Portland-based Entrepreneur, Nitin Khanna Is Bound and Determined
Nitin Khanna, CEO of Mergertech, a Mergers and Acquisitions advisory company that provides tech consulting services through global relationships and quality expertise from its team. The dedicated entrepreneur got his start working at Oracle and in paper manufacturing after graduating from Purdue. The Portland-based entrepreneur has endured a long road to success while simultaneously pursuing his passions.
Nitin Khanna was born in Himachal Pradesh, India, a province in the north of the country where the foothills of the Himalayas give way to the monstrous mountains that lie behind them. His father was a colonel in the army, and many in his family were entrepreneurs themselves, which no doubt inspired him.
As a boy, he spent time around various business enterprises such as a cement plant and a motorcycle parts factory. And, though it might not have looked like it at the time, he was recording everything he saw and developing philosophies that would one day become a blueprint for his own enterprises.
At age eight, Khanna went to The Lawrence School – an independent boarding school in Sanawar, India, named for the hill on which it resides. The Lawrence School is ranked among the finest boarding schools in all of India and made history in 2013 when it became the first in the world to send a team of seven students to climb Mt. Everest. The school’s motto – “Never Give In” – would also become a source of inspiration for the young boy with huge aspirations.
Growing and Changing
When asked many years later what advice he’d give his younger self, Khanna said: “I would tell my younger self not to be anxious and to be steady and patient; work hard and be fair in all your dealings. Keep your eye on your goals, plan your work, and work your plan.”
At age 17, Nitin Khanna made the move to the United States and attended Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, where he majored in industrial engineering. He also got his master’s degree in the same discipline. He briefly entertained thoughts of working on a doctorate degree in robotics, but Khanna was done with studies and ready for work. He had had enough of the theoretical; it was time to put his knowledge into practice.
Envisioning, Starting, and Growing a Business
International Paper was the first rung on Nitin Khanna’s ladder. He was accepted into the company’s two-year management trainee program, where he spent time in four different positions for a duration of six months each. The program would ultimately prepare him for a prominent position as the manager of a cardboard box plant. But after two years of managing that plant, Khanna was ready for more.
In the early to mid-1990s, it was apparent that technology and web-based business would be the next big thing. Khanna saw it coming before most. He began working for Oracle in 1995 and left in 1998, to pursue a new business endeavor with his brother, Karan Khanna who wanted to get his MBA in the US. Nitin Khanna disagreed with this philosophy and told his brother, “I think the way to make more money in the U.S. is to start a business.” He quickly decided to take his own advice.
Nitin Khanna, along with his younger brother, started Saber Software in 1999 and spent the next decade growing the business. It’s hard to plan for luck, and many would say you make your own. But regardless of how it happened, Saber Software had some early good fortune.
Many probably remember the Bush vs. Gore debacle in the 2000 election. As a result of that embarrassing stalemate, the government passed a law – the Help America Vote Act – which was signed in 2002 and required all states to modernize their election systems by 2006 using electronic software. Saber and Khanna were in the right industry at the right time and hungry for success. Oregon was the first state to issue a procurement and make changes to satisfy this new law. Saber won that contract, and other states quickly followed. In total, Saber had 21 states using its software to manage all aspects of the voting process.
The Growth and Success of Saber Corp and Mergertech
Saber would have more success, getting its software into the DMV and child welfare systems. It eventually became the largest standalone provider of state government software solutions in the country. Khanna had helped grow the company to more than 1,500 employees and more than $300 million in yearly revenue, before selling the company to EDS in 2008.
During his brief time at EDS, which was eventually acquired by HP in 2009, Khanna led eight merger and acquisition transactions – exactly the experience he needed to one day begin a new, bigger venture, though he didn’t realize it at the time. The one thing he did realize was that he needed a new challenge.
Khanna had grown fond of Oregon, and particularly Portland, during his time with Saber, which may explain why he became an angel investor. “I wanted to help Portland succeed as much as possible,” says Khanna, “so I invested in 40 to 50 companies over a two- to three-year timeframe.” What Khanna discovered was that other entrepreneurs were interested in his merger and acquisition experience. More to the point, they wanted his advice. “After Saber and EDS, what I found,” says Khanna, “was that all these guys had questions and began coming to me, asking when they should sell their companies. They weren’t asking about HR or sales. They wanted to know how we had gotten such a nice outcome in terms of selling the company.”
