LFP160 – Entrepreneur Masterclass: What Attributes Do You Need To Create A Billion Dollar Company? w/Clay Wilkes CEO Galileo

The Tech press is full of unicorns – but these are almost always “on paper”. Those companies that someone has bought for over a billion – be it a trade sale or IPO – are far rarer. Clay Wilkes has created both starting with just an idea. Galileo Financial Technologies which he co-founded, powers 95% of US digital banks and 5 out of the top 5 of UK digital banks and was sold to SoFI. Galileo was formed in 2000 and succeeded in growing without and external funding  until raising a $77 million Series A round in October 2019 (from Accel). In the 90s Clay floated his prior startup i-Link which was a pioneer in VOIP, 

In this episode Clay shares the entrepreneurial values that he has found most essential in creating not one but two tremendous businesses and taking them from conception to successful trade sale/float. We also focus on the fact that many of these attributes are practices or skills rather than something that one can be – it is something we can work on and keep refining and improving. Few people are very strong without going to the gym and lifting weights, or as Clay has done, few can run marathons without putting in lots of hard work and going through pain barriers.

But this is no mere “no pain no gain” “just keep slogging away and be brilliant” simple blog post level conversation. Clay is a great antithesis to the oft-promoted US model as entrepreneur as somewhat psycho model which exists but is over-emphasised. Clay’s entrepreneurship is grounded in family life – as he says “what really matters”.

As a special bonus for the show notes I will share two aspects that we don’t emphasise in the show. First Clay came well-prepared – now of course all guests do but I would say that his was in the top 10% of guests. Would you – or I – prepare for “yet another interview” if we had sold our company for a billion the month before? I’d imagine that 99.999% of folks in such circs would, as it were, stroll along with their hands in their pockets – after all you don’t get to build a company of that size without being a good talker.

Another example is that Clay referred to reading my book on the SmallCo Board. Again how many entrepreneurs who had successful created two hugely valued companies would read another business book when they could write several themselves?

In both these cases I am reminded of a book I have read about but not read – “Relentless from Good to Great to Unstoppable” by Tim Grover, trainer of the likes of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

But the real lesson here is not about a conversation with a remarkable man but that he models what we can endeavour to become too. We too can always go the extra mile to do our next task even better than we were going to do it. We too can always keep the beginners mind and always believe there is much more to learn not matter how much we know already.

Finally I am reminded of another rare chap I knew who was the american head of an authentic Chinese lineage (which is super-rare). I recall him telling me that his pupils think he is further ahead than they are because he trained super-hard in the past. This he said is true. But, he said, what they don’t realise is that every day he is leaving them further behind as he trains more and puts more into his training.

What would your life be like – in any any aspect you choose, business is just one – if you committed to seeing how good you could be? And not just that but when you had achieved more than you ever thought you could you remain humble, open, don’t coast and always assimilating more?

The deeper part of this podcast for me is what is behind the words – however the words themselves point to the attributes that we can all practice and improve upon. Topics discussed include:

  • when Zooming across the world do you say good morning/afternoon depending upon your time zone or the person to whom you are speaking’s?
  • Clay’s record of guest on the LFP with most children – he and his wife have ten 🙂
  • the importance of family to Clay – always godo to hear in the tech sector where one gets the impression that many entrepreneurs are actually married to their computer
  • what factors drove/inspired Clay to found Galileo having been retired for 6yrs after his prior float
  • Clay’s career journey and family background relevance to his journey – aversion but later attractor?
  • how do people become entrepreneurs?
  • absorption vs learning
  • “I’ve heard it said that great entrepreneurs come from fathers who are failed entrepreneurs” 
  • watching bad ideas and poor execution growing up – Clay’s father being a Professor
  • the realpolitik of attributes – “nice words” versus “life”
  • putting it into practice is the art
  • are attributes something that come from inside or something that one learns to do
  • Steve Jobs “You are not going to be aware until you look back and connect the dots” – it’s not until backwards vision that you gate to understand some of these aspects
  • balancing attributes – sometimes work really hard but other time holidaying is required to keep you fresh – the wisdom to know when to apply an attribute or its opposite
  • single-mindedness as an entrepreneur versus what is truly important?
  • putting attributes to one side – being a better version of yourself
  • staying true to who you are
  • tenacity – “stay with it” – and that is hard (cf marathon running)
  • Case Study of industry conferences over the years. Galileo went form being an early star to one year Clay feeling the market had passed them by to years later a top-tier Private Equity partner telling him they were one of two stand-outs amongst thousands. Easy to say but that is some journey to live through over years
  • force of will
  • “being a potter of the unmanifest, shaping it and bringing into reality”
  • the divine in all of us that enables us to create, just as in Genesis, with “the word” – businesses are spoken into existence
  • the value proposition and economic model need to be well-defined
  • vision and being far-seeing – is is a natural talent or can it be developed – but essential for successful for entrepreneurs
  • First Data – US main banking platform is 480 million lines of Cobol :-O
  • sales hat – converting people to your vision
  • sales as an example of skills one can practice and improve
  • Case Study of VOIP from Clay’s prior Company. AT&T were huge and yet it was VOIP delivering minutes at one-hundredth of the cost that eventually undermined them
  • stay with your vision
  • surround yourself with strong partners
  • honest knowledge of your own strengths and weaknesses in order to chose partners that are complementary
  • passion
  • focus – Steve Jobs idea of “all the things we needed to say no to in order to succeed with our vision”
  • flexibility
  • show notes bonus 🙂 making the world a better place as motivation “Starting a company is hard enough, but starting a company with the sole intention of getting rich, or ‘making it big’ is a recipe for failure. The reason I got into this business was to have a positive impact on people’s lives based on how they manage their money.”
  • finally how do you cope when you are in pain lying flat on your face covered in bruises which inevitably happens in life?
  • “there were 20 or 30 or 40 times literally over the twenty years when we should have stopped – and that’s why tenacity was the first attribute I talked about – when it felt so hard it would have been better or easier just to stop”
  • staying with it is key in those moments
  • comparison with 20/22/24 miles in running a marathon – “it’s hard, really really hard in those moments”
  • Galileo’s future plans
  • the thesis between partnership/incorporation within Sofi – can the wider range of products be made available through APIs
  • geographic expansion

And much much more 🙂

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