In this series, we’re checking in with some of our amazing alumni entrepreneurs to see how their ventures have developed over the years and how they’ve grown as entrepreneurs. Today, we’re excited to feature Jason Barsema ’14 (Co-Founder and President of Halo Investing).
Tell us a little about yourself and your company.
As a background, I spent my career at Credit Suisse, joining the firm right out of college as an analyst within its Private Banking unit. Within 4 1/2 years, I worked my way up to make partner on a large Private Banking team, managing portfolios for ultra high net worth families and institutions. At Credit Suisse, I used an investment product called a Structured Note in my portfolios that gave my clients a level of downside protection against market declines and volatility. Structured Notes were truly one of the most elegant products I had ever used, but one of the most inefficient I had ever seen given the high fees, lack of transparency and liquidity, and ultimately, they were very manual to buy and manage. Buying Structured Notes was like working with a travel agent before Orbitz. Even worse, Structured Notes were only available to high net worth clients, and out of reach to the retail investor, the people who need them the most.
As a result of these inefficiencies, I co-founded my company, Halo, to disrupt and democratize the last bastion of capital markets, the $3 trillion global Structured Note market. Halo is a two-sided marketplace that connects banks who issue/manufacture Structured Notes to financial advisors all around the world. In addition to connectivity, Halo provides advisors a suite of educational materials, analytics/portfolio fit tools, content and idea generation algorithms and, most important, click-to-trade capabilities that allow investors of ALL wallet sizes the ability to price a Note in seconds (what used to take hours) and buy a Note in minutes (what used to take days) all for $1,000 (what used to cost $3M). Investors need investment protection against the unforeseen now more than ever and Halo has delivered this most critical investment tool.
As a result of our innovations, Halo has been recognized as one of the fastest growing and leading FinTech’s in the world. Since launching the platform in mid-2017, Halo now extends across 5 continents with offices in Chicago (our HQ), Zurich, Singapore and soon, Abu Dhabi. Halo covers tens of thousands of Financial Advisors around the world, trades billions of Structured Notes annually, and was recently recognized by Fast Company as one of the Top 10 Most Innovative FinTech’s in the world for 2021 and by Red Herring as the Top 100 Global Technology companies.
It’s been a year like no other. What skills and/or principles have helped you navigate this year?
The pandemic has been difficult on all companies, no doubt. Halo quadrupled its headcount in the last year which was a blessing but also made the integration challenging, as we always want to preserve our culture. Our culture is our everything. The primary principles that have helped me navigate the pandemic is faith and leadership. Faith not just from a spiritual sense, but having the faith in my colleagues to get the job done in the face of adversity. This faith is a direct tie to the leadership we promote at the company. I always tell our people, “managers are not leaders and leaders are not always managers.” Meaning, you don’t need to be a manager to lead people. My job and my objective is to turn every Halo’r into a leader not just because I want to empower our people, but it’s what needs to be done to continue to execute while we’re all separated and grow. I want my teammates to be leverageable extensions of myself. I also want to grow our people into being leaders so they can take initiative and get the job done, setting a great example for the new Halo’rs that join the company almost every day. It’s the only way we will succeed, it provides great hands-on training, and it’s really boosted morale. It’s proven very successful as Halo grew its transactions and revenue by over 500% in 2020.
What specifically from your Kellogg experience has gotten you to where you are today?
I would honestly say everything from my Kellogg experience got me to where I am today. It started on day one with the application process, where I had very good grades as an undergrad but I’ve never been a good standardized test taker. Through a series of recommendations and relentless follow-ups, Kellogg took a bet on me, a bet that paid off as I finished with a ~3.85-3.9 GPA. I am eternally loyal to Northwestern. Kellogg took a bet on me like venture capitalists do with entrepreneurs. Sometimes, it’s more on “gut” then anything and, at the end of the day, you bet on people. It was a great lesson for me.
Kellogg also taught me to be a leader. The coursework and the amazing students I got to work with really helped me hone in on my leadership skills, the same skills that I apply today at Halo. I could not have learned these without Kellogg. What’s interesting is that I went to the Evening & Weekend Program, so I had to balance a full-time job with a full course load. While extraordinarily difficult, it taught me how to delegate, multi-task and work until the job gets done. Looking back, the part-time program taught me more than just academic coursework; it taught me resolve, which is critical if you’re going to be an entrepreneur.
Of course, one cannot discount the coursework which helped me prepare for starting and scaling a company. When you’re an entrepreneur starting out, you don’t have a marketing person, or a VP of Finance, or an ops person. You have to do this ALL on your own. I come from finance; without Kellogg, I would have no clue about marketing, leadership, operations and all the other great coursework I took while at Kellogg. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you can think of Kellogg as your training ground as to what entrepreneurship is going to be like. Take advantage of both the network, the coursework and the training Kellogg offers all of us, and don’t take it for granted. You will never have this opportunity again.
Any advice to entrepreneurs just starting out?
In addition to the above advice of taking advantage of all that Kellogg has to offer, I also advise that you find a good co-founder that compliments your skill sets so you don’t have to do everything. Choosing your co-founder is the most important decision you make as an entrepreneur. You want to choose a partner that thinks differently than you, but is aligned on the same values and mission of the company. Choosing the wrong co-founder is arguably the biggest mistake I see from entrepreneurs.
Another piece of advice is to make sure you always have a good pipeline of capital. A great idea with no capital behind it is just a great idea. Spend twice as much time as you think on making sure you build this pipeline and “always be fundraising,” as they say. You want to be able to access that capital at the critical inflection point.
Lastly, and most important, start your business on the premise of “solving a big problem that needs to be solved and only you can solve it.” The most important tool an entrepreneur has is their passion for the mission and that’s what will keep you going. Said differently, solve for creating impact first, then worry about “profits.” If you create impact, then people will value what you’re doing, and if they value what you’re doing, they will most certainly pay you for it.
This focus on impact is what also makes investors want to invest in you. As my father used to ask me, “Is your company a feature or a product?” If it’s a feature, then you need to think hard about its long-term merits. In the end, believe in yourself because most others won’t, and when most others don’t believe, that’s when you may have something truly impactful.