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Brock Blake of Lendio: “They told me it was impossible and I did it anyway”

You’re going to experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and you’ve got to just enjoy the journey and put one step in front of the other to fight to live another day. Just insert all of the clichés here, but that is who I am and what I know. I don’t think entrepreneurs are these amazing people, they just keep fighting every single day and keep going.

As a part of our series about “dreamers who ignored the naysayers and did what others said was impossible,’’ I had the pleasure of interviewing Brock Blake.

Brock Blake is the CEO and founder of Lendio, the largest online marketplace of small business loans in the U.S.

Brock believes that access to capital should be simpler and quicker for small business owners, and he’s built a successful company around solving this problem. Brock leads the team that has helped business owners get access to more than $1B in funding. An Inc. 500 CEO, national keynote speaker, Forbes columnist, and Utah’s Emerging Executive of the Year, Brock’s dedication extends far beyond the boardroom. He has shaped a superior company culture with a humble and hungry team that is passionate about driving results and giving back. For every loan facilitated on Lendio’s marketplace platform, Lendio Gives, an employee contribution and employer matching program, donates a percentage of funds to low-income entrepreneurs around the world through Brock’s most important accomplishments come from being a husband and a father of four.

Thank you so much for joining us Brock! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us your ‘backstory’?

I am passionate about entrepreneurship and passionate about businesses. I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life. My entrepreneurial spirit began to blossom when I took on a paper route as a young boy. From there, I moved into larger ventures like starting my own soccer camp business and purchasing scooters from China and selling them locally.

While studying at Brigham Young University, I found out about an entrepreneurial competition similar to the TV show The Apprentice (minus the cameras, drama and celebrity host). The competition, called Junto, challenged young, wannabe entrepreneurs to compete to win $50,000 to start a company. There were 100 applicants, 20 were selected to compete, and ultimately 5 winners were chosen. Fortunately, I was one of the 5!

With $50,000 in hand, I had the freedom to start any business venture I wanted. After considering a number of different business ideas, I kept coming back to a common pain point for entrepreneurs: access to capital. Every business owner I talked to needed capital to grow and expand their business, and it wasn’t easy to come by.

My co-founder and I took our $50,000 winnings to create FundingUniverse. It was a platform that connected small business owners to angel investors. After realizing that most of our customers didn’t need venture funding, we started working on a spinoff, Lendio, that provides small business owners with much-needed loans. Now after 8 years in business, Lendio has helped more than 70,000 small businesses get access to over $1.7B in loans to start and grow their businesses.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes we are. At Lendio, our main purpose is to help business owners get loans, and we’ve built this whole marketplace around it. Currently, what we do is we get the application data from the business owner and then we send it off to the lender. Now we’re to the point where we think we can be influential in changing the way people actually get loans. So, instead of the way it is today where you go, you fill out a 30-question application and you have to upload all these documents, we believe that we could streamline that application process to be a different experience.

For example, we recently launched our new cash-flow tool. It pulls the business owner’s bank data every single day and it monitors the cash trends as it goes up and down, as it inflows and outflows, when they get paid, when they need money, and things of that nature. By looking at that data on a regular basis, our system can be smart enough to determine when they qualify for a loan or when they will need a loan. It further streamlines the loan experience from needing a loan and filling out a bunch of big applications and instead proactively alerts business owners when they qualify. That’s a brief description of our most exciting project, but what we’re really trying to do is simplify our customers’ experiences so business owners can focus on running their businesses day-to-day rather than spend time filling out loan applications.

In your opinion, what do you think makes your company or organization stand out from the crowd?

I mean, this is cliché to say, but it all starts with our team members and our people. We have a team that’s passionate about helping small business owners, that has this ‘humble-hungry’ attitude of rolling up their sleeves and getting things done. Every hire truly puts their best foot forward each day and recognizes each other’s’ high-five moments. The energy and the culture here amazes me, just the people that we have that are bought into the mission and are driven. In fact, Glassdoor recently named Lendio’s company culture as one of the top 50 cultures in the world for small businesses, and that’s based on anonymous employee reviews and ratings.That’s one of the things that really sets us apart. The culture here is just extremely unique, and we have a lot of fun with it. I believe if your team members are happy, then they will take care of your customers. It’s infectious. If you take care of your team, they’ll take care of you customers, your customers will be happy and it’s just this virtuous cycle. I really that sets us apart from the crowd.

