20 Questions

Nerdwallet's Founder Shares the Worst Advice He Ever Got

He says it's the one thing that can get in the way of success.
Nerdwallet's Founder Shares the Worst Advice He Ever Got
Image credit: Courtesy of Nerdwallet.

Editor’s Note: Entrepreneur’s “20 Questions” series features both established and up-and-coming entrepreneurs and asks them a number of questions about what makes them tick, their everyday success strategies and advice for aspiring founders.

If you are intimidated or overwhelmed by the prospect of making decisions about money, especially if you are just beginning your career, you aren’t alone.

After being laid off from his job as a hedge fund analyst and having his sister ask him for credit card advice, Tim Chen decided to launch a financial planning platform in 2009.

Named Nerdwallet, the online resource helps people make informed decisions about their money, with a wealth of information about everything  from banking to credit cards and loans in one place. The CEO believes that there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all advice when it comes to money management, so the company tailors the experience for each user.

Related: Reach Your Financial Goals and Live the Life You Want

While Chen bootstrapped the company and earned only $75 the first year in business, today the company has raised $69 million and has 450 employees and 7 million monthly users.

We caught up with Chen for our 20 Questions series to find out what motivates him and makes him tick.

1. How do you start your day?
I am not a morning person. If you picture the scene from the Exorcist, that's me. That said, I find it helpful in the morning to reflect on my goals for the day. I’ll schedule morning to evening, and if I don't pause to think about what I want to accomplish, I won't make time for the [most important] things.

2. How do you end your day?
Before bed, my fiancé and I talk about one thing we're grateful for every night. It’s one way to stop and appreciate what's good in your life. Achievement-oriented people are always focused on what’s the next thing, what could be better. And it’s a way to foster more appreciation and mindfulness. We feel really happy after we do it every day.

Related: 6 Ways Embracing Mindfulness Helps You Thrive at Work

3. What’s a book that changed your mind and why?
Principles by Ray Dallio. What I love about it provides a convincing argument about why a lot of us underachieve and don’t meet our potential. He talks about how he works through those things to achieve what he wants in life.

The reason it resonated with me so well is because, I think a lot of the stuff that holds us back is our inability to face truth: It’s our ego. If something isn’t working to stop, pause and think about why [it] didn't go well, instead of just doing the same thing over and over again.
 

4. What’s a book you always recommend and why?
It isn’t a book, but the Farnam Street blog. The premise that I love about it is that there’s an underlying belief that there are mental models that dictate how the world works. I believe that all creativity and problem solving is a remix of other mental models. When I learn new ones that give an explanation about how some related but tangential industry or field works, I often find going back to an unrelated problem and think about how to apply those concepts.

5. What’s a strategy to keep focused?
Each Monday I prioritize what I want to accomplish that week, and then I think about [what I’ve done] at the end of the week [and share it in] an email to my employees called Reflections. It’s a great way to make space [in your head], otherwise your inbox and email becomes your to-do list, which is ridiculous because you didn’t create that to do list. [It was sent to you by other people.]

Related: 4 Tips to Better Manage Your Email Inbox

6. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
I grew up in Houston near NASA, and I thought I wanted to be an aerospace engineer because huge flying objects seemed really cool at the time.

7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?
Ego gets in the way of success. I worked at a hedge fund that had a real “Lord of the Flies” feeling. It was pretty crazy. The problem with ego is the best ideas don't win, because you have trouble facing the truth.

8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?
Coming out of that [hedge fund] environment, I thought it was the right way to run a company, and I was proved very wrong. Over the years, I’ve learned a ton from a lot of the people at NerdWallet. I’ve learned to approach things with more of an open mind. If I’m doing my job right, each of them is bringing something to the table that I don’t have.  

Related: Your Potential Success is Limitless, Despite What You've Been Told

9. What’s a trip that changed you?
One of the fascinating aspects of being an investor was visiting some of the facilities [we invested in]. In 2008, I took a trip to China as a solar investor and visited a ton of solar factories in rural areas. What I saw was astonishing. The pollution was so bad, you could only see 20 feet in front of you in the middle of the day. I just sensed the complete loss of potential in all the people there; they were in terrible working conditions.

After that, I realized I wanted to help people reach their human potential, maybe one day there is a way to do that using technology.

10. What inspires you?
You see so much potential for change in so many areas; I’m really inspired by the possibility of change and how to seize that. I believe those things start with a combination of proving something is possible, telling the right people about it and then pick up the torch and carry on from there. The right way to think about it is planting the seeds of what is possible and enabling a lot of people to go after it.

11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
In eighth grade, Magic cards were becoming super popular. I noticed a big price differential by buying an unopened deck of cards, so I got money together to buy unopened packs of cards. Then I sold them to get a profit, and the school wasn't too happy about it

Related: Let's Be Real: Why Transparency in Business Should Be the Norm

12.  What was an early job that taught you something important or useful?
I worked in this guy's basement for a coin order mail catalogue. This guy's business was essentially mailing coin catalogs to remote regions of the US and marking it up a ton. The margins on the coin sales were unbelievable; it just showed the lack of transparency in pricing. I think that played some small part in wanting to remove that inefficiency.

13. What’s the best advice you ever took?
Another CEO told me that your opportunity is set up like a graph. On one axis, it's what you do, and the other axis who you tell.  If I think about some of the career mistakes I made at my last company, it was really not doing enough telling [about my accomplishments].

14. What's the worst piece of advice you ever got?
I'm Asian. My parents told me to keep my head down, work hard and show my value through work rather than through my mouth. I think that might work well in some industries, but even in those cases, there is a benefit of speaking up and communicating.

Related: Productivity Lifesaver: The 5-Sentence Email

15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
I don't generally check my email. I know it’s a bit socially offensive at times, but I try to do it in batches every two to three days. I might be just terrible at multitasking, but if you’re coding, it takes 10, 20 minutes to get reoriented after a distraction.

16. Is there an app or tool you use to get things done or stay on track?
The off button. I put my phone on nighttime mode, and I shut down everything when I'm working. I get highly distracted otherwise.

17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
I'm a big believer that productivity is less about hours worked and more about the quality of the hours you worked.

There are two modes of operation: highly analytical and a daydream mode. I think the right balance is a mix of those two. Work is a social purpose, and the two feed off each other well.

Related: Why You Need to Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

18. How do you prevent burnout?
Burnout is never about the hours of work, but how deterministic the work is. If you have to accomplish some kind of goal and you're excited about the outcome, the key to avoiding burnout is staying somewhere in the middle, out of your comfort zone but not doing things that are so out of reach.

19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating?
Often I just stop and read a book, because it jogs another part of your brain to think about the problem.

20. What are you learning now?
It’s really important to have a multi-disciplinary understanding of a lot of different things to come up with the best answers. I apply this at Nerdwallet. The thing that is important is to have people with different experiences contribute when relevant without too much noise. I’m learning about [building] a collaborative culture, how you facilitate communication and how we get to the truth.

Edition: December 2016

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