As a part of our series called ‘”Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Essam Abdullah.
Essam Abdullah is the founder and CEO of TaxRise Inc., the country’s fastest-growing tax resolution company. In 2018, Essam launched TaxRise and quickly grew the company to over 100 employees and $30 million in yearly revenue. His passion for finance and technology supplemented the need for investors and funding, allowing TaxRise to rise above antiquated industry giants and revolutionize the space.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory?” What led you to this particular career path?
I started in the tax relief space by circumstance. While I was in high school, I became very hands-on with my father’s tax relief company. I was involved in almost every aspect of the business, and naturally as I understood the business more, I saw so much opportunity for improving the way the tax relief industry as a whole operated. My real passion is in technology, data, and automation, and I wanted to bring that to what I saw as a very archaic industry. I met some limitations working at my dad’s company — it was a small operation of only eight people — and I knew that if I wanted to pursue my dreams and passions, I would need to go out on my own.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Honestly, every day there’s something new and exciting happening at our company. I don’t know if I would be able to even pick just one. I think, personally, the most interesting thing that happened in our company was experiencing our rapid growth over the course of just a few years and watching that transition unfold. We really went from a start-up of just four people to the second largest tax relief company in the country in the matter of a couple of years. And looking back at some of our biggest “growing pains”, it was difficult to really identify what was happening, but at a certain point things just started working in unison and created this magic.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The biggest mistake I made was thinking that I was an accountant, a sales person, and a marketer all at once. I realized so quickly the importance of having a strong team around you. But I thought that was supposed to be how it was. I always heard that entrepreneurs are supposed to be wearing all these hats and doing everything and — no. That’s not how you run a business. You need a strong team of like-minded people around you, so you can focus on what you do best.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
So, there’s a few people, but the first person who comes to mind is my business partner, John Oh. Without John, I would still be working for my dad at an eight person office. Initially, I thought the whole world was this two thousand square foot office that my dad had, and I was limited by how far I could grow it and push that office. John worked for me and my dad for a year or so at that office, and I remember after he quit he asked me to walk him out to his car. He took me aside and told me, “Sam, you’re a bird in a cage here. Whenever you’re ready to go out on your own, give me a call because I think we can do some great things together.” And exactly a year later, I called John up and told him I did it — I quit my job, signed a lease for a four hundred square foot office space and asked him to come partner with me. He was there immediately for me. I remember when he walked into the office, he saw me on the phone with the bank, while I had a client on hold, while I was trying to launch a marketing campaign and instantly knew that we needed a third — so together we hired Emily Ngyuen who is my right-hand and CFO of our company. She was able to help us get all of our finances together and really turn us into a real company.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
To be completely candid, my number one priority was always to grow and better my business. Unfortunately when you’re growing a company, you don’t always have the space in your head to think about anything other than how to keep your business afloat. To do that, I hired the most competent people that I could find to help me steer this ship. It’s funny because our executive staff is me — a Palenstinan-American man, with our VP a Korean-American man, and our CFO a Vietnamese woman. And actually as I think about it, all of our senior management is extremely diverse in terms of gender and race. I would like to say I did that on purpose, but truthfully I didn’t.
However, I think much of our success can be attributed to the fact that we are such a diverse team. My employees, my managers, my executives range from every walk of life with varying degrees of formal education and experience. We have a very diverse team at every level of our company, but truthfully, I didn’t go out of my way to make it that way.
However, I believe a large part of our initial success has come from our team’s diversity in experience and ideas. You know, I didn’t go to college, and I don’t care if or where you went to school. I just care if you can do the job, are passionate about what we’re doing, and are ready to learn. That’s who I want on my team.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
One of the things I’m most proud about my company is the fact that almost all of my upper management consists of people who started with me as entry-level employees. Our dedication to investing in our employees, promoting from within, and fostering a strong company culture directly affected the diversity of our team and in turn our success as a company. People want to learn and grow and be invested in where they work — they just need that opportunity.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
So, to answer that question — no, I can’t answer that in just a few words. But, if I had to sum it up, you need to be able to get yourself into the weeds while not getting lost in them. You, at once, need to be plugged into every aspect of your business so that you can provide proper leadership to your team while being confident enough to take a more birds-eye-view of everything that’s going on to make sure that the ship is stirred in the right direction.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
You don’t get to go golfing. You can start there. I think being CEO is often seen as being “king of the castle” and sitting at the top of the hill and that’s just not what it is. Being CEO means you are probably the most involved person in your organization. You have all the different departments, all the different moving parts running through your head at all times of the day and night. So, a huge myth is that a CEO gets to come in late, have some drinks at 4 o’clock and call it a day. Absolutely not. Even after your business is quote-unquote established or successful, the workload never decreases. If anything, it just gets more complicated and more important because all of a sudden as a CEO you’re not just responsible for your business, you’re all of a sudden responsible for the livelihood of hundreds of people.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I think the office politics that need to be navigated and the amount of time I spend on tasks and issues that I never fathomed I would need to do. So, right now as our company grows, I find myself dealing with a lot of inter-office politics and issues. I knew that there would be these types of issues in any company, but I definitely didn’t realize how involved I would need to be to make sure that my employees and clients were happy and set up for success.
