Simplicity scales, complexity does not.
David Nilssen, Co-Founder & CEO, Guidant Financial: A serial entrepreneur, David has successfully launched a number of companies over the last 15 years within financing, digital media, real estate development and business services. He’s also an active angel investor who has helped seed companies in neuropharma, online travel, personal financial management, medical billing, technology and more. In 2003, David co-founded Guidant Financial. He has been a featured speaker at over 350 national and international events, covering topics from entrepreneurship to small business financing. In addition, he and Guidant have been highlighted in such media sources such as CNBC, Fortune Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNN and The Wall Street Journal. In 2007, the Small Business Administration (SBA) named Nilssen the National Young Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2011, David released a book called Making the Jump into Small Business Ownership and was named one of the Top 100 Small Business Influencers. Today, he serves as a member of the Entrepreneur Organization’s Global Learning Committee, as well as on the board of Archbright, formerly Washington Employers, which is focused on helping its members elevate workplace performance through HR and legal support. He regularly contributes to Entrepreneur.com and you can see his author page here.
Where did the idea for Guidant Financial come from?
Like many startups, our initial hypothesis wasn’t correct. As real estate professionals, my business partner and I started Guidant Financial to help individuals invest retirement assets into real estate. As my co-founder Jeremy Ames and I pushed forward, we realized that our passion was not in real estate – but rather in business (which sometimes included real estate). So, we evolved the company to exclusively serve entrepreneurs as they launch, grow or acquire a business. Today, Guidant has financed over 13,000 entrepreneurs with over $4 billion. Our staff is made up of experts who help everyday people fund small businesses and franchises through a full suite of funding solutions, including SBA loans; unsecured loans; portfolio loans; and equipment leasing, plus Rollovers as Business Start-ups (ROBS).
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
A typical day is anything less than typical for an entrepreneur. But, I spend a majority of my time thinking about, planning for or executing on developing leaders, engaging with our community (local and industry), people strategy, resource allocation and forward-looking opportunities. How do I make it productive? I’m a big believer in the Pomodoro Technique. It’s simple and efficient.
How do you bring ideas to life?
By having great teams that are organized for efficiency and growth. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The question is, how do you identify great ideas and opportunities and then add them to a system without distracting an entire organization? In our business, we have a strategy team that is there to debate forward-looking opportunities. Our leadership team is designed to make good, cross-functional decisions that get implemented quickly. Our product team generally turns them into action plans. They are also responsible for identifying and proposing topics to the strategy team to contemplate.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
It’s really exciting to see that more and more individuals are taking the leap into small business – it’s something we’re extremely passionate about. I think that many are also starting to realize that financing options aren’t as out of reach as they may seem. Low interest rates have made debt financing an economical option. And, there are many other nontraditional options for Main Street small business owners. In fact, one of our options called Rollover as Business Startups (ROBS) even allows budding entrepreneurs to withdraw from their 401 (k) without incurring any penalties or taxes. It’s great to see more people stepping out of their comfort zones and pursuing their true passions through business ownership, because that’s what drives me every day.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Connect with clients. The further you climb the corporate ladder, the more disconnected you can become from your clients. Making time to regularly check in with those who are working on the front lines, and directly interacting with your customers helps you to stay connected to your business’ bottom line. It also serves as a strong sense of motivation to continue driving the business forward.
Once a month my co-founder and I take a small group of employees to lunch to hear about where they see opportunities in the business, understand what sources of entropy they have and share our vision for the future. I believe this provides inspiration for them and completely energizes us. Some of our most recent innovations have come from this strategy. In fact, one of our team members recently suggested that we had not been living up to our “community” value. And, after looking at it, we agreed. So we’ve made a proactive effort to adopt a charity and galvanize resources to give back more often.
What was the worst jobs you ever had and what did you learn from it?
I don’t know if I would call it the worst job, but my first job was as a Sandwich Artist at Subway, so not very glamorous. From this job, I learned the power of creating duplicable systems. As an employee (and eventually manager) of a franchise, I learned that having such a tightly defined system/process allows for an employee to onboard and produce faster; it provides a more consistent customer experience; and allows the business to scale with fewer “growing” pains.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I would have forced us to be more focused. In the early stages we chased a lot of great ideas that would’ve been interesting businesses on their own. Although, we knew what the core business was and should be. Being more focused could have saved us a lot of time and resources. That said, those are all lessons that have been invaluable so I really wouldn’t change a thing.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Keep learning. At any given time, there are 5 to 7 books on my nightstand, to ensure I keep learning. I joined the Entrepreneurs’ Organization to meet other like-minded individuals who run similar size businesses in non-competing industries. Learning from others’ successes and failures has helped me grow both personally and professionally. And I attend many events. In fact, I just attended the London Business School Growth Forum. These events help me to expand and evolve in the way I think about business and the problems we face every day. It’s exciting for me to take those learnings and test them in my own “lab” (business).
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
Simplicity scales, complexity does not. I think it is inherent that most entrepreneurs want to say yes to everything because they don’t want to miss an opportunity, but it makes things so much more complicated and difficult to grow. In the early days, our business was very diversified and it ultimately couldn’t scale. Simplifying our strategy created a clearer pathway to success.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
In the early years, Guidant helped people use retirement funds to invest in nontraditional investments. Our primary focus was in real estate and business. Similar to what I said earlier, we had a vision of being “everything to everyone.” We started a real estate brokerage, an online publishing company (geared toward alternative assets) and intentions to go into escrow, mortgage and so on. It wasn’t until the market crashed in ’08 – and resources were restricted – that we chose to get very focused. And, it turned out to be the very best thing for the business. We realized our passion was in supporting entrepreneurs as they launch or acquire businesses. We closed the real estate brokerage, sold the online publishing and the real estate IRA businesses.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
It’s difficult in a drive-by conversation to create lasting connections, receive thoughtful feedback and gain space to share your vision. So I love getting out of the office and breaking bread with members of our team.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
We use a variety of different tools from Salesforce, Workday, Pardot, TinyPulse and many, many others. And, we’re now developing our own proprietary software. I won’t speak about all of them but I love TINYpulse Perform because it allows us to have more meaningful relationships with our team members more regularly. Instead of waiting for a review once a year – which is HIGHLY ineffective – we are able to provide more timely and helpful feedback to our employees.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I would recommend “The Goal” by Eliyahu Goldratt. Eliyahu is known for his theory of constraints, which includes identifying the most limiting factor that stands in the way of your goal and improving it until it’s no longer the limiting factor. The concept alone is motivating and it’s wonderfully written.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
Breakthrough Imperative – Mark Gottfredson
• This does a wonderful job of demonstrating that a profit pool is always shifting. I learned it was because the customers’ preferences and behaviors are always changing, either because they grow dissatisfied with what they are currently buying, or because an innovative company learns how to offer them better value.
• This was a great illustration of the many things that you encounter running a business that are not covered in business school.
• This a great book on leading with purpose, the power of intentionality or mindfulness and leadership. As a big fan of the Bulls in the 1990’s it was especially fun to read.
• Sales can (and probably should) be systematic. So many people think that sales should be unstructured. But Mark shows – as an engineer – he developed a team that scaled from 0 to 100M under his watch.
• This book does a great job showing the different needs a business has during its lifecycle. Everything from the type of leader to the strategy – it’s really a blueprint for sustaining scalable growth. Lex has been a personal mentor to me.
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