By Dan Price, an EO Seattle member and CEO of Gravity Payments
I went through a mid-life crisis at the age of 16. My successful rock band split up, I was the most socially awkward high school student on the planet and I spent my days trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I kept thinking: How can I build an identity that’s more sustainable? I found my answer outside of a small coffee shop in Idaho, USA.
Success is a byproduct of helping others
When our band first started out, we lined up gigs at nearby small businesses. One in particular stuck in my mind— an independent coffee shop. The woman who ran the place put her heart into her business, but she was being taken advantage of by her credit card-processing company, who preyed on her lack of industry knowledge. One day, I returned to the shop and discovered she was having business problems. I didn’t know what I was doing, but decided to help her in any way I could. After I updated her rewards program, she started to tell others about my support.
Before I knew it, I began assisting other small businesses in the area, and quickly noticed a common thread: Many of them were being taken advantage of by their credit card processors— some were paying more in processing fees than rent! The small business owners who most cared about the community were the least supported. I wanted to level the playing field, giving them the same opportunities larger companies enjoyed. So I launched Gravity Payments, with a focus on honesty and transparency, the values that mattered most to me. I didn’t want to take advantage of these hard-working individuals just to make “screw you” money like others in the financial services industry. I wanted to make a difference.
Sometimes there is value in not having a lot of options
Working my way through college as a bootstrapper and broke college student was challenging. Gravity was growing, though barely making a profit. But profit was never my driving force. Providing the most value, while supporting my community’s small business owners, was what drove me. It was also the very reason why I declined outside investments when I needed them the most. I didn’t want to compromise my vision or answer to a board that didn’t hold the same values I had built the company on, just for the sake of profit. By sacrificing immediate cash, I gained the trust of hundreds of clients.
You’ll be more successful if you focus on listening
One of the unique business challenges I faced was my young age. When business owners would ask how old I was, I would either laugh or say I was 12 to deflect potential worry (or judgment) of doing business with someone who couldn’t order a beer. Despite my young age, the empathy I felt for these small business owners helped me better understand their stories and meet their needs. I’d even let clients know if Gravity wouldn’t be able to save them money. I found customers began to judge me on these two simple actions—listening and empathizing— rather than my age. They saw that I wanted them to succeed. If they succeeded, I succeeded.
When the water gets rough, adjust the sails and head into the storm
The recession in 2008 was a rude awakening. We were just becoming a break-even business when, suddenly, a portion of our revenue evaporated overnight. Terrified, I lay awake at night trying to find a solution. Then a funny thing happened— I started to feel empowered. I asked myself, “How do I go back to our roots as a company?” I didn’t have to look any further than the clients we served. Small business owners cared about what Gravity cared about— transparency, honesty and supporting communities. We could have adjusted rates, inflated costs and hidden fees to stay afloat, but that’s not what we stood for. Instead, we rolled up our sleeves, worked long hours, streamlined processes and continued to grow, all while keeping expenses down. With a lot of hard work, we turned things around in four months. This dark time renewed our focus on what was most important— serving our customers and helping them thrive.
As crazy as it sounds, I don’t have a five- or 10-year goal. I have a 50-year goal.
It’s simply to stay loyal to our customers and continue to fight against those who try to exploit them. That’s the vision that started this journey, the vision that got us through the bad times and the vision taking us into the future.