It’s power hour on Piccadilly.
For the two dozen or so 20-somethings at the London office of Murano Connect, power hour means no emails, no microwaving lunch — just dialing. These young staffers work shifts, and they’re calling up pension funds in Missouri, rich families in Hong Kong, Native American tribes — anyone with serious money and a phone number. They want information: Where are you looking to put assets? What kinds of money managers do you like? What size checks do you write?
But mostly, Murano’s employees just want someone to pick up the phone.
About 100 investment firms — from fledging hedge funds to a $1 trillion-plus behemoth — pay Murano to generate sales leads, effectively outsourcing the initial, and most reviled, phase of fundraising: cold-calling. Murano’s analysts work the phones to gather basic intel on capital allocators, which they write up into reports and pass on to clients most likely to score a sale. Clients pursue the leads from there, and Murano has no direct financial stake in how their leads pan out. Delivering reports is a volume play: more dialing, more chances. And that’s what power hour is all about.
Ravi Kukadia has a better hit rate than most. He tries about 40 or 50 investors on a typical day, gets through to five or ten, and maybe three or four will actually talk to him. Trainee analysts might make 100 calls and come up empty. Monthly bonuses and prizes (“Murano dollars” exchangeable for team activities) help spur the troops in what can be a dispiriting mission, as does the very real threat of getting fired. Turnover is high, the firm’s founder, Ole Rollag, readily admits.
Kukadia is a wizened veteran by Murano standards, having been there for nearly two years. “As you can imagine, I am coming from a slightly older outlook,” he says. “I’m actually 30 years old.”
Like most of his coworkers, he had no background in finance or investing. He had been self-employed running a small coffee business, and attended a midtier public university in Essex. Murano hires people who wouldn’t otherwise have a shot at working for a hedge fund or institutional asset manager, and pays them peanuts by industry standards. New graduates who land coveted finance jobs easily make three or four times the £20,000 ($25,800) that Murano workers start at, but investment houses won’t let young staff near clients or prospects for years. Murano makes trainees get reports from ten allocators just to get formally hired.
Kukadia felt nerves as first, sure. They all do. “But once you get your first report, your first allocator, that gives you confidence.” Hustling by phone has become second nature, he says, and he thrives on the pressure of power hour. But he still seems a little stunned about who ends up on the other end of the line: The world’s most powerful investors are willing to talk to him, a 30-year-old in a cramped office who can’t pick his own lunch hour.
“I think the craziest call so far was with a big allocator from the Middle East,” Kukadia says. “He asked me to call him and he was obviously, obviously driving when he answered. I actually said, ‘Sorry, I have caught you at a bad time. Are you driving?’ And he said, ‘No, no, no — I’m not driving. It’s okay.’ So we had a full-on conversation while he was driving, and I got a report on him out of it.”
As Kukadia sees it, “Murano allows individuals from all sorts of backgrounds to sort of join this industry and then work their way up.” Cheap labor is central to the business model. Clients pay about £9,000 per quarter for leads, regardless of how they turn out.
But cheap labor is cheap for a reason.
“I wound up in the Murano database at an old job,” says one West Coast investor. “The calls often reminded me of experiences I had trying to buy something in countries where I did not speak the local language.”
Or as Daniel Hudgin, who oversees a pension portfolio in Halifax for energy utility Emera, recalls, “I actually got a cold call from a kid — literally — at Murano the other day. You could tell the guy was pretty young, with a call-center type approach. But they’re always very polite.” And Hudgin talked to him, proof of concept for Murano and an implicit dig at the more expensive services. “I’m going to try to characterize this in a way that doesn’t make me sound heartless: I don’t like talking to salespeople. Period. Whether I’m talking to a kid at Murano, a placement agent, or an actual salesperson — it doesn’t make a huge difference to me. They’re all getting more out of it than I am.”
One of the industry’s best business developers frankly agrees: Allocators don’t much care who makes the initial outreach. Parag Shah led marketing at Bridgewater Associates, then left behind the world’s largest hedge fund and its abundant resources to become a one-man-fundraising band at upstart Arena Investors. As the kids would say, Shah’s a Murano stan.
“Marketers generally hate making the 30 phone calls a day that may not even result in a live conversation. It’s the least joyous part of prospecting,” Shah says, crediting the cold calls with introductions to investors he’d never thought of approaching. The company “is set up with the aspects of the placement agent and other staff-extension models that are the most impactful. And unlike some firms, Murano isn’t trying to extract every ounce of flesh from the fundraising process.”
Investment firms have long turned to third parties for help in finding investors, but the traditional options can be expensive. Rubbing shoulders at a conference can cost $20,000. That’s before paying travel expenses for a salesperson making $500,000 or $1 million a year, who isn’t about to fly coach.
