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Nadim Homsany, Co-Founder and CEO of EarnUp
Episode 2512th April 2021 • Startups for Good • Miles Lasater
00:00:00 00:49:03

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Nadim is the son of immigrants who arrived in the US with virtually nothing. His upbringing instilled in him a passion for helping people build financial resilience and independence. Prior to EarnUp, Nadim worked at Serent Capital, a $600M private equity firm, focused on tech-enabled services. Prior to Serent, Nadim led investments with NCB Capital, a $12B asset manager. Before this, Nadim worked at McKinsey & Company consulting large banks. Nadim also practiced IP and technology law at Kirkland & Ellis. Nadim holds a JD degree from Harvard Law School and graduated highest honors from Rutgers University.

I kick off Nadim’s interview with a question about banks, a necessary evil or are they fighting the good fight. He turns the tables and returns the question and we have a good discussion about the banking industry. Nadim continues the interview by sharing his founder's story and how it was inspired by his family and his own experience with paying off their mortgage payment. He tells us how his company grew in customers and employees. He shares the impact on the company and the startup space when his co-founder stepped down to care for his own mental health. Near the end Nadim asks me how people can put into practice the learnings from leadership books. (Note: EarnUp is a Purpose Built portfolio company.)

“ I think that's a that's one of those proud moments for me, where we we spend that we spent all the years building a business that has a trusted relationship, a trusted conduit with the customer, such that one of our investors in this nonprofit at the same time is comfortable enough and confident enough in our ability to do the work, but also our relationship with the customer.” - Nadim Homsany


Today on Startups for Good we cover:

  • How FinTechs differ from traditional startups
  • The insights of the word “earn” rather than “save”
  • The impact of a kitchen table on a startup
  • What a Concierge MVP offers
  • Mental health in tech startups
  • The concerns of a double bottom line company
  • Building a diverse team
  • Managing diverse investors
  • Balancing internal resources when you are a B2B2C


Connect with Nadim on Twitter or at myearnup.com 


The books that Nadim referred to High Output Management and Feedback that Works

The books that Miles suggested: 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership and The Great CEO Within (review) as well as Lean Startup


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Transcripts

Miles

Nadim. Welcome to Startups For Good. So much. So much good stuff to talk about. I'm excited to have you on.

Nadim

I'm excited to miles. Thanks so much for having me on.

Miles

Yeah, so I'd like to start out with a tough question. Banks, so they unnecessary evil? Are they doing the good stuff?

Nadim

I love the question. It's, it's a good way to start off the conversation. I actually, maybe you'll consider this a non answer. But I actually think they're both. And, and the reason why that is, is because so many Americans are banking with banks today that the financial system can't operate without them. And a majority of Americans are still banking with the traditional banks. And so you can't make change without them. I like to think of like, what I've learned over the years and running, running EarnUp is people generally show up to work and in their lives with good intentions, people are generally good people, I say generally, because that's not true for everybody, but it is for a large majority of people. And I think while some banks are not good at what they do, for all the reasons that you might read in the press, I think that many of them show up with intentions of doing right by their customers, it's just really hard to do sometimes, because of the way the industry structured or the history of the banks, for example, there's some banks out there that have acquired 10, 15, 20 other banks, over the history of of their organizations over let's call it the past 20 to 30 years. And in some instances, not all instances, in some instances that benefits the consumer, because that allows them to deliver lower prices. I say in many instances, but when you do that, as a bank, what ends up happening is you take 20 or 30 different information technology systems, and you have to integrate them over time. And many banks are still running on multiple systems. So it's hard. It's hard for them to do all the things that that they would want to do on older technology systems. And I think I think that that's where an advantage that that FinTech has. And that that's why I think a lot of the FinTechs you read about in the space have been so successful in doing what they're doing.

Miles

So EarnUp helps tons of people manage their debt, and essentially, in part acts as a better front end to all of these disparate back end systems that banks are running. Right. Yeah. But before we get to the question, miles, what do you think you think necessary evil?

I think that many banks are hamstrung in terms of their ability to innovate by our regulatory framework, which, you know, goes as deep as pressure on what types of people to hire at banks, and a view from regulators that innovation should it come from banks. So I think it really makes it difficult for banks to meet the ever evolving expectations of consumers. So where I would come down on is, some banks can be very frustrating to deal with, but I guess I mostly in your camp of it's not all their fault.