The idea for MergerTech was born, and the company officially began operations in 2009. The company is an international mergers and acquisitions advisory firm that helps technology entrepreneurs maximize their outcome by finding the ideal financial or strategic partner. Khanna has been the CEO since 2009. As MergerTech’s lead strategist and negotiation advisor, he helps lead the company’s growth and client development. It wouldn’t be long before another opportunity came calling, and Khanna would once again be ahead of the curve and first to capitalize.
Entrepreneurial success is sometimes a matter of finding the demand before anyone else and then working tirelessly to meet that demand. While everyone else is playing checkers, Khanna is playing chess. And he’s always three steps ahead. When legal cannabis exploded onto the scene around 2012, Khanna became an early investor in that space. Soon, Cura Cannabis was formed in February of 2015, and in July of that same year its board called him and asked him to be the CEO. Cura Cannabis is now the largest cannabis company in the world, selling its oils to both consumers and edible companies.
Insight Beyond His Years
The story of Microsoft’s humble beginning is a story many people in business likely know well. Bill Gates and Paul Allen worked around the clock from a tiny garage, turning a big dream into a massive company. For Gates and Allen, it was a matter of doing work they loved and believed in, which may help explain Khanna’s views on work-life balance. While other business owners and entrepreneurs are struggling to find that balance, Khanna doesn’t believe such a thing exists.
“I believe that there is no such thing as work and life balance,” says Khanna. “Success doesn’t happen between nine [and] five, which means it is impossible to achieve work-life balance as an entrepreneur doing what you love. Your work and business are an extension of who you are, and it comes down to how well you can manage the work-life integration.” Read on
On Revenue and Growth
Coming up with ideas is important in business, but many people have ideas. Being able to nurture an idea and ensure its development and growth, according to Khanna, is equally important. While his individual business ventures don’t have much in common, the two things they do have in common are the role he plays in each and the fact that each is an execution-based business.
“I love businesses that have tons of competition,” says Khanna, “where our number one goal is to out-execute them.” Where idea-based businesses only become valuable in hindsight, execution-based businesses excel based on your ability to perform better than the other guy. Khanna’s advice? Go where the revenue is. “The main thing I bring to the table is execution,” says Khanna. “The winners in the cannabis space are going to be those companies who out-execute the others.”
Cannabis isn’t a new idea, he points out, yet many people are going to get rich from it. It’s the ability to get things done that will separate the winners from the losers. Part of getting things done is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses and surrounding yourself with the right people. When Khanna and his brother started Saber, his brother was more operationally-minded, whereas Nitin’s main focus was on sales. It was this yin and yang that helped create their success.
“The key role I played in each company,” says Khanna, “was setting up strategy, its vision, its mission, its culture, and how we view people. I believe, truly believe, that the critical differentiator between one company and another is its people. So I’ve always focused a tremendous amount of my time and energy [on] ensuring that my companies have the right people.”
On the People Around You
Nitin Khanna says the way he views companies is similar to how he views people, as the two are inextricably linked. Once you set the vision, mission, and culture, then you hire people with that in mind. If the people you hire are excited about your vision and the mission of your company, you have something special.
When talking about his favorite part of his job, it comes back to the people he works with. When they succeed, the company succeeds. And that’s where he derives much of his satisfaction. “I love mentoring people,” says Khanna. “I get very excited about seeing other people succeed and perform at a high level. Often times, people will come up to me 6 or 12 months later and say they didn’t think they were capable of this much productivity.”
Khanna mentions the current Chief Operating Officer at Cura Cannabis as an example, a woman who started working for the company as a part-time assistant and is now the COO. “I have a unique ability to see those special qualities in people,” says Khanna, “and then mentor and coach them in a way that helps accelerate that development.”
He is quick to attribute much of his own success to the people around him. His advice for other owners of companies is to make sure that they have the best possible people working for them. That’s something he keeps front and center in his mind, which is why he has traditionally spent about 60 percent of his time on recruiting.
Nitin Khanna believes in a trickle-down effect. Once he mentors people, his next thought is on turning those people into mentors, and soon, that begins to flow downward throughout a company or organization. “When you drop an idea into the company at the top,” says Khanna, “how quickly does it get executed at the lowest level of the company? That’s the true measure.”
