“Surround Yourself With People Brave Enough to Challenge You” with Levi King

I had the pleasure of interviewing Levi King, co-founder and CEO of Nav. As a lifelong entrepreneur, Levi is passionately devoted to educating and assisting small business owners as they navigate the labyrinth of business credit and financing. His company provides free personal and business credit scores along with a host of other awesome services for small business owners.

Jean: Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share your story about how you became a startup founder?

By failing at everything else. It wasn’t that I sucked as a student — I got good grades — it was more that school never really seemed to have anything to offer to personalities like mine. I suspect that’s the case with a lot of entrepreneurs; they feel ambitious and restless to do something great, be their own boss, and meaningfully contribute to the world, but traditional structures can’t hold them and they eventually strike out on their own.

I owned several businesses before I started Nav. My first, which dealt with sign repair and manufacturing, taught me two lessons that each subsequent venture only drilled in deeper. The first was that affordable financing is the lifeblood of entrepreneurship. The second was that strong credit scores are the key to affordable financing. The idea of Nav was born from these lessons. My partner and I asked ourselves, “What resources do we wish had been available when we started out?” and then combined them all into one place.

Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Nav’s ultimate goal is to become the ultimate resource for small businesses everywhere. It’s easy to take small business owners for granted. It’s easy to forget how much they contribute to the economy, the sheer number of jobs they provide for our friends and neighbors.

Nav was the first company to provide customers with both personal and business credit scores free of charge. We offer state-of-the-art tools like MatchFactor, which allows you to see your approval odds for dozens of popular loans and business credit cards, and apply right then and there. Nav focuses solely on the needs of today’s small business owner. It’s a mission, a passion, a calling. I’m amazed by the zeal and dedication of my team.

In April I had the opportunity to attend a hearing conducted by the California Senate Banking and Institutions Committee. I was there to testify on behalf of a bill called SB-1235, which requires small business lenders to be more transparent about the cost of their products. Nav was one of the few small business advocates to step forward in support of this bill, and we were proud and humbled to participate. It passed the assembly committee 9–0 with two abstentions, and now we’re waiting for a vote from the senate as a whole. No matter what happens, it was an awesome moment, and it’s even more awesome to see politicians acknowledging the struggles of a universally important constituency in such a bipartisan fashion.

Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?

We’re preparing for the launch of our first integrated user experience with a large public company. The challenge is that it’s a company many, many times our size, and it’s tough to be a small company and get meaningful partnerships launched with giants. Since it’s our first integration like this, we had to invent things we’d never done before, build new technology and products from scratch, which challenged us intellectually and creatively as a team. On the other hand, we’ve been given the opportunity to have a positive impact on hundreds of thousands or even millions of small businesses much faster than we could if we were adding them one by one all on our lonesome.

Jean: What do you think makes a startup successful?

The idealistic answer is a super tight-knit team of committed individuals who are working toward something great for a higher cause. What you won’t hear as often is the massive role that luck occasionally plays. It’s possible to have a mediocre team executing in mediocre fashion that happens to be in the right place at the right time and boom — success. This is a false-positive — the boneheads who get a break. The basic answer to your question is simply to work your ass off, charge through walls, do whatever it takes.

Jean: What is one piece of advice you would give a new and upcoming startup?

It’s going to be way harder, take way longer, and make way less money than in the timeframe you assume at the outset. Even if everything happens in your favor, even if it happens faster than you expect and the money comes rolling in, a shocking amount of difficulty is a guarantee. There’s a ton of unpredictable crises out there; the one thing you can be sure of is that eventually you’ll be on intimate terms with most of them. Prepare to suffer, or you won’t survive.

Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham. This is one of the most influential books I’ve ever read, not just for business, but for how I approach my marriage, career, and friendships. After learning I was a terrible leader (see below), I struggled for several years to become well-rounded and turn my weaknesses into strengths. This book liberated me from that struggle by helping me understand the brain science behind what makes people excel at some things and stink at others. It gave me peace with achieving permanent okay-ness with certain skills while excelling at what I’m wired for. It taught me to be transparent about my shortcomings and ask for forgiveness when necessary, and thus to blossom as a colleague, father, and friend.

Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Startup Founder” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Trust your partner. In terms of relationships, the significance of a business partner is right up there with the significance of a spouse. You’ve got to get along. You’ve got to share the same values. Your visions must be aligned to an extraordinary degree if you’re to have any hope of your venture succeeding. I trust my business partner, Caton Hanson, to make decisions with millions of dollars on the line because we meet the above criteria and then some. It’s not easy to gain that level of mutual respect and confidence, but it’s a crucial component of any startup.
  2. Surround yourself with people brave enough to challenge you. There’s nothing worse than being surrounded by a bunch of yes-men, all faithfully nodding, all doggedly supporting whatever view you put forward or position you espouse, without any thought as to whether it’s dumb or brilliant or something between. Accept criticism. Embrace feedback. I learned my lesson about this when one of my companies took part in a 360 review. I assumed that my communication skills were top notch, only to learn that the majority of my employees believed just the opposite. It was humiliating, but it taught me how to open my ears to unflattering opinions.
  3. Build a diverse team. A diverse team is a dynamic team, an exciting team. Hire from all walks of life. Hire regardless of age, race, sexual orientation or politics. Commonalities should include love for your customers and product, and devotion to your values and vision. Join hands on these issues and everything else will either fade into the background as meaningless or spring to the foreground as dynamism in action. If you want to speak to the world, look like the world.
  4. Constantly educate yourself. A startup will keep you busy. Often, it’ll devour your mornings, afternoons, and nights. In spite of this barrage of responsibilities, you must make time to widen your knowledge of your vocation and deepen your insight into how your fellow human beings tick. Don’t let a moment go to waste. Read books while standing in line at the grocery store, listen to podcasts during drives, devour articles about your industry instead of sleeping on the plane. I’ve had plenty of aha moments in humdrum places thanks to building this habit.
  5. Be sure to play and relax. This one might be the hardest to follow, but you’ll lose your mind if you don’t. Purposeful play will keep you young, fit, and energized. Stay connected to your family and friends. You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s helpful to ponder what’ll matter most to you when you’re on your deathbed. Your career will have a prominent place, but so will many other things. Think of those as sacred, and treat them accordingly.

Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Business has been my life, so the idea of meeting a celebrity outside of it is not very interesting to me. Within that category, I’d have to choose Jeff Bezos. He’s transformed more than one industry and has a global focus. When that didn’t prove challenging enough, he set his sights on space. To me, he’s the ultimate entrepreneur, the archetype. I consider him a kindred spirit, but on a much loftier scale.

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Jean: This was really inspiring! Thank you so much for your time.

— Published on August 13, 2018