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In this episode I talk with Guidant Financial CEO David Nilssen. We discuss his entrepreneurial journey and an important moment in time when he knew he had to pivot to a new business.
Matt: Thank you everyone for joining us on this polar vortex edition of Sales Pipeline Radio. If you’re joining us live, I hope you are inside. I hope you’re staying warm. As we record this it is the last day of January. I can’t believe tomorrow’s February already. But for those of you grinding it out, hitting your number, or trying to hit your number and start the year off strong for January, thanks for joining us alive in the middle of your workday on the Funnel Media Radio Network. For those of you who listen to the podcast, hope you had a great January and excited to have you join us. I think we have just now as of this month, we have passed the 50,000 subscriber milestone for Sales Pipeline Radio which is phenomenal and humbling, and very, very cool. So thank you everyone for joining us. And every episode of Sales Pipeline Radio past, present, and future always available at salespipelineradio.com. We are featuring some of the best and brightest minds in sales and marketing and today is no different. We are continuing EO month, apparently. We had an Entrepreneur Organization member and the founder of 1-800-Got-Junk last week. And today we have the co-founder, CEO of Guidant Financial, David Nilssen joining us today. Dave, thanks so much for joining us on Sales Pipeline Radio.
David: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Matt: So, excited to have you on the show. Have wanted to get you on for a while to talk about a number of topics. And last week we talked an awful lot about entrepreneurism, and talked about just sort of the tenacity it takes to just be a professional, but also be an entrepreneur. You have been doing this for a very long time. You’ve written your own book, Making the Jump Into Small Business Ownership, which I would encourage people to check out. But really want to spend tonight, want to get into a conversation here with Dave Nilssen from Guidant Financial. They’ve been around for almost 16 years helping small businesses grow with financing options. And Dave, want to talk a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey, before we get into sort of how you have built a sales and marketing engine. What was it about this topic that was a passion for you? And just give a quick story of sort of where you started and how you’ve gotten to this point today.
David: Sure. Well, mine, like many entrepreneurs was accidental. So I was developing real estate here in Washington state and had an opportunity to raise some additional funds. And as I was talking to an attorney one day, she suggested that I look at self-directed IRA’s or retirement plans as a way to help people invest in real estate. And through a process of exploration and discovery realized that not only can people invest retirement assets in real estate, but they can invest in things like small businesses, and private mortgages, and tax liens. And so, we actually initially launched Guidant to help people do that, invest in alternative assets. Over time though, what happened was my co-founder and I realized that we weren’t really as passionate about those alternative investments as we were the businesses themselves.
And so, in the course of sort of figuring out what our model was going to be and connecting with our customers, we realized that the real gap in the marketplace wasn’t helping individuals who are looking to buy or start a business, and needed between about 100K and a million dollars to do that, there was a real gap in terms of them being able to access capital. And so, in addition to helping them use retirement assets, we’ve built an SBA capability and unsecured credit. And so we’ve sort of evolved as we went from more traditional or alternative financial services to really a small business financing organization. But it was accidental. I actually have in my office here a piece of paper. They say people start businesses on the back of the napkin. I’ve got a drawing. And that was really our initial business plan from the get go.
Matt: That’s fantastic. One thing that stood out to me in that conversation is something I know a lot of people face, either in their businesses or in their career, and it’s the idea of a pivot, right? The idea that you see an opportunity and sometimes you move from what you were doing to something different. I think in hindsight those successful pivots always look like a slam dunk. In the moment, they’re not always a clear cut choice. Could you talk a little bit about that moment of making that pivot, and sort of what you had to go through just sort of mentally to do that. And I’m thinking about that not just for those that might be entrepreneurs, or are thinking about stepping out on their own, but people that are looking at their own even sales and marketing careers and facing an opportunity that isn’t certain, that it sometimes is scary.