Placement agents operate as fundraising mercenaries, offering their deep Rolodexes for hire. A hedge fund or private equity firm can expect to hand over their entire first year of management fees on any capital that a placement agent brings in, plus expenses, according to a sales chief and the marketing firm AciesGroup. For, say, $50 million from a pension fund, the finder’s fee might approach $1 million. About half of private capital funds use these hired guns, even after high-profile scandals stained the industry’s reputation. (They’ve been banned from accessing vast public pension funds in New York City and state, for example.)
Banks and broker-dealers have traditionally offered “capital introduction” as a frill service to their valuable asset manager clients, but seem to be losing interest in doing it well. Allocators gripe that these firms increasingly bring them funds they don’t want or need special introductions to. “The way that they make money is by representing big funds trading standard instruments, and it’s been tough to find good ideas from those outfits,” says Al Hemmingsen, chief investment officer of a single-family office in Ohio. “Prime brokers have profitability needs, and that’s it. I’ve become a little pessimistic on their cap intro.”
Hemmingsen’s friends rib him for being excited by the speculative and novel. “That’s my cartoon: the guy who’s pitched a Belarus receivables financing strategy and thinks it’s interesting.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s pro-Murano, and has made two or three investments directly due to Murano introductions.
“The details of how they first found me escape me,” he says. “We had this working theory about Europe and Greece during the credit crisis, and articulated to them a few different ideas. Basically, you then get inbound contact from managers, and have a call. Then next phase was onsite trips with European managers, and eventually implementation. After the initial introduction, you don’t hear much from Murano.”
Like most allocators who’ve encountered the firm, he’s fuzzy on how the business actually works. But compared to placement agents, who have a strong financial motivation to get transactions, he finds “the introduction model is actually lower pressure and cleaner. They don’t have a conflict of interest or an intent to hide things from you.” Above all, he applauds disruption to the match-matching dance between people with capital like himself and the managers who want it.
“It’s just not mathematically possible to respond to every call or email,” he says. “You have a lot of conversations to get a relatively small number of investments done. I think it frustrates managers.” And it’s not easy for him to find what he needs, either. “When you’re a small allocator, nobody gives a shit about you.”
Ole Rollag wanted a girlfriend, and ended up with a business idea that became Murano Connect. Rollag was a newly single American slogging through the financial crisis in London, where he’d gotten five different industry jobs only to lose them when the companies went under. He hit the dating scene with equal perseverance.
“I did Match.com. I did speed dating. I tried this one called It’s Just Lunch” — familiar to anyone who’s flipped through an airline magazine. His worst dates included an RBS human resources manager who spent her days firing people. “The other I remember was one of those dog ladies from New York. I got a text message from her saying, ‘Fluffy has given you permission to come over.’” Did he go? “Gosh, no. That was a bit odd.”
Match.com nevertheless impressed him as a filtering mechanism. He eventually found his romantic match, but still wondered: Could this model work in the asset management business too? Rollag had set up his own consulting firm for investment businesses in 2009, and worked closely with clients mapping out the cost of bringing on new clients. “We knew that from saying hello to getting an allocation, the biggest cost is at the front end. This is where firms spend all their marketing budget going to conferences, working with third-party marketers, and so on. It’s soul destroying. You end up harassing allocators because you’re under pressure from your CIO to get his schedule filled.”
Rollag ran the idea past allocators themselves, workshopping the model based on their feedback. Several core tenets of the business came from these sessions: To avoid adding to harassment, only let four manager clients use the matchmaker’s name in contacting any given allocator; pick those managers via carefully crafted questions to ascertain fit; reputation is everything (Murano won’t represent crypto funds, for example); call, don’t email. Convinced of the business model, Rollag built a tech infrastructure to manage what would become tens of thousands of allocator call reports and profiles. “Funnily enough, we incorporated on February 14, 2011,” he says. “Valentine’s Day.”
Like most products in this industry, Murano proved a far tougher sell than its founder envisioned. He began offering the service for £1,000 per month, well below cost, and still struggled to convince managers to sign on. “The first question would be, ‘Why isn’t somebody else doing this? If it’s such a good idea, it must have been tried before, and so why are you wrong?’” Rollag sold 20 percent of his ownership stake to a friend — Simon Batten, former CEO of Odey Asset Management — for “a song,” and periodically had to dip into his personal account to make payroll. “It was quite hairy,” he remembers.