And secondly, the amount of work. I really thought that I could set up a company and have that initial push of hard work and then have it to some extent run on autopilot, and that’s just not true. It is a constant push, a constant process of figuring out how to be better and how to make things more efficient.
Presumably not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Persistence. You have to be resilient. You’re going to be constantly beat up and told no. You can be the smartest person in the world, but if you’re not able to handle the constant pressure of your business or if you have other aspects of your life that take a much higher priority than it’s just not going to work. You can’t check out at any point. It’s a long grind to be an entrepreneur or an executive.
I would suggest to anyone who just wants to make a ton of money and work 9–5 go and be a software engineer — they make great money!
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Engage with your employees. You need to be constantly involved with your employees and involved with your clients. We have a “no egos” rule here. We all work together. It doesn’t matter what your job title is, at the end of the day we’re one team and every employee needs to know how valued and essential they are to the organization.
You know, one of our biggest success stories was a man named Caesar. He came to us with over a million dollars in tax debt, and we were able to reduce it to just a little over $700. But his case was not easy. It was a long and tedious process, and when he had an issue or a concern and wanted to talk to a “higher up” I jumped on the phone with him. My employees know that I’m willing to get on the phones with them. My clients know they can have personal relationships with me, and it’s created a really fantastic culture.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We actually have offices in Bangladesh, and I’m sure you know about what’s going on with the Myanmar Rohingya conflict. When we were over there setting up our offices, I wanted to get involved with the refugees there. I wanted to help as much as I could, so we went to one of the villages with boots on the ground feeding people, connecting with people, and in the end deciding to make some long-term commitments to this community. We funded a well so they could have access to clean water and provided livestock for them to be able to feed themselves.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- First — It’s non-stop.I don’t think I understood what that meant until I started my company. Every hour of every day, I think about my business. It’s all-consuming. And it has to be if you want the type of success that I do. As an entrepreneur you don’t just have to worry about yourself and your own work, everything you do has a direct impact on people’s livelihood. As a CEO, you’re choosing to take on that responsibility, and you can’t take days off from that.
- Second — If you don’t do it, your competitor is going to.If you have an idea or an innovation do not wait to act on it. Every second you wait, you’re giving your competitors the opportunity to get there before you. There’s no such thing as waiting for the right timing. There is no right timing. You either need to do or do not.
- Third — Your team is everything.I made the mistake of being naive in my early career. I trusted people too much and didn’t surround myself with people who had my best interests — and the best interest of what I was building — at heart. It wasn’t until I finally had a strong team around me that I realized how much was wasted by not trusting my gut.
- Fourth — You need to sacrifice.You have to let so much go and sacrifice so much. This is another one that I don’t think I fully understood until I was actually in the situation of starting and growing my own business. You need to be able to make sacrifices personally and financially for the betterment of your company, employees, and clients. It’s not about you anymore.
- Fifth — Once again — it’s non-stop.I have to circle back to this, because I don’t think anyone can be prepared for the amount of effort that is needed to run your business until you do it. It’s 24/7/365 just go-go-go. And not only do you have to maintain that level of energy, but you need to do it with a smile on your face. You have to go into the office and smile for your employees, go home and smile for your family, and then go to bed and, in my case, smile for your wife. So, I wish someone had taught me to be a better actor.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would put a heavier emphasis on really being fair. Maybe putting some sort of regulatory agency or institution overseeing business ethics and really making it easier for people to navigate around business relationships and competitors. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. It’s just really nasty, and I think it would make it easier for people to go out there and start businesses. It would make it more transparent for clients to trust businesses and hiring companies. I’ll definitely think about this one more, but that’s my initial thought.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
So, bar-none it’s, “if we all push in the same direction, success takes care of itself.”
And the reason it’s so important to me is that when we were growing this company, we started out with zero capital. It was really me and my team wearing as many hats as physically possible to try to get this thing off the ground.
I saw situations where I just thought to myself, “there’s no way we’re going to make it past this,” and believe it or not with a little organized chaos and everyone pushing in the same direction, it took care of itself.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Oh wow, absolutely. I would love to sit down with Elon Musk and just pick his brain. Ask him how he’s able to juggle so many cutting-edge, groundbreaking companies that are all constantly under scrutiny, all while maintaining a smile. I would really love to hear that from him. And share some of my trials and tribulations and see if he’s had the same. I’m sure every business owner has, not necessarily the same, but certain overarching issues that are similar, and it would be so insightful to get his input on how he managed to push through them.