Levi King – Co-Founder & CEO, Nav

Levi King is the co-founder and CEO for Nav, a venture-backed fintech company that helps business owners manage their financial data to get more funding, lower their costs, and save time. It provides free access to credit reports and scores specifically for small business owners, including both business and personal credit reports, cash-flow analysis, tools to help build business credit, and a marketplace with more than 100 financing products, including credit cards. Its marketplace uses a lender-neutral algorithm to help business owners find the best financing options for their needs before they apply.

How did the concept for Nav come about?
The seeds of Nav were planted the first time I got rejected for a business loan, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was 22 and had just started my first business repairing and manufacturing commercial signs. I’d been taught my whole life that it was better to pay cash than go into debt, so I’d never had a credit card or taken out a loan for a car or school or anything like that. I was a ghost to the credit bureaus in consequence, which meant that finding financing for my new business was a royal pain in the neck.

I went on to start and sell four more businesses, and got 30 different types of commercial loans—equipment loans, SBA loans, etc.—in the process, but the world of business financing and credit was extremely complicated and difficult to grasp. There were no tools or educational resources to make the experience any easier; I learned as I went, and there were lots of frustrating failures along the way.

I attempted to address this by founding a company called Lendio, which is a business loan broker/marketplace. The concept was that since business owners don’t understand their finance and credit data, they don’t qualify for the financing they want, and have to accept expensive alternative options instead. We’d try to guide them to the best option, but I had a hard time staying passionate about it because it was basically putting a Band-Aid on the problem versus helping them actually change the outcome. If we wanted to help a business owner solve the problem of why they were getting rejected, for example, we had to refer them to each of the credit bureaus independently. It cost them a bunch of money to just get access to their data, much less make sense of it. It was a mess.

My now-business partner Caton Hanson and I began asking ourselves why there wasn’t a Credit Karma for small business owners. We decided to build a place where small business owners could go for free and be taught to understand, improve, and take advantage of their credit data throughout the life of their business. I left Lendio to start Nav and haven’t looked back since.

How was the first year in business?
The first year was hell. We couldn’t sign up a customer for the first six months because we were writing code and meeting our security compliance requirements. We then went live with a very minimum viable product, but nothing worked right. Customers who signed up for it weren’t happy with the price or service, we refunded anyone who complained, our merchant processor ended up shutting us off, and it was just a horrible experience, overall.

We faced personal challenges as well. One of Caton’s kids got sick and ended up in the ICU, where he nearly died; my wife and and I, who already had four daughters, were blessed with a surprise set of twins; our plates were piled high. About a year in, however, we raised some money and were able to hire more people and things started to ease up.

What was your marketing strategy?
The marketing strategy the first year was simple. We acquired new customers by partnering with commercial lenders who were turning down business owners while not having anywhere to point them to help them get in a better spot. A few of these lenders sent us enough customers that we were able to gain some traction, and we were finally able to show that we had a valid business model. We really started improving after that.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Pretty damn fast. In the first year, we went from zero to 100,000 customers; we also went from zero to more than 40 employees in three years.

How do you define success?
Whether it’s in my personal life, my work life, or my relationship with customers, I’m successful if I’m enriching the lives of others. I base this on the fact that sometimes it’s hard for people just to get up in the morning. Why would I want to add to their difficulties? It’s much more satisfying to help them lighten the load.

There’s too much unhappiness as it is. Life throws you curveball after curveball; you can get to the point where you wonder if you can even swing the bat anymore, much less connect with the ball. It’s the human condition in a nutshell—you’re all alone at home plate, you feel like the whole world’s watching, and that psychological pressure combined with overall exhaustion feels like it’s killing you. What you need at that moment is a friend; even the smallest gesture can inspire you to square up and face the next pitch. I’m successful if I can be that friend.

What is the key to success?
The key to my definition of success at least is to genuinely care about people. This leads to success in a whole bunch of arenas, because if you really care about someone, they’re able to tell. We’re all children at that basic, fundamental level of instinctively getting whether a person is concerned with our welfare or not. And when we do get that vibe of concern, our reaction is to reciprocate. Loving a person begets love in return.

I don’t mean this in some kind of hippy-dippy way—it’s one thing to say you care about everyone, and another thing to actually care. It takes work. You have to remind yourself constantly of the brevity of your stay on this planet and of the struggles of people around you. It gets much easier if you remind yourself of your own struggles and then go from there, from a place of empathy. Once you have it, and develop the habit of maintaining it, it becomes a well of inspiration that you can draw from in all sorts of difficult situations.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Early on in my career, I participated in a 360 review that involved my whole company at the time. A 360 review is a kind of survey where people can anonymously rate you in every area of your professional life—are you a good leader, communicator, organizer, strategist? I went into it thinking I was going to get all this positive feedback, especially as regarded my communication skills, and I got a slew of one-star reviews instead.

It was shocking. I saw myself one way, and had for a long, long time, and suddenly my peers were holding up a mirror that reflected a completely different and not very attractive rebuttal. It took me a while to come to grips with it, but when I did, I was in possession of a profound truth.

