What it Means to Build a Thriving Business with Katie Neilson

By Tara Spalding, Founder and President of Hen House Ventures

Katie Neilson is the co-founder and CRO of Assure, which she created in 2012 with her partner in business and life, Jeremy Neilson. Katie, a master of strategy and operations whose work ethic and organizational capacity are the stuff of legend, both within Assure and within her family! Assure is the pioneering industry leader of administrative services for the private investment community, structuring and managing more special purpose vehicles and new venture fund deals than anyone else in the market.

Why did you start Assure?

To be honest, Assure started itself! My co-founder Jeremy and I were just the tools it used. In 2012, Jeremy and I had launched a small boutique financial services business with a few small clients -- and one big one, the U.S. Small Business Administration -- when we got a call from AngelList, an investment platform with the stated mission of democratizing private investing. AngelList leadership asked whether we had the capability to set up Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) entities in bulk. SPVs are LLC structures that allow organizers to pool investors together within a single entity, which then invests the pooled capital into a specific asset. This asset is usually a startup company, but it could also be technology, bio-meds, real estate or even art -- really any private asset with a perceived value.

Sounds exciting, right? For us, it was! Jeremy and I had just come out of two years without steady or reliable employment, so when AngelList called, we said, "Yes! of course we can!" Then we dove in head first and figured out how to make it happen. Within a few days, we were off to the races. We completed 60 transactions in the first six months. When we could see that this didn’t seem to be a flash in the pan, we started hiring a team to help us manage what is now more than 900 deals per year. We have spent the past 7 years figuring out and refining the details of transaction structuring, including back-office, legal, tax accounting and compliance, to set up and manage these private investing structured vehicles, and building custom tech to scale the business.

When in your life did you realize that you would become a leader

and entrepreneur?

Candidly, it has really only been in the last 6 months that it fully dawned on me that I needed to become a more visible part of the private investment community, and start sharing my knowledge and experiences.

Up until then, I had been behind the scenes, deep in the weeds of the business. That's where I am most comfortable and tend to thrive. I like solving problems, seeing things get accomplished, strategizing, and improving systems and processes.

I am now learning how to come out of my shell and to be more publicly visible. I am an introvert by nature, so I’m not sure if I will ever be completely comfortable in the public spotlight, but I’m being brave and saying “yes" to things that I would have instinctively avoided in the past. I have been working to develop confidence in my new surroundings. I credit some of my progress to a few excellent coaches and mentors I have been working with. Kris Plachy, who focuses on female entrepreneurs has really helped me understand how I think, where my thoughts are coming from, and how to change those thoughts in order to accomplish what I need to get done. In addition, I have also been working with Casey and Julie from Vital Voice Training, to help overcome any discomfort with verbal communications.

How did you create a thriving business and ecosystem?

We have created our business and ecosystem one day at a time, one challenge at a time. From the beginning, Assure’s fit in the market was so strong that we couldn't really aggressively market our products without overwhelming our operation. All of our sales came through referrals from existing clients. The market has been driving and steering this business and we’ve been along for the wild ride.

A few years ago, clarity came while reading a book titled, "The Boys in the Boat.” It is about the American rowing team competing at the 1836 Olympics in Berlin. Perfect teamwork is everything. If one person is off, it slows down the boat or takes it off course. At that point in Assure’s early development, my co-founder Jeremy and I were working 80-hour weeks. We had less than 10 employees, it was tax season, and we were simultaneously taking care of my elderly parents while trying to be good parents to our four children.

Something had to give. We had to figure out how to accomplish our relentless work flow for an assortment of clients with demands that seemed endless and sometimes impossible. Our team members were working really hard, but not smart -- independently, not together. We had to break things down, readjust the workload, take time to get away from the office and disconnect, make a new plan and then press forward, working constantly to become a better team. And we did it. And we continue to do it! There’s a true expression, "Success is sometimes having one more patch than you have holes in your inner tube." We have felt that way many times.

What is the secret behind your success?

Both in our business and in our personal lives, success is all about collaboration. My co-founder and I are not only partners in business; we are also a married couple raising five children, where our fifth child is Assure! Jeremy and I each have strengths that complement each other. We have to spread out the work and do it all together.

Another book that I enjoy is "Rocket Fuel," which proves that you need to have both visionaries and integrators. Like how a rocket needs fuel to get off the ground and go fast, every visionary needs an integrator to move their ideas forward. At Assure, Jeremy is the visionary and I am the integrator. We are so lucky that our relationship fits this pattern so well.

For instance, Jeremy hates to schedule his day or week out, while I schedule our lives out to the minute because I want to feel calmness within my day and week. I am responsible for us moving forward and accomplishing things. Another example is with how we prepare for meetings. He likes to go in and wing it. I crave structure, like an agenda to follow, closing with action items. We have a way of working together that creates unity between us. If we are not in sync with one another at Assure and at home, then confusion sets in. Day in and day out, our complementary skills make us both better, and they make Assure better too.

Where do you see Assure in 5 years from now?

We will have an end-to-end enterprise platform that will give founders, deal organizers, and investors all of the tools they will need to do everything they need to get done. It will help them to raise money, structure investment vehicles, invest in private assets and manage those investments throughout the entire lifecycle of their project, funds and even their careers.

What advice do you have to women who aspire to build a thriving organization like yours?

Hang in there! That idea might sound simple, but in practice it doesn’t always feel that way. There are a lot of ups and downs in business and other areas of life. Once you figure out one challenge, another challenge will arise. Don't give up! Especially now, be resourceful, creative and patient, and cherish each challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow as a person and as a leader.

Who are your real life heroes?

My real-life heroes are my five sisters, who basically raised me. I am number seven of nine children. My sisters have taught me love, compassion, strength, assertiveness, kindness, integrity, and fortitude. They are the greatest gift my late parents could have given me.

What is your most treasured possession?

I am really not attached to things. I must confess that I do love climbing into bed with freshly changed sheets. But my favorite possession is my Ugg boots! They keep my feet so warm during winter! My husband might hate how they look, but warm feet make me soooo happy -- especially when I’m watching my children play outdoor sports in Utah's unpredictable weather.

But, far and away what I treasure most in life are my husband and our four children! I am such a serious person. They make me laugh, and tease me about working all of the time. They love me even when I am at my most grumpy.

What is your motto?

She believed she could, so she did!

What do you value most in your friends?

I feel most comfortable with friends with whom I share common experiences and who truly listen.

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