Mark L. Rockefeller is the Co-Founder and CEO of StreetShares, Inc., a venture-backed startup that uses social trust to de-risk the lending industry. Mark began his career in military service and now holds a bachelor's degree in finance and advanced degrees in business and law.
In this interview, Mark shares his entrepreneurial journey and how he started Streetshares with his co-founder, Mickey Konson. With a background in military and finance, Mark was able to use his disciplinary trainings coupled with hard work, and make Streetshares as "America's best small business funding community."
When you are done absorbing Mark's insights and journey, be sure to give him a shoutout on Twitter!
What motivated you to start StreetShares Inc.? How did the idea come about?
My Co-Founder, Mickey Konson, and I shared a deep commitment to helping small businesses, especially those owned by military veterans. We spotted an opportunity to bring technology to bear to solve a need that small businesses had: fairly-priced funding to grow.
We met and dreamed up StreetShares over breakfast at a restaurant outside of Washington DC. We wanted to fund a generation of small business owners and allow everyday Americans to support these businesses financially. Do good. Do well. That was the inspiration.
What was your mission at the beginning of starting your business?
There is a huge shortfall for young small businesses looking for growth funding. At StreetShares, we talk every day with healthy young businesses looking for funding to bring on new employees, buy equipment, or get some working capital, but traditional banks don’t serve their needs.
Across America, entrepreneurs are building their businesses with personal credit cards, or working with shady online “loan sharks.” We started StreetShares because we believe we can provide a better way for businesses to get the funding they need to grow – matching small businesses with individual investors with a shared interest in advancing entrepreneurship.
What do you attribute your success to? Is there a trait you have or a person who helped you along the way?
Mentors have been key. Our ideas was the result of many iterations with some very smart advisors. Military training has also helped. It sounds funny, but when we started StreetShares, we looked to our military training and background for guidance. It makes sense if you think about it.
Books on “lean start-up” theory, they define a start-up as a business operating under conditions of extreme uncertainty. Anyone who has served in the modern U.S. military has received a PhD-level course in resilience, adaptability, and initiative. We love to hire veterans for this reason, too.
When times get tough, what would you say motivates you to keep going? To not hit the snooze button and to keep fighting for your goals.
We live in a great country, and we’ve been given a unique opportunity to test ourselves as entrepreneurs. When the World War II generation came home from war, millions went on to run or own their own businesses. Their leadership both in uniform and in their civilian careers makes us remember them today as the “Greatest Generation.”
My generation of Veterans and our civilian counterparts are walking in their footsteps, and I’m motivated every day at StreetShares to make sure the funding is available for the new great generation of entrepreneurs and business owners. StreetShares gives small business owners an alternative to high-priced online lenders. My team and I feel good about what we accomplish each day.
Employees are one of the most important players to succeed in business. What do you look for in an employee?
We look for employees who show a ton of initiative, adaptability, and a strong sense of personal ownership in the success of the team. I want employees who act like owners….because they are, since everyone gets equity. When we add members to the team, we sometimes think in terms of “skill players” vs. “athletes.”
Sometimes you need to bring on a “skill player,” someone with a specific skill set for your business. At other times you look for an “athlete,” someone with talent across the board, strong character, a shared sense of mission, and the will to pick up skills and specialize along the way. In the early days of our start-up, most of our team could be defined as “athletes.” As we’ve grown, we’re hired more specialized “skill players.”
What is unique about your business? Is there a competitive advantage that you have over the rest?
Yes, StreetShares is built on the idea of affinity lending. By that, we mean that we bring together business owners and individual investors with a shared social loyalty. For example, veterans funding veteran-owned businesses. By using this social-lending model, we can actually make better loans that the banks or our competitors. We seek to be fast, fair, and transparent in all that we do, bringing trust and community to online lending.
It is very rewarding to see so many StreetShares business borrowers grow and thrive. One example is Combat Flip Flops, who were one of our early customers. When the banks wouldn’t help them, they got the funding they needed to grow from StreetShares. They went on to a successful appearance on the TV show Shark Tank, where they got a deal. We watched the show knowing that we helped get them there.
Have you ever gotten a disappointed client or customer? If so, how did you handle the situation?
We can’t fund everyone that we’d like to. We have to look out for the interests of investors in the loans and so we ask for small businesses to have at least one year of operations when they apply for business funding with StreetShares. That means we’re not a great fit for those right on the starting line. Sometimes that requirement disappoints an applicant. But we are a membership organization, so we let them join and get resources.
Our goal is not to tell them “No,” but rather “Join us. We can’t fund you yet, but here is some support and resources that fit your current needs.” You can check out some of these partners and resources on the Veterans section of the StreetShares website.
Is there a type of marketing that has worked amazingly for StreetShares Inc.? If so, how did you stumble upon it?
There is no magic bullet when it comes to building a new business. We use several different marketing channels. One area that has worked well for us is word-of-mouth and referrals. These have a low acquisition cost and show that our customers value the service we’ve provided them.
Many of the best StreetShares members – both business borrowers and individual investors – have joined StreetShares via a referral. We empower our members to make referrals, and share the rewards for their help in building the StreetShares community.
Is there any resource or resources that helped you on your journey to becoming a business owner?
StreetShares was fortunate to have the support of the Veteran community from the beginning. When we were raising our Seed Round to launch StreetShares, we had the support of a number of angel investors with a military background and others who appreciated the potential of making veteran small business loans.
Their early support and encouragement were crucial in getting StreetShares off the ground, and an example of the Veterans-helping-Veterans dynamic that we want to spread throughout the country. We now fund beyond veteran-owned businesses, but we still stick close to our roots.
What are the three best pieces of advice that you would give to anyone starting a business in Washington DC? What do they need to know from the very beginning?
- Look for allies along the way. StreetShares has been privileged to partner with more than 30 Veteran-focused organizations from around the country. We are always on the lookout for groups with a complimentary mission, and try to find a win-win relationship whenever possible.
- Build your team with members who have complimentary skill sets. The Washington DC area attracts people with a wide variety of backgrounds, experiences, and skill sets. But Washington doesn’t have that many start-ups (compared to other urban areas). You’ll get the pick of great talent. At StreetShares, we love to hire people who can bring a new perspective to our work.
- Living in the Washington DC area, we regularly get to visit the great museums and memorials of our great inheritance as Americans. We are blessed to live in a country where entrepreneurship is valued and encouraged, and take time to remember those who have sacrificed to protect our freedoms.