As part of my series about the “How to Navigate and Succeed in the Modern World of Finance,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeremy M. Kroll.
As president, co-CEO, and co-founder of K2 Integrity, Jeremy M. Kroll is responsible for charting the firm’s growth strategy, including market development, strategic partnerships, and acquisitions. With more than two decades of investigative and leadership experience, Jeremy has led K2 Integrity since its inception in 2009 through its growth into an internationally recognized firm with six offices across the United States and Europe.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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?
In 1972, my parents, Lynn and Jules, had a vision to create a private sector solution to save jobs, reduce fraud, and create comfort and trust in the purchasing arena for the printing industry. It was the industry my grandfather was in, and at the time, it was ripe for corruption. I consider my folks social entrepreneurs, genuinely focused on the purpose behind the business and how to make the world a better, more transparent, and safer place to do business. Unheard of then, de rigueur now. Jules fought to innovate in areas where people didn’t know they needed the help and, along the way, was relentless in upholding the original purpose behind the business.
I entered the industry through osmosis, with a great deal of exposure to the business and entrepreneurial journey from sitting around the kitchen table. Initially, I had zero interest in getting into the business myself (let alone working in an office). I always loved hands-on and creative jobs — like when I was a film location scout — that that enabled me to interact with people and share a work product. I started out trying to make it as an entrepreneur in the entertainment industry, bringing mixed media entertainment experiences to the NYC suburbs, but that didn’t pay the rent. Through that venture I was exploring, I kept bumping up into a lot of corruption, just like Jules did all those years before. My parents didn’t pressure me to get into the risk management business, but suddenly it was a natural fit.
My first case was incredibly interesting (in fact, it was made into a Matt Damon movie) and from that experience I committed completely to the industry, eventually realizing my entrepreneurial spirit and desire to be in business with Jules by launching K2 Integrity in late 2009 and Kroll Bond Rating Agency in 2010.
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?
On one of my first cases, I was asked to review thousands of checks stored in several bankers boxes in search fraudulent activity. At the time, I wasn’t used to working with numbers, and, after I spent hours and hours scanning these checks, I realized I was reviewing the wrong sequences and amounts. For someone who was billing hourly, this was a pretty massive mistake and I had to write-off all of the time.
The lead investigator, and my mentor at the time, was blunt, firm, and tough on me. He made me redo the work, but also explained what I missed and how to do it better next time. He was more concerned with my development than with confronting the boss’s son. I was made fun of back at the office, but I was taught something important. Mistakes can be the most powerful learning (and teaching) moments.
To this day, I think about and am grateful for the beauty that can happen in professional matchmaking; the right kind of mentoring can pave the way for your future career path.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I am 50 years old, so instead of podcasts there were books on tape, which I couldn’t stand!
I loved listening to stories on the family record player (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne) and comedy routines (“The 2,000-Year-Old Man” with Mel Brooks & Carl Reiner). Listening to great storytellers expands one’s horizons, frees the mind to wander, and allows the visualization of information in very different ways than reading…not better, just different.
Reading for pleasure, yet still allowing room for critical thinking and acquiring useful information, was a turning point in my development. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series was a book that helped activate my imagination, think skeptically, and find the humor in things that are beyond our control. By the way, it started as a radio series on the BBC, so maybe it would make for a decent podcast.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The common thread through all our work at K2 Integrity is to give businesses the tools to better understand and manage risk. With our help, they can lead with confidence in this complex world — building organizations that are safer, more transparent, and more resilient.
One thing I’m excited about is how we as practitioners can develop better, stronger, faster, and more ethical tech solutions. For example, AI and machine learning shouldn’t be feared or mistrusted if developed by the right people. Ultimately, if done right, these technologies can help protect humans, increase trust, and reduce friction in the systems.
Thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the central focus of our discussion. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
It comes down to increasing trust and enabling organizations to act with integrity.
Corruption is an eternal problem in all businesses, organizations, and jurisdictions — of course, some more than others. There will always be bad actors seeking to take advantage of new opportunities and vulnerabilities. At K2 Integrity, we believe that by enabling organizations to act with integrity, we can increase trust in institutions and promote prosperity and growth throughout the world.