David: Yeah. I always love how we talk about it as a moment of time. There’s this moment where you pivoted and everything changed. The reality is, when I talk about the fact that our business shifted, that was a five year process. So it’s something that you start to see, hey, this doesn’t really connect for me, and I’m wondering if this is the right path for us. And then over time what we saw is that we were investing more and more time and energy in the small business component of our operation. And less and less in the alternative asset. So you start to see these resource conflicts that came up within the business, those that were working on the real estate side were concerned that maybe they weren’t getting the time and attention. And so eventually we divested it. We sold that portion of the business to a company who wanted to continue to grow and expand in that area, and that was ultimately best for our customers best for our team members on that side.
And it would give the existing organization, the remaining organization a chance to focus in on who they really wanted to serve, and who we wanted to be long term. I’d like to say that it was a moment in time, but the reality is it was a long, painful decision because you’re talking about people, your clients, your employees. And as entrepreneurs you have this sort of emotional attachment to this thing that you’re building. So, not easy.
Matt: No, not easy at all. And I think we could probably spend the whole show talking on the concept of pivot as a process. Which I think is something that a lot of people that have been through that, both successfully and unsuccessfully can talk about. But I want to cover today, and we talked before, as we sort of talked about all the different topics we could cover in this conversation. I want to talk about the sales and marketing engine you have built. As a lot of people, you start the business, you start to figure out what are people looking for? What does our sales process look like? And as you’ve grown the business successfully over the last 16 years, you really have developed an engine for growth of the not only supporting your growth goals, but also you’re doing it without making cold calls. You’re doing it without having to do a lot of complicated, and sometimes just frustrating outbound selling efforts. So I wanted to talk a little bit about sort of how you came to that process, and how you’ve been able to sort of systematize and scale that.
David: Yeah. Well let me start by just talking philosophically. And no offense to those that are listening to this podcast, but in general I hate being sold. So, there’s a stigma in general with, and I’m using air quotes, you can’t see it, but with salespeople. Because I personally don’t like going through the process of trying to be sold. And so, when we designed our system initially, I was chief cook and bottle washer because when we started this thing, it was just two of us. And I was the one that was focused on sort of developing and generating our revenue engine. And so I had to build a system that allowed me to play to my strengths, but also felt like it was the right thing for our clients. Now, we were fortunate in that we started this business at a time that our industry was a little bit immature. There wasn’t a ton of competition. And so we had the benefit of having a lot of potential interest, and not a lot of competition for those individuals.
And so, the things that I tried to do was make sure that we were providing good information to the marketplace, that we were meeting people where they wanted to consume that information. So we’re providing in lots of different ways. And then making it easy for them to engage with us. And so that system was sort of built under the premise of making it simple for people to engage, and not having them feel sold. So, we are a financial firm, so we are helping people look at ways that they can capitalize the business. But we try to take a more of a care and empathy approach than a clinical one.
Matt: Yeah. I’ve heard a lot of people characterize that approach in different ways. And one of the ways I’ve heard that is, you’re not selling, you’re helping. I’m curious how you think about that moment when you do in some cases, even if you are providing value to someone, even if you’re sort of coming to a mutually beneficial agreement, even when you’re sort of enabling some outcome they care about, there still is part of that is the moment of getting a close, right? I mean, I assume you’re not just waiting for them to on their own volition, say yes. That even as we sit here on the last day of January, I’m sure you are staring at a dashboard and hoping to hit a certain number, and not just hoping and praying it happens, but also putting things in place to compel people to make a decision now versus next month, or now versus later. How do you bring those together? How do you provide a very customer centric benefit outcome oriented process, but still manage to close?
David: Yeah, that’s a good question. And it’s one that I think we struggled with for a long period of time. I can tell you what works for us, and that is taking a little bit longer perspective. So for example, a moment ago you made the comment about me staring at a dashboard. Well, we actually work off quarterly targets, and quarterly plans, versus monthly ones. Because I personally wasn’t a big fan of every single month us having these real big ebbs and flows in terms of our energy, and effort, and sales. And it just put extra stress on the team. And so, we built our sales engine to have a little bit longer perspective. In addition to that, we wanted to make sure that while we provide lots of potential services, that our compensation strategy doesn’t cater towards one of those products any more than the others. And so we wanted to make sure that people could be objective about what they are suggesting a client consider.
