An Interview with Adam Stettner, CEO of Reliant Funding
In celebration of Small Business Week, Reliant Funding will be providing a look behind the curtain showing the journey from idea to becoming an award-winning company. Reliant has been featured on the INC 5000 list for the past 6 consecutive years. In our first entry, we’ll be speaking with our CEO Adam Stettner, about the early years at Reliant to uncover what challenges were faced and how they were overcome.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how Reliant got started?
A: Our path was a little unique as I’d been in the lending business working with student loans. I was familiar with lending but when the financial crisis hit in 2008, everything changed. I’d been lending over 4 billion dollars per year, and suddenly found out my business was “unbankable”.
Q: How was that?
A: It was not orderly, it was chaos. I think about how we were trying to reach funding 1 million dollars and now were funding 5 billion. We started because during a financial crisis I went from being highly bankable to not being able to get funds from my bank. I thought if I had a great portfolio and was struggling to get funding from my bank, how were other small businesses surviving? This was in a time where no one knew this financial crisis was coming. Before 2008 you could go out to dinner and your waitress would have 5 rental properties. Now we are in a good economic place as a nation and people are still having trouble getting money. 70+% of businesses who apply for funding are being turned away.
Q: What were you thinking about daily through the start-up process of Reliant Funding?
A: There will always be problems. I was and am worried about things like where the money goes, am I focusing on the right things, where is the money going to come from. Capital really is the runway for any business. Running a business requires you to have a good idea, execute it well and have money. Further, whatever amount of money you think you need, you will need more of it. Not just in business either, with anything in life. I have accepted that my budget is always wrong, it is still so important to have a budget and manage your finances, but life is just expensive, and it is the way it is.
Q: So, money had a big piece of real estate in your head as a small business owner?
A: Completely. Not just money but I felt accountable to the people I borrowed money from. I felt accountable to not only friends and family who invested but also accountable to feed my family. I felt accountable to my employees and their family too. Everyone is counting on you as the leader of the company to make sure the company succeeds.
Q: Did you ever feel like “man this is or isn’t really going to work”?
A: If I didn’t think this business could work, I wouldn’t have started it but there were moments where, as problems came up, I thought “we might figure this out” and there were other parts of the day where I thought “we’re doomed”. I want our customers to know that we understand that feeling. As a business owner, there is always more we can do, always more I can do. The problem is that it is hard to run a business.
It is hard to step outside yourself to evaluate if you are putting effort and money into the right areas, the right marketing, the right people and it is hard to execute an idea or implement feedback.
Q: So what can a Small Business Owner do to improve this?
A: Well you can identify 1-3 things you can try with little risk, you should always be assessing the risk of any idea. I have really learned over the years and by 2011 realized that if you stop and listen, the business will tell you what it needs. I am a servant to my business and again, realized that maybe I don’t know everything, so I stopped to listen and further realized that there are a lot of things I didn’t know. You learn what works and what doesn’t and if something works, do more of that and if something doesn’t work, do less of that. It is intuitive but if, as a leader, you are assuming you know what your business needs you will miss a lot of opportunity. Chances are, you don’t know best, I certainly don’t.
Q: So where does positive feedback and self-reflection come into play?
A: It is good to encourage yourself, but you have to also be honest with yourself. The people around you who truly care about you won’t be honest with what they think about your decisions most of the time because they do care about you. You have to ride the link not to be too critical and accept that there will be problems but not be too nice to yourself and be willing to accept critique.
Q: So what does that process look like for you?
A: WRITE THINGS DOWN. You would be so surprised at what a small amount of people don’t write things down. I started doing this and many people stop doing this over time. Don’t. You must get out of your own way and choose to do things for yourself and your business. Instead of going out with buddies, staying home and writing things down helps you understand what you are trying to achieve and why. Do you have the right people in the right jobs? I try to come at this process as a consultant, the key is to let go of the ego and the pride, evaluate the business, create a plan and follow it. Like I said, running a business is hard and it doesn’t necessarily get easier. I have learned to embrace and love that. You have to have a different outlook and face your adversity instead of ignoring it.
Q: What about Reliant Funding’s start and now its direction moving forward, can you speak to that?
A: The whole point of this business was that small businesses deserve to be treated with respect, not have their time wasted and they deserve to have the capital they need to grow. Banks don’t really care what your day is like, they want your FICO and your tax returns and if you fit into their box, you are approved. We are here to serve the underbanked. I am not trying to bash banks here. I think banks provide a great service, but a large population of small business owners are underbanked. We can’t even say yes to everyone, but we want to provide funds small businesses need with the service they deserve.
Q: Is there anything else you recollect from the early years or any piece of advice you have for small business leaders?
A: Ask yourself, are you still pointed true north? Is it good if you are or aren’t? What defines people is not that they face adversity or not because there will always be problems. It is how they deal with adversity in life that determines success. What is the strategy, how are you going to execute it, follow that plan, evaluate that plan over time, is it working and readjust anything that you need to.