Our six core values as a firm are: teamwork, open and honest communication, discipline, integrity, accountability, and working together to make a difference. We do our best to adhere to them and they frame our decision making. We do not always succeed, but we try to accept and learn from those times when mistakes are made.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Community is critical, but building community in a company, let alone in society, is more challenging than ever. Communities are built upon shared experiences, overcoming challenges, and resilient relationships. Trust, compassion, and communication allow for common ground and respect when not everyone agrees, whether internally with your staff and colleagues, or with a current or prospective client. Building community will generate the best, most sustainable outcomes for all parties.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
Absolutely: word of mouth, reputation building, and having constant touch points. Leads come not just from the outside world, but from the “internal marketplace” within your company. The stars do at times align and you have a competent, trusted person with the right experience and a successful track record capable of convincing a customer, or a colleague, to give you a shot.
I would also say to never underestimate anyone. You don’t know if someone could be a potential client or could lead to future referrals. Help people unconditionally whenever you can — it’s not just the right thing to do, but you never know where it could lead you.
If a fellow business leader would ask you for advice about whether to bootstrap or to look for VC capital, how would you help them weigh the pros and cons of that decision?
If you have the instinct to start a business, the most important decision — other than getting started — is to determine what kind of leader you want to be. Part of identifying your leadership style is understanding when and how you need help and admitting that; this could lead you to when/how to explore funding models.
When it comes to identifying an investor, capital is only part of the equation. Look at that person as if you were identifying a life partner — who do you want next to you when things are going well, as well as when they go sideways? Who will be there to support you and stand by the business? There will always be surprises when you’re starting a company, so it’s critical to find investors who are aligned with your values, personality, and sense of loyalty.
What measure do you use to determine the value of a company? What advice would you give to other leaders about how to get an optimal evaluation of their business?
I love dogs and look to them for inspiration (as opposed to investment bankers and financial engineers). Therefore, I use the “dog food” method to measure the value of a company. Just because a dog is hungry, doesn’t mean they will eat the food in front of them. Dogs will eat what they like, or they won’t eat. The marketplace is like a dog and will tell you whether or not you have a valuable company.
Best way to create optimal valuation for your business is to work like a dog to keep the market happy and coming back for more!
What would you advise to a founder who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Don’t get stuck in your ways, be open to listening to diverse voices. For instance, listen to the youngest people in the room and give them the space to come forward. They are closest to what’s next and can help guide future directions. This is one of the main reasons that crypto came to our attention at K2 Integrity more than seven years ago, our fintech business is rapidly growing, and our team has the leading reputation in the marketplace.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Pick and choose your assignments and do so with some rigor. Don’t lose your moral compass or stretch your values because you’re desperate for work. Sometimes the most powerful thing to do is to turn away business, which can be a massive challenge for start-ups, but also pay dividends.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to succeed in the modern business world? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Find the right mentor early on. An effective mentor challenges you, makes you question everything, will help you learn and give you honest and constant feedback. These people are incredibly important whether you are new and learning the ropes, building a business, or identifying investors
- Don’t assume anyone knows who you are, what you do, or what the value of it is. You’ll have to continually prove yourself. Reputation is not built over night, but it is your most powerful tool. Never stop working to build on it.
- Learn from your mistakes quickly and recalibrate. Part of an entrepreneur’s journey is that we don’t always get it right and embracing mistakes is an essential building block. Learning from mistakes and evolving quickly is critical. And as you figure out your path forward, or laterally, triangulating decisions with your core values will never steer you in the wrong direction.
- Take care of your culture and your people. You can have the best ideas and intentions, but the fact of the matter is the people you have with you are the ones who will bring your ideas to reality alongside you. Try to find ways to fulfill the cultural needs of your business and the needs of your people and keep challenging your team to lead the way.
- Make sure your investors are aligned with your vision and values. Investors are more than just capital: they’re a source of mentorship and can add business value in many ways. They can help fill specific gaps with expertise in different areas of your business. Remember, they’ve backed your company and have a very vested interest in your success.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
We’ve been living through the greatest public health crisis in over a century. We are all burned out. It’s harder than ever to envision how one can thrive when all one is trying to do is survive.
Winston Churchill once remarked, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Throw out your five-year career plan, create a six to 12-month plan, focus on your accomplishments to generate momentum, and surround yourself with positive, supportive people.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
When I was younger, I was given tremendous opportunities to travel, experience the world, and see what life was like outside my immediate surroundings. It informed my decisions and without a doubt shaped who I am as a business person and human being. That kind of access was transformative. It would clearly benefit individuals, as well as the global community, if we could all have those kinds of opportunities to meet and learn from others in circumstances different from our own. I would back a movement to give more young people this kind of experience. I know it can change lives.
How can our readers follow you online?
The best way is to follow me on LinkedIn, we also update our website regularly with amazing content and insights.