Dec 20, 2023 - Business

What drove Vlad Tenev's vision for Robinhood

photo of a woman and man talking while sitting on two different couches across from one another, one orange, the other blue

Axios' Hope King with Robinhood co-founder and CEO Vlad Tenev at the company's offices in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Robinhood

Vlad Tenev, the CEO and co-founder of trading app Robinhood, has a unique relationship with copper cookware.

The big picture: Wealth preservation comes in many forms and can't be taken for granted, as Tenev saw firsthand growing up amid hyperinflation in Bulgaria — an early experience that helped shape how he thinks about Robinhood's mission.

Zoom in: "We had this closet in our household with copper pots and pans, where the wealth would be stored," Tenev told Axios during an interview earlier this month.

  • His grandfather traded in salary and pension checks for the copper cookware, a more reliable store of value then than the Bulgarian lev.
  • "That was like the 1990s Bulgarian version of Robinhood," he said.
  • "I remember always thinking about finances, being aware of them, and recognizing that if you were in control of your finances, that's a superpower."

This exposure to a rocky financial system at a young age — and his family's own startup journey in the U.S. as immigrants — sparked his resolve to be in control of his finances, and to help others do the same, he said.

  • "There was always this sort of mentality that nothing is guaranteed in this new place," he said.

Below is part 2 of a Q&A (edited for clarity and brevity) on Dec. 4, 2023 with Tenev, who looks back on Robinhood's first ten years:

Do you think the pandemic was a necessary three years for the company to go through?

We went through just a ridiculous amount of growth.

Before the pandemic, I think we were sub-10 million funded accounts and we left well above 20 million, and of course, it depends on your definition of when the pandemic ended.

We [also] stabilized a lot of the infrastructure through just fire and brimstone, really going through the type of scale and growing pains that very few companies, not to mention financial companies, have gone through.

The initial parts of [the pandemic] also brought me closer to my family in an odd way — working from home, just being around, even though I was probably spending more hours working.

What did you learn most about yourself and your leadership style through the GameStop saga?

I'd like to think that I'm generally pretty good in a crisis. [GameStop] was a little bit hard to manage in a way because everyone was sort of remote and distributed.

If something like that unfolded again, we [would] pull people in a war room and there you get simple, quick communication.

[Managing] something like that virtually was a new experience for us and I think it was just overall very strange and not ideal.

I also think that there's a lot of pressure to get out there and speak very, very quickly. But sometimes it can be good to just pause a little bit, get a little bit of sleep and then speak when you're ready. And I think that I had to learn patience. I typically wouldn't say I've been a very patient person, but with things like that, patience I think is very important.

Are you saying that now in hindsight, you might not have jumped in so quickly into public forums, like the one with Elon Musk on Clubhouse?

Maybe not all of them. The first couple of interviews that I did on the day of the 28th, I was running on maybe like 45 minutes to an hour and a half of sleep. In hindsight, if I waited another day, it would have given up a much more polished appearance.

My thought process at the time was just get out there as soon as possible, tell people we're working on it, we're fixing it. A little bit more time would have improved the perception of those interviews.

My mental model for things is tell people very clearly what it is — so [they know] no, there was no collusion.

What you realize is, it's probably not enough for people to believe you, you have to say it in a certain way. You have to speak in kind of a more human tone. And as a mathematician, as an engineer, that's sort of like a learned skill. I prefer to give the facts in technical language. And I know that that's probably not the best way to communicate.

If you were to go back 10 years and if you knew then what you know now, including that you would be vilified at some point and receive so much scrutiny, would you still have started Robinhood?

Oh, absolutely. I think we expected it to a certain extent, because we knew we were a disrupter. Every time we would talk about what Robinhood aspired to build, people would say 'Oh, the big brokerage houses and the big financial firms are not going to like this. They're going to do everything in their power to stop you,' and of course, we've seen that.

What advice would you give to other people who are trying to start a company with their best friends? Were you worried about your friendship with your co-founder Baiju Bhatt dissolving over any disagreements?

Building a company with someone who you trust deeply is actually critical.

There's [also] talk about work-life balance, which is almost like you should separate your work life from your personal life. I was never a big fan of that.

It's sort of a really strange way to live your life for me — almost like [the TV show] Severance, to switch off from one side of the brain.

I think what works much better is for your work to be integrated into your life, for your hobbies to be related to your work. That's how you know you're working on something that you're really passionate about — if there's a seamless blend between your work life and your personal life. At that point, work kind of feels like play. It's just a different type of play.

So from that perspective, it's not very strange to work with your friends because you're spending time doing what you love with your friends, and it's fantastic.

Generally, I'm very skeptical of working with co-founders that you haven't known for at least a couple of years because you don't know what that person is going to be like under various circumstances when things get tough.

What's one of your favorite mathematical proofs? (Tenev holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in math.)

The proof of the independence of the continuum hypothesis.

Paul Cohen, a Stanford professor, passed away about 15 years ago. I think I was actually one of his last students. He proved the independence of the continuum hypothesis, which was one of the great problems of mathematics in, I think, the 1950s.

I just think it's really visual and elegant and it deals with something very, very fundamental, which is how big can things be?

Are Robinhood workers back at the office?

Until the end of the year, it's generally three days ... with exceptions.

Do you want to see people back every day?

There's value in that. I think there's going to be exceptions. But I think you're going to start to see the default shift more to in-office because it's just better for relationship building and culture.

What other CEOs should we talk to and what would you ask them?

Sam Altman would be cool [and] probably the same questions, what keeps him up at night.

Read part 1, from Axios' new interview series in Finish Line, here.

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