As far back as I can remember, I've been an entrepreneur. I love creating; I love making; I love building. Every entrepreneur's goal is to build something of value that improves the world and, ideally, hits some level of "success."
On March 25, 2015, I was really proud to announce, alongside our incredible management team--John Gardner, Ainslie Simmonds, Emilia Sherifova, Kelly Leyden, and Stephany Kirkpatrick--that we'd decided to sell LearnVest, a company I had founded approximately six years before, to Northwestern Mutual.
As you can imagine, that was an incredibly personal decision that we, along with our board, had to make together. LearnVest had just raised $33 million. We were in a place where we didn't need to sell. Since there was no urgency, we all really needed to give it serious consideration--and come to a consensus.
That said, here I am two years later to tell you we made the right move for our clients, for our team, and for--dare I say--financial planning in America.
Here's why acquisition was the right call for us.
1. We chose a partner who believes in the same things we do.
Northwestern Mutual is a 160-year-old company that I believe is one of the strongest financial institutions in the world.
More important, it's a collection of people who passionately believe in doing the right thing for their clients. Value flows in the company's veins, and you've never met a better group of talented people.
In 2014, just before Thanksgiving, Northwestern Mutual's chairman and CEO, John Schlifske, called and asked to meet. I knew it was going to be a really important meeting, given Northwestern Mutual's investment in LearnVest. After a four-hour discussion, he proposed the acquisition. He pointed to our shared values and mission of bringing more financial plans to America and helping people achieve true financial security. Little LearnVest, only six years old, had a style that was very different from Northwestern Mutual's.
At LearnVest, people wear jeans and t-shirts. Dogs--even a bird--often hang around the office during workhours. There's whiskey in the kitchen, next to the sparkling water and yogurt, and cold brew coffee on tap, not far from the counter with all the healthy snacks. It's a fast-paced startup. Juxtapose that with Northwestern Mutual, a long-respected industry titan.
Now, together, we're tasked with creating a dynamic new "third" culture--one that takes the best of LearnVest and Northwestern Mutual--and developing something entirely unique. On its own, LearnVest had much to learn from Northwestern Mutual, such as how do we innovate at scale? How do we take what made our startup so special and find a way to bring it to millions more households?
And what does that mean, practically? Well, we're actively working to figure that out. It's not a no-brainer, so it takes patience. My advice: Be super thoughtful. Think everything through--every personnel decision, every communication about every pain point--way more than you would in any other scenario. Be sensitive to your teams' needs and manage people with care. Listen more than ever.
2. We were committed to working together.
After years of living in startup land, I had heard enough horror stories about acquisitions that were messy and entrepreneurs who weren't happy. So I was cautious and careful to make sure we--the startup and the big company acquiring us--got it right, together.
The hardest challenge we faced was that, while 85 percent of our original team was thrilled, 10 percent was indifferent, and 5 percent was not thrilled. Some great talent said, "I'm not that excited about this future," and decided to do other things. That broke my heart.
Losing team members isn't easy. Startup culture in the early days is like a family, and I wondered if we had a communication breakdown. We learned that, post-acquisition, attrition is totally normal (up to 25 percent is common), and I was mentally well prepared for any change. But it's still hard.
As the acquisition progressed, the trust between both companies endured. Northwestern Mutual leadership took the time to commit to trust, as that is a real pillar of what makes NM, NM. That was the key to keeping the train on the tracks. Each side took the time to build this relationship from the very beginning, and knowing that everyone had truly great intentions helped enormously.
To be clear: Life after an acquisition is no party! The enduring myth is that once the deal is done, it's time to coast. Collectively, we've logged some of the hardest hours ever in the past two years, and our pace is only picking up.
3. We all value innovation.
Every day, we hold one another--both Northwestern Mutual and LearnVest--accountable, ensuring that we're pushing the bounds of innovation.
We evolved our tech capabilities together, empowering Northwestern Mutual's sophisticated field force with forward-thinking online tools. For clients, the digital experience has become even more dynamic. And for the first time ever, Northwestern Mutual's 4.4 million clients are securing their financial futures on the go, via our mobile app.
We've also tackled one of the biggest challenges of an acquisition--that third-culture creation--by taking the road less traveled. We've tasked our team with taking risks and trying new things, while never losing sight of the company's commitment to its clients. Increasing in size, we've hired world-class talent across marketing, design, product, technology, and advice strategy.
Two years after selling LearnVest, I couldn't be more proud of the decision to put our mission and our work first. Every morning, we wake up and obsess over building the future of financial planning for this country, and I simply can't wait to see what's next.