Do the hardest thing first every day, and you’ll move forward the fastest.
Levi King is the co-founder and CEO of Nav, a free site giving business owners access to their business and personal credit data, tools to improve their scores and a marketplace that matches them to the best financing and services. Levi is a serial entrepreneur and has started several successful companies. Prior to Nav, he co-founded Lendio, a business financing marketplace. While at Lendio, Levi saw too many applicants get denied for financing or only get approved for offers they couldn’t afford. He made it his mission to help business owners become better-qualified applicants
Where did the idea for Nav come from?
It came from another business that I started, which served as a super broker of business loans across risk classes. We had hundreds of thousands of small businesses come through our old model, and only three to five percent could get financing they actually liked. Another thirty or forty percent could get financing they didn’t like, and the rest didn’t get anything at all.
And the barrier was always a credit problem.
It just seemed crazy to me that in a technology company where we’re supposed to fix problems, we really only met the needs of a small percent of them. We didn’t problem-solve for the rest of them; maybe they got into a loan they didn’t like, but that didn’t address the underlying problems in their credit data that limited their choices in the first place.
So I decided to leave my other company to start Nav, where we could focus on the credit education side of the equation to help actually change the outcome for small businesses. You could think of it as the difference between taking advantage of a problem, and fixing a problem.
What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?
If I’m not traveling, I’m usually in back-to-back meetings or phone calls. The easiest way to think about what my role is that it is to communicate and facilitate the flow of information. It’s kind of a nice irony because I’m an introvert, yet my job is to make sure I’m talking and communicating 24/7 to everyone around me.
Regarding productivity, one thing I’ve trained myself to do is delete requests for my time that are just going to be a time-suck. I have to be comfortable being mean to people who don’t matter to my business. Five years ago I was just as busy, but I would usually respond to someone with, “Sorry, the timing’s not good, try again in six months.” Now I just delete them. The other side, though, is that I get tons of requests for my time that do matter, but I’m not the right guy to talk to. In that case I have to be comfortable immediately saying, “Tim’s the guy you want for that,” which might not feel awesome to someone who just got introduced to me, but it’s the way it has to be.
How do you bring ideas to life?
As far as Nav goes, at the beginning it was just good old blood, sweat, and tears—and a lot of money and risk-taking. To the point where I questioned my sanity a few times.
Now it’s more organic. You hire smart people, you make outcomes clear, and you focus on removing blockers—getting things out of the way that are going to prevent your people from building and implementing their own ideas. As companies get bigger, there’s always a natural accumulation of things that get in the way of everything. At Nav, whenever there’s a new process or policy, we spend as much time questioning “Do we really need this?” as we initially spend on the process or policy itself. Like a dress code. Why should anyone worry about being dressed up at a tech company? It takes energy to comply to anything; it takes emotional capacity. You use up too much of those things on nonsense, and ideas can’t flourish.
What’s one trend that’s really exciting you right now?
One trend I’m excited about is what I would call “do it for me”. There’s this whole movement in our society—it’s what robo-advisors do in investing—where technology is taking a step forward from how can we do it better to how can we do it for the individual person. So all they have to do is say “yes” or push a button. It’s like last-mile delivery, right? If you’re Fed-Ex, there’s now enough boats and planes in the world that you can get to any city inexpensively. But that last mile, where just one package needs to go to just one person, that’s what costs all the money. That’s why drones are the future.
In Nav’s world we can now say, “Something’s wrong with your credit, click this button to dispute it with the bureau.” Philosophically, that’s last-mile delivery—we’ll do the hard part for you. We’re trying to get to the point where we can have proactive loan approvals in our product, so if we see you need money, you won’t have to apply for it, you’ll just say, “I’ll take the money”. That’s a trend throughout all of tech, solving problems much further down the problem-path. It requires insane amounts of customization and data-analysis. To me that’s the most exciting trend.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I think the one that makes me the most productive is just that I do the hard stuff first, every day. Usually there’s a correlation between the hardest thing you need to do and how meaningful its impact will be. It’s the hard things that push you out of your comfort zone, and that’s when you’re growing and learning. Do the hardest thing first every day, and you’ll move forward the fastest.
What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?