The other thing that I would say is that, the way that we generate our business is with a lot of sort of inbound marketing tactics. And a big part of that is our channel. Right now, about 50% of our business is either coming from customer referrals or channel referrals. That’s a big number. And so we have to take really good care of those customers, because word travels fast. So for us, we’ve tried to take that long view, make sure that our internal practices and plans certainly support that. And then make sure that we understand that we are serving a base where our reputation is going to either enable or disable our ability to grow.
Matt: Talking today on Sales Pipeline Radio with Dave Nilssen, he’s the co-founder and CEO of Guidant Financial. And real quick, before we have to take a quick commercial break here, we talked about the machine you guys have built from a sales and marketing standpoint. And one of the metrics you guys look at is appointment set. So not just so those inbound leads and inbound requests, but the number of appointments you get set to sort of move things along. Talk a little bit about how you characterize appointments to make sure that it’s not just a number that the sales team is hitting, but something that the prospect themselves is enthusiastically signing up for and committing to as well.
David: Yeah. So, I’ll try and do this really quickly. We can dig in after the break if we need to. But we generate a tremendous amount of leads on a monthly basis. And so we have to be very careful who we are spending our time with. And so we have a team of individuals who spend their time calling down on these people that have inquired about the stuff that we do. And try and extract a little bit of information to understand whether or not we are potentially a good fit. About half the time we realize we’re actually not a great fit. And so it’s both in our interest and this perspective small business owner’s interest to give them resources to help them continue their search, and maybe get where they want to go, but recognize that we’re probably not the right company to do that for them.
Those that do though qualify in, meaning that we think we could potentially be a good fit, then we set these appointments. And so the appointments then are more of a deep dive, where we’re really giving our gold, and educating the client on the ways that they capitalize their business. Because this is a very high stakes transaction for individuals, arguably the largest investment that they will make in their lifetime. And so it is not a sales process. It really is an educational one. So they’re excited there’s something to gain from it.
Matt: That’s awesome. I think that’s the only way you can do it and do it successfully is when, if you set an appointment with someone and that day comes, and they’ve got other fire drills and things that they’re supposed to be doing. If they don’t know why they’re setting up to that appointment, or what they’re going to get out of it, it’s a lot easier just to blow it off. But if they know they’re going to learn, they’re going to get some insights, they’re going to get some value, they remain committed to the process and the appointment. But we got a lot more coming up here with Dave Nilssen, the co-founder and CEO of Guidant Financial. We’re going to talk about the content strategy they’ve put together and how that’s been so successful in helping drive their inbound leads. We’re going to be talking about internal culture, and why that’s so important to building a successful sales and marketing engine, and why it’s been so important to Guidant. We’ll be right back after paying a couple bills here. This is Sales Pipeline Radio.
Matt: Next week on Sales Pipeline Radio, I will be joining you live from the heart of the vortex in Chicago. And I’ll be out there with a client’s marketing kickoff for the year. But Sales Pipeline Radio rolls on. We are going to be featuring next week, Alex Shootman. He is the CEO of Workfront. And has recently written and published a new book on not just hitting your number but doing it the right way. And I’ve known Alex for a very long time, from back in his time at Eloqua and he is one of my favorites in this topic of integrity, and doing business, and doing sales with integrity, and doing business the right way. So very excited next week to have Alex Shootman joining us on Sales Pipeline Radio. Want to continue our conversation today with Dave Nilssen, the co-founder and CEO of Guidant Financial.
And I want to get to some of your content in a minute. Because if anybody that’s listening that is an entrepreneur, or working in a small business, whether or not you’re looking for funding has an awful lot to learn from the content you create, and we’ll point some of that out in a minute. But I want to talk about culture. Because I think that topic we’re going to cover next week with Alex around hitting the number but doing it the right way, I know is a big focus of yours with your co-founder and partner winning best places to work. I know it is a huge source of pride for you. Talk a little bit about the importance of culture, and what you’ve done to build a culture that facilitates the sales success and growth that you’ve seen.
