to surround yourself with people that inspire you. I believe that most people can be happy and successful doing just about anything so long as they’re surrounded by inspiring people. 

What can guests of our upcoming How I Made It talk series look forward to in your discussion? 

Like many industries—health-tech, real estate, clean-tech—the pandemic fuelled advancements in financial technology at a rate faster than anticipated. This, paired with the highest cost of living in decades presents a unique opportunity for innovators, as we think about the solutions that are going to best support Canadians through this next chapter. I’m looking forward to talking about our own evolution as a company, where we hope to be, and what I believe Canada needs to keep building on the momentum of the past few years.

Get your tickets for Canadian Business’s How I Made It Talk Series, featuring Michael Katchen, here.