Christopher Nohl has been called a ‘financial-genius’ by many, and is a 25-year financial professional with a background in entrepreneurship, debt origination, early stage venture capital portfolio management, distressed debt workouts, angel investing, disruptive technology companies, distributed ledger applications, world class collectibles, and real estate development.
Christopher Nohl serves and has served on the boards of many early-stage technology companies, was the pre-revenue lead investor in a multi-unicorn technology company, has reorganized and relaunched troubled businesses, and consulted to some of the largest insurers and healthcare providers in the American Midwest. Christopher Nohl is known a ‘genius-wrangler,’ helping even the most strong-willed inventors to transform their intellectual property into valuable companies. His broad experience and depth of knowledge are applicable to nearly all start-ups and contribute to an understanding what he calls “the active re-imaging of the world.”
Where did the idea for your career come from?
In my nearly 25 years in finance and entrepreneurship I have played a role in the creation of approximately 50 businesses. Some of those failed, others have sold for a 650% return on investment, many are still building and growing, and one today is valued at $5 billion dollars. In my experience the ideas come from trying to solve problems you see in life. Necessity is the mother of creation, and that creation begins as an idea of a solution.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My typical day begins before daybreak where I walk my dogs in the park and think about the day’s schedule. I identify each issue I want to advance or address that day and how I am going to go about doing that. I lay the day’s requirements out ahead of me in my mind and imagine the meetings and conversations I am going to have later that day. This is very much how a successful athlete imagines success taking shots on goal. It trains your deep brain. I finish walking my dogs as daylight breaks, and then I hit the ground running making calls, leaving messages, and sending emails at a furious pace. From there I let the day take its course, checking off those items on my mental list of the day’s requirements. I stay agile in my schedule, as much as possible, to be able to answer the call of opportunity whenever it appears. Beyond that, I try to listen as much as possible, to pay full attention and to really hear everyone who is communicating with me. I question continuously my own weaknesses, biases and perceptions. And I try to pray, in everything I do, which to me means greeting the world with an open heart, open eyes, and open hands in the Spirit with which they were given to me.
How do you bring ideas to life?
The first step of bringing an idea to life is to explore the idea in imagination, developing a clear image of what the foundation of the value proposition is. Every startup begins with a value proposition. The value proposition is the good or service that an idea will provide to the world. A founder needs to ask themselves: What makes this idea exciting? How does it make the world a better place? How is it more efficient, better, or faster than the way things happen now? Once you have those answers then you start identifying who the players are. You drill down on who your customer really is. You have to research and discover who your competitors are. You have to think about your competitive advantage and how you can guard that. Can you get patents, copyrights, and trademarks? If you can then you should. The more competitive advantage a company has the more this should translate into accelerated growth and the duration of that accelerated growth. Big patents, ones that are disruptive and hard to simulate, provide the greatest opportunity because they provide the greatest insulation against competitors and imitators. You need not be first to market to succeed, but you need to create distinction for the consumer of your product and service. Once you understand the value that you are bringing to the world, the size of the addressable market, your competitive advantage, and what competition you currently have (and can expect in the future), then you need to diagram your business and its relationship to the world. You should diagram it as if it is a single cellular organism. What is it gonna eat? What does the digestion look like (i.e. your ‘business process,’ – sometimes called a ‘sales-cycle’), How many nodes of interaction does a potential customer have? What are they? What are its waste products? Where does the digestion process abort or fail? What is the follow up for those sales opportunities that fall away? Once you have done all this then you will have a diagram of where your idea fits into the world, how it grows and thrives, what kills it, and how many stations need to be addressed to build the next step, your business model. The business model can be designed in phases. So, the first phase may be bench-testing an idea in a laboratory setting. The next step may be building a prototype. The third phase might be testing that prototype in the real world. Every type of business will have a different progression. What is important is that you understand yours: what is the path to realization of this idea? The more of these things one has done, and the better one can communicate all of this to somebody else the easier it is to get financing to invest in the idea, whether debt or equity. Starting a company is map making and team and consensus building. Vetting those who might team up with you is an important task and for the founder, the question should always be addressed based on character because all companies spring forth from goodwill. Goodwill, financially speaking, is the value of a company that exceeds the net fair value of all a company’s parts. If you think about it, goodwill is the only place from which a startup can actually grow roots and spring forth because your idea must maintain the prospect and your belief that it is greater than the cost of getting there. If your assumptions are later challenged and turn out to be incorrect, then your goodwill and opportunity sublime into the atmosphere and must be assessed all over again. Taking as much care as possible with the assumptions upon which a startup idea rests is simultaneously the greatest opportunity to build foundation and the greatest risk that a keystone of your design could fail.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The democratization of access to opportunity is one of the greatest things happening in the world. This is happening because it is the fruit of an information age where esoteric information and difficult to find deals are finding ways to become accessible and knowable to more people.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I read. I digest information wherever you can get it. I read academic journals, foreign news sources, financials for public companies, studies of venture capital investment by sector and quarter, declassified documents, and rumor-mills. I take each for what its worth but incorporate it all into the lens through which I perceive the world. When a decision needs to be made, I seek out those more experienced than I, shooting for the moon in terms of who I am willing to reach out to, and I invite them to teach me and give me advice. This really works.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Do more internships! You can never get enough real-world exposure to mentors and organizations when you’re young. The only danger really is in being seduced by any particular one of them.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I believe that causality runs both forward and backward in time.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Accept invitations. Every entrepreneur will have the hands of opportunity extend to them from many sides, it is a good idea to accept them all. They will open doors you don’t expect. This can be difficult to do with all the time demands an entrepreneur feels.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
A good way to grow your business is to make sure that you know what your customers’ real perceptions of your good and service are. If you stay observant, you’ll see that the businesses in decline are those who have quit listening to their customers while those that incorporate feedback win customer loyalty and grow.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
One of the most difficult problems to have an entrepreneur is a shifting regulatory environment. It is difficult enough to start a business without the rules changing on you midstream, or worse, constantly. In such a situation we did well by considering parallel businesses where regulatory issues had already been worked out and looked for analogies or strong similarities with the underlying issues at focus in the regulatory microscope. Communication with regulators should be proactive if possible. Don’t be afraid to go see them and discuss operational designs. It helps everyone.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
The biggest visceral opportunity right now is in linking the information world with the physical world. That is occurring right now with blockchain technologies and the IoT (internet-of-things). There are many, many, opportunities to develop niches in this societal transformation. Get there. Take classes, read, go to the tradeshows. Get in now. It’s not too late.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I bought a coffee grinder. Grinding your own beans makes such better coffee than the shops, it’s cheaper, and every entrepreneur needs more coffee.
What is your favorite quote?
My favorite quote is a JP Morgan quote from “The Justification of Wall Street” when he was being asked under oath whether the first thing he looked at was credit or collateral when considering making a loan. Morgan answered, “The first thing is character … before money or property or anything else. Money cannot buy it.… A man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom. I think that is the fundamental basis of business.” This quote resonates with me because too often in entrepreneurship we look at term sheets and valuations and money and think about all of those things first when really we ought to be thinking much more about assessing the character of ourselves and those we might do business with because character is destiny most of the time for both a person and for a new business.
- Connecting the physical world to the information age is the top opportunity for entrepreneurs
- Anticipate shifting regulatory problems by finding analogies in parallel industries
- The democratization of access to opportunity is happening now
- How diagraming your business idea as a single celled organism makes all the difference
- Consider the character of the investor before signing the term sheet
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.