Innovation, creativity, entrepreneurialism, and philanthropy create a powerful force that personifies the life and achievements of Nitin Khanna, CEO of Merger Tech. With a long background in technology, Nitin Khanna has garnered a notable career as an investor, as an entrepreneur, and as a leader.
What led you to become an entrepreneur?
“I was born in India in 1971 and I mostly went to boarding schools in India. My dad was in the army. The rest of my family was very entrepreneurial. Growing up I saw a tremendous amount of business being done in the household, from big trips with my uncles, cement plans, studio and shooting plans, and motorcycle part plans. When I was 17, I came to the US and got my undergraduate and master’s degrees in industrial engineering from Purdue. I was in the Ph.D. program for robotics when I decided that I’d had enough academics and I wanted to jump out and work for a living.
My brother came to the US in 1999, and we decided to start a business. We started a software company called Saber software in 1999 and grew that over the next 10 years. It became really known for our election software. If you remember 2000 there was a big Bush vs. Gore debacle in Florida. The federal government passed a law called the Help America Vote Act. That Act mandated that every state modernize its election systems by the year 2006. We were fortunate that we were doing a lot of work in Oregon and Oregon was the first state in the country to issue a procurement, an RFP for that. We later won Missouri, we won New York, and we went on to win about 21 states.
So what 21 states in the country but today use our software to manage all aspects of the elections. But we subsequently added other government to citizen software. We added DMV systems, child care, child support, anywhere really where the citizen interacted with the gov that we were public retirement systems we had a line of software for.
I sold saber later on. I began doing a lot of angel investing because I wanted to help as many companies in Portland succeed as possible. In 2009 I began to build up Mergertech. we became the largest company in the country to help the mobile because I thought I’d just launch, so we really started to focus on mobile tech and really helping entrepreneurs who had started mobile companies build their company.”
You’ve worked in a variety of companies, what was your role like in each of these companies? How were you involved in the everyday growth and operations of it all?
“I mean I’m a failed guy and solid revenue and growth person primarily. But more importantly than that, I think the key role I played in each company was setting its strategy, its vision, its mission, its culture, and how we view people as a whole. I believe, truly believe – I think now a lot of companies say it – but I really believe that the only real critical differentiator between one company and another is its people.
I’ve always focused a tremendous amount of my time and energy into ensuring that my companies have the right people. At Saber and Mergertech, my counterpart was my brother who was much more operationally minded and I was much more sales-minded; He was kind of the yin to my yang. So at my companies, I took on a lot of the operational and infrastructure aspects of the company. I’ve become more operational over the years but my core instinct is strategy and growth and people.”
All the businesses you’ve helped grow have been relatively different. In terms of setting strategy, Do you approach each one the same way?
“There is one common thing between the businesses: they’re all execution focused. I am not the kind of person who would build a Facebook, so I don’t tend to do idea-based businesses. The core thing that I bring to the table is execution. When you look at government consulting there are literally a hundred thousand competitors, and when you look at small tech, it’s also tens of thousands of competitors. What is exciting about cannabis is that it’s also not an idea. It’s a very traditional, old school business that was recently legalized, so I knew that the winners in the space would be those who could outperform others.”
What helps you form the strategy for these very different entities that you’ve helped grow?
“I approach business first and foremost with the heart and the ability to get things done in mind. I try to keep that same idea in mind with hiring people.
I feel like if I can get the absolute best people into the company and attract the absolute best talent, then we’re going to win. I believe fires up that talent is being culturally aligned. The company culture is extremely important to us. The folks who stay at the companies I run are all like-minded. I’ve kept the same values through all three companies because I don’t think values should change really over time unless you discover something new about you.
The second thing I do is try to ensure that people are really excited about the vision and the mission. Once you have set up a team of talented people who are all rowing in the same direction, you are able to succeed in working toward an end goal. Setting strategy is about asking ourselves–what business are we in and how are we going to operate in that business. And then you set the vision, the culture, and the mission and you can begin hiring to those things.”
What is some of your advice to people on staying productive?
“One of my favorite things to tell people when I’m coaching them– is every great executive I’ve ever known has almost unlimited free time. You can never – I think even like when you were scheduling me, I always have time. One of the really incredible things people can learn is how to build that time.
You may find you have more free time when you have hired the best and when you align them with your culture and your expectations, and you’ve pointed them in the right direction. I don’t know when we have time to play or to plan or to strategize. For me personally, it really important, especially with four kids to manage my time very effectively And I do that by having great people to help manage it through.”
Do you have a set of time management principles you adhere to or is it more about managing the important things in life? And How do you prioritize them?
“Yeah, actually I begin with prioritization. I am extremely tight with my time. I don’t really engage in things that are not productive. I’m really focused on evaluating what is or isn’t productive. So it really begins with having a very keen focus on time. I mean I follow the zero inbox philosophy and just staying on top of my time.
I don’t have any other fast principles like that, but I’m very very focused. If a meeting can be done in five minutes there is no reason to take 15 minutes. I have learned through experience how to prioritize tasks and analyze what needs to be addressed first.”
What is one of those big, long-term goals you’re hoping to achieve in your career?
