June 14, 2018
Some entrepreneurs can be spotted a mile away. The forceful passion and undiluted energy they convey with every word gives these daring self-starter away even before they explain their entrepreneurial inclinations.
Ali Pourdad isn’t like that - at least, not outwardly. When I sat down with Ali to chat about his innovative lending agency, Progressa, his attitude was calm and measured. Still, there’s a quiet intensity about Ali that hints at the entrepreneurial genius within. You get the sense that Ali spends a lot more time listening and thinking than talking, but when he does speak, it’s worth paying attention. He might seem quiet and restrained, but his ideas are bold and limitless.
Ali started with what many viewed as an untenable business concept – certainly, the major banks seem to. Progressa responds to a growing debt problem in Canada. We’re in a recursive cycle: debt grows, banks tighten lending requirements, more people have more debt, and so on. Progressa fills the gap, bringing debt solutions to people who would otherwise have no way of recapturing their financial freedom.
So how does a cautious, calculating accounting professional solve a problem that is seemingly so risky that the banks aren’t interested? Did he implement some clever new way to leverage mobile tech and machine learning, or some other buzzworthy technological marvel?
No. Well, not at first. Progressa leverages clever tech to connect them with the right clients, but Ali didn’t bring in the data scientists or technologists until Progressa had been picking up steam for two years. Instead, Progressa began with a core competency. Building a solid team, erecting an infrastructure to support them, and developing their skills and capabilities to create a competitive edge; it’s much less expensive than investing in proprietary tech, especially at the inception stage when cash flow is the tightest.
“The idea was to figure out our core competency first, and then pivot it into something scalable,” Ali tells me. “That’s how this business of lunacy can get off the ground. Some people think it’s nuts that we lend to subprime and near-prime consumers, but we get our money back.”
Ali continues, “It’s a lot less to do with smarts than most people think. It’s probably a lot more to do with building the right team at the right time, and learning how to motivate that team and manage that team.”
Ali is systematic, focused and organized. Big ideas are broken down into small, sensible steps, and risks shrink from there. This started with his network. Throughout his years on the 15-to-18-hour-a-day treadmill of accounting, he gained friends and mentors who could provide exactly the sort of insight needed to lend stability to his vision. Ali still considers his time as a chartered accountant one of the most important assets in his entrepreneurial journey. “I still consider myself a CA today,” he assures me.
There’s a reassuringly metered calmness to the way Ali explains the inception and growth of Progressa, but so much of his serenely rational approach hinges on his work ethic.
“I don’t think you can teach work ethic; I think you can observe it from outside,” he tells me. Ali believes that a solid work ethic comes from surrounding yourself with irrepressible professionals whose actions and attitudes can be emulated and internalized through immersion. And once you get going, there’s no stopping.
“You don’t have a choice as an entrepreneur,” Ali states casually. “It’s the difference between failure and success. Treat every day like tomorrow the doors will be closed.”
All this hard work is staggeringly effective. Most entrepreneurs, business owners – even middle-management professionals in stable corporate environments – have the same sort of reaction when you ask them if they’d do anything differently, given the opportunity to start over. Not Ali.
“I wouldn’t do anything differently.”
It’s a bold statement expressed with calm conviction. Ali’s research, networking, and systematic approach have created an excellent roadmap.
The work ethic and the results are familiar, but everything else about Ali’s calm, calculated approach deviates from the go-get-‘em paradigm we’ve come to expect of entrepreneurs. All the pieces are the same – the networking, the time management, the team-building, and the iron will – but they’re executed so differently they appear foreign when Ali outlines his journey.
There’s no one way to succeed as an entrepreneur, and Ali is an invigorating reminder that no single type of person owns the rights to entrepreneurship – and that hard work, strong ideas, and systematic problem solving can have the same impact as big ideas and big money.
There’s another side to this particular coin, though, as Ali reminds me. Ideas and hard work are nothing without the sort of meticulous planning a CA can bring to the table.
“If you look around British Columbia, I’m sure there’s gold under these mountains – but that doesn’t mean it’s viable to go and mine it.” Planning is the difference between a targeted mining operation, and a group of men roaming the province with dynamite and high hopes.
“[Since] the age of 16 or 17, I probably have over 100 business plans. You create them, you go and test them, and you take them to your mentors,” Ali explains. “In the case of Progressa… It was clear that there was a major market opportunity, and we needed to tackle it properly and in a systematic way.”
What of the other 99 business plans? Most exist only as documents somewhere on Ali’s computer. That doesn’t matter now: he’s realizing his vision and potential in Progressa.
Even so, Ali hesitates for the first time in our conversation when I inquire about that vision, and where it leads.
“Five years is going to be a very different landscape in Canada. If debt continues in the direction it’s going, I suspect we’ll have a lot more competition.”
Ali trails off for a moment before continuing. “...But I don’t think that far ahead. I don’t think five years ahead anymore, I’ve made that mistake before. Because in a startup environment… everything that [you] forecast, nothing is even remotely close. Five years… too much changes on an annual basis. I can tell you where we’ll be next year, but I can’t tell you where we’ll be in five years. I don’t want to guess.”
This isn’t a concern for Ali. His passion for his customers and his team, as well as his guiding principles and ethics are already paving the way for future success, and for the financial success of those whom he offers a second chance.
“Companies all over Canada are starting to realize ‘No, Progressa’s different,’ ” Ali tells me. He knows that he has something here: a way to help strengthen Canada through its most financially vulnerable.
Thanks to Ali Pourdad for taking the time to sit down with me and have a conversation about Progressa, entrepreneurship, and his journey.
There’s always more to a story than can fit on a page. Get in touch today to learn more about my story, or to find out how I can help change yours for the better.
Shane Gagnon is the Director of Clarity Recruitment Vancouver, with six years of experience in the industry. This is his personal blog, where you can expect to find not only insights from his endeavour to disrupt the recruitment industry, but also a glimpse into his pursuit of a satisfying career for himself and the finance/accounting professionals of Vancouver. Join Shane for each new post, as he reveals the journey that brought him here, and where he plans to go next.