Ken Lin, Founder, CEO of Credit Karma Intuit’s largest acquisition $7.1B: “You are not born a leader”
What a delight to have Ken Lin share the ins and outs of his entrepreneurial journey with the HBS Club of Boston today! I very much related to his immigrant story and how his hard working parents and upbringing inspired him.
Launching his company in 2007, right before the great recession, Ken faced challenges from the start, yet led the growth of Credit Karma to 100 million members and nearly $1 billion in revenue in 2019, before being acquired in February of this year by Intuit for $7.1 billion, its largest purchase to date.
My question to Ken – what is your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?
Ken immediately shared that he learned that culture truly matters. Initially when under 100 people, culture and mission are what ran the company. As the company grew from 100 to then 600 and then to 1,300 employees, he didn’t know what scale looked like. He doesn’t think anyone is born a leader. You have to figure it out. While one can mirror and mimic leadership books, in reality, he believes that you have to find what works authentically for you.
He described how it was important to have honest conversations with his employees in order to see how the fast paced growth trajectory of Credit Karma aligned with each individual’s professional growth. Those growing faster than the company will likely go somewhere else to stay challenged. Those who are scaling slower than the company will hold others around them back and could make them want to leave! He emphasized the importance of understanding the development of people, how it shapes culture, and the importance of of being candid on this front.
Ken then told us the story of one of his biggest challenges when one day he opened a FedEx package to read a termination notice from a credit bureau which basically meant he would lose access to foundational content shaping Credit Karma. He knew he had to stay calm and reached out to everyone he knew who could help. Another area I felt kinship with Ken – believing in the importance of monumental resourcefulness in the face of challenge.
He shared wise words for leaders to remind themselves in the midst of crisis:
“You are never as bad as you think. You are also never as good as you think!
Your job as CEO is to keep in the game – in the batter’s box. And not strike out!“
In his concluding remarks, Ken shared what he realized a few years ago, that he was seeing an inverse relationship between the success of his business and his personal health. He had gained weight and wasn’t taking care of himself. He made a New Year’s resolution to correct that and make the two correlated. He vowed to run a mile for each $1 million of revenue. He made the commitment out loud with his board and his team. He ran 700 miles that year!
He encourages us to define those things that are important to us. Ken started Credit Karma after realizing the marketing agency that he had founded earlier, while doing well, wasn’t a business he truly enjoyed. He liked product and analytics, rather than being the sales person in every conversation. Being true to himself, he thought through what he had learned in his earlier career in the credit card industry, what he really loved to do, and how he could make a difference. Credit Karma has always pushed for bigger and better – now allowing over 100 million members, including the underserved and those who can most benefit, to feel confident about their finances through tools and education – all for free!
About the Author
Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a boutique management consultancy and leadership coaching firm founded in 2003, whose mission is to help companies and their leaders achieve their fullest potential.
Grace and Savvy’s Managing Director, Rich Chleboski, lead the development and implementation of strategies to support the growth of impact focused companies. Before starting Savvy, Grace held leadership roles at five high growth tech ventures that exited through acquisition or IPO. She started her career at Bain & Company and after graduating from Harvard Business School, worked in brand management at Clorox and General Mills.
Rich, her classmate at MIT, is a senior executive with three decades experience growing large and small technology firms. Throughout his career, Rich has combined technical, financial, strategy, operations, and business development skills to solve complex problems. He co-founded Evergreen Solar and as its CFO led the start-up through four rounds of VC funding, an IPO, several post-IPO financings and to a market cap of over $1 billion with more than $300 million in revenue.
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