Ok, thank you for that. I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? What was your idea? What was the reaction of the naysayers? And how did you overcome that?

You know, there have been a lot of those moments from the very beginning. My whole career of being an entrepreneur — and at each pivotal stage of this company — I have had to persevere and ignore naysayers’ doubts. We got into this business intent on helping business owners get financing, and from day one people told us that it wasn’t going to work, that we would fail and we shouldn’t move forward. We didn’t listen and we quickly built a profitable company.

Early on, we were connecting entrepreneurs to investors, and we grew that business to $10 million in revenue even when people said it wasn’t going to work. Then when we got to $10 million in revenue, I noticed some flaws in our business model and decided to pivot and focus instead on helping business owners get loans. I saw an opportunity there, I knew that businesses needed capital. We started going out and having conversations with people and they told us we wouldn’t be able to get banks on board to lend to businesses. They said that banks are slow, we won’t be able to get lenders on board, don’t change your business model. People told us that wasn’t going to work, so instead of listening and stopping there, we went to work and started figuring out how to make it work. We ended up getting both banks and lenders on board. Then people said, “Okay, well I guess that worked for you, but there’s no way you’ll get repeat customers. They’ll come to you, get a one-time loan and then they’ll be off.” We didn’t listen, and now 50% of our customers are repeats.

So, all along the way people have offered their doubts and concerns, and at every turn I had to decide whether to let those doubts pull me back or pursue my vision. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very challenging business and there have been tons of growing pains and highs and lows along the way, in fact the deeper you get inside of the business, the more you realize how challenging it is. However, I believe that if you have persistence and you just keep working at it, that challenge will create value in the end.

In the end, how were all the naysayers proven wrong? :-)

From that initial $50,000 in won in a college entrepreneurial competition, Lendio has grown into the nation’s largest marketplace for small business loans. To date, Lendio has facilitated over $1.7 in business loans. From a macroeconomics viewpoint, that represents over $11 billion of economic impact across the United States. The best part is listening to the first-hand experiences of our customers. Each week my funding managers share their experiences with me. They say, “I worked with a business owner in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and here was their challenge, and this is what I needed to help them accomplish their goal.” We talk about how getting that loan affected their lives, and I realize the company I helped build made an impact today. If I hadn’t ignored the naysayers, none of this would have been possible, so it just shows how you need to trust your own gut and ignore the naysayers along the way.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The person that I immediately think of is my business partner Trent Miskin. Trent is absolutely brilliant. He is not afraid of any challenge, he knows how to roll up his sleeves and solve problems, and he’s extremely loyal and honest. He’d definitely put himself in the nerd category, but he is wickedly smart and has been a great leader and loyal business partner from day one. We certainly wouldn’t be where we are without what Trent has contributed to this business.

A while ago as we were growing our business, we faced a huge marketing dilemma. One of the most challenging aspects of this business is acquiring customers and doing it at scale. It’s both expensive and challenging because business owners need financing, but they don’t need it all the time, so you have to catch them with marketing messages when they actually need financing. We can’t target just any business owner either, we have certain criteria they have to meet. We have to find a business owner that has both revenue and a couple of years in business and some other things like that. Anyway, we had gone out and hired this VP of marketing from Florida who moved here with this incredibly successful resume. He spent 6–12 months trying to figure out how to acquire customers at scale and with the right cost. We experienced a lot of turnover in that team and he just couldn’t crack the code, so it became clear it wasn’t the right fit. He moved on and suddenly we had a missing marketing piece. Trent who had never stepped into marketing before — he was our CTO and computer science engineer — just said, “I’ll take over marketing.” With absolutely no marketing experience, no background, zero expertise in this sphere, he learned everything he could about it and reverse-engineered our marketing like an engineer would. He started looking at what types of customers we needed, where they came from, which channels worked and which channels didn’t work. He figured this out and put money and people into the ones that worked, and suddenly he completely overhauled the marketing department and helped our customer acquisition marketing team really perform. It’s a great story.

It must not have been easy to ignore all the naysayers. Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share the story with us?

