Scaling at the right pace. Sometimes, start-ups try to scale up too quickly and end up failing because they aren’t able to support as many people as they have. It’s important to find the right balance to fit what you need.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Reid Rubenstein of RefiJet.
With 30 years of experience in automobile sales and finance sectors, Reid Rubenstein has created and leads financial departments, finance companies, and other programs that support auto finance. As one of the founders and managing partners of RefiJet, he has been responsible for designing and managing the operations and systems that support the company’s services, as well as lender and vendor relationships.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started out and spent a long time in the car dealership arena. After being involved in practically every aspect of running dealerships, I took a five-year stint and became an executive at a sub-prime finance company here in Denver with some friends that created that start-up. When I got out of the industry in 2008, like most people did, I realized that the auto loan refinance business model had a lot of potential and started playing with it. I was playing with the numbers and before I knew it, I fell in love with it and had written an entire business plan. It’s everything I love about the car business without the things I don’t like, such as the inventory.
I designed a company that handles leads from people who want to refinance their car. I didn’t want to put ads in front of people or cold call. I wanted to stay in the car business while helping people, and that’s what led us here.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I’m not sure I had one “Aha Moment” because this all came from several conversations I had with other business owners who had approached me with various ideas. That’s when I started playing with the model to find something that fit best.
I know my co-founder, David Sunshine, always says he had one when reading the business plan on an airplane when it all clicked for him and he became extremely excited about what we could build together.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
My father is one, certainly. I kind of modeled my career after his, wanting to be a car dealer. Unrelated to this business, Greg Goebel is also somebody who inspired me to be a better car man and a better businessman. He was a huge influence for me.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our people and our culture. That’s absolutely the one thing we have that’s head and shoulders above our competitors, how excited our people are to be here. We have the highest employee retention rate and satisfaction among our competitors. To be honest, that was a challenge early on. There was so much turnover, and we’d have to bring new people in all the time, but we’ve really built a great culture and have almost none now.
I credit my partner David with building that because he really emphasized culture from the start. Now we have employees thanking us regularly for various things. I love that it’s grown to be a place where the people love to come to work and love what they do.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Our company just participated in a big charity event and almost every employee here participated. Some even brought their families into it. We ended up packaging enough soup to feed 1,000 families for a month. We’re planning to donate a handicap accessible vehicle through employee donations and commission matching. We try to do something like that at least a few times a year, and our management team started a Culture Club to coordinate those community efforts.
I just think our business model, in general, is based on helping people in a tough spot improve their lives and their situation. I’m not trying to say we’re a charity. We’re a business and we do make money, but everybody that works here really does feel value in helping people do that.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
First, work ethic. By nature, I’m a very busy person and work very hard to be responsive and available.
Second, reliability. People who work for you need to be able to trust you, and that’s something I hope our employees feel with the executive team here at RefiJet.
Third, being able to visualize things and give perspective on how to make it work. That really fits well with my other partners David and Mark, who can truly make sure we execute the overview that I have.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Back in 2008, during the financial crisis, I was told by my peers to “stay the course because this is going away.” It turned out to be terrible advice. “Be nimble and make quick pivots to adjust to the new realities of doing business during the banking collapse of 2008” would have been far better advice. Staying the course would have been disastrous.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
It was very hard when we started. We started with one lender, and one lead source. It was actually a high school friend of one of my sons. I remember when we finally broke the 100-loan milestone, it was such a big deal for us. The biggest struggle for us was just building credibility, getting lenders to talk with us or even recognize our business model. The first three years were just tough finding the right partners and platforms because it’s a complex space. But now there’s so much attention on our industry, and lenders are actually chasing us.
Second biggest challenge was technology. There isn’t a technology for this business model that you could pull out of a box. Everyone has to build it up to fit your own model and piece it together and find what works best.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
Keeping confidence in the concept. It was just because the business model proved it could withstand just about anything. We were able to monetize the model even from those first 100 loans, you could see the potential. It was hard, and really just came down to me, Mark, and David telling ourselves it was going to work out.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
You can’t do it. You can’t ride the highs and lows. You have to be consistent, without wearing it all on your sleeve. You have to be steady and take the lows in stride and the highs in stride. Like a sports team, you can absolutely celebrate wins, but you have to be ready to attack the next game.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
I really think it depends on the business model. Bootstrapping worked for us. My partners and I recently had this conversation, actually. There are about half a dozen businesses in our industry who do the volume we do, and we’re the only one who didn’t fundraise with private equity. I think it’s important to ask yourself how you want to run your company. That doesn’t mean we might not down the road, but we like the independence right now and being able to run the company our way. Founders should just keep those factors in mind.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
I mentioned earlier how important it was for us to build the right team. It’s not instantaneous, as we experienced a little, but you have to keep your core values in mind as you grow and add to your business.
2. Scaling at the right pace.
Sometimes, start-ups try to scale up too quickly and end up failing because they aren’t able to support as many people as they have. It’s important to find the right balance to fit what you need.
3. Wear several hats but know when to delegate.
The start-up phase is one that will require you to have your hands in so many parts of the business. It’s necessary to have that ability and willingness, but you should also know when it’s time to hire. Some of my mentors have told me, “a good CEO doesn’t know everything, but he knows what he doesn’t know.” I think it speaks volumes when you recognize it’s time to bring in someone who has real expertise to take that area of the business to another level.
4. Stick to your business plan and believe in your concept.
It’s important to have a clear vision of what your business is and knowing your core objective. A lot of start-ups see a bright, shiny object and want to fit themselves into a different space. That can often lead to those businesses losing their overall purpose.
5. But at the same time… stay nimble.
This may sound like it conflicts with the last idea, but there’s a difference between running after shiny objects and finding better ways to meet your core objective. Circumstances change, just like we all saw in the past year. It’s important to preserve your main purpose while being flexible about the way you execute that vision.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
It’s a combination of some of those five things. Trying to get too big too quickly is certainly one. Everybody wants overnight success, but it might not be healthy for the long-term success of the business. Also, failing to balance the hiring process well can really hurt. If you bring in the wrong people or fail to relinquish certain responsibilities, you could be missing real opportunities.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
I’m really bad at it. I do try to get away from work. I’ve taken up golf again and try to play a few times a week. You have to plan time for yourself. And I really try to spend a lot of time with family. It’s great to work incredibly hard when you’re at work but there should be times when you put yourself and family at the forefront.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
That’s a great question because I believe in a lot of different causes. One thing I wish I could do is to provide education for all. Education helps turn dreams into reality. Well-educated people are more confident and typically have a more secure and promising life. Education plays a vital role as we strive for equality, as it opens up an array of opportunities for disadvantaged and vulnerable groups so that they can have an equal shot at high paying jobs and fulfilling careers. I’m a firm believer that society as whole is greatly impacted by education and is crucial for the economic prosperity of a nation.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
There are so many, but I’d probably say Jeff Bezos if I have to pick someone. I’m just very interested in people who have accomplished so much in such a short amount of time. He started with an idea of selling books online, and it’s ridiculous to think of what it’s become, especially in the last several years. It’s not even about accumulating wealth, but I’m curious to know how he’s built out such broad-ranging accomplishments in his business.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can always find us at RefiJet.com, where we regularly update our blog and news about our business. I also offer my thoughts on the auto refinance industry, or just business in general, in various publications such as yours, Forbes, and others.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!