17 Leadership Lessons from Acorns CEO Noah Kerner
How this four-time entrepreneur helped build the largest subscription service in consumer finance.
My ongoing series in partnership with Entrepreneur, If I Knew Then: Leadership Lessons, allows me the rare opportunity to host virtual fireside chats with high-profile CEOs of major brands from Indeed and Nextdoor to GoDaddy and DocuSign. These illuminating sessions allow me to get inside the minds of successful leaders to share some of their insightful advice and lessons for both current and future entrepreneurs.
For the latest episode, I wanted to talk to an expert who could provide advice on how to save and invest during this downturn caused by the global pandemic. So, I invited Acorns CEO Noah Kerner to discuss how the micro-investing app has leveled the playing field for millions of Americans, helping 8.6 million people save and invest over $7 billion. Founded in 2012, the popular fintech company has offered people of all socioeconomic backgrounds an accessible, easy-to-use app to build wealth naturally, pennies at a time. Everyday purchases are rounded up to the nearest dollar and then automatically invested in a low-cost, diversified portfolio of exchange-traded funds.
With a focus on households that are in the $50,000 to 75,000 income bracket, Acorns helps everyday Americans save and invest for a better future, easily and without friction. “Sixty percent of people, for the first time in their family’s history, have started investing,” shares Kerner. “My vision for the future of Acorns involves 100 million Americans saving and investing. I want to continue to help people have financial freedom by getting them addicted to saving.”
Kerner discusses everything from his early teen years when he exhibited entrepreneurial traits of commitment and determination, to co-authoring a book with the CEO of Barney’s, to his latest journey at Acorns. His first foray into business was building a leading creative agency for the young adult market, Noise, which developed hundreds of products and marketing campaigns for this generation, including Facebook’s first app; the first credit card to reward responsibility rather than spending for Chase; and Vice’s music site Noisey. Kerner’s vast, differentiated experience culminates with building, advising and investing in a variety of fast-growing startups including WeWork, where he served as its first chief strategy and marketing officer.
Everything about Kerner’s career and life experience informs how he leads today. These are 17 of the top takeaways from my chat with the four-time entrepreneur:
1. We are all unfinished work, so remember that the process is the prize
This is what Kerner would say to his younger self. Recently a leadership coach had his team do an exercise that involved writing a commencement speech about themselves. The lesson he took away from this is that you will always be unfinished work. “You will never be complete, you will never have arrived, and if you remember that the process is the prize, you will lead a much happier life, feel fulfilled and accomplish more things.”
2. Run your own race. Don’t let the competition kill your focus
Comparison is the death of joy. When people ask Kerner what he thinks about the competition, he responds with, “I don’t.” He explains that there is so much unhappiness in comparing, and it is never good to copy someone else. He advises to take it slow and have your own vision. Pursue your own path and go your own way. Leave a trail. Look back or look forward, not right or left. He says to “run your own f***ing race” and ask yourself these questions instead: What makes you feel good as a human? What makes you feel successful as a person? What impact are you trying to make?
3. Authentic leaders speak authentically. Say what you mean and mean what you say
Kerner grew up with a strong-willed mom who under no circumstance could be stopped from speaking her mind. This served to inspire him to do his own thing, because he came from the same DNA. He shares that he’s similar and thinks it is important to say it like you see it. “I hate the phrase, ‘it’s not personal, it’s business.’ Everything is personal. I am not good at stoicism. I’m not trying to run a strategy on you. You get what you get. What you see is what you get.”
4. Become a master of your craft. It takes thousands of hours to become an expert in anything
Ever since he was a young boy, Kerner exhibited a competitive spirit as a tennis player and loved collecting and trading baseball cards. However, it was the story of how he locked himself in his room with a mixer and turntables that started it all. “At 14 years old, I was never going to be good at this, but I worked my ass off to be good at it. Why? Because if you tell me I’m going to suck, that’s great, I’ll see you in two years.” True to his word, he put all of his time and energy into learning how to scratch and DJ, emerging from his room a master at this craft two years later. He entered DJ scratch competitions, made mix tapes and did club gigs. Kerner got so good that he was eventually hired as a DJ in Jennifer Lopez’s band.
5. CEOs don’t just come from business school, you can learn the most about your future customer by getting out there and living
In his senior year of college, Kerner wrote a business plan for a one-stop shop for hip hop while listening to music like Fight the Power in his parents’ Volvo. “I received my MBA on the streets while many people were going into banking,” muses Kerner. He soon co-founded a creative agency and got started in music helping record labels figure out how to break into new markets. This company signed some big brands and turned it into a product development agency that helped companies connect with young adults. At 25 years old, he was working with companies including Intel, Facebook, Spotify, UCLA and Vice, building 200 products and 200 campaigns.
