Keep meetings brief, but give everyone a chance to share their priorities and wins.
Todd Ehrlich is the CEO of BAMFi, a financial technology startup focused on the technology and capital needs of blue-collar industries, including transportation, construction, and industrial services. A serial entrepreneur, Todd also founded and currently chairs Triserv, a technology-based national appraisal management solution. Before starting Triserv, he founded and served as CEO of Kill Cliff, a sports beverage company ranked No. 103 on 2015’s Inc. 5000 list. As a former Navy SEAL, Todd is a team builder and problem solver.
Where did the idea for BAMFi come from?
After running another fintech startup for a few years, I decided to do something new and bigger. After asking around for ideas, a friend told me that I should create a working capital platform for trucking companies and trucking brokers. “It’s a billion-dollar opportunity,” he told me. We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Depending on the day, I wake up between 5:30 and 6:15 a.m. After a run or lifting session, sometimes I take the kids to school around 7:30. Before I get to the office at 8, I’ve already thought through priorities like increasing revenue, raising capital, or developing our culture. By knowing my goals for each day, I keep company meetings to twice a week or less.
My other productivity trick is to take someone to lunch every day. That might sound like a time suck, but it’s the best networking strategy to keep me in the mix. Meeting people for lunch creates meaningful connections and accelerates new relationships.
After lunch, I focus on my to-do list and start adding items to the next day’s schedule. That might feel like a crunch to some people, but it forces me to buckle down so I can get out of the office on time to see the family.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I have a lot of ideas, so it depends. If it’s related to BAMFi, I’ll go to the experts on my team to get their opinion. I give credit to those people whenever possible. I’ve even told people I work with that an idea was theirs — not because I’m trying to trick them, but because it helps them own the project. It spreads the wealth around.
Once the idea is out there, I get as much input as possible. We have a weekly meeting where people bring up problems and challenges. Senior people hear the issue, pitch in with thoughts of their own, and get the rest of the team to open up.
Sometimes, someone will even say, “We all think that’s a terrible idea.” I have executives on the team who have never worked somewhere where people can say that to the boss. Having an open and direct culture like that is key to getting the good ideas out. If you can keep your ego in control, you’ll get a lot more out of your team.
It’s kind of like CrossFit. You do various activities to recruit more muscles and improve performance. I look at teams similarly: The way you get the best out of a team isn’t by doing things your way all the time; it’s by letting ideas and improvements come from different angles.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I’m excited to be an entrepreneur right now. In every single category, from consumer products to business services to technology, there’s been a real increase in the velocity of turnover. Brands are eating other brands, technology is making other older technology extinct, and better services are taking over old ones.
Take KillCliff, the beverage company I started. People were ready for a new sports drink that wasn’t a cliché. Craft beer is another good example. It’s not just its own category now; it’s challenging and toppling some of the old-guard breweries.
The most exciting part is that change is only going to speed up from here. I heard a professor this morning comment that it took 50 years for electricity to spread, but just seven years for the internet to do so. Imagine how fast tomorrow’s technologies will catch on. The challenge for entrepreneurs is no longer finding opportunities, but choosing the right ones.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Since being hired for my first CEO job 14 years ago, I’ve learned how to do meetings properly. The way we run a meeting is — in no particular order of hierarchy, other than me and the CFO go last — everyone shares their top three priorities and what they have accomplished since the last meeting. Then, we open it up to talk about challenges as a team. People throw ideas out, and we’re usually able to solve whatever’s wrong right then and there. It lets a single person recruit everybody to solve problems in a lightning round.
After that, I ask people to share their bright spots, or something positive that’s happened since the last meeting. It might be an account we landed, how to solve a technical challenge, a cross-team collaboration, or an employee who went above and beyond.
You notice that in our meetings, each person talks twice: First, they talk about what they’re working on; second, they share something good. That way, we all walk out on a high note. Nobody leaves feeling like they didn’t have a chance to say what they really felt.
I’ll also share an “anti-habit” of my meetings: A prior board member told me that I needed to sit down with my direct reports each week for an hour each. I tried that, but team members would unload all their problems on me and complain about everyone else at the company. It wasn’t making things better; it was actually creating drama at the company. If we’re going to have conflict, it’s going to happen at the meeting table. I go out of my way not to let people sit in my office and bitch about each other. If someone brings an issue to me, I ask him to bring it to the management meeting and bring it up there.