“You know the current goal that I’m focused I hope to build a company that has lasting power. So, even though I left CuraCann, I still have high hopes for the company. I want to be able to say 20, 30, 40 years from now that they’ve built the Coca-Cola of cannabis. You know if you look at Coke it started maybe 100 plus years ago and it’s a big win, it’s everywhere in the world, everybody knows about it.”
What advice would you give someone trying to go into the cannabis industry or in any of the other businesses you’ve been a part of?
My advice is to be extraordinarily critical of your own abilities and skills to be an entrepreneur. What has happened with the explosion of accelerators, incubators, and angel funds, I think we’ve gotten to a point in our culture where anybody thinks they can be a great entrepreneur. That’s like thinking that anybody can be a great basketball player or anybody can be a world class pianist. It’s just not true. We are in such an era of celebrating entrepreneurship.
I just think there is a critical criterion around “Hey I’m not 6’4″. I don’t run fast. I can’t dunk a ball. Maybe I should be a basketball player.” That kind of evaluation is just not being done, and I’m seeing way too many lives hurt by people who think they can be an Olympic entrepreneur and they’re not. The advice I would give somebody would come to me is have you really really taken a measure of yourself? Are you able to withstand even the most successful companies, the absolute brain damage that comes with entrepreneurship? The ability to navigate out of the selling skill, hiring skill, people management skills, all of that somebody you don’t have it maybe just because you have an idea doesn’t make you an entrepreneur.”
What does a typical day look like for you?
“So really in the morning I go through and I go across our lines of business and our growth lines, and I try to come up with where I think there is an opportunity to congratulate or question something that is going on. The next part of the day I try to really focus on people issues by addressing concerns and questions. I really try to take to the people side of the business. And then the last half of my day is taken up by people leading calls where people need something that I can help with. I prefer to work with these issues when I first come into work.”
Do you have a routine that sets up your day?
“Yes, I’ll usually wake up an hour before anybody else in the house gets up. I’ll wake up anywhere from 5:30 to 6:00 a.m. I don’t let any message or email not be answered for 24 hours so as I said I have a zero inbox philosophy, and I’m really focused on being available so you can send me a message and I’ll likely get back to you very quickly. I also end the night the same way for the last half hour just catching up. It might be tex text of friends or others that I wasn’t able to get during the day, just to let people know that I will get back with them. I start the morning checking on the news. I’m a political junkie, I read a lot about politics, just for fun not to work.
I have to get to my email and text early because then when the kids wake up I probably spend 90 minutes with them. Usually, I’ll take somebody to school. By the time I get to my office at 8:30 or 9. I might already have zero texts and you know what that means. I can really during my work hours, focus on other people’s talking, meeting, and see what’s going on.
I then catch up again at about 4:00 p.m. and later at about 10 p.m. I try not to be out of the loop, I also try not to let the loop drag or control my day. Going out for dinner is a huge deal for me if it’s not with my kids. I’m a lot easier to get ahold of for a drink or coffee. I always try to keep 5:30-9:30 for family time. In my free time, I also really enjoy going out, listening to music, dancing, and even DJing.”
How did you get into DJing and into enjoying music like that?
“I think this may not be an unusual story, but some new friends I made invited me to Burning Man. I went to Burning Man at thirty-nine, so about eight or nine years ago. And I’d never really heard electronic music, I’d also never seen a DJ as weird as it sounds. I was fascinated by their ability to make how the people move you know in the same way and I actually didn’t – My curiosity was what are they doing up there onstage. I could tell they weren’t making music, but it kind of looked like they were making music. In any case, I went a couple of times and I told myself I want to teach myself this.
I was sitting with some friends and they were laughing at the fact that I was forty-one I wanted to teach myself DJing. I even made a bet with a friend, I said, ‘you know I’ll be professionally deejaying inside a year.’ That’s what happened last night. And that’s when I was writing MergerTech. I’d say it turned out well, I’m not getting paid for it.”
Aside from DJing, what other kinds of quirky hobbies are you into?
“I’m a producer and executive producer of a couple of documentaries both of which opened at Sundance. One of which premiered the slab dance opening night. I made my own wine in 2008 and in 2010. So I’m a hobbyist, farmer, hobbyist, movie maker, DJ.”
What is one or a few influential books that you’ve read or a website to keep up with that you would recommend to other people?
“The book that has shaped my management philosophy that I recommend to everybody is Winning by Jack Welch. I think if you even just read the title or the content the table of contents you’ll see so many of the themes that hit early on in this interview. The other book I really like is a book called Influence by Robert Cialdini. So I love that because it’s just again about being a very people focused person. I believe every business is a service, we all win in how we treat other people. I also love this book; It’s a really quick read. It’s called Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith. And finally, this interview wouldn’t be complete without me giving your book on Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by writer Larry Dossidy.
There’s another good one called a Messy Middle by Scott Belsky. And it’s also for the state we find ourselves in right it’s not a startup book. It’s the book for as soon as you’ve grown to 20 million dollars a month in revenue and you’ve gotten here being very entrepreneurial. How do you work yourself way out of this being into a more grown-up corporate entity, but without the negative aspect? I think it’s a really good book on how to get the company from the beginning- to the end, which kind of simple at the end. It’s about how you navigate through that messy middle.”
Nitin Khanna’s dedication, hard work, and perseverance have led to the growth of his M&A Advisory firm. His creative abilities have enabled him to pursue his passions while living life authentically.