6. Look inside and follow your passion. Start creating, start reaching out. Passion is magnetic and everyone can breathe life into something
It’s about hard work, determination and focus, mixed with being passionate about something. It’s important to allow that passion to show because it is infectious, it’s magnetic. And when it’s authentic, it makes people believe.
7. You can’t look in someone else’s backyard if you want to really stand out
You have to look inside and follow your passion and your gut. For the CEO who wrote the book on cool with Barney’s co-CEO, Chasing Cool: Standing Out in Today's Cluttered Marketplace, Kerner has a lot to say on this subject. He doesn’t think Acorns is any less cool than DJ’ing for Jennifer Lopez. He defines cool as doing what is authentic to you. “I don’t think it has to be linked to music, fashion or culture. Cool is being your true, authentic self. If what you do impacts people in a positive way, that is the pinnacle of cool.”
8. Define your purpose. Do what makes you come alive
Kerner grew up around two vastly different, parallel worlds. “I was a public-school kid around kids who didn’t have a lot of money, then at night I played tennis with the wealthiest kids in Manhattan.” As a bank teller in his very early years, he witnessed a lot of pain and shame in money. He witnessed money as an emotional subject, and through the years, he observed an ever-widening economic gap in this country, which inspired him to want to level the playing field.
9. Ignite growth through loyalty
Kerner says it’s important to support people through the ups and the downs. Put in the time, listen and care. As a manager, he has come to appreciate principles and frameworks — and it’s rare he misses a one-on-one meeting with somebody. “If you give people a voice and a path, you have done a pretty good job. People want to feel heard, and they want to know where they are going. I push people, and I care about them. I believe in people’s potential. That is the root of Acorns.”
10. When you have something you’re passionate about, pursue it
Kerner reminds us that people don’t always have the luxury to do the things they are passionate about for a variety of reasons, including having to put food on the table for their families. He advises those people to not give up on their dream. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, don’t ever think you cannot be an entrepreneur. You can. Just start it on the side. If it’s late at night, stay up another hour and start thinking about your idea, work on that plan, create, produce, reach out to people who can help you. Do whatever you have to do to make that dream a reality.
11. Lean into your core values no matter what
The core values at Acorns are:
- Lead with heart
- Make bold decisions
- Always build trust
- Never stop growing
- Find a way
12. Kerner has five beliefs he works towards every day as a leader:
- Do what makes you come alive.
- Stay curious.
- Work hard.
- Be humble.
- Remember that this too shall pass.
13. Each person receives feedback differently. As a leader, part of your responsibility is to put in the time and understand what brings out the best in people
Understand each person’s mode and method of receiving feedback. Learn and know the best way to inspire everyone individually. Kerner confesses he has made mistakes in the past where he was not as effective as he could be with someone. He was too direct and blunt with an employee, and although that person knew he was not being mean, the method didn’t bring out the best in this person and instead they recoiled. Individualization builds trust amongst your team.
14. Great ideas can come from anywhere
Books, people, art, film, customers, team, interns — every interaction is an input and opportunity to learn something and can be a seed of a transformative idea. You should listen to everybody. That nugget of an idea or insight can come from anywhere.
15. Human psychology drives powerful brands and customer demand
The early Acorns strategy was to create a wait list. Tell people it’s coming. It taps into the basic desire people have to get something they can’t get access to at the moment. We want what we can’t have.
16. Anyone who creates something for others should study psychology
Psychological tendencies are pretty consistent. People want to feel loved, feel accepted, want what they can’t have and compare themselves to other people. They do this out of fear. Kerner comes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, discussing the importance of understanding behavioral economics and the power behind it. The Intelligent Investor and Psychology of Money are two books he recommends.
17. Resist the urge to give up. When things become challenging, take a step back from the noise. Regroup. And remember, this too shall pass
This is a trying time for a lot of people; two-thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck during this pandemic. Despite all of this, Kerner offers this piece of sage advice: “When the news is saying the markets are going to crash, turn away. Turn on a classic movie, take a hot shower and stick with it. The more you remember to invest regularly and frequently, the more you will create a better life for you and your kids. Do not pull your money out when the market tanks. Do not look back.”
Throughout our conversation, it is clear that Noah Kerner is a passionate leader on a mission to help everyday Americans access and attain financial wellbeing. Watch the full webinar to hear more insights from this authentic and transparent leader.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP