Monzo founders says American dream is 'antithetical to British culure' where 'know your place attitude prevails

MixCollage 15 May 2024 12 50 PM 3118

When the CEO of Norway’s $1.6 trillion oil fund called out the work ethic and ambition of his fellow Europeans, it hit a nerve. The founder of one of Britain’s most exciting start-ups certainly doesn’t buy the Americans-are-workaholics-Europeans-are-lazy theory for why the U.S. outperforms Europe.

Tom Blomfield, the founder and ex-CEO of online bank Monzo, doesn’t even think it’s true that Americans work harder than Europeans. Instead, the difference among workers on each side of the Atlantic is one of “positivity, optimism, and ambition,” he said this week on the 20VC podcast.

American dream is ‘Antithetical to British culture’

Blomfield said the American dream wasn’t a reality that a lot of people in the U.S. get to live, but it was one that a lot of them experience. 

“That idea that anyone can create anything if they try hard enough is so deeply American, and it’s so antithetical to the British culture,” he said.

Blomfield was 28 when he co-founded Monzo in 2015. While he said people in the U.K. “looked at me like I was crazy” as he tried to get a banking license, he had a much more supportive reaction in the States.

The Brit said his fellow countrymen were more inclined toward a “know your place, don’t get too big for your boots” attitude that stifles innovation. 

In Blomfield’s view, this filters down to the career decisions made by the country’s most promising university students.

In the U.K., Blomfield says the most ambitious thing for students to do is work at a trading firm like James Street or a consultancy like McKinsey. Indeed, he suggests the default choice for PhD students in computer science is to join Goldman Sachs. 

In the U.S., meanwhile, Blomfield says he’ll often get pitched start-up ideas by students from unexpected backgrounds, including English Literature undergrads. 

What’s the reason?

Europe has been trying to understand how it can close a stubborn productivity gap with the U.S. for years, a fact most recently echoed by Sweden’s central bank chief. The U.K. has also suffered through years of underperforming productivity. 

Because it is a per-worker metric, the easy answer has been to point the finger at the employee. In April, Nicolai Tangen, the CEO of Norway’s $1.6 trillion sovereign wealth fund, sparked a debate with his comments that there was a difference in the “general level of ambition” between U.S. and European workers, adding that Americans work harder.

Blomfield said he had read data suggesting that the latter wasn’t the case. But his thoughts do align with another of Tangen’s points, namely that it is easier to start again in the U.S. if a business fails than in the U.K.

Backed by the “American dream” ideal that Blomfield mentioned in his interview, the U.S. has long been more closely associated with entrepreneurialism and disruption than Britain, and Europe more widely.

For example, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report by NatWest found that the early-stage entrepreneurial rate—which it defines as the propensity of individuals to be entrepreneurial in their given context—was 11.5% in the U.K. in 2022, while in the U.S. it was 16.5%. 

But instead of working a few more hours to close the gap, Brits might simply want to throw out a few more words of support to their ambitious peers.

Blomfield and Monzo

Monzo’s former CEO will be highly attuned to the psychological obstacles to starting and sustaining a multi-billion dollar business.

Blomfield stepped down from his executive role at Monzo in 2021. At the time, he spoke candidly about the impact that both scaling the start-up and working through the COVID-19 pandemic had on his mental health. 

“I’m very happy to talk about what’s gone on with me, because I don’t think people do it enough,” Blomfield said, explaining how he didn’t enjoy his final two years at the helm of the bank. 

Since Monzo left its “scrappy” reputation behind it, the group has gone from strength to strength, with momentum growing for an IPO in the near future.In March, the bank announced a new fundraising round that landed it a valuation of £3.5 million ($4.6 billion)—proof that at least one Brit didn’t ‘know his place’.

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