I’ve had a lot of shitty jobs. The worst was probably shoveling dirt for a landscaping company. When I was eighteen I shoveled dirt for ten to twelve hours a day with a half-hour break for lunch. It was before I understood that they have to give you breaks. In one summer there were fifty people that had that job, and I was the only one there the whole time. At the end of the day, my hands would be frozen in the circular shape of a shovel handle, and I’d have a hard time opening my fingers. My hands would ache so much it became difficult to sleep.
I learned that as humans, we can push ourselves so much further into pain than we think we can. Thirty minutes into the day, I’d think, “I can’t last another fifteen minutes!” And it was supposed to be a ten-hour day. But fifteen minutes later, I’m still going, and the next thing you know the summer’s over and you have enough money to get you to the next place.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I’d get a computer science degree.
Understanding technology and knowing how to code is the most valuable skill you can have today, and I don’t think that’s going to change over the next twenty, fifty years. I think it’ll only become more important to know how to program, be an engineer—at least if you want to have the greatest advantages in life. If I were to do it over again, I would have become a tech entrepreneur sooner, but I would also would have got the right education, so that I actually had a formal discipline and understanding of technology versus an anecdotal or circumstantial understanding.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over, and recommend that everyone else do?
That’s a good question. I know that every single day, I think of the future—what failure or success in my life and business will look like. I always try to imagine a very binary future, where X is going to be the next big thing, or it’s going to be a major disaster. It’s just a draconian way of forcing reality into today. If every day I picture those two outcomes, it makes me an even more relentless, determined person, and it becomes less easy to coast along. You can have one or the other—complete, life-ruining failure or mind-blowing success—but you have to decide now. It makes making decisions today way easier. It pushes me to set priorities. For example, if there’s a meeting I’d like to be at, but don’t need to be at, it’s easier to see. Picturing binary outcomes helps me recognize how I can bring the most value to my organization on a daily basis.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business, and please explain how.
For us, it’s just all about hiring scrappy people that work their ass off and are smart enough to figure things out as they go. In a business like ours, the people on the inside are the most important thing you can focus on.
What is one failure you had as entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
In my first venture-backed business, we leased and built out an office that was way bigger than we needed. We thought, well, the business is just going to grow and succeed, so we might as well have the right space for it. So we built out all this space, only needed half of it, and were forced to sub-lease it at a substantial loss. Which meant we were subsidizing some other tech company’s P&L, and throwing away a bunch of our own money.
When I started my next company, we actually started out of the same shitty, cheap office as the first one. It was symbolic to me—not repeating the mistakes of the past, going back to humble beginnings. I kept that office for a long time.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Every travel website or app out there assumes that the person knows where they want to go. That’s always the starting question, ”Where do you want to go?” Well, alot of people don’t know where they want to go, or they’re totally flexible.
I wish there was a travel site or app I could go to that takes the reverse approach, and asks, “What do you want in a vacation?” I’d feed it a list:I can go on these dates, I want a beach involved, international, as inexpensive as possible, etc. The travel site would then scan tens of thousands of options, and tell me where I should be going based on my priorities.
That idea’s all yours.
What is the best one-hundred dollars you recently spent, and why?
A couple of weeks ago, I took an employee to dinner on the night he found out his little brother died. I did it to help take his mind off things, and it turned out to be a great experience for both of us.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
I’m a Mac user. I like the reliability of a Mac machine. I use Evernote. I’m a big fan of it for organizing chaos. I also use Slack. I love that it connects me to employees internally, but also to other networks that I’m a part of, all in one place.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read, and why?
Probably the most recent one I’d recommend is the Elon Musk biography by Ashlee Vance. As to why, I’d say because it inspires greatness. I think I’ve done some cool stuff, and then I read this and think, “Man, I’ve got to get off my ass and do bigger and better things—see better, think bigger, act bigger—than I am right now.”
What people have influenced your thinking, and might be of interest to others?
For me, I try to learn from the greats—Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, Sam Walton, and Ray Kroc. I love to read corporate biographies of people that built and did amazing things. I know it sounds cheesy, but I imagine these guys as my mentors, my brothers from another mother. Like one day when I die I’m going to meet Sam Walton and he’s going to walk by and high five me.