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Michael Levenson Headshot

From King of Cash to Cash Registry King

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After making the jump from the high stakes world of Wall Street finance to a lonesome outpost called my modest home office on Long Island, I had those moments when I questioned my decision to become a start-up entrepreneur. The worst was the cocktail parties where I used to cringe whenever idle cocktail party chatter turned to the inevitable "So what line of work are you in?"

People I spoke with at these functions just didn't get it. Why would I leave a successful position at JP Morgan to start a gift registry service -- something they only associated with wedding showers and department store home goods?

But that's indeed what happened. My entrepreneurial itch started calling me with the simplest of gift registry purchases -- a crystal olive dish. Let me explain.

Harried by the never ending demands at JP Morgan, I had put off selecting a gift from my closest friend's wedding registry. A weekend before the reception, I finally had a chance to call up the remaining gift selections, only to find nothing left on the list but an olive dish.

Really? This was the contribution I was going to make to my friend's one and only wedding? He was starting a new life and I was handing him a vessel to hold olives in?

That's when it hit me. I knew my friend and his bride had both graduated from law school with several thousand dollars in debt. The last thing this couple needed was cookware, appliances and table settings. Such gifts might have made sense at one time, when newlyweds weren't starting life entrenched in debt, but it dawned on me that what this bride and groom could really use, after they returned from their storybook honeymoon of course, was a firm financial footing from which to start their new lives.

The next week back at JP Morgan, I shared my olive dish experience with several colleagues and soon discovered there were others who shared this opinion -- that the current gift registry system is antiquated and pragmatically ineffectual. I was beginning to wonder if this was market need that could be filled, profitably.

At the same time, I was beginning to find corporate life regimented and unchallenging. I had a fantastic four years at JPM. I learned a ton. But I reached a point where I wanted to try something different - and knew I wanted to do it outside of the restrictions of the corporate space.

Spurred by the frustration with traditional registry gifts and the aspiration to change the way Americans think about asking for and giving gifts at major life events, I joined two other restless colleagues and started-up Present Value, a unique cash gift registry program.

Our founding principle centered around the simple fiscal reality that a financial gift makes a lasting impression on a couple in a way a blender -- or crystal olive dish -- can't. Our task was getting other Americans to start seeing how more impactful cash is as a gift whenever family and friends are making key life transitions.

That's the dream, anyway. And I'm the first to admit the move from JP Morgan to being my own boss has been challenging. The road has not been easy. Sometimes entrepreneurs fall into the trap of believing in the "pie in the sky" scenario. But let's face it, in most cases, they aren't going to launch a business and have it be an overnight success. It takes a ton of hard work and dedication. It is a grind, and often it might be one step forward and two steps back. But as long as you stay organized, focused, and realistic about your mission, you can keep moving forward.

One key to making the jump successfully is to be realistic with yourself. This is a time when you're going to discover what your strength and weaknesses are -- the hard way! Because so, I think it is very important to celebrate successes when they do happen, even if they aren't the ultimate success; it's just important to take a step back and celebrate daily achievements.

I'm asked this a lot, so here it is. One of the best tips I can give others who plan to strike it out on their own? Put on your listening ears. It's huge -- just to open-up and be willing to listen to any and all feedback. Sure, it's tough to hear constructive feedback about your business but it is extremely important to get candid, outside perspectives. Sometimes you will use it, other times you won't, but it is important to hear outside opinions about your business and then make a decision around whether you agree with those opinions or not.