Building Habits and Improving Productivity
“Planning things ahead of time can help anyone to be more productive,” says Khanna. “I have this culture at MergerTech too, where every employee, be it me, the managers, or even the admin staff has to make a to-do list at the start of the day, and I believe everyone should be doing this.”
Nitin Khanna says that every great executive he’s ever known has almost unlimited free time. It comes down to three things: the people around you, being able to delegate, and knowing where your time is best spent. “One really incredible thing for people to learn is that it all comes down to those around you,” says Khanna. “When you hire the best, point them in the right direction and let them do their jobs.”
According to Nitin Khanna, having four children means managing his time more effectively so he can spend time with them. This means putting in time where it’s most needed, as opposed to engaging in non-productive work. In other words, he applies the Pareto principle. Also known as the 80/20 rule, the Pareto principle, for many events, asserts that roughly 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes. In the case of sales, 80 percent of sales come from 20 percent of clients. There are a number of ways to define this concept based on context, but for Khanna, it also means that if a meeting can be done in 5 minutes, there’s no reason it should last 15.
On Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
Khanna has two valuable pieces of advice, the first of which is “know thyself.” To succeed as an entrepreneur, you have to be critical of your own skills and abilities, much like a basketball player or world-class pianist would. “I’m not 6’4,” he says. “I can’t run fast [or] dunk the ball, [so] maybe I shouldn’t be playing basketball.”
Yet, when it comes to being an entrepreneur, everyone assumes they can do it. This is not true, says Khanna. There are many skills required, and coming up with ideas isn’t one of them. He says the first step is to take a true measure of yourself and be honest when you do. “I see it all the time,” says Khanna. “People say, why did I do this to myself and my family when it all goes to hell?”
Khanna blames this on the fact that some idea-based businesses make it very big, like Uber and Airbnb. Then everyone thinks that their idea is next and they can replicate that success. But for every Uber, there are a thousand that don’t make it at all. “Please don’t be poor on the way to wealth,” says Khanna. “So many people are agreeing to be extremely poor in their 20s and 30s in exchange for being a billionaire when they’re 50. But the chances of that are one in 10,000,000, and the rest are getting hurt badly.”
Instead, those people should first ask themselves simple questions: Do I enjoy managing people? Do I want the responsibilities of hiring and firing? His other valuable piece of advice is that “you’ve got to fire people quickly.”
“We’ve been brought up to be kind and respectful and give second chances,” he says. “But in this environment, where not critically evaluating fit in a business setting is deadly, you’ve got to be quick about it. Because bad employees can drag down others around them.” Nitin Khanna emphasizes that you can and should do it with respect, knowing that it’s hurtful and they’re most likely not bad people. It’s only the fit that’s bad. And if you do it the right way, it helps them find opportunities where they can be successful, and ultimately, they’ll thank you for it. “Focus on hiring well and terminating well,” says Khanna. “That’s the best advice I can give.”
Focusing on His Passions
Nitin Khanna is certainly living his best life, from his entrepreneurial endeavors to his fondness of great wine (he produces two) to spending quality time with his kids. He’s even been named a producer on two award-winning documentaries – Terms and Conditions Apply (2013) and What Lies Upstream (2017).
He also sits on several boards – TiE Oregon, Classic Wines Auction, Freewire Broadband, and Vendscreen – and in his free time, he even does some DJing. Outside of work, Nitin Khanna enjoys music, dancing, and going to festivals. When he got divorced at age 39, he began making new friends, which is why he attended Burning Man for the first time. It was also the first time he heard electronic music and saw a DJ perform. “I want to teach myself this,” Khanna says he told a friend. “I made a bet with him that I’d be a professional DJ inside of a year.” When asked if he’s a hobbyist DJ, he added, “I get paid when I play.”
Nitin Khanna recently stepped down as CEO of Cura Cannabis, he still has big dreams for the company he helped launch and grow. “I want to say 20, 30, 40 years from now that we built the Coca Cola of cannabis. The default choice for cannabis, just like Coke is now.”
Entrepreneur, activist, investor, movie producer, winemaker, and DJ. How many of us ever allow ourselves to dream that big? How many of us would have the guts to follow through on those dreams?