“Being a CEO is going to cost you more of everything than you think, but the return is worth it” With Adam Stettner
“In addition to the obvious, [becoming a CEO] costs you confidence as it will cause a ton of self-doubt. However, it will also give it all back, plus more.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Stettner, the Founder and CEO of Reliant Funding, a leading small business finance company. Headquartered in San Diego with offices in Melville, N.Y. and New York City, Reliant Funding provides customized, short-term funding to small and mid-sized businesses nationwide. Recognized for five consecutive years by Inc. Magazine among the 1,000 fastest growing privately held companies in America.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?
I was born and raised in and around New York City. When I was young, my parents divorced and consequently, I didn’t see my father very often. My mother worked full time while raising my brother and me. She instilled the value of an ambitious outlook towards life. She always said was that there was very little in this world that hard work and a great attitude could not fix. My father died from cancer when I was 21 and it demonstrated the obvious; that we are mortal and life can disappear quickly. After this realization hit me, I vowed to grab life by the neck and have my way with it…and it’s been quite a ride ever since.
I moved to San Diego at the age of 32 and although I brought my wife at the time and a newborn along for the ride, I left everything and everyone I knew in New York. I didn’t overthink the decision because while finding some success at work in New York, I never felt my calling there. I started a job in student loans when I arrived in San Diego and without friends or a network, focused on work and family. This was an amazing experience and helped boost my professional confidence. I created a division at the company, building it to over $8 Billion within 4 years, then left amicably to start my own company.
It was 2008. A few months in, the company was doing very well until then the financial crisis hit. I had three kids, a house with a mortgage and I had invested everything I had into a new business. This setback, while major, didn’t define me. Instead, it motivated me to find the next thing and to show myself that I could rise to levels I hadn’t yet reached.
Although the business and financial world struggled in the wake of crisis, I was going to find a way to build something. I started Reliant Funding in 2008, with a mission to assist the underbanked American small business. Today we have 150 employees in three offices; San Diego, New York City and Long Island and have funded over $1 Billion to tens of thousands American Small Businesses. The employees here and the work we do, drive me to be better every day.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I typically practice self-deprecating humor and so I’m an easy target for myself. I am also brutally honest. Sometimes that combination causes me to be misunderstood. Here is one of the many embarrassing tales of my entrepreneurial journey: Early in the cycle of raising money to get Reliant Funding off the ground, I was introduced to a friend of a friend, who was a very sophisticated investor and ran a family office of just over $1 Billion. I am not a stranger to business, nor to sophisticated investors, but Reliant Funding was just an idea at the time and I was still finding my way with the business strategy. He asked what distinguished me from the many other opportunities he had seen thus far. I answered as honestly as I could which was that I a) had no idea what the other opportunities were and b) I would work harder, smarter and longer to find a way to success, a way to protect my reputation.
As a potential investor, naturally he wanted me to protect his money. While at a high level I understood that, to me he was missing the fact that he wasn’t investing in a business. At this early stage, he was investing in my reputation. I explained we wanted the same thing, we both wanted my reputation intact and by delivering on that I would be protecting his money. I explained if I lost his money, it would be a huge blow to my reputation, which was infinitely more valuable to me than the money he was investing was to him.
I went on to explain that I didn’t fully know the industry I was getting into but I believed in the business idea. I didn’t have experience with my target demographic, had never marketed, sold or serviced them, but was determined to learn. He wanted to know the difference between me and the other investment opportunities he had. I told him those other opportunities were going to tell him what they thought he wanted to hear and would think about ways to convince him to invest with them.
I wanted him to invest in my reputation and it was my job to explain why I felt the business made sense and what I planned to do to learn in order to be successful in the industry. If that worked for him, he should invest. If it didn’t, he shouldn’t invest.
He told me I was naïve, we shook hands and I left, embarrassed. He and his staff looked at over 800 potential investments opportunities that year and invested in only four. Reliant Funding was one of them. What started as embarrassing turned into opportunity.
What exactly does your company do?
