In 2012, Christina Qi was a student at MIT trading from a dorm room with $1,000 she and a friend had saved up. Eight years later, her hedge fund Domeyard LP ($PRIVATE:DOMEYARD) trades billions of dollars every day for some of the largest firms in the world like SoftBank Group ($TYO:9984) and First Round Capital ($PRIVATE:FIRSTROUND). Qi will release an untitled memoir in 2021 under New Degree Press about building Domeyard, clashing with the FBI, and working for some of the industry's biggest CEOs.
Thinknum: I read through your book announcement, and I’d love to hear you talk about your story. I know 8 years is a lot to cover, with growing Domeyard from your dorm room into what it is now and all these trials and tribulations you ran into along the way.
Qi: The book is very much a story of failure. I’m looking forward to hearing people’s reactions when it comes out. I’m so nervous because I have so many failures that I talk about, so it’s really real. There [are big books about] hedge funds, but they’re really more about principles. And I’m not here to talk about principles, I’m here to talk about mistakes. Hopefully, there will be valuable lessons not about what you should do, but what you shouldn’t. Don’t be like me.
So during one of my internships [while a student at MIT], I actually had a really awful experience. I don’t know how common that is in the industry today, but back then - this was about 10 years ago now - I just had such an abusive situation. And after that experience, that was when I decided to start a hedge fund. And that wasn’t because I was always interested in finance. I wish I could tell you I was always interested in trading or something like that. But really, I had no choice for a major, so I chose finance. I ended up having to figure out what I wanted to do during senior year, and I guess for me that meant, “well, we’re trading from our dorm room anyway and it turned out really well, so why not turn this into a full-time venture?” During that time, we just made every other mistake you could possibly imagine.
One trap we fell into was that we wanted a flat organizational structure. [We decided to] get rid of all these layers of managers and titles and all that. So we figured, “We’re a fund - why don’t we just call everyone ‘Partners?’” It sounds like it makes sense, but it doesn’t (laughs). We hired an office manager who was straight out of school, 21 years old, and whose main job was literally to clean the kitchen, fill the snack pantry, clean the office - things like that. And of course, their title was also partner. He came to me after a couple of months and wanted a raise and wanted his salary to be equal to the other partners in the company being paid like $200,000 a year to manage trading a billion dollars a day.
They thought “equal” meant “equal salary” when the reality is that every job has different market values. So we abolished the partner system and really changed the culture of the firm. But it’s not that person’s fault. I view it as my own failure in leadership of setting the right culture and rules for the company. So I talk about how that hindered us from launching at a fast enough place. We call it putting out fires - when you’re not dealing with things that are along your critical path.
I read a lot about finance and tech and how there’s this culture of crunch, for lack of a better word. It’s “You need to be working at maximum capacity all the time and if people can’t keep up, let them go.” It’s a very cutthroat attitude towards hiring and motivating staff. How pervasive do you think that is, and do you feel like it’s the right direction?
I think you’re absolutely right. There’s still the culture of hustling as much as you can. If you work in a startup you feel like you’ve gotta wear multiple hats and work all the time. You’ll see posts on LinkedIn that say stuff like “If you’re not spending your weekends working, you’re doing something wrong!” and I actually see that as pretty toxic. I think we’re in a day and age where people are more productive when they take a break. My internship is a great example - that was an environment where I worked 15 to 18 hours a day.
Oh, wow. As an intern?
Yeah, and that was part of the abuse. One of the things I tell my team is to take a break. If it’s a holiday, take the day off. One day of less productivity is ok. I think when you’re given a deadline, people always make that deadline no matter what. Maybe that means working extra hard for an evening - that’s fine - so long as people can still find that work-life balance. There’s so much more to life than “chasing alpha.” That’s something I love to talk about in the book as well. I had chased alpha and hustled every living moment. It was all about the fund. And we were so greedy, to be honest. I mean, we traded everything. But at the end of the day, it’s about not losing our humanity.
So how did the FBI get involved in your business?
I did get in a little bit of trouble, and I can’t say too much because it will be in the book, for accepting money from certain investors. We always do due diligence on our investors, but this investor was so clever that they passed that, and we didn’t catch any of the red flags until it was too late. The investor ended up getting arrested and going to prison (laughs) and so we ended up getting into trouble with the FBI.
They came into my office. It was a regular day - I remember I was eating a burrito. Then the FBI came in and was like “Where’s Christina Qi?” They escorted me into their office. It was freaky because they’re interrogating you in this dark room with lie detectors and all these machines in the room. So I’m here freaking out and they ask me all these questions [about the investor], and that opened a can of worms. I won’t spoil the ending, but it led to some crazy stuff happening. Big lessons learned on my end of learning who we worked with and not just chasing money. I’m fortunate today that I’m not being sued by anybody and I'm not under investigation. I’m free from everything. Hopefully.
You mentioned working for, in your words, “Some of the most eccentric billionaires in the industry.” I wanted to ask about that since I know that one of Domeyard’s clients is Softbank, which has had infamous CEOs like Neuman and Kalanick under their umbrella. What are some experiences you’ve had with these male cult of personality CEOs, and what do you think of the amount of money and press attention that gets put into them?
That’s a great question. That definitely was a big thing. People just put you on a pedestal for making lots of money or getting lucky and meeting someone who gives you billions like Softbank.
Without saying any names for investors’ sake - there was this one investor I met in Hong Kong. I talk about this in the book, because it’s a wild story. They put me on one of the top floors of the Ritz Carlton in Hong Kong, and this was one of those meetings where the investor paid for the whole thing. I remember they asked me to dinner that night, and the investor showed up with his wife and daughter. I realized, oh my gosh, this investor is one of the richest guys in Asia and he put like $10 million dollars in our fund. And ultimately he was investing in me because he felt like I could be a good role model to his daughter. He just kept bragging about me during the dinner, which made me feel awkward.
And I talked to the chauffeur a lot during the trip. I asked him where he’s from, and he was like “Oh, I’m the investor’s bastard son.”
Wow, what a twist.
Yeah, and he was saying like “I probably won’t inherit any wealth, but I have no choice for a job. I’m essentially a modern slave. I had no choice to go to school and stuff.” and I was like oh my gosh, he really is like a modern slave.
This is just something he casually revealed to you on the drive?
Yeah! Just casually revealed to me. And I was like, what? This is like Game of Thrones stuff. It’s fiction. I read about it and I’m like “oh, bastard son, alright,” but this is real life.
To give you a sense, I grew up in relative poverty. My parents made a dollar an hour and we lived off food stamps and welfare. So when we got our first check that was $100,000, I called the bank because I didn’t even know the bank could hold that much money. I was so dumb and so naive, and now I’m like, look at these billionaires who live their lives so lavishly. It’s almost like a different world. I would say 90% of our investors are amazing people. They’re really good people who genuinely care and worked hard or got lucky, but also deserved a lot of their success. But there’s always that 10% who are very much like that guy in Hong Kong in that they’re a little bit eccentric, and I just don’t know how to feel sometimes when I meet with them. It’s just the way they treat their family and the people around them is not how I would.
So yeah, that does exist, and it’s just a kind of evil that I can’t, unfortunately, control, but can hopefully bring some awareness to. If you work in finance, for better or worse, you’re gonna be working for one of these guys somewhere along the way. And it’s just a matter of how you handle the relationship that will hopefully make a difference out there.