In this installment of GOBankingRates’ “Best in Business” series, which sets out to discover what makes the people behind top innovative companies tick, Smith revealed what it’s like to spend your personal savings on a new company, how to build a workplace culture — and ways that you can find (or build) your own dream job.
When did you know you had to start this company?
I left Investure and moved to Birmingham, Ala., because my wife was doing her medical residency there. At that time, I began consulting for endowments, foundations and family offices up and down the East Coast, and quickly realized all of these organizations were dealing with very similar problems to those we had at my previous investment firm. No technology vendor had focused on solving the underlying needs of this particular market — that of an institutional quality portfolio management system for asset allocators. I realized then what a huge opportunity this could be, and I started exploring options to make it happen.
My research turned up no baseline technology to jump-start the effort, so I knew it would have to be built from the ground up. That’s when I contacted Caleb Doise, a brilliant technology architect and my former colleague at Investure, to gauge his interest in starting a company to solve the portfolio management needs of the institutional investor. He was in, and Solovis was born.
What were your biggest fears about launching your own business?
Other than spending down my personal savings, I was very confident we had a niche space that we could, at the very least, create useful technology for. I don’t think Caleb or I ever had the vision of raising significant outside capital or having many of the prestigious clients we’ve been fortunate to work with. The common saying, “this has surpassed our wildest dreams,” would be an understatement!
What was the most surprising thing about the process?
How willing people are to help. I was shocked at how many friends, former colleagues and firms had a real interest in not only becoming initial users of our software platform, but also in helping to fund and grow the company — and in some cases even come work with us. There are also a lot of great organizations willing to support technology innovation. Microsoft effectively gave us two years of free hosting and development resources. It was unbelievable.
What was the hardest part?
I always had a saying: “We have to be bigger than we are.” We weren’t going to walk into the most sophisticated asset managers in the world and convince them to work with and spend real dollars with a pure startup company with no security, no office and too much key man risk. There were early give and takes, but we always were ahead of where other “startups” were in terms of professionalism and growth. And now we have the infrastructure and the credibility of a blue chip client base, so we’ve been able to evolve from that early-stage startup into a growth company with a proven track record.
Did any previous jobs inspire you to run Solovis the way you do?
Don’t hire people who don’t fit your culture. Pure and simple. Also, your gut is usually right and even if someone is providing some degree of value, you can’t have naysayers and doubters at any level of the organization. This doesn’t mean you don’t have disagreements, but people who create conflict for the sake of personal gain are bad apples.
Who are the people you lean on most?
Our early clients, early investors and early colleagues are all still with us. They’ve been steady supporters of our vision and growth during the best of times and during some darker times.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own business?
Surround yourself with people that believe in your vision and will work tirelessly to make it a reality. Don’t do it to get rich, because then you become so much more focused on your equity and your compensation. If you do that early on, you will almost certainly create misalignment along the way.
When did you realize Solovis was going to make it?
I don’t define success for Solovis or even personally as some large overarching neon light that says “success.” Success to me is constantly pushing our boundaries and setting new goals each day. In general, though, the only “success” that really matters to me and the company is client success — have we created happy, reference-able clients who are evangelizing for Solovis.
How do you define success?
For me personally, success is loving coming in every day and driving the company to be better. We have a lot of people who love going to work every day and have made friendships for life with colleagues and clients. I firmly believe you create value by making all your stakeholders happy — not just management, not just shareholders, not just clients. Alignment across the board is key.
Click through to read more about secrets to starting your own small business.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.