Curtis Barton of ALKEME: How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur

by Charles Purdom

Being a founder, entrepreneur, or a business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur  we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Curtis Barton.

As CEO of ALKEME, Curtis Barton brings extensive experience in sales, marketing, management and M&A in the insurance brokerage space. Prior to ALKEME, Curtis owned his own multiline brokerage as well as co-founded an insurance lead acquisition app called Brokkrr.

 

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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?

Curtis Barton: After graduating from the University of Arizona, I decided to move to Southern California (where I grew up) to find a job. At the time, my father was retired from the insurance industry and was looking to do something with all of his free time. He asked me if I had any interest in getting into the insurance business, but I was hesitant because insurance was never a “dream job” of mine. He convinced me to help him get the company off the ground and be a part of a growing business. I figured if I didn’t like what I was doing, I could always do something else and I would get some real-world business experience and be able to build my resume. I’ve learned over the years that very few people choose insurance, and most are born into it. I was definitely the latter.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Curtis Barton: As we grew our insurance company over the years, we started to get a lot of calls about selling our business. I wasn’t really interested in selling, but one day I randomly took a call from a group that was consolidating insurance agencies, and after I hung up, I really couldn’t stop thinking about the economics that were laid out to me by the consolidator. I found myself becoming really interested in exploring a potential partnership. I was lucky to have a good friend with a background in the M&A space – so I called him and discussed what I was thinking. He quickly told me: “why sell to the consolidator when you could do that yourself and acquire companies and build it the way you want?” That was the “Aha Moment.” We decided right then at that moment to build a platform agency with our vision of growing businesses and changing the insurance industry for the better.

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

Curtis Barton: I think by nature I am born entrepreneur. I was always coming up with ways to make money when I was younger and had an ability to look at the bigger picture when it came to business. I never minded risk, which many people shy away from and is a pretty big requirement for being an entrepreneur. I found myself in an industry I wasn’t necessarily built for, but I was having great success in sales because I challenged myself to think outside of the box. I linked small successes into larger ones, and soon found that my confidence began to grow. Crazy to think that taking risk would build confidence, but it does.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

Curtis Barton: My father was, and still is the cornerstone for our business. He made sales easy, and everyone loves him. He always told me he knew I was going to find great success and empowered me to make decisions and gave me the room to make mistakes. Without his calm demeanor and steady partnership, I would not be where I am today. We worked together for 20 years until I bought him out of the business. I miss him being in the business, but he knew he needed to give me room to lead, and I wanted him to go enjoy the spoils of his success. He is a true American success story. He means the world to me.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Curtis Barton: ALKEME is a collaboration of the best and the brightest leaders in our industry. We choose to merge our seven independently owned companies together so we could achieve scale, provide better service for our clients, and create a place where people would love to work. Our company is focused on embracing the future and meeting it head on – many companies in our industry don’t embrace change, or don’t believe it will happen. Our culture, our people, and most importantly, our model, is what drives people to us. We are hyper-focused on building a company with a unified culture that gets buy-in from all of our team members no matter what position they hold.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Curtis Barton: 

Perseverance – We had a deal in hand with a capital partner pre-COVID. – when were ready to execute the deal to sell our company, COVID hit. They pulled back and pressed the pause button on us. We hired an investment banker, circled the wagons, and went back to the streets for capital. After all of the perseverance, we successfully closed our deal for a better valuation during an uncertain pandemic.

Agile – you must be nimble and agile in business, always ready to adapt and embrace change, rather than ignore it. Initially, our insurance agency was primarily focused on the construction business. When the economy tanked in the mid-2000’s we took a tremendous hit financially. We quickly got up and pivoted the business to focus on selling insurance to industries that were set to rebound quickly. From there, we developed multiple industry niches and balanced our risk.