What advice would you give your younger self?
So much advice: I’d tell myself not to wait so long to switch positions. It wasn’t that I didn’t have enough confidence. Taking a risk simply didn’t seem worth it because I was comfortable. I wish I’d gone on the entrepreneurial journey earlier.
With that said, I learned a lot in the positions I was in. But after the first three years, it was tweaks. The first thousand days is always when the most learning happens.
Another is that I’d hesitate less. There’s a saying in the military: “He who hesitates dies.” It’s hard to recognize when you’re in a hesitant mood, if you will, but I wish I’d pushed myself out of my comfort zone sooner. Even though I thought I wasn’t in a comfort zone, I was in a lot of situations.
Finally, I wish I’d known that we’re not all the same. Sometimes, people who aren’t trustworthy will enter your life. So I’m always screening for integrity and trustworthiness. Even if someone who seems a little untrustworthy might help your business grow, pass.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Most startup investors tend to be pattern matchers. They’re not looking at where the puck is going; they’re asking if it matches another deal they’ve seen.
That’s totally wrong. It makes it tough to raise money when you’ve got a new way of doing things. The category of investors who are actually looking for new things is small.
Investors won’t tell you that. Their shtick is that they want people to think outside the box, but the truth is that they want people to do the same thing with a different name or color. This can be helpful to guide what you are going to do; when you have very little capital, do something that capital is looking to invest in because it matches a pattern. Save the moonshot for when you have a track record.
I understand investors wanting to protect their downside. But I heard another entrepreneur explain the issue this way: “The biggest loss is the bet you got right but bet too small.” I’ve learned the hard way that a visionary investor is a rare thing.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I test every person I hire for cognitive ability and social behavior. I’m looking to weed out people who aren’t as smart as their résumé might represent they are or who might not do well as a member of the team.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Getting involved in the sales process. At least once every couple of days, I ask for updates on our pipeline. Staying focused on sales drives our momentum.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I’ve always been good at keeping less-than-great people out of my business, but that becomes a lot more difficult when you’re fundraising.
One time, I did take money from an investor who was tough to deal with. Within 30 days of closing, I saw that it was going to be a problem. As soon as he invested, he started going after people in the company. It slowed our growth, and it hurt a lot of people in the process. Since then, I’ve started listening much more closely to investors so I can get a sense of who they really are as people, not who they want me to think they are.
I made a similar mistake when I worked at a closely held company. When someone is holding all the cards, that’s not a great environment to be in. I’m careful now not to put myself in positions where someone can yank the rug out from under my team. I’d rather be broke than be someone’s lapdog.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Any brokerage business you can start to create efficiency in a market, particularly using technology, is really valuable. We are close to it in transportation, connecting trucks with loads, but there’s opportunity in other markets as well.
Brokerage can be good; it can be bad — but it doesn’t take a lot of capital to do it. If you look at the biggest, most successful companies out there, they’re all asset-light. Alibaba doesn’t have any assets. Airbnb doesn’t own any hotel rooms; they broker people’s bedrooms. Find a space where you can be the broker.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I bought a used Kindle Paperwhite reader. I read a ton of books. I can’t believe how long I’d lived without a Kindle in my life.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I use Apple Notes and Reminders religiously. I take tons of notes and transfer to-do items to my Reminders list all day long. It’s so easy to lose things in notes, but I can pull them right up in Reminders. Figuring out how to use the two apps together took my productivity to a whole new level.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Carol Dweck’s “Mindset.” The book describes how people fall into growth mindsets or fixed mindsets. I see a lot of fixed-mindset thinking in the world, and if more people realized how bad that was for business and personal growth, they would change.
What is your favorite quote?
“Don’t judge. Teach. It’s a learning process.” — Carol Dweck
- Get lunch with someone every day. The networking opportunities are well worth the additional time.
- Cultivate a culture of open conflict. Minimize opportunities for gossip.
- Keep meetings brief, but give everyone a chance to share their priorities and wins.
- Be a broker. Avoid starting a company that requires a lot of assets.
- Mindset matters. Approach challenges as opportunities to grow.