Nitin Khanna knows what it takes to create a successful venture. As the entrepreneur behind Saber, Mergertech, and Cura Cannabis, Khanna built some of the most successful companies in their field.
Born in India in 1971, Khanna immigrated to America at 17 to get his undergraduate and graduate degrees. He quickly saw the potential in technology. Along with his brother, he founded Saber. The company focused on providing software and services to state governments. It supports government programs as wide and diverse and voter registration and election management, motor vehicle registration, and unemployment insurance.
Under Khanna’s leadership, the company, founded in 1997, grew to 1200 employees and over $120 million in revenue by.2007. In 2008, they sold the company to EDS for $470 million. However, he wasn’t done there.
As entrepreneurs approached Khanna to get advice on how to sell their businesses, he discovered his next company. Khanna founded Mergertech, which helps connect technology start-ups with buyers and gives them the advice, representation, and tools they need for a successful acquisition. His hard work at Mergertech paid off. It went on to become the largest M&A bank in America focused on mobile technology.
Then Nitin Khanna turned his attention to the cannabis industry. In 2015, he became a co-founder of Cura Cannabis Solutions, the largest and fastest-growing cannabis company in the world in 2018. Khanna was the founder and CEO of Cura up until 2018 and since then has been its Executive Chairman. In early 2019, Khanna sold Cura to Curaleaf (just a coincidence that the names are so similar) for $950MM, in the largest M&A transaction in the cannabis industry ever.
In addition to his success as an entrepreneur, Khanna has also helped contribute to several successful companies in Portland and his native India through his investments. His investments include iSoS Inc, computer software for productivity enhancement. The company went on to win the “Innovative Idea of the Year” award by Tiecon Chandigarh.
Khanna’s eye for trends and the ability to organize and grow start-ups to successful corporations gives him unique insights and advice for entrepreneurs. We sat down with Khanna to discuss his accomplishments, suggestions for new entrepreneurs, and a look into his daily life as a CEO.
Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
“My dad was in the army, but the rest of my family was very entrepreneurial. I went on business trips with my uncles and saw cement plans, cardboard and packaging plants, and motorcycle part plans, as well as trading businesses such as import/export of wood and coal into Northern india. There was always a lot of different businesses going on around me.
I came to America when I was 17 and got my undergraduate and master’s degrees in industrial engineering from Purdue. I was actually 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. I went to work for International Paper out of school in New York. I spent a couple of years there in the mid-90s. They had a management trainee program. In it, they send you to do four different jobs for six months each, and then you’re on the plan to become a plant manager of one of their cardboard box plants. I noticed, though, in the early to mid-90s that technology and the Internet were going to be the next big thing.
So I left International Paper. I went to work for Oracle. I was there for a few years when my brother came to the US in 1999 to go to school. I asked him what he wanted to do with his career, and he said he wanted to get an MBA. When I asked why he said he wanted to make more money.
I told him, “The only way to make more money in the US is to start a business.” So he ended up not going and getting his MBA. That was when we started a software company called Saber software in 1999 when I was 25, and he was 20.
And that was how it all started.”
You’ve grown businesses in all different sectors, from tech to finance to cannabis. What led you to create these businesses?
“I’m not an ideas guy; I concentrate on the execution. Each of my companies has that in common: they’re all implementation focused.. They were all about how you could execute better than your competitors in the industry. That is the core thing that I bring to the table, execution. When you look at government consulting with Saber, for example, there are literally a hundred thousand competitors. In small tech, there are tens of thousands of competitors. What we had was nothing new, but we succeeded because Saber was well-executed.
I knew that the winners in all of these spaces would be those who could out-execute others. Take cannabis, for example. It’s a very traditional business that just so happened to be legalized recently. There are literally no ideas with cannabis, so I approached the business side first and foremost. I bring the company culture and the ability to get things done in each of my companies.
But, more importantly than that, my critical role in each company was setting the strategy: especially how we view people. 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 in terms of ensuring that my companies have the right people at Saber, Mergertech, and Cura.
Since you are people-focused in business, what advice would you give for building a successful company culture?
“The most valuable lesson I’ve learned throughout my career is that you’ve got to fire people quickly. This is both for their own sake and for your own company’s sake. Most of us are brought up to be kind, thoughtful, and to give people a second chance. We’re all in this environment where we’re not critically evaluating that.
I think in a business setting that is really deadly. What happens when somebody who shouldn’t be at your company is that they start dragging down the people around them. People who are performing better than they are watching. They’re usually thinking, “Wow, the company values this person and their values?” And I think it’s a very dangerous place to be.
Be critically focused not only on hiring well but also on terminating well. I’ve probably hired 6000 people, and what I’ve found in my career is that when you have the correct focus on terminating people, they will always come back, and thank you. If you do it with respect, if you do it with a knowledge of how hurtful that really is, if you help them find another job, if you take care of them in the interim, they will thank you. Make sure that they know they’re not bad people; they’re just not the right fit for this company. This way, you can take care of both aspects of protecting the company and its culture but also protecting the individual. You’ll find that almost everybody you fire comes back a few months later, and thank you for firing them because they’re now happier and better off.”
What makes you most excited about your job and fires you up?