No two people think alike. It’s one thing to understand this as a cliche, and another to really know it in your brain and heart. It’s made me a lot more open-minded and tolerant. It’s made me a lot more appreciative of other people’s values and skills. You’re see things one way, I see them another. Even when we’re sympatico, there’s always a slight difference in the way we perceive reality. My view of you isn’t totally correct, but it’s not totally incorrect, either, and the same applies to your view of me.

If we want to understand one another, we have to A) seek to comprehend how other people see us, B) change the negative stuff we weren’t aware of, and C) still be comfortable with our basic selves even if we can’t accommodate everyone perfectly. I have to absorb all information and perspectives, but in the end accept that even though my perspective is true for me and your perspective is true for you, we can still find enough commonalities to move forward.

What are some quotes that you live by?
These are more mantras than quotations, but something I say all the time is that we have to be authentic to the point of consistent vulnerability. We have to be ourselves, in other words, in order for other people to feel safe enough to be themselves. They’ll start to feel safe when they see that we don’t have any walls up. My goofy foibles and idiosyncrasies are a part of who I am, and it’s damn hard to suppress them without suppressing adjacent qualities that you might find more attractive. Please just accept the whole package, and I’ll return the favor.

Another thing I like to say is that creativity is the ability design order from chaos. To do this you first have to see the order in the chaos, which requires serious looking. Once you see it, you systematically remove everything that’s superfluous to the basic pattern, which requires serious patience and labor. In the end, though, you can hold up this product that’s a marvel of simplicity, yet began as the furthest thing from. There’s nothing more satisfying.

What are some of your favorite books?
Among my favorite books is First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham. This book impacted far more my business philosophy—it changed how I approach my marriage, career, and friendships. It helped me understand the brain science behind what makes people good at some things and suck at others. It gave me peace with permanently accepting okay-ness at what I’m not wired for, while supercharging me to excel at what I am wired for.

Another is Influence by Robert Cialdini, which introduced me to a basic understanding of brain science through the lens of influence and persuasion. It helped me develop my own mental framework around using positive influence in business and life versus blunt psychological coercion. It’s also a highly entertaining read, sending me down a deep path of interest regarding how and why we make decisions and behave in general as human beings.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
When I had my sign company, there was this rent-to-own furniture store that requested a massive awning/sign combination for the day of their grand opening. It was a big contract—an opportunity to put myself on the map in this Idaho town where I was the new kid on the block vying for a foothold against plenty of grizzled, experienced competitors.

We were running late because we’d faced problem after problem with the project. The grand opening was the next day; we finally finished, and I went and sat at my desk in my office while my employees loaded the sign onto a trailer. Once they were done with that, they got into the truck and pulled the trailer around the building to where they’d exit to job sites. My window directly faced this exit.

The furniture store was just two blocks away from us. Two blocks, and all would be well. I watched the sign come into view with a tremendous feeling of relief and accomplishment. Again, it was really massive—probably 12 feet tall and 30 feet long. And as my guys creep out onto the road, driving as carefully as they can, a gust of wind comes along, tears the lags fastening the sign to the trailer completely out, and lifts the sign into the air like a kite.

Everything’s in slow motion at this point. I watch as the sign flies through the air, slams face-down onto the asphalt, and goes skidding off across the street into a parking lot. I stand up and the first thing I think is that I’m having a heart attack. (I recently found out I have a bicuspid aortic valve, so maybe I was.) The next thing I think is thank God it didn’t hit any cars. But it was still the worst moment of my young life—going from an extreme high to an extreme low so precipitously—and for a second I’m absolutely paralyzed.

There’s a happy ending to the story, however. My guys and I raced over to the sign and got it back to the shop and worked like fiends all night and delivered it, shiny and restored, to the furniture store in the nick of time. As a result, I developed the outlook that you can overcome almost any setback if you have a loyal, efficient team and a willingness to work yourself to the bone if necessary.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I wrote an article about this in which I confessed that one of the main emotions driving me forward is fear. Fear of failure, poverty, letting everyone down. Fear of not having the money to send my girls to good schools; fear of going in front of my employees—people whom I admire and respect—to tell them that the show’s over and they’ll have to look elsewhere for work.

It was important for me to come to grips with this. For most of our lives, we’re taught that fear is a weakness—almost a contagion. If we confess it, that reasoning goes, we’ll spread it to others, demoralizing them along with ourselves so that everyone ends up miserable.

I don’t believe this anymore. Fear is an extremely-motivating force. By accepting and admitting it, we endear ourselves to others, because they feel it, too. And once it’s held up to the light, fear isn’t so frightening. I realized it stems from a place of love, because my fears are centered around not being able to protect people I care deeply about. I flipped it around—”I fear that I won’t be able to pay my employees” became “I have an overwhelming desire to help my employees feel fulfilled and secure.” Then fear became a launching pad instead of a crash site.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
As an entrepreneur, you go into business to solve a problem. You see something that no one else can, a need waiting to be filled that other people either haven’t noticed or can’t fill themselves.

This problem should be your number one concern, the place you pour all of your energy. Don’t waste a drop of energy innovating on anything related to business systems, operations, payroll, how accounts receivable/payable work, etc. On these matters, follow the advice of wise people who came before you. They already figured it out. Payroll works a certain way, for example. In your business, if you’re solving for any other type of problem other than payroll, follow that way and don’t tinker with it.

You can’t afford to try to innovate anywhere else in your business except on that core idea or objective that you think you can improve for others.