Clare Flynn Levy, during her stint at Beauchamp/Linedata, was one of the very early sponsors of the Hedge Funds Club. A decade later she is the talk of the town with her new fintech venture Essentia Analytics. London-based Clare Flynn Levy is a former fund manager and current financial software entrepreneur who uses behavioural data analytics to help fund managers do a better job of investing. Stefan Nilsson decided to have a chat with Flynn Levy about who she is and what she’s up to.
You’ve got an interesting career path so far – from asset management to fintech, back to asset management and, again, back to fintech. Tell us about your journey so far.
I started my career as a tech stock picker in the late 1990s, and was a long-only fund manager during the internet bubble. In 2001, I launched a long/short tech fund and I slogged away at that for a good four years, running very hard to stay in one place, and continuously aware that I probably wasn’t using my energy as efficiently as I could. I was always an early adopter of technology for fund management and while there was a lot going on in the electronic trading space at that time, what I really wanted was a data-driven feedback loop that could tell me exactly what I was good at, so I could do more of it, and exactly where I was repeatedly destroying value, so I could do less of that. No one could give me that, and without it, running money felt increasingly futile. When I joined Beauchamp Financial Technology, my hypothesis was that a tech company serving fund managers that was actually run by a fund manager would have a competitive advantage – and I was right. We sold Beauchamp to Linedata, and once we’d finished our earn-out, I joined Tisbury, a large European event-driven fund, this time on the business management side. The founder of Tisbury could see the need to diversify his investor base, and therefore his product offering, and he hired me to make that happen. My business plan got the green light in July 2007 – just in time for the first major rumblings of the financial crisis. By necessity, my business strategy focus switched from offence to defence, as we tried to stem investor redemptions. When I left Tisbury it was the end of 2009, I was pregnant with my first child and keen to get some distance, to figure out where the intersection of my skills, my passion, and my network lay. Essentia is the result of that soul-searching.
Your current firm, Essentia Analytics, is focused on using behavioural data analytics to help fund managers. How can you best describe what this means and how fund managers can benefit?
As a fund manager, you’re continually under pressure to perform, but there is very little assistance available when it comes to telling you how to do that. It’s like being a runner who can see his final times, and maybe even his lap times, but has no insight into what he could be doing differently in order to win more consistently. You’re focusing on the result, not on the process. And in fund management, so much of the result is outside your control, that the only way to really develop skill is to focus on getting the process right – yet you can’t do that without in-depth, ongoing data analysis. Professional athletes figured this out decades ago – now you have no chance of competing if you’re not using a data-driven feedback loop to continuously raise your game. Essentia is a data-driven feedback loop for investors. It uses data about your past trading behaviour and its context, along with data about the current state of affairs, to tell you exactly where you’re adding value and exactly what is repeatedly tripping you up. Then it alerts you when it notices one of those patterns re-emerging in your behaviour. Unlike most performance analysis software, it is designed primarily to help the fund manager make better decisions, not just to report on him. It’s proven to help fund managers make significantly more alpha, effectively by holding up a mirror and giving them precise feedback on how to play to their strengths and avoid their weaknesses.
How did you come up with the idea for this business?
It was really born of my own frustration as a fund manager. When you’re making money, no one asks too many questions, but when you’re not, the pressure to turn it around is intense. Yet no one has any advice for you on exactly what, if anything, you should be doing differently. It’s up to the organisation to offer that support, and yet most organisations don’t have a platform that makes analysis easy, repeatable, and user-friendly for the portfolio manager to reflect on his own behavior.
You have gone down the cloud-based route. Was that the obvious way to offer access to your service?
Yes, the cloud simply is the most effective way to deliver software in this day and age. And the infrastructure available from the likes of AWS is far more secure than most companies can ever hope to be with their on-premises technology. A big part of why buy-side technology is so antiquated is the fact that it is mostly local-install and can only be upgraded once every few years, at great expense.
What have been your biggest challenges with setting up this business?
The biggest challenge has probably been the status quo. To the new generation of fund managers, what we do at Essentia is a must-have – they understand that our technology can empower them to make more money. But the old generation has been doing things the same way for 20 or more years – to them, what we’re doing sounds scary. They are used to technology being forced upon them, normally for the sake of compliance or reporting. It takes some patience on our part to help them realise that Essentia is a competitive advantage, not a threat or an admin burden.
What kind of fund managers have you mainly won as customers so far? Is it a service that can work both for major asset managers and smaller start-up funds?
Today, our customers are almost all equity managers, but they range from $200m AUM hedge funds who are keen to prove their skill to investors, to $300bn long-only managers who are trying to stem the flow of assets from active to passive funds. The patterns that our software identifies are unique to the portfolio manager, and the automated nudges we send them are based on those patterns, as well as on their personal workflow. In each case, our goal is to make the PM’s life easier, while helping him make measurably more alpha.
How do you anticipate Essentia’s business developing over the coming years?
I expect what we do at Essentia to become as standard in the fund management industry as “Moneyball” has become in professional sport. It’s common sense, really, but I expect the adoption of it to be driven by both the generational shift that is currently taking place in the industry and the growing threat of cheaper, passive investment strategies. Survival of the fittest is the name of the game if you’re a fund manager – more so than ever before – and Essentia is the key to investment fitness.
If you hadn’t worked in fund management and fintech, what would you have been doing for a living?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a newsreader. I still think I would probably be good at that – I enjoy communicating. But I think I would miss the satisfaction that comes from building something and watching it grow.