Improving the financial health of lower middle class Americans and minorities is both necessary and challenging. Luckily, the financial renaissance we are currently undergoing in the U.S., is seeing the rise of a handful of founders willing to take on these immense challenges with the goal of improving the financial well being of millions of Americans.
One of those founders is Matthew Cooper of Earnup. He is helping to improve the loan process for millions of Americans through a unique tech enabled approach. His socially conscious perspective is helping to forge a new path for millions of Americans struggling with loan repayment.
S.I.C. is fortunate enough to sit down with Matthew to discuss his endeavors both inside and outside of his work that is helping to bring about positive change.
CL: Thanks for taking the time to speak with S.I.C. today. First off, congratulations on the recent $3 million fundraising round and JP Morgan related publicity. It’s an exciting time for EarnUp and we’re very fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with you.
Before we jump in, I want to take a step back and ask you about something I read in a recent New York Times article highlighting EarnUp. It mentioned that you and your co-founder Nadim Homsany formed EarnUp after years of watching your parents struggle with loan repayments growing up. Can you tell us a bit more about that experience, and how that has shaped your motivation to build EarnUp?
MC: Struggles with debt and debt companies affect almost everyone. My parents have suffered. I have suffered. I watched my parents go through decades of this struggle and my cofounder Nadim had a similar experience. My parents got their first home loan in the mid-80’s and after a standard 30 year loan they should be debt free now.
However, as is so often the case, they are still heavily indebted heading toward retirement. This is a precarious and difficult situation, and it affect tens of millions of people. It’s just not right. To make it worse, the abysmal customer service and payment experience of most lenders in the US makes it exceptionally hard to understand your loans and get ahead. EarnUp was born with a vision to change this.
CL: For those who don’t know your company, how do you define EarnUp as a business?
MC: EarnUp is a consumer-first platform that intelligently automates consumers’ loan payments. Think of it as a personal CFO for managing all your loans. We help put money aside as it comes in, giving people peace of mind in knowing the money they need will be there when loan payments need to be made. Then we make the loan payments for you in the way that gets you out of debt fastest. We have hundreds of millions in consumer loans managed on the platform today and our customers tell us they love the product. Its very exciting to be part of.
CL: When you think about your core consumer, are they only those who are financially strapped, or is this a service that helps anyone with multiple loans?
MC: Our product can help any American that has debt. There are over 200 million Americans with loans today and any one of these people can benefit from a simpler loan payment experience. That said, we have a specific passion for helping consumers who are actively struggling with their loans. These struggles are most common among, but certainly not isolated to, lower-income and middle-income communities.
CL: Congrats on winning this year’s Finlab sponsored by JP Morgan and CFSI. How is Finlab helping to shape EarnUp as a business?
MC: Firstly, the FinLab is awesome. We are honored to be one of the 2016 winners. It provides us access to an impressive set of partners at leading consumer advocacy groups like CFSI as well as some of the largest financial institutions in the world including JP Morgan. We are actively working with these organizations on product ideas and research to improve consumer financial health.
Through the Lab, we are also working with a number of their industry partners including Promontory, Ideo.org, CMO.la, and Ideas42. It is humbling to have ongoing engagement with resources of this caliber. They are helping to focus us on how to improve the EarnUp platform and make it accessible to a broader range of users who are not well served by their current financial products.
CL: With your recent funding round now closed by several notable VC firms, what would you say is the largest challenge in obtaining investment?
MC: We were fortunate to have an oversubscribed seed round, led by some of the top VCs in the industry. It is humbling. Even so, in any fundraise you will face obstacles. The largest challenge we faced in the raise was that most VC investors have no idea how hard it is to be normal American household struggling to make ends meet. VC partners are overwhelmingly straight white men of privilege. That’s just a fact. I remember one young partner saying “I just don’t get why someone would need help paying their loans”. Fortunately, there’s a subset of grounded investors, including the folks now on our cap table, who have personal or professional experiences that let them connect with the urgent financial challenges of everyday Americans.
CL: What qualities were you looking for in potential investors?
MC: Diversity was very important to us when putting the round together. You have to have diversity at all levels of your organization to meet the broad range of needs of US consumers. This includes diverse employees of course, but also advisors, investors, vendors, and other partners. In our seed round, we are excited to have both Kapor Capital and Base Ventures which are led by black managing partners. We also have Blumberg Capital with David Blumberg sitting on our board– David was the first openly gay man to found a VC fund. We also have a number of leading female angel investors including Betsy Ziegler at Kellogg Business School.
The other key quality for us was finding patient capital. We can only accommodate investors who understand that building transformational financial products the right way takes time. We are very fortunate that all our investors are completely aligned with our vision.
CL: In terms of customer acquisition, what is the marketing strategy, and have you thought about forming partnerships with loan providers to offer your service directly? Meaning, would there be a day when consumers are immediately given the option to manage payments through EarnUp?
MC: Great question. When we started EarnUp, our sole focus was engaging directly with consumers. We built the product through hearing their pain points and needs. We continue to experience massive growth in the B2C channel with a large amount of organic and referral traffic from consumers that hear about the product and want to get started. Nothing makes us happier than a personal referral from a happy customer.
In the last year, we have been approached by a diverse group of loan originators, servicers, and loan investors all hoping to let their borrowers use the EarnUp product. These players see massive benefit to having happier consumers who have an easier payment experience. We are very selective about who we will partner with. Any EarnUp partners has to show true dedication to consumer financial education, empowerment, and transparency. We are happy to work with those who demonstrate these values by helping educate their borrowers about their loans.
