Ben Pankonin remembers the moment when his regular life and his work life started to melt together – he was in first grade.
His parents had just bought a Hallmark store and they were finalizing the sale of the shop, which just happened to fall on Ben’s birthday.
It’s almost comical, but it’s a true story. Ben said while it felt a little strange and very grown up to spend his birthday in a law office, this kind of involvement in his parents’ work shaped his story in ways he didn’t anticipate.
“For me, this was just what we did. You pitched in and showed up, moved boxes and did whatever was asked,” he said. “I didn’t really have an alternative; I didn’t realize that it wasn’t normal.”
Ben assisted customers at his parent’s shop until he was old enough to see over the counter and then he quickly moved on to running the register. When other kids were learning basic math skills, Ben was counting back change to customers or getting a quick economics lesson from his dad.
Without articulating it in the exact words, his parents were showing Ben how to be an entrepreneur – how to think for himself, solve problems and work for himself. They showed him that this way of life didn’t have to be scary or overwhelming, it could also be exciting and energizing… and soon Ben started to see himself as a young entrepreneur.
During college, Ben studied business and computer science at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He was fascinated by technology, but enjoyed how the social aspect of the business world offset the often isolating bubble of computer science.
He got his first internship by calling up a company and asking if he could rebuild their website. His roommate was confused by Ben’s job because to him, all Ben did was sit in their dorm room and work on his computer.
“What are you doing?” his roommate asked one day.
Ben’s response was simple, “I’m billing time.”
To Ben, working this way felt second nature, and so it was no surprise when he jumped right into a tech startup after graduation. He quickly learned the ins and outs of the startup world, observing what worked well and what didn’t. Although the job only last a year, the experience helped Ben take a closer look at what it took to run a startup.
Ben worked a few other jobs, including a year-long leadership program in Washington D.C., before returning to Nebraska where he began to put down roots in the tech industry again. Within a few years he helped a local IT company go from three to 50 employees, and Ben was enjoying the way his job allowed him to understand the community as well as take a technical approach to his work.
But he was also anxious to do his own thing. Ben stepped away from his job to do some consulting and began testing out a few ideas for his own startup.
In 2012, Ben launched Social Assurance, a marketing software company focused on helping financial institutions utilize digital marketing. It was a concept that filled a major void, but also fit well with Ben’s technical and social strengths.
As he began to spend more time working with other founders and startups, Ben realized that his business wasn’t just meeting a need in the community, it was also meeting a need in his own story. Being an entrepreneur came naturally to Ben. It allowed him space to come up with new ideas, explore a variety of opportunities and watch those ideas and opportunities take on a new life together.
It also made him take a closer look at himself and his own insecurities.
“There’s a lot of risk involved,” he said. “You’re constantly evaluating if you’re doing the right thing, playing to your strengths or asking the right people to help you… and you have to admit that there are a lot of things you’re not good at.”
Being an entrepreneur can be both physically and mentally exhausting, but Ben said he is fortunate to live with a fellow entrepreneur – his wife, Amber. Having two startup-minded people under one roof has both advantages and disadvantages, but Ben said it’s extremely helpful to have a partner who understands the ups and downs of running a business. They celebrate together when things go well, and work to come up with a new plan when things don’t go so well.
Ben said they often joke about whose job is the more stable. They both juggle the logistics of working lots of hours, traveling, scheduling and then making time to spend with each other. Some days it feels like a hustle, but for Ben it’s work that he’s excited to do because it plays to his strengths.
When he looks back at his story he can see moments when things started to make sense to him. Moments when he absorbed knowledge from his parents without even knowing it, and made decisions that were based on his experience instead of a business principle.
His story is one that’s been about watching, learning and doing. It’s been about being honest with himself, others and the community and working to create a space that’s true to himself and the people he serves.