By the end of 2011, Murano had about eight clients, and the business was stable and growing. Rollag upped the price and never sold another stake. The company remains private, under his control, and pulls in about £4 million in gross revenue per year. Tiny by asset management standards, but a tidy lifestyle business for someone who ten years ago struggled to get a job or a date. Murano is approaching Rollag’s self-imposed soft cap of about 120 active clients. After that, he plans to throw a party and then jack prices for new signups.
Rollag is delighted to be spooking establishment players, including a data firm that ended a partnership because “they thought we were too close” competitively, and a high-profile conference business that has banned Murano from sponsoring. Many Murano clients use it as one of a suite of outside marketing services, Rollag points out. But, he adds with relish, “We made natural enemies with people who are suspicious of new ideas or protective of their own margins.”
Established lead-generation businesses have mostly just turned up their noses at this scrappy competitor, if they’ve noticed it at all. Beyond buying Murano or setting up their own cut-rate call centers, that’s about all they can do.
Yet Murano’s most effective enemies come from within.
Murano, let’s be clear, churns and burns through its vulnerable young staffers. Some of them have aired their grievances on public forums like Glassdoor, much to Rollag’s vocal displeasure, and presumably more via the industry whisper network.
“Just cold-calling. No more WAY less,” warns the top-rated Glassdoor review, posted in April by a self-identified former analyst. The company’s pros — “some smart people” and “pret on Fridays” — were far outweighed in the one-star review by “repetitive work”; “incredibly high staff turnover, can’t keep track of who is coming and going”; and “not allowed to use microwave freely.” Rollag blames the reviews on people Murano hired but who failed training, and says “quite frankly they’re not correct.” He compares analysts to “Navy SEALs,” and ardently defends them against suggestions they’re cold-callers or less than white-collar professionals.
But Murano doesn’t treat them that way, according to the reviews and a former analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “I would say all the negative ones are fairly accurate, and [I’m] very positive the ones that appeared recently look like they’ve been manufactured,” the former analyst says. (Rollag admits to prompting current staff to post to counterbalance the bad ratings.) The former analyst not only passed training, but excelled at Murano and now works in-house at an asset manager.
“It was really, really, very un-enjoyable to work at Murano. I tried to block it out in my head,” the former analyst says. He and the reviewers describe a “super toxic work environment” of micromanagement, frequent firings, and poor pay that made staff “very reliant on the bonuses” of a couple hundred pounds for hitting report targets. “Any excuse for them to be stingy, they would take.” The workplace depicted resembles a retail store, fast-food joint, or, yes, a telemarketing company more than a financial firm. Official pay and turnover statistics suggest the same.
But the first point this ex-staffer made, and the last, was a regulatory one: “A couple of us had very serious question marks about the legality of the business. The whole point of the business is that they’re operating outside of regulatory oversight, saying they don’t actually market the funds that they represent. But given that we were talking to allocators, and the way that we’d discuss the funds they represented, I don’t know that that would actually fly. If you’re a third-party marketer, you need to get FCA [Financial Conduct Authority] approval. That’s the asterisk on which the business model works.”
Rollag would actually agree on the last point. Murano was always intended to be an unregulated information service, not a sales operation paid to raise assets. Changing this feature would change the whole model, he says, forcing Murano to increase prices “because broker-dealer licenses aren’t cheap.” Their whole pitch is on pricing: Where every other matchmaker takes a commission (like placement agents) or a massive one-off fee (most quality conferences), Murano doesn’t.
The firm’s lawyers dug into the model and approved it, the founder points out. But perhaps more persuasively, its clients’ lawyers do the same. “All of our clients operate within pretty tight compliance standards, so we’ve been grilled a lot about the service,” he says. And with the exception of “only one [prospect] that we still need to work on,” Murano has passed.
Rollag first came into contact with Institutional Investor because of a private, allocator-only newsletter sent out that flippantly referred to Murano as a telemarketer. He wasn’t happy. The newsletter said:
“A few top-notch marketers at small hedge funds have told us about a curious service they use: a fundraising call center. Murano hires youngsters with no finance background, puts them through alts boot camp, and turns them loose with a headset and all your phone numbers. ‘All you have to do is 100 calls to random ppl every day,” per Glassdoor. “No experience on funds or finance whatsoever. But Harvard MDs and the like occasionally take these cold calls. We’re intrigued. Anyone heard from a Murano analyst? (We use that term loosely.)”
“Murano is not a telemarketing service,” Rollag wrote in an email. “Please give me a call ASAP.”
“Telemarketing” is one of several terms he’s banned from the Piccadilly office, along with “boiler room.” Others, like “call center” and “cold-calling,” he merely detests as unfair to the analysts he employs. “These men and women are absolutely amazing,” he emphasizes. “They are like Navy SEALs.”
Elite survivors doing high-stress work for terrible pay? Sounds about right.