Freetrade founder on why a startup never really stops being a startup

Adam Dodds believes being a startup is a state of mind and a key part of the culture he is trying to instil across his business, from its offices and dress code to who it hires

Freetrade Ceo Adam Dodds
Freetrade’s co-founder and CEO Adam Dodds

The offices of the trading platform Freetrade, which span two floors of a WeWork a stone’s throw from London’s Liverpool Street station, feel more like a student union than a stockbroker’s HQ. There are sunken sofas, a pool table and an artisan coffee counter, which comes with its own barista. On one of the walls, a neon-lit Freetrade logo flashes in the firm’s signature pink.

If someone buys into the project and has shares in the company, that will probably motivate them more to make sure it succeeds

Adam Dodds, who co-founded Freetrade with his business partners Davide Fioranell and Viktor Nebehaj in 2016 and is the chief executive, is wearing a hoodie, jeans and a baseball cap. It all adds to the casual feel of its working environment, where staff are asked to come in at least two days a week as part of its hybrid working policy.

Is that deliberate? Dodds says that Freetrade aims to foster a culture that lets people “unwind in the office and feel more comfortable.” Having spent six years as an auditor at KPMG, he is all too aware that many firms still insist on smarter office wear. And while not against it, he believes dress code is far less important than employee output. If staff feel relaxed, they’re more likely to do good work, he suggests. 

Building a finance firm

While Freetrade’s culture might be casual, the business is not. The company aims to “democratise” the trading of shares, says Dodds, opening up the stock market and making it accessible to anyone interested, not just professionals. It has an Android and iOS app where it operates a freemium model, with the paid-for tiers adding more functionality. As of 2022, the company had more than 1.4 million registered users and holds more than £1.5bn in assets.

The kind of person who thrives in a 10-person team is not necessarily the kind of person who thrives in a 100-person team and vice-versa

Dodds says he was motivated to start Freetrade because he wanted to demystify the stock market, and he is proud of the progress made so far. Against the backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis, Dodds believes investing in the stock market has the potential to help. He doesn’t dispute there is an element of risk attached to this type of investment, but if customers do their research he believes it can be more rewarding than having savings sat in a low interest rate account. 

The biggest challenge for Freetrade, Dodds says, is raising the company’s profile and tapping into a customer base of people who feel alienated from the trading market. There are, he estimates, millions of people who have never bought a stock or even realised that they could. “Our audience is people who want to invest, but don’t know how” he says.

And Dodds has big plans for growth. He is not content with making a “dent” in the market, he wants to transform it. User numbers, while in the millions, are only “scratching the surface. Less than 2% of the UK population have signed up for Freetrade. The incumbents still dominate, so we’ve got a lot of work to do to progress our mission,” he says.

The importance of hiring the right people

Key to that growth is hiring the right people. Early teething problems at Freetrade, Dodds reflects, were all too often due to recruiting the wrong people. This wasn’t because they were ill-qualified or even bad at their roles, but because “the kind of person who thrives in a 10-person team is not necessarily the kind of person who thrives in a 100-person team and vice versa.” 

Some financial and technology professionals want the ready-made security and routine of a legacy brand, he says, “and that’s OK”, but Freetrade was, and still is, Dodds stresses, a work in progress. That means the firm is focused on hiring people who are aligned to its mission, share its values and who are prepared to work hard. “We want people who want to be here and who get what we are about.” 

Being a startup is a state of mind. It’s more to do with the culture and vibe of a company than with its age or size

That’s also important because, as with most startups, Freetrade cannot necessarily compete on pay. In the early days, Dodds admits, with a chuckle, that Freetrade was “pretty stingy, because we had to be.” Its co-founder Nebehaj, who now serves as Freetrade’s chief operating officer, was paid the London living wage when it started, albeit this was topped up with considerable equity.

That equity option is one Dodds thinks more startups should consider. “It’s not for everyone, for sure, but if someone buys into the project and has shares in the company, that will probably motivate them more to make sure it succeeds.”

Seven years in, Freetrade can now afford to pay more, with Dodds highlighting it also offers a range of benefits, including stock options, private health insurance, an enhanced pension scheme, a personal training and development budget, and a “generous” annual leave allowance of 35 days. 

Dodds accepts that people’s expectations of their employers have changed, particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic. But while he is happy for Freetrade to satisfy a “baseline of needs”, so people can stay focused on the job, he doesn’t think having “a massage on a Thursday”, for example, would be the reason someone chooses to work for Freetrade over, say, Hargreaves Lansdown or Vanguard. 

And Dodds wouldn’t want it to be. He hopes that the “frills” are very much a secondary consideration for a prospective Freetrade employee, behind a genuine interest in and passion for its business.

“There’s an old Silicon Valley trope: missionaries and mercenaries,” he reflects. “You’ve got your missionaries, who believe in the mission. And you’ve got your mercenaries who are there for the cash. Someone who’s willing to jump ship for £20,000 more… that’s not necessarily the profile we’re looking for. 

“I’m not saying there’s not a little room for manoeuvre [when it comes to hiring talent from a competitor] for a little bit of an incentive. But you’ve got to balance your economics with your vision.” 

The startup state of mind

For Dodds, the vision seven years in remains the same as when he started. That means that while it might technically be too old and too big to still be considered a startup, he believes it is. “Being a startup is a state of mind. It’s more to do with the culture and vibe of a company than with its age or size. You could call [Elon Musk’s space exploration and research company] SpaceX a startup if you wanted, even just because it’s founder-led.”

As long as Dodds is in charge at Freetrade, he says, it will always be a “growth company, with a growth mindset. We’ll never stop looking for ways to improve the company, introduce new products or build on existing ones.” 

And as a founder-CEO himself, Dodds is not looking for an exit strategy. “For me, the best founders stay at their company and grow with it,” he says, adjusting his cap. “I’ve got no plans to tap out or retire.”