“You know, it’s weird. I’m 47 now, and when we started Saber, I was 25. So, through 22 years of entrepreneurship, my favorite thing about my jobs has been identical: mentoring people. Most of the executives at Cura are performing at 10x the level they thought they were capable of performing. When somebody comes into one of my companies, within six months or a year, they come to me and go, “Wow, I didn’t think I was capable of this much output.”
I would say the second thing I get my excitement from is, again, execution. When we say we’re going to do something, we get it done. When we put a quarterly revenue target or an expansion target, we really know how to get things done. So that gives me more satisfaction than anything: to say we’ll do something and get it done. But get it done through people.”
How do you find time to mentor people? Any time-management tips?
“Every great executive I’ve ever known has almost unlimited free time. That’s one of my favorite things to tell people when I’m coaching them. I always have time. It’s incredible to watch people I coach start to build in that time into their own schedule.
It all comes down to them doing what I just talked about. You will have free time when you hired the best people for your business. You can align them with your culture and your expectations. Once you pointed them in the right direction with your vision and your mission, you can let them go execute. Then you really can put your feet up and focus on strategy, hiring more amazing people, and terminating the ones who are not aligned with your culture or execution speed!
So many executives seem to be running around so hard all the time that I don’t know when they have time to play or to plan or to strategize. For us, it’s – or rather, for me personally- time to think and strategize is incredibly important. Especially with four kids of my own, I need to manage my time very effectively. I do that by having really great people to manage through.”
How did this play out practically? What did you do in a typical work day?
“At Cura, each day, I would check where each of our businesses is. I would check on how our core business is doing. So, when we’re selling cannabis in Oregon and California and Nevada and Arizona, how are those four states doing? And then I look at the expansion. How is Michigan going? How are Florida, New Jersey, Massachusetts?
I take the early part of the morning to be thoughtful. I’ll shoot out a text, for example, “Hey, how are gummy sales in Oregon?” Or, “We were going to bring on a new supplier in California. How’s that going?” Or, “How’s our building looking in Nevada?” I lead companies by asking questions. Just one simple and yet meaningful revenue question each day really lets people know what I’m thinking about concerning them. It’s a great way to not only know how things are going but really to provide perspective to those folks.
And then I flip that over, and I think about our CBD business. How is that doing nationally? How is our online presence? How are we doing internationally? How are we doing in Canada? So really in the morning, I go through, and I go across our lines of business and our growth lines. I try to come up with where I think there is an opportunity to congratulate or question something that is going on.
In the next part of the day, I really focus on people’s issues. That can mean anything from noticing a once very happy worker that happens to look very unhappy that day to succession planning. What happens if something happens to me or another key executive? I really try to take to the people side of the business. And then the last half of my day is taken up where leaders in the company need something that I can help with.”
How does your morning routine look with four kids and a business? What does the average day look like for you?
“I’m an early riser, so I usually wake up anywhere from 5:30-6. I try to give myself an hour before anybody else in the house gets up. I’ll spend the first half-hour of my morning going over emails and text messages. I answer all messages and texts within 24 hours because I follow the zero- inbox philosophy. I focus on being available and accessible to everybody. Anyone can send me a message, and I’ll likely get back very quickly.
I spend the next half hour just checking on the news. I’m a politics junkie, Then my kids are usually up. I spend about 30 minutes with them after they wake up. Usually, I will take one or more of them to school. I get to my office around 8:30 or 9. I already have zero emails and messages, so that means my work hours focus on other people: talking, meeting, and seeing what’s going on.
I catch up on messages and emails towards the end of the workday, around 4:00 p.m. I usually check in to work again when the kids are in bed, about 10 p.m. I try not to be out of the loop, but I don’t let email or messages control my day. I’m all about being proactive with my time.
I’m pretty protective of my evening hours with my kids. That’s the one part of the day I protect pretty aggressively, between 5:30-8:30. It’s a pretty huge deal if I accept a dinner invitation or go out for dinner without my kids. I’m available but not really available, and I really don’t go out to many dinners for that reason. “
You socialize over coffee then?
“Usually, I meet others over lunch or drinks. I do. I also enjoy going out at night. I’m a DJ, so I love the late-night stuff. Dinner, 5:30 to 8:30 pm, is protected for family.”
How did you get into DJing?
“I went to Burning Man about eight or nine years ago, at thirty-nine. I’d never really heard electronic music or seen a DJ, but I was fascinated by their ability to make the people move. I went a couple of times, and I told myself I want to teach myself. I was sitting with some friends, and they were laughing when I told them. They couldn’t believe that at that forty-one, I wanted to teach myself DJing. I ended up making a bet with a friend that I’d be professionally DJing inside a year.
And that’s what happened! Now I get paid professionally to play. I usually play about once a month.”
Mentorship, Growth, and Entrepreneurship
With his focus on creating successful teams and perfecting execution, Nitin Khanna found success in a variety of sectors. His enthusiasm for mentorship has led to success not only for his mentees but also those that they, in turn, mentor. His formula for success is useful for entrepreneurs and CEOs in any industry and can be applied in a variety of contexts.
Khanna’s dedication to his workers and creating effective processes that benefit everyone have resulted in an impressive career. We can’t wait to see where he takes it next.