As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Fox, President & Founder of Confirmation, part of Thomson Reuters.
Brian Fox is president and founder of Confirmation, the trusted global provider of digital confirmations that sold last year to Thomson Reuters. He is recognized as the creator of electronic confirmations, and holds several patents on electronic audit confirmations.
Brian is an industry thought-leader and frequent speaker on accounting and fraud issues. He has been named four times as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting,” is a five-time winner of the accounting profession’s “Top 40 Under 40 CPA in America,” and was named as an Entrepreneur of the Year in Nashville.
Prior to Confirmation, Brian worked in audit for Ernst & Young LLP and in mergers and acquisitions for PriceWaterhouseCoopers. He is also one of the founders and a board member of Rivio.com, a joint-venture between the AICPA and Confirmation. He also serves as a mentor in the Inc. 500 Military Entrepreneurs Mentor Program, the Jumpstart Foundry, and the Nashville Entrepreneurship Center and is on the advisory board for the Nashville Capital Network. Brian is also a member of the AICPA and The Tennessee Society of CPA’s.
Brian completed his MBA at Vanderbilt University’s and received a BBA in Accounting from Southern Methodist University.
Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m a CPA by trade, and worked for Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers before starting my own company, Confirmation. In the mid-90s I saw the auditing profession moving from being paper-reliant to exploring electronic options, with the exception of processes that touched third parties (called audit confirmations). Audit confirmations typically took six to eight weeks to complete, and were easily susceptible to manipulation and fraud. Using the nascent internet, I realized I could create a secure clearing-house for audit confirmations that reduced turnaround time to near real-time, all while eliminating or reducing the opportunity for fraud to occur. I was in business school at Vanderbilt when my father died in a hiking accident, and I used his life insurance policy as the seed-capital for Confirmation.
The timing could not have been much worse, as I was a 20-something CEO of a pre-revenue internet business right as the dot-com bubble burst. My partner and I made our final pitch to a lead investment group on Sept. 7, 2001, just four days before 9/11 happened and all of our funding dried up. I moved the business into my grandmother’s garage, and for two years, four of us worked for equity while I used all my savings to pay expenses and borrowed money from my mom and in-laws to live. We had to be very creative those first few years to weather the storm, and eventually, we made it to the point where the market opened back up and we were able to attract outside investment.
We’ve grown significantly since the early days, and at the time Thomson Reuters acquired us in 2019, we had millions of users in 174 countries and offices in 15 countries.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Early on I became suspicious that two of my partners were up to something fishy. It turns out, they stole money from me after they got involved with each other — while both were married. Instead of trusting my instincts, I trusted that two people, who I considered friends, wouldn’t do that to me. It almost ruined my business — and to make matters worse, I didn’t have the resources to go after them. My mentor pointed out that no one would invest in an early-stage business that was involved in a lawsuit, so I had to simply let it go. “Trust your instincts” was the lesson I learned, and to always put the business first, not your emotions. I knew something wasn’t right, and once I looked into it my suspicions were confirmed — but I had to put the business first instead of pursuing a personal vendetta. It’s not always easy, but try not to let your emotions get the best of you. Successful business owners and entrepreneurs must always think strategically and play the long game.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill is an audiobook I’ve listened to many times since I was a teenager. The catch is that the book isn’t about material wealth per se, but about finding joy and purpose and giving it all you’ve got. I’ve encouraged my children to listen to the book, as well as every entrepreneur who asks me what they should read. My favorite version is the one that has outtakes of Napoleon Hill talking and reading parts of the book himself. You can just hear the passion in his voice.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My vision and purpose for Confirmation has always been to help the good guys catch the bad guys. For over 100 years the audit confirmation process has been broken. Confirmation helps the auditors and regulators catch financial fraud, instead of being the ones who miss it. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners’ bi-annual report states that simple accidents uncover financial fraud more often than external auditors. I love my profession and believe that what we do is honorable. I want CPAs to be the heroes, the ones who catch the bad guys, those protecting the public’s interest.
My mom and brother were both police officers, and I believe that Confirmation is my way of helping put criminals in jail. In the last 20 years, Confirmation has helped do just that, while catching billions of dollars in fraud in the process. One of the frauds we caught — the Peregrine Financial Group fraud — is now an episode of CNBC’s American Greed called “The Falcon and the Con Man.”
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
“Never give up.” That is how my entrepreneurship professor Germain Boer always signed his emails. I wrote my business plan in his class, and it is he who encouraged me to start Confirmation while I was getting my MBA. He even became one of my investors. Additionally, perseverance and the ability to creatively solve problems fast with incomplete information are some of the most important keys to being a successful entrepreneur.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
For entrepreneurs today, I compare this time most closely to what took place in 2000/2001 when we all knew the internet bubble was going to pop, but no one knew when, and then 9/11 happened. In 2020, we all knew the extended bull run we were on was soon to come to an end, and then we were hit with COVID-19.
I always tell would-be entrepreneurs that life happens at the same time you’re running your business. You have a family to care for and a business to care for. Hug and love your family, provide leadership at home and work, and minimize your expenses at both to help weather the storm. Real leaders lead from the front. You must be willing to take the first arrows. Lead by example as people respect actions more than words. The same holds true for family. I have found that waking up early to read my bible, exercising, and then knocking out emails or research before my family gets up is a great way to keep myself energized and move the business forward while allowing time for me to focus on my family.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The number one challenge I believe we face is the inability to meet our customers or potential customers in person. Businesses should be built on trust, and it is always easier to talk to someone over the phone or via video call later after you’ve met them in person.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Stop reading the news constantly and turn off the TV. Go for a walk together or take a family bike ride. Get outdoors to breathe some fresh air and feel the sun. Get some exercise. Play family board games. Eat right, drink water, and ensure you get seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
None of this is rocket science. I believe there is no standing still — we are either moving in the right direction or the wrong direction. I’ve found that when I’m the most stressed and anxious, getting back into a healthy routine helps me regain the energy I need to focus on my family and my business.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
In any downturn, we see great new businesses and ideas come to fruition. Some of the people who find themselves with more time on their hands will use this as an opportunity to run with an idea that they’ve always had or to do something better. Many of the most successful businesses were started in economically tough times by tenacious entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity and ran with it.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
We will all be more prepared the next time around. We will view our preparations, the way we set up our businesses, our business resumption plans, our cash reserves, our supply chain, remote working, and data access capabilities, all through the lens of our experiences. The current pandemic will most definitely shape how, where, and with whom we choose to do business.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Once we are able, we will get back in front of the customer. Building real and lasting relationships is best done in person. Phones and technology can help augment a business relationship, but they can’t replace the trust and personal relationship you build with someone by meeting them and spending time with them in person.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I believe people are looking forward to getting back to the office. More importantly, they are ready to get back to living. As soon as it’s safe and possible, I encourage business owners to open up shop again. I encourage patrons to get out and support the businesses that you love. Get back to doing the activities you love doing. I believe everyone is looking forward to doing just that, and in doing so, we will help the world get back on its feet.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Trust the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. Acknowledge Him in all your ways and He will make straight your path.” Proverbs 3:5. I believe that win or lose, succeed or fail, that I am called to run the best race I can with everything I have and to trust God with the results. When we love others, lead sacrificially, and try to accomplish more than we ourselves can possibly do on our own, then God is glorified.
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