David: Yeah. Well, I mean, I say this to nearly every single new team member that we bring on. My personal belief is you spend more time at work than you do with your family, so you better enjoy what you do. Believe in what you’re providing to them. Enjoy the people that you work with. So we work really hard to foster a culture here that is passionate about the entrepreneurs that we serve, wants to invest in the community that we all sort of live and work in every single day, and ultimately make a difference in the lives of these people that are starting businesses, and creating jobs, and taking ownership over their own life. So it’s very important, because I would take personally someone that’s a great cultural fit over a great skills fit any day.
Matt: If you check out the Guidant Financial page, just even on LinkedIn, you see a lot of great examples of sort of the investment you’ve made in your people. The growth you put into, not just the growth of the company, but also in new markets. Just recently, I think it was just earlier this month, you guys launching a new office in Boise, Idaho. And really contributing to a number of different markets, and providing jobs and great cultures for a lot of people. What you also see on that LinkedIn page is a lot of the great content you have. You can just scroll down and you see topics on the top five startups of last year and what you can learn from them. You see the value of hiring with emotional intelligence. And there’s a wide variety of content, and I set this up somewhat facetiously, it is not about funding. It doesn’t go right for the throat and say, would you like to expand your business? Can we provide you funding?
You clearly have put a focus in your content strategy on providing a wide variety of value added content for your target. Can you talk a little bit about the strategy behind that? And how you’ve been able to successfully convert that into pipeline a new business.
David: Yeah. Well let me start with our content strategy, and sort of some of the core tenants behind that. I mean, if you look at the vision that we have, our vision is to increase the number of people that succeed in small business. It has nothing to do with helping them access capital, giving them money. That’s a catalyst to the reason they come to us. They come to us because they want to open a business. They want to take control over their lives, and their financial futures, and invest in themselves. That’s why they come to us. And so for us, the way that we serve them, and the way that we generate value per se in that is by helping them access capital. But where we can best serve them is by educating them, and helping them understand ways that they could be more successful as a business owner.
It’s also a way that we reach more of these perspective entrepreneurs and start to nurture them over time is by providing them great content. So just like you pointed out there, we want to make sure that we’re covering the gamut of issues that affect small business owners, not just the thing that is self-serving.
Matt: And that’s an intentional strategy, right? To be able to sort of build some value. And is part of that knowing that some of your prospects that are highly qualified as prospects just aren’t ready to buy today. Talk a little bit about sort of that top of funnel strategy and how it relates to the timing of when people may or may not be ready to engage in sort of an actual purchase decision, or at least purchase process.
David: Well, it’s funny. So we survey our customers, or sorry our prospects every single year. And we ask them the question, where are you at in your process? Blah, blah, blah. We do the same thing with our customers. And what we find from our customers is, the number one reason they bought a business because an opportunity presented itself. And that’s pretty interesting, because we generate thousands of leads per month. A significant number of them won’t move forward right away. And so what that means is that they’re thinking about this, they’re open to the idea, but they haven’t found the right opportunity. For us, we sort of played the mortgage professional role in a real estate transaction. So somebody could be looking online at Redfin or Zillow, they could be working with an agent, but they don’t actually need to really get a mortgage until they’ve found a transaction. Right? A deal to do. And so for us, as people are starting to think about this and dream about it, they start searching the web looking for information.
And so this is part of our acquisition strategy is to provide good, relevant, credible content to the market that helps move them towards a transaction over time. And of course, once we’ve had an opportunity to capture a little bit of the information, then we certainly do make sure that we continue to keep our information in front of them, so that when the time is right, our hope is that we’ve established a level of trust and credibility with them that they’ll want to engage.
Matt: Well, I just have a couple more minutes here with Dave Nilssen, the co-founder and CEO of Guidant Financial. We’ve been talking about the key components of building a scalable sales engine. And part of that is the people themselves. Not just the culture you provide for the organization overall, but the very people you hire to begin with. Can you talk a little bit about, what are some of the attributes that you look for in a successful sales rep as you continue to scale your inside sales team? You may be looking for experience, but what are the components or attributes of new sales reps that you’ve seen that most lead to success in your organization?