Reliant Funding provides small to medium-sized business owners with the funding they need to build and grow their businesses. The term “underbanked” represents the 77% of those business owners who are declined by traditional banks after they apply for funding for their business ventures. Reliant Funding fills that financial gap, providing a more streamlined, customized funding experience, built around an owner’s specific business needs and unique story. The motivation behind my company was to provide the ultimate flexibility and an ongoing financial relationship for small business owners throughout the application, approval and funding process.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try to lead by example both in and out of the office. Having approximately 150 employees in two major metropolitan areas enables us to do even more. Years ago, I volunteered at the local food bank and soup kitchen with my kids and began inviting employees to join me. We now go a couple of times per year as a large group and have packed and distributed literally many tons of food to less fortunate children and the elderly.
We have the local blood bank come to the office with a “Bloodmobile” and as a company, we donate dozens of pints each visit. In addition, we support local and national charities, walk for causes, donate and volunteer both as a company and individuals. American Cancer Society, Red Cross, National MS Society, Michael J. Fox Foundation, ALS Association and Toys for Tots are all national charities that we have supported as well as dozens of local charities.
In addition, I am very open about my personal life, including struggles and things that help me advance in life. I want to be accessible and relatable to our entire team, show them I care and that they can do more at Reliant Funding and elsewhere in their lives. I hope that we are all making the world better by trying to be better ourselves. Every day.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I became CEO,” and why?
1. Being a CEO is harder than you think. Much harder. Almost every time the business advances, something happens that will set you back. You are always responsible for the setbacks. There is an art to the balance of focusing on the positives of the advances and the negatives of the setbacks, there is so much to learn from both. Failing is hard, set backs are difficult. The crazy thing is that growth is uncomfortable and progress is hard too. Another way to say, at times everything can be difficult, even the wins.
2. Being a CEO takes incredible amounts of time and patience to find traction, success and evolution. In business and often in life, you are competing against others and for most entrepreneurs or CEOs, against ourselves. Just because something works once does not mean it will work again. Therefore, success isn’t getting it right once, it is getting it right repeatedly. You must evolve that repeated success to keep up with market needs, competition and the growth and evolution of your team/business without breaking anything. That process takes a mind-bending amount of time. If you rush it, things break. If you don’t push for it, you fail. Patience, hard work and a great attitude are the keys to lasting. It can be tiresome but only if you let it.
3. Being a CEO is going to cost you more of everything than you think, but the return is worth it. In addition to the obvious, it costs you confidence as it will cause a ton of self-doubt. However, it will also give it all back, plus more.
Leading is all consuming, especially when you do it with passion. It costs time and creates the need for sacrifice in all areas of your life. That places stress on everything and can create doubt. Doubt in your approach or in your ability. This is true regardless of how ready you think you are. This self-doubt is healthy, provided it doesn’t consume you. The growth and lessons learned from it can be used to propel you further in both business and life.
The process to overcome doubt causes you to analyze the root of an issue and look at how you are addressing it. If you remain open-minded, it helps you formulate options to navigate most any challenge. This business process then cycles into your personal life and helps you to strengthen your time, life and relationship management skills. Leading at this level breaks you down and then builds you back up stronger than before.
4. It is going to be more emotionally fulfilling and rewarding than you think. Outside of my three kids, nothing is more fulfilling and rewarding than leading dedicated individuals doing work you all believe in. I take pride in the work we all do, it is incredibly rewarding to address and overcome challenges together. Building a team and working together to create and grow stretches you to see, feel and do things you would never do otherwise. Embrace it and allow yourself to feel the good along with the difficult.
5. You can do it. I typically do not need to hear affirmation from anyone but the role of Entrepreneur and CEO pushed and tested my limits. Many days it still does. There have been times where I really did not know if I could do it. It would have been incredible to have someone explain that feeling that way is exactly why I could do it. There are many smart people in the world but many of them fail. There are only two reasons why I will fail, either because I can’t do something or I won’t do what it takes. I’ve realized that I can do almost anything if I work hard and maintain a great attitude and that is really all it takes. If I can do it, so can you.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Jim Rogers. He is educated, successful, forward thinking and adventurous. He has created success at different firms all over the world and lives a life that embodies getting all he can from his time on earth. He has circled the earth on a motorcycle, visiting 6 continents and then did it again by car visiting 116 countries. He holds two world records for adventure travel. All while running businesses on different continents, being a best-selling author, commentator, professor and having a wife and children. Talk about interesting…