Raleigh FINTECH Pioneer: Brian Hamilton

Brian Hamilton, founder of Sageworks, a pioneer in the FINTECH industry as well as the Raleigh, North Carolina start-up community, talks about the company that he built over 20 years ago and recently decided to sell to Accel-KKR, a private equity firm based in Menlo Park, California, with about $4 billion invested in various companies.

Two key lessons shared, by Brian, during the interview: (1) Stay focused on client feedback to build great products, while gaining solid competitive insights, and, (2) A positive culture comes from both within as well as outside of the office walls. Sageworks benefited from the geography’s entrepreneur-friendly environment, large intellectual talent base and Southern hospitality.

Brian Hamilton, founder of Sageworks
Innovate Raleigh has a mission to make the Triangle one of the top centers for innovation and entrepreneurship in the country. Brian Hamilton, founder of Sageworks, a pioneer in the FINTECH industry as well as the Raleigh, North Carolina start-up community kicks off our series of interviews with Distinguished Raleigh Entrepreneurs.

Considering Brian’s story, we began our conversation with a simple question:

Question: Are entrepreneurs born with the talent or can the talent be taught?

Answer: Both. Many people talk about being entrepreneurial as teenagers who ran a landscaping business or a delivery business. They talk about having a fire in their belly to succeed or an intelligence level that allows them to see what others need. Yes, an entrepreneurial spirit includes an insatiable wonderment of how things can be improved, created or delivered.

However, an entrepreneurial spirit is not enough, as seen by the high rates of business failure. The odds are stacked so precariously high toward failure, because of the difficulty that one has in assessing the information they have, identifying the information that they need and acting on the information that is on point for the end goal of their business vision.

“With time and experience, I now realize that being able to identify the required information and the required insights is a learned skill and it is what differentiates the entrepreneurial spirit from the successful entrepreneur.”

A great example comes from the early disappointments that Sageworks experienced with partnerships they developed with Citibank and Intuit. These failures represented one of the toughest lessons for Brian’s leadership. Who could have imagined that entities like Citibank and Intuit would not be hugely successful partners? However, they turned out to be “false positives” that resulted in the re-evaluation of the Sageworks market strategy. Fast forward and Sageworks worked with different markets revealing different product offerings. Some ten years ago, they found themselves invited to submit RFPs from client markets that they did not previously identify for themselves. This focused pivot, to meet the needs of banks wanting credit risk and loan services, took the company to a level of success and valuation that ultimately led to its recent sale to Accel-KKR, a private equity firm based in Menlo Park, California, with about $4 billion invested in various companies.

Building a business is hard work and it takes time. While there are certainly stories of billionaire status at the age of 25, such accomplishments are far from the norm. Admiring the work of Bobby Martin in his book “The Hockey Stick Principles”, Brian urges entrepreneurs to focus on the proven processes behind launching a good idea and to persevere through the inevitable challenges that will take place.

“My advice to today’s entrepreneurs: Give yourself time. Explore. Learn. Test. Surround yourself with wise advisers. Bootstrap it for as long as you possibly can and remain in control of your vision. Build the company that you are destined to create. With the upward trend in the Raleigh startup community, you will see more sources of funding and business advisement during the coming years.”

Brian obtained his MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and chose to stay in Raleigh ever since. He speaks about the pro-entrepreneurial environment in Raleigh and his belief that for a young entrepreneur who wants to start and grow a business, there is no better place to do so than the Research Triangle Park (RTP) area in North Carolina.

“Friendly people. Nice people. These may sound like greeting card colloquialisms. Yet, we all know, working with nice people or with friendly people, makes a difference. When compared to other incubator hubs, Raleigh combines the best of the elements required to stack the odds in favor of entrepreneurial success.”

Brian’s advice reflects the journey that he created for himself. He came to Raleigh for an education; However, he stayed in Raleigh for a rewarding personal and professional life.

What is next for Brian Hamilton? Over the coming year, Brian hopes to take the North Carolina non-profit that he founded in the 1990’s nationwide. Inmates to Entrepreneurs assists formerly incarcerated individuals in starting their own businesses, by providing resources, mentorship and hope.

As Sageworks began with a vision to simplify the functions of financial analysis for small businesses, Brian’s next year will include simplifying an alternative path for individuals trying to establish financial stability and success for themselves.