Partnerships, Scaling, and My Departure from Able
An open letter from Evan Baehr, cofounder of Able.
Today is my last day at Able.
Five years into this extraordinary venture, I’ll step out of the cockpit to leave my incredible cofounder and our CEO Will Davis to lead Able. I will stay on the board, meet weekly with Will, and continue to cheerlead and build relationships for Able, but will leave the daily operations and move onto a new adventure.
A cofounder is leaving?
Usually the story is one of two: the Board lost confidence in the leader, or the leader lost confidence in the company. These departures are nearly always accompanied by turmoil among the cofounders. We are lucky — and anomalous — to have found a third way. I am long on Will and Able. The Board is long on me. And Will and I are eager for the next stage of our friendship.
Able is already a special company. This year we’ve already funded 5x what we did last year; and we’re on the heels of securing $100,000,000 in funds to loan. It is go time. As a FinTech CEO friend told me recently: “Able is the last man standing actually doing social lending.” Able is a revolutionary concept; amidst a sea of also-ran companies doing online lending, we actually invented a new kind of loan and fundamentally changed how small businesses grow.
As our board member Mike Maples said, if we can pull this off, the social good created by fueling the Fortune 5,000,000 is ‘incalculable.’ While small business is the backbone of the American economy (creating two-thirds of all jobs), the state of entrepreneurship is actually quite weak: more small businesses will be destroyed than created this year. Along the way we fought hard to connect this social good to market principles; we believe that profit is the condition for the possibility of impact. It meant the world to us when Fortune called us “Capitalism at its best,” and we view ourselves as part of the American economic infrastructure of the 21st century.
What lies ahead of us is a lot of important, hard work. We’ll be learning to be a grown-up financial services company. As Will and I mapped out what was needed to do this with excellence — as we identified the big challenges we will face — I started thinking: if we were hiring an expert today to do this, we probably wouldn’t hire me.
It can be hard to reach the conclusion that you might not be the right person for the job. Through reflection and conversation, I came to confidently conclude: the massive challenges and opportunities that await Able are ones that are not a fit for me. My strengths that helped us get here are not those that Able needs now.
A personal contribution curve
Early on, the challenges at Able were huge and we had few resources. Smart generalists can thrive at early stage companies because, well, there is no one else to solve the problem!
But, as the complexities grow and time goes on, leaders either adapt and personally scale to solve the next set of issues, or they begin to experience diminishing marginal personal contributions.
There are many extraordinary things about my cofounder Will, but of the most impressive is how he scales to learn the technical skills necessary to rise to the next level. Over the period of a few months, he can master insanely complex processes such as credit decisioning and lending capital structured finance; most of his peers have done this for at least a decade.
If you ever have the sense that you’ll be able to contribute less tomorrow than you do today, it might be time to get on a different learning curve.
Partnerships are Hard, but Worth It
With this transition, I wanted to make a quick note about the most important part of our journey: our partnership.
When we started Outbox, we took only the titles ‘cofounder’ and sought to build a close working relationship. It turned out that building a business with a friend is, well, pretty hard. Mixing life, friends, church, social obligations, management, feedback, and work is complex. It is messy. It wasn’t always easy.
At one point our wives intervened in fact. We were eating dinner together as families and, as our children played in the next room, our wives looked directly at us and said: “you aren’t even friends anymore — you can’t keep going like this.”
We listened, and started working hard on our relationship deliberately. We got a coach who helped us be brutally honest with each other. Over and over again we learned to keep short accounts — to bring up frustrations early and work through them, lest they fester. We rebounded.
We know many people who prefer to be ‘work friends’ with their colleagues. This means being pleasant at the office, but not really interested in what’s going on in each others’ lives. Bringing your whole self into a partnership is hard stuff — it takes an honesty and vulnerability that can hurt. But those deep, transparent relationships are the primary sources of personal growth and transformation.
It takes that kind of partnership to survive difficult situations, like when our previous business Outbox was forced to shut down by the federal government and Vallywag ran a headline: “Terrible Idea Punished with Death.” With $3.5m in cash, an amazing team, and investors that said “go build something awesome,” we worked side by side and pulled off an epic pivot.
Over five years we acquired some real scars — but we are much stronger as men, as leaders, and as friends through it all. It was often painful. But as Will will surely echo, we wouldn’t do it any other way.
A Grateful Heart
Five years ago Will and I were in Washington, DC, at a postal mail conference — yes, a rousing time! — and we went to dinner that night at La Loma, a Mexican restaurant near the U.S. Senate.
At that dinner Will invited me to join this wild adventure. When asked why, he said, “You are the only person that would take care of my family if something happened to me.” Well, the feeling was mutual.
Fortunately, that duty was never called on, but it is that spirit that animates everything we have accomplished together.
During these two chapters — Outbox and Able — we have been able to, in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, dare greatly in striving toward two worthy causes: bringing audacious ideas to life and building a partnership that could make them possible.
I’m enormously grateful for the adventure thus far, and am excited to move into a new role of board member and cheerleader. Please join me in supporting Will and our entire team. They mean the world to me.