The mythos of the American entrepreneur often entails two things: someone with a compelling, unique or brilliant vision who is willing to take huge personal risks to achieve them. The fact is, however, that most famous self-made business people in the United States over the last 100 years have primarily gotten to where they are through a far less romantic route, that of borrowing large sums of other people’s money.
David becomes Goliath
However, every once in a while, you encounter a true Horatio-Alger-type story of an entrepreneur who came from nothing and risked it all to pursue their singular vision. David Zalik, the founder of GreenSky , stands with Ray Kroc, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison as an American entrepreneur who is truly self-made, the product of an insane work ethic and the willingness to take risks that would leave most people neurotic wrecks.
In the mid-2000s, Zalik saw a huge opportunity to create tremendous value through connecting a high-end subset of retail consumers with instant point-of-sale loans. Zalik pitched his idea to a few banks — he knew that he did not want partners who might try to adversely influence the direction of the company’s grand strategy — but no one was willing to back up his radical idea. Eventually, Zalik made the decision to effectively reverse-mortgage his entire real estate empire, which represented his entire net worth of around $12 million. If GreenSky would have failed, Zalik would have lost an entire lifetime’s worth of accumulated wealth and would have had to start over from absolute scratch.
As it so happened, GreenSky quickly proved its worth in the marketplace. Starting out in the home improvement sector, Zalik was able to connect high-end homeowners, who typically had FICO scores in the 800-plus range, with some of the top lenders in the country. He was able to offer instant point-of-sale loans to these homeowners through the general contractors that would come to their homes and give them estimates. Because so many of these deals were falling through due to lack of customers liquidity, GreenSky instantly proved to be able to create a multi-billion-dollar-per-year market.