David: Yeah. So when I’m doing interviews with our sales professionals, there’s really, I don’t know, four to five attributes that I’m on personally looking to assess. Certainly I want to understand, do they have some experience? Have they seen success in the past doing this? But the things that I really care about is, are they a learner? What are they doing to stay sharp on sort of modern practices? How are they continuing to stretch and grow themselves? The second is, I actually tried to find a way inside of that to role play so that we can actually do some live coaching, because coachability, in my opinion, is one of the greatest keys to success for someone who’s going to take on a sales career. And then, knowing that Guidant is a dynamic and evolving organization, one of our core values is adaptability. We need people who are willing to sort of roll with the changes, and adapt as we try, and fail, and succeed in various ways.
And then the fourth is a level of humility. Understanding who they are, and where they’re strong, and where they need support, or where they can get better. And the final one is just a passion for entrepreneurship. I mean, no matter where you work, as good as the culture can be, as fun as it is, sometimes it actually does feel like a job. And so, you’ve still got to be passionate about the role that you play and the customer that you serve. So those are the things that I look for when I’m talking to potentially a hiring someone in a sales capacity.
Matt: That’s a great list. And I think oftentimes, especially when people look for sales reps, we look at their past experience, we want to see that they’ve been successful selling somewhere else. And as for those that have built and run sales organizations, you learn the hard way that just past experience does not mean they’re necessarily going be successful in your industry, in your culture, in a different environment. So I think those attributes oftentimes are better indicators of whether someone’s going to be successful, and scale and grow in your business. Well, almost out of time here. But I want to ask you one final question. I think you mentioned one of the attributes you look for in new hires is you look for people that are hungry, and people that are lifelong learners. Yourself as a learner, and I know just knowing you the last few years through EO, you continue to be a voracious learner.
You read, and you always want to learn new things. Who were some of the people that stand out in your learning experience, in your history of learning? People that are either authors, or mentors, past managers. They can be alive or dead. People that you might recommend others listening to the show look for, and keep an eye out for, or seek to get some guidance and learning as well.
David: Sure. Well, a couple of people come to mind right out of the gates. So one is a gentleman named Lex Sisney. Lex was the founder of Commission Junction. He wrote a book called Organizational Physics The Science Behind Growing a Business. So he takes rules of science and applies them to growing a business. I love his concepts in terms of how he thinks about product development, designing the sort of organizational structure and some of the processes that you can implement in order to run a business more efficiently. So, for your listeners out there, Lex Sisney is probably the single greatest mentor that I’ve had in my professional life.
Then the other one that I would just say is, one of the books that I subscribe to, the concepts and just personally feel like a lot of our business is designed around, is The Toyota Way. So the purpose of using lean methodology to learn fast, not launch fast is something that we try to live every single day. So there’s one person and one resource that I think anyone who wants to learn about what it takes to own and operate a small business would find really, really interesting. And I think there’s a lot of concepts there that apply to those that want to remain in a revenue generating role.
Matt: Love it, love it. Well, thank you so much for that. We will put links to those resources in our show notes, and in the blog posts we put up on this as well. So, if you liked what you heard today from David Nilssen on this episode of Sales Pipeline Radio, we will have this entire episode of course up available on demand at salespipelineradio.com in a couple of days. We’ll also have a summary of this conversation up on our blog heinzmarketing.com, along with links to the Guidant Financial webpage. You can see more of their content strategy firsthand, as well as some of the resources Dave has recommended that have been influential to him. So thanks so much Dave for joining us today. We will be back next week with more from deep in the heart of the upper Midwest, in the, hopefully not quite as cold polar vortex, but very excited for our conversation with Workfront CEO, Alex Shootman. We’re out of time for today. Thanks so much for joining us for another episode of Sales Pipeline Radio. For my great producer, Paul. This has been Matt Heinz. We’ll see you next week.