So, I’m the youngest of six. There are five boys and one girl. As you can imagine, growing up, we would just compete like no other. Whether it was soccer or football or basketball or chess or anything you could possibly think of, we would compete hard. I, being the youngest, was always trying to live up to my older siblings and tried to beat them. So I think it’s just been ingrained in me this persistence, this people telling me I can’t and just trying to prove them wrong, from being the youngest and my natural competitive nature.

I also think a lot of that comes from my mom. My grandmother was a single mother and she basically worked 24 hours a day, minimum-wage just to pay the rent. They were so poor and literally had nothing. My mom had to be extremely self-sufficient. She had to get herself to school, get herself ready, do everything by herself. When she was a teenager, she wanted to go to prom, but she didn’t have a prom dress, so she caught a bus to downtown Portland — which was 20 miles away — went window shopping, found a dress that she really liked, and then went and bought fabric and on her own learned how to make a dress so she could have a prom dress. It probably wasn’t the most amazing dress out there, but did it all on her own. In the end, she was student body officer and a cheerleader and super successful. She went to college and paid for it all on her own and is self-made and she just had this amazing story that’s kind of embedded into us and who we are. So, a combination of those two things — being the youngest boy and competitive, and my mom’s example.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 strategies that people can use to harness the sense of tenacity and do what naysayers think is impossible? (Please share a story or an example for each)

1. Do you homework, study it out. These aren’t just fly-by-night ideas. When I jump into anything, any new thing that people are going to say it’s not going to work, I spend a ton of time doing research and figuring out who the players are and what’s not working and what is.

I shared a little bit about the process of changing our business model above, but what I didn’t share was the extreme pressure we were under. While our revenues were increasing, they hadn’t caught up with expenses yet, and we eventually realized our business model wasn’t scalable. Two weeks before Christmas, we had no cash in the bank and no way to make payroll, we had a choice to make: continue down this path, knowing it was a dead end, or re-invent the business and start over. We had plenty of naysayers in both directions, so we had to rely on our research. We saw more risk, but also more potential for growth by reinventing our business model, so it seemed like the better choice.

2. Once you’ve done your homework, you need to trust your gut. If you believe you’ve done all that data and research and you think there’s an opportunity over there, you’ve got to trust it and you’ve got to go with it.

Continuing with the example above, although the data told us that we could scale our business by changing our business model, we still had to trust our own guts. Our new plan would require buy-in from a team we couldn’t pay. There was no guarantee of success, and as I mentioned, legions of people telling us it wouldn’t work. We talked to our team, and in the end they all agreed to stick with us. Right after Christmas, we shut down FundingUniverse — going from $10 million in revenue to zero overnight, and launched Lendio.

3. Focus on customers and product-market fit. Revenue cures all ills and the best way to validate and overcome naysayers is to say, will this customer buy it? Will they use it? Will they pay me for it? Figuring out how to focus on customers and product-market fit is central to success.

4. Be persistent. You’re going to experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and you’ve got to just enjoy the journey and put one step in front of the other to fight to live another day. Just insert all of the clichés here, but that is who I am and what I know. I don’t think entrepreneurs are these amazing people, they just keep fighting every single day and keep going.

5. Learn from your mistakes and celebrate your wins. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Laugh when you make mistakes, fail fast, and when you fail, learn from it. Don’t beat yourself up, just do it again and again. Celebrate the high-five moments, and then you make progress, recognize that and celebrate that, but don’t get too high either.

What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?

I love that quote, there’s a quote out there and I don’t even remember who said it that says, ‘There’s the boxing ring. Those who are the critics are on the outside of the boxing ring and saying that you can’t do it. Then there are those who are actually inside of the ring that are doing it and don’t listen to the people outside the ring, just get in and go for it.’

It could also be “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I don’t know exactly how to articulate this, but I really believe in paying it forward. At Christmas, we gave each of our team members two $100 bills — one to have an experience with loved ones, and another $100 to go find someone in need that needs it more than you do. Then we asked them to come back and share those experiences. The experiences that have been written from that have been so awesome. And we do this Kiva thing where employees volunteer a portion of their salaries to donate to small business owners in struggling countries. We ask, can you sacrifice one lunch a month and give that to someone that needs that in a third-world country? We’ve seen $100 change lives and enable people to get a business off the ground and provide an income for their families. But it’s so small for us to give that. I just really believe in getting outside of ourselves. When you focus on people and on doing good for them, I believe one — you’ll be happier, and two — it comes back.

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