Vasco Serpa

After spending 17 years as a banker at Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Banco Espirito Santo, Vasco Serpa turned to startups, investing in five lifestyle and leisure companies. One of these projects is, which is the equivalent of Airbnb for hiring a boat.

During his transition from banking to entrepreneurship, Serpa took a “sabbatical year” and spent much of this time on the water. Serpa sees himself as one of the leading trendmakers of banking veterans leaving the industry to invest in startups.

A young sailor with an Olympic dream

“I am from Portugal, but in the early stages of my life I lived in Mozambique and Venezuela,” said Vasco, 43, who looks a bit like Hemingway: bearded and tanned with a wide smile sitting relaxed with his white shirt open. The only thing missing was a captain’s hat.

“My father was a merchant navy captain, so I grew up in the environment of sailing and sea.”

At age 10 he went back to Portugal and started sailing in the local club in Cascais, becoming part of the national team at 15. Then he went to the junior world championship and later his boat, the “Laser” was selected as an Olympic category one. He started sailing the world with the pre-Olympic national team. Meanwhile he got into the top economic school in Portugal, Universidade Nova de Lisboa. “I can’t say that I had an urge to become a banker, but economics was what I ended up choosing. I guess at that time my mind was more into sailing…” Vasco said with a smirk.

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While finishing university he faced a choice: either participate in the 1996 olympics or take an investment banking job his uni professor offered him. He chose the Olympics.

“Eventually I placed 7th out of 54, so I was very happy but when I got a call from a friend just after the Games, asking me if I wanted to finally come to a job interview, I decided it was time to see how far the flow of finance would take me”.

The Investment Banker

Vasco got the job and started as a broker at the Portuguese-based bank Banco Espirito Santo (BES). Soon after he became a fixed income trader.

“The Industry was booming,” explained Vasco, “we were in the stage that lead to the Monetary Union in Europe. Portugal, which was closed from 1974 to 1980, and had already had an IMF intervention that ended in 1985, was now an EU member and was growing strong, it also became part of the MSCI index, which meant we joined first world’s markets. My bank was doing great, lots of young people came to the industry and their careers were flying. It was a moment of growth.”

But Vasco was still not fully satisfied and wanted to get his Olympic medal. So late in 1998 he took off and started to sail professionally again in order to prepare for the 2000 Olympic trials. After he “only” ranked second in Portugal and was not selected to join the Olympic team, he finally decided to fully commit to his banking career, eventually becoming head of corporate derivatives sales in 2003 at BES.

In 2005 Merrill Lynch in Madrid brought him onto the fixed income sales team that covered Institutional clients in Iberia.

“The perception then was that the world economy was in perfect shape in many extents,” Vasco said. “But you sensed that the leverage in the economy was running a bit high. There was plenty of liquidity in the system, competition to lend was high, credit spreads were at minimum and lending criteria too loose. You could sense that there was something wrong with it, but I was far from realizing the dimension of the credit bubble.”

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Industry up in smoke

In 2008 he left Madrid to go London. Why? The idea was to join Goldman Sachs, arguably the world’s most prestigious bank. “I started working at Goldman Sachs one week after Lehman Brothers failed and my ex-employer had been bought by Bank of America,” Vasco recalled. “It was a bit strange, because when I left one bank, the industry was all alive, and when I started three months after, the industry was melting.

It was a totally different environment, there was fire everywhere, banking was under heavy criticism and scrutiny from the public opinion and regulators. Industry had to change, and communication became extremely sensitive. Then as things in banking started cooling down, the credit crisis began. Southern Europe being the hit hardest. Not an easy ride, but definitely a learning curve.

In 2013 after things started turning for the better I eventually decided it was time to go for a sabbatical. I traveled, and had the opportunity to enjoy life a bit. I guess it was a good time in my life to do it, agewise, and with a good bunch of years of work in your bag. I had the opportunity to meet a lot of different people and came across with different ideas. And I was open to them. I got more involved with some startups and invested in new ones. I had a twist to lifestyle/leisure startups, maybe just a reflection of my mood at the time, but in the core I think demographics, new markets and wealth creation will keep fueling demand in this area”.

The Entrepreneur

His first investments were in a ski manufacturing company called Faction Skis which makes high performance freeride and freestyle skis, and the car-sharing operator aggregator which is essentially a car sharing service. So far, the pilot program has been launched in Portugal. Since, he has also invested in, an event promotions and ticketing company,and, a Portuguese golfing website.

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One of Vasco’s vacations on the yacht Synchronicity helped him make the jump from banking to entrepreneurship.

“For the first time in my life, I am not sailing for or attached to a competition, can you believe it?,” he joked.

“It was great! I suddenly saw it from a totally different perspective and wanted to do something related with the sailing vacation potential. Around the same time I came across this startup in Madrid, that was going to build a platform that would aggregate boat suppliers to rent, and would make it easy for travel agencies to offer boat vacations to their clients and also for people to experience a boat vacation easily. The industry is very granular and marketing is poor. Technology is changing it, and we are at the forefront.”

Vasco believes that many of his fellow trading buddies aren’t far behind in the switch to startups.

“I can also see more and more people like me leaving the banking industry to do something else, but I am not surprised, because the banking industry is going to keep changing, with more regulation and less leverage, there is excess capacity, so a lot of talented people will leave and will use their talents elsewhere.”

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Photo: personal collection

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