Aaron Dorn

Master of Business Administration, Class of 2017

Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer, Studio Bank

Could you provide a brief recap of your career since graduating from Owen?

Prior to Owen I had served on the founding team of a local bank here in Nashville called Avenue Bank for about three years and then did a four year stint in the US Marine Corp and later came back to Avenue Bank in 2012 for three more years. I was a member of the senior leadership team of the bank until I came to Owen in 2015 with the specific goal of starting a company while I was in graduate school. 

At Owen, I began working on the business plan for starting up a new bank in Nashville. Michael Burcham served as my supervising professor to do some independent studies studying the market. I graduated in May and spent the next thirteen months going through the regulatory approval process for the bank, raising capital, recruiting the rest of our day-one team and launching the bank. The bank opened in June of 2018. It has now grown to about $425 million in assets and we’ve been profitable for about nine months.

What is your company and where did the idea come from? What served as the biggest motivator or influence in starting your company?

While I was in graduate school, Avenue Bank sold to a local competitor. Avenue was a pretty unique bank and I knew that would leave a niche for that type of bank in the market. During my independent studies in graduate school I realized there was a much bigger market opportunity to serve Nashville, beyond that niche and the expectation that a lot of our local banks would either merge or be sold with other banks that were not local in the next five to ten years. Once I helped a lot of other people to see that, people realized what I referred to as a “once-in-a-generation market opportunity” in Nashville’s banking sector. The catalyst was Avenue Bank but then I realized it was a much bigger opportunity than that. If I had not realized that there was a much bigger market opportunity beyond that, Studio Bank might not exist right now.

What is the most challenging thing about being an entrepreneur and how have you worked to overcome this challenge?

It’s two-fold. First, I would say any entrepreneur faces the challenge of trying to help people see the vision, the opportunity and the problem that needs to be solved. A lot of times an entrepreneur is in a situation where people can’t see that and the challenge of the entrepreneur is to convey that problem, opportunity and solution in a very compelling way that helps people see it. That is all the more true when it comes to forming a new bank to serve a wide, broad, and diverse community. In that sense, I’ve faced what every entrepreneur faces which is to help people see what you see.

Secondarily, when I first started working on the bank I was 37 years old. It is very rare that someone under the age of their mid 50’s starts a new bank. There have been challenges related to the question of “can a 40-something-year old run a very successful billion dollar bank?” I think we’re showing that the answer is yes.

What qualities are most important to possess as an entrepreneur?

I’ve touched on one, which is the ability to compellingly communicate a vision. The second would be perseverance. The word I would really use is grit. Someone who is willing to push through the turns and the twists. We certainly had our fair share of twists and turns forming Studio Bank — so grit and the willingness to persevere. At the same time what I would call situational awareness which is understanding the factors at play challenging your entrepreneurial venture and instead of trying to bulldoze them, actually having a strategic mindset for how to mitigate risks and overcome challenges that you face. It’s not just grit as pushing through it, you need to have that, but you also need to be able to have a clear head and pivot when you need to and not be so in love with your idea that you’re unwilling to be flexible to how it takes shape. There’s a bit of communication, perseverance and flexibility and how that vision takes shape. Finally, it’s very rare that you have a one person entrepreneur. You have to be able to attract and lead a great team so that you can replicate and complement your own abilities and qualities.

What are you most proud of about your business?

Without a doubt, it’s the wonderful team that we have. We have about 57 employees and it is an absolutely remarkable team. To be able to lead and represent such a marvelous group of people is probably the proudest element of it.

Outside of that, secondarily, we have grown about 15-20% faster than our original forecast, we have thrived through the pandemic in spite of all the challenges we’ve faced and continue to meet and exceed the expectations that we set before we ever knew there would be a pandemic. Also, we’ve helped preserve thousands of jobs with our participation in the Paycheck Protection Program.

What advice do you have for students as they launch their business? Are there any tools you consistently use as an entrepreneur?

When you’re in graduate school you have an 18 month countdown until you need to have a job or create one for yourself. For someone who wants to be an entrepreneur that is in graduate school, there is an element of time pressure. When there’s all kinds of recruiting opportunities to meet with big companies that are hiring, I found I could spend countless hours preparing for those — from resumes, to interview prep to background research — or I found that I could spend my time doing research and thinking strategically about what kind of company I would want to start and what industry or problem I might want to address. If I had invested my free time in trying to find a job, I would not have invested all of the countless hours that it took to give Studio Bank momentum. I chose deliberately not to interview for jobs. There’s a sense of pushing forward on one path and hope for the best.

What do you do to live a balanced life? Do you have any interesting or fun hobbies?

I am married with two kids so it’s very important to me. For me, this is true now and it was true during graduate school when I was starting the bank. There are times when I have to work from 4:30 in the morning to 11:30 at night. In fact, during our capital raise for the bank there was about two or three months where those were my normal hours. My faith teaches the honoring of the sabbath – one day a week where you rest from all your labor. I observed that and it was absolutely critical for me to be able to set aside my work for about 24 hours, once a week and focus on my family, rest, my faith and stay grounded. I would have burnt out if I hadn’t had done that. 

The other thing has been realizing that there are seasons in life. I recognize that those days of working from 4:30 in the morning to 11:30 at night, are not going to be my entire life and that there will come another season. This helped me push through those seasons to know there was another season coming where that may not be necessary. It’s managing those seasons of time as well to make sure over the long haul you’re getting balance. 

Most of my hobbies do involve my family at this point. I love going hiking, anything in nature and I’ve even gotten into bird identification with my youngest daughter. I’ve also become a ballet and horseback riding dad and I am an absolute fanatic about British and Nashville Soccer.