A professional soccer player, an actuary, a consulting manager. Max Palko could have become all of these, but – luckily for the Rockaway team – life led him elsewhere and finally led him to the position of investment…
One little black mark with the US authorities and you can end up… at Rockaway perhaps! Investment manager David Swaim, who has both Slovak and American blood in his veins, has an interesting career path behind him, during which both conscious decisions and unplanned events played a role. “I wanted to stay in the US – and I’ve been living in Prague seven years now. I returned to the States to finish my MBA – and left for Warsaw. I planned to work only for start-ups – and in the end I enjoy being in an investment group.”
“My father, an American, moved to Bratislava after doing his MBA because he was very interested in the Slovak region from a work perspective. That’s where I was born, too, but after five years the entire family moved to North Carolina. So, my education is completely American,” says David. Thanks to his mother as well as summers spent visiting his grandparents in Slovakia, he never forgot his native Slovak and is glad to this day – even though he was convinced that in the USA speaking Slovak wouldn’t benefit him in any major way, paradoxically, in the end it came in useful at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), where he decided to study business.
“I decided to minor in Slavic and East European Studies, which is headed by a Czech lady, Dr. Hana Píchová. My other American classmates didn’t know either Czech or Slovak, so I was the only one who kept on getting A’s,” laughs David.
And, as he admits, after spending four years at university he didn’t have any special desire to move to Europe, because the important thing right after graduation was to get a job at the company where the given student had a work term the year before. That was David’s case too. “The summer before my last year I applied for an internship at Merrill, Bank of America investment division. If it had worked out back then, I’d likely have ended up with a very boring job as an American bank clerk. So, I’m glad that things took a different direction.”
A rebel’s path to Czechia
And a big role in “direction Czechia” was played by… one ordinary can of beer. It needs to be said that the reason for moving to Prague wasn’t so much David’s desire for an uninterrupted supply of Czech liquid gold as a minor criminal transgression that in the uncompromising USA definitely isn’t dismissed with a wave of the hand. “During my first year of university, when I was 19, I used fake ID to buy beer – and unfortunately was caught by the police.” This is something that wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow in the Czech Republic (or in Slovakia), but in the USA is an infraction that can cause problems for a student later, when applying for his first job. “I got a letter from Merrill stating that due to my ‘fraud-related criminal record’ they couldn’t hire me, so I sent out hundreds of emails all over the place and finally got a job with ARX Equity Partners in Prague,” says David.
David then stayed at ARX, which focuses on private equity, not only as an intern, but after graduating from UNC also as a full-time member of the team. “It was an excellent experience, plus I avoided the usual junior positions and went right into investing. Thanks to ARX I gained a firm foundation in business, something I value to this day.” David also gained experience at Credo Ventures, where he got a taste of the world of start-ups – and fell in love with them. And he also slowly got the feeling that he’s a bit disconnected from really “doing” business. “It seemed to me that, as an investor, I was making decisions only based on some plan or thesis – but that I didn’t have any real control over it all,” he says.
So he decided to join ReSpo.Vision, a Polish AI start-up that wants to disrupt the classical sports business – specifically soccer. Thanks to computer vision and machine learning, it was possible to obtain huge quantities of data from a mere screen that is then of interest to both soccer teams as well as bookmakers, for example. “Two years ago, when I was working at ReSpo.Vision, we were still having a hard time making it, we were still not turning a profit, and it felt like we were working in a research organization rather than at a groundbreaking start-up.” So, David decided to return to Prague, and as a challenge he took the job of Expansion Manager at Bolt, specifically at Bolt Market, a delivery service. “This enterprise, which was based on the principle of super-fast grocery delivery, didn’t work out, unfortunately, and Bolt soon decided to terminate the service in Czechia,” says David.
A business that isn’t for everyone
But that certainly didn’t discourage him, and – despite his original conviction that investment groups weren’t his cup of tea anymore – at the start of December he joined the Rockaway team. As an investment manager, David spends his time either evaluating current portfolio companies or investing into new ones. He also spends a lot of time doing “groundwork”, meeting with other experts, and modelling business plans. He admits that the thing that had originally dissuaded him hasn’t been repeated at Rockaway. “By the way, one of the things that makes Rockaway exceptional is that we work closely with the management teams of companies in our portfolio. We’re on all the boards and discuss strategic matters together. Right now, I’m spending the most time on Invia – every meeting with Boris (Note: Boris Raoul, CEO of the Invia Group) is excellent, and I can always be certain that I’ll learn something new again. I really like this hands-on approach, which is something I found lacking in the companies I worked for before.”
Even though Rockaway has long ceased to be a “rookie”, according to David the entire team is holding on to that correct and dynamic startup vibe, which is reflected not only in company culture, for example, but above all in its entire investment strategy. “It’s great that Rockaway isn’t afraid to jump head-first into situations that are often complicated and invests in a very creative manner. It’s not for everyone and not everyone feels comfortable doing this. But here it works.