Balance – Balance is everything in life. It is hard to balance work and our personal lives. I moved my office closer to home so I could get home quicker, be available for my kids and their activities, and be around more.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Curtis Barton: I had received advice early on when business was good to get as many employees through the door as possible and worry about sorting everything out later. I quickly realized that wasn’t the way to go and quickly adopted the strategy of “be slow to hire and quick to fire.” It sounds mean, but it’s really important to know who you’re hiring. You want to be sure they are someone you would go to battle with and fight alongside during the ups and downs of business. When people are not performing, you have to be willing to step in and let them go. Most of the time people are firing themselves by underperforming. I spent too many years bringing in the wrong people and letting them hang on. It was not good for them, or the company.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

Curtis Barton: Flexibility is key. Work with your employees to help them work to live, not live to work. Jobs are a means to an end, and you must realize no one will ever work as hard or care as much as you do. We have a flex schedule, encourage remote working, and provide a great atmosphere for those who come to the office. We make sure we are flexible with people’s schedules so they can enjoy life’s moments.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

Curtis Barton: Be straight forward and honest, even when it is difficult. People just want transparency. Say what you mean and mean what you say – that will always build trust.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

Curtis Barton: It seems like these days nobody wants to make a tough call in business. Everyone is nervous to be an open book and expose themselves to other opinions. My employees and partners know who I am and what I stand for. Even when they disagree, I know they still respect me for my ability to deliver a steady message.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Curtis Barton: Trying to be everything to everyone – it is an impossible task. Founders need to find what they are good at and then surround themselves with people who fill in their weak spots. You are only as good as the people you surround yourself with.

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

Curtis Barton: Signing the front of check is more than an action, it represents a global responsibility to those people you serve and employ. A job has a defined structure, description, and hours. When the clock strikes 5pm you pick up and go home. Founders carry work with them 24/7. You take the risk and hopefully will reap the rewards of your hard work. When you have multiple people and their families depending on you, it really becomes huge responsibility. You must prepare for it.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Curtis Barton: Recently, when we closed our deal with GCP Capital it was a big deal in the industry. When the press release went out, I sat back and felt really proud and accomplished that our team fought through adversity to get the deal done in the midst of a pandemic. It was a moment to relish, and one that I will never forget.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Curtis Barton: In 2008, we saw a sizable reduction in revenue and we had to make tough calls with staff and expenses. I felt like the walls were caving in on us every day. To this day, I still feel like it is a miracle we pulled through and were able to survive and eventually grow our business.

Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

Curtis Barton: We stayed focused on our model and made changes at that inflection point that ended up driving our business forward to predictable profitability.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Curtis Barton:

Be Bold – make tough decisions when you have to.

Be quick – Move on opportunities when they present themselves.

Be flexible – There is no manual to success, be ready for the ups and downs and enjoy the ride.

Embrace Change – Be willing to accept changes in your business as they are presented to you.

Take Risk – Calculated risks are necessary to power through the lows and experience the highs.

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Curtis Barton: We are all resilient. We are living in a complicated world with constant challenges. Never get too down, or too high – everything in business has ebbs and flows. The pandemic has changed the lives of everyone, and there is no magic wand to make it go back to normal. So, embrace the downs, adapt to them, and remain liquid so you can sustain change. Overall, don’t throw in the towel – fight hard, and win the battle.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

Curtis Barton: I had a good childhood and upbringing, so I am really blessed. I learned from my parents that everything is earned not given. I think my personality is one where people don’t shake me very often. I have an ability to believe in myself and the people around me.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

Curtis Barton: It’s impossible to always have a positive attitude in difficult situations. I just always try and make sure I provide a balanced approach to leadership. People want to be led by a leader they trust, so I encourage founders to always lead by example.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

Curtis Barton: People are drawn to positivity. We all know the magnetic person in our lives that we can’t wait to see. That’s the power of positivity. It starts with yourself first. You must be comfortable with who you are and then make a conscious effort to exude positivity.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

Curtis Barton:

“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail” – John Wooden

When I had the “Aha Moment,” if I was not prepared to accept it, act on it, and bring together our amazing team, our company would never have been formed. It all starts with a plan!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with
this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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