CL: Are there other types of services you hope to offer through the EarnUp platform as it continues to be built?
MC: I believe the product will continue to expand naturally if we listen to the consumers’ needs. Right now our users are asking us for greater financial education and understanding of their loan accounts. So our focus today is embedding more financial education throughout the platform in intuitive ways. There is lots more we want to do for consumers over the next year.
CL: At a more macro level, I’ve recently been doing some research into the rise of unsecured loans. For a variety of reasons, including Millennials’ surprising aversion to credit cards, and a move away from utilizing HELOCs since the ‘08 crisis, unsecured loan growth is outpacing secured loan growth. Based on the figures below, do you think the heightened level of unsecured debt in the U.S. is a reason for concern?
MC: I’m not an economist, thankfully. But I have some views from watching the macroeonomic trends and hearing our customers’ personal stories. As far as unsecured loans go, for millennials student loans are the major crisis I think. Over 40 million Americans have student loans and many of these individuals were not able to even finish the degree they are indebted for. We hear horror stories from our customers all the time. These young people are now entering the workforce in a time of low GDP growth and persistent wage stagnation. To me this is a precarious situation without an easy solution. The data I have seen suggests, sadly, it’s the LMI and minority millennial communities who are again hardest hit by the debt burden. This fills me with great anger and sadness
The level of debt expansion in the U.S. privately and publically has created a high degree of stress for the consumer and puts the U.S. economy in a more vulnerable position. CFSI did some sobering research recently showing 57% of Americans are struggling financially. The US public debt is over $19 trillion dollars, and I believe $10 trillion of this was added in the last ten years. These debt burdens put the country and households at significantly higher risk from financial shocks.
CL: As a fellow consultant, I wonder what’s been the biggest challenge in moving from the consulting and private equity side of things into the founder side of things?
MC: The good news is that there is lot of overlap in skills between my consulting life at McKinsey & Company, private equity investing, and running a company. However, I think the hardest challenge for me personally when starting a company was reducing my income to zero for several years, and putting the career I had worked so hard for on hold. It’s a scary life transition to make.
CL: EarnUp is definitely taking a socially conscious lens in its approach. What other social causes do you care about that are outside your scope of work?
MC: Both inside and outside of work I would say the largest cause I’m interested in revolves around diversity in the workplace. This is especially important to me as I’m an openly queer man in the technology world. The tech sphere still has a major diversity problems regarding women, LGBT, and visible minorities. This is something I’m interested in helping to change. I’m enjoying working with StartOut and other diversity organizations in this effort.
If it’s not apparent already, Matthew is a morally grounded and open minded individual who is tackling the loan repayment process not only with innovative technology, but with a sustainable, socially conscious lens that is truly infectious in nature.
It’s not often that I stumble upon a company where I not only see economic opportunity, but I also see a company that can help bring about change both in society and in the workplace. Matthew is helping to bring diversity into the office space, and improved economic conditions to society.
That is what I call truly Simple.Innovative.Change. Thank you Matthew and the whole Earnup team for working to produce meaningful change in the world around us. The journey will be an exciting one to watch.
EarnUp is a consumer-first platform that intelligently automates loan payments and identifies earning opportunities for the 200 million indebted Americans. EarnUp puts a few dollars aside for loans when consumers can afford it — then makes payments for the consumer, allocating funds the way that gets consumers out of debt faster. The EarnUp community is dedicated to giving control back to everyone who is frustrated in managing their finances. Based in San Francisco, EarnUp is backed by prominent VC firms Blumberg Capital, Kapor Capital, Camp One Ventures, and Fenway Summer Ventures plus other leading angels and entrepreneurs. EarnUp is a member of the prestigious Financial Solutions Lab in partnership with JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM) and the Center for Financial Services Innovation. For more information, visit www.earnup.com and follow on Twitter @EarnUp.About CFSICFSI is the nation’s authority on consumer financial health. CFSI leads a network of financial services innovators committed to building a more robust financial services marketplace with higher quality products and services. Through its Compass Principles and a lineup of proprietary research, insights and events, CFSI informs, advises, and connects members of its network to seed the innovation that will transform the financial services landscape. For more on CFSI, go to www.cfsinnovation.com and follow on Twitter at @CFSInnovation.
About the Financial Solutions Lab (FinLab)
The Financial Solutions Lab is a $30 million, five-year initiative managed by the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI) with founding partner JPMorgan Chase & Co.to identify, test and expand the availability of promising innovations that help Americans increase savings, improve credit, and build assets. The lab will launch a series of competitions to identify solutions to specific consumer financial challenges. It will provide incentives for entrepreneurs, businesses, and nonprofits to enhance financial products and services that address these challenges and improve consumers’ financial health. For more information, visit http://finlab.cfsinnovation.com.
About JP Morgan
JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM) is a leading global financial services firm with assets of $2.4 trillion and operations worldwide. The Firm is a leader in investment banking, financial services for consumers and small businesses, commercial banking, financial transaction processing, and asset management. A component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, JPMorgan Chase & Co. serves millions of consumers in the United States and many of the world’s most prominent corporate, institutional and government clients under its J.P. Morgan and Chase brands. Information about JPMorgan Chase & Co. is available at www.jpmorganchase.com.