Nadim

Yeah, I yeah, I think that's right. I think the regulatory points are is a really good one to point out. And a lot of the FinTechs you know, a lot of the FinTechs have to deal with that as well, which is is a huge, I think I once heard the anecdote that the average gestation period, so to speak of like a social media startup or some other consumer startup without regulatory overhead is about six months. And the average gestation period for a FinTech, because of the regulatory overhead is about two years. So it has been I know, in the history of our business, it has been a large burden, particularly in the early days when you don't have the resources to overcome them, has been a large obstacle to overcome. So it's an interesting take as well, I think that's right.

Miles

So why did you put yourself through that pain?

Nadim

Well, maybe I say, half jokingly knowing what I know, now, maybe I wouldn't have. No I think we would have a look, there's a there's a founding story here, which is I, you know, which relates back to my parents from happy to get into, I think we're helping people. And I think we're making change, and I think we're making positive change in in the industry, particularly in the mortgage industry. And it's good to know that, that the efforts are paying off, let me give you just a very quick, small example, which is, you know, we've been building the business over the past six or seven years. And one of our investors is Acumen fund and their a nonprofit. And around June or July or so of this year, as a lot of customers were reporting forbearances on their mortgages, which essentially means they couldn't make payments to their mortgages. Acumen fund came to us and said, Hey, we have $150,000 that's available to help mortgage owners that are in distress type situations, can you distribute this money to people who need it. And and I think that's a that's one of those proud moments for me, where we we spend that we spent all the years building a business that has a trusted relationship, a trusted conduit with the customer, such that one of our investors in this nonprofit at the same time is comfortable enough and confident enough in our ability to do the work, but also our relationship with the customer. I mean, it's easy to distribute $150,000 and have it, you know, go to fraudsters, or it gets stuck in a system or gets stolen. And here we have this trusted relationship with a customer where we can identify the customers who are in most need, and then deliver those, those funds to them. So you say like, well, why go through that. I mean, that's just a small example of one of the mission driven things that we do that that that makes me proud of all the work that we put into the business and proud of all the work that the team has done over the years.

Miles

Well, it's wonderful that you were able to give that money and help people. But as I understand you're helping people every day avoid getting that far gone on their mortgage payments, by making the whole system easier for people.

Nadim

g a delinquent loan since the:

Miles

I don't know if you think about this way. But I think of you as applying behavioral finance insights, making it easier for customers to have their their will, their intention executed without having to do all the math and having to follow through, you know, precisely every single time or do administrative work.

Nadim

he business, honestly, around:

Miles

And what sort of size are you now how many customers you serve employees, etc?

Nadim

Yeah, we've got $10 billion of loans on the platform, have about 80 team members. And, you know, quite quite large from where we started, from my perspective, from the kitchen table of my house with Matthew, my co founder.

Miles

Yeah, tell me that story.

Nadim

ey bought their first home in:

Miles

Well, did you have an idea that you and Matthew would start a business and then you stumbled upon this? Was this problem so enticing that you had to start a business?

Nadim

You know, it was a mix both both of us had fairly successful careers. Again, I say that modestly had fairly successful careers. And we're thinking about, you know, what was next. And we weren't even sure that we were going to work together on anything, we had just been batting stuff, you know, batting the thought around. But when this came up, that this was something that we really, especially after we spent started spending more time investigating in the industry. That was when we, that was really, really when we started to dig in.

Miles

And how did you know that it was a good opportunity?

Nadim

w, we founded the business in:

Miles

Wow, that's a great story. I think in the lingo. They call that a concierge MVP, right?

Nadim

I'm not sure. But that sounds that sounds right.

Miles

Yeah, so minimum viable product, you didn't build anything really you just had phones and the ability to process payments, and I guess a spreadsheet or something. And concierge in the sense that you were doing it. You know, really by putting in a lot of people power to that, you know, work behind the scenes.

Nadim

Yeah, the MVP piece may? Yeah, I'm familiar with that. Their concierge, I had not heard before. And the spreadsheet part is absolutely right. Actually, like a week ago or so I stumbled on the first spreadsheet in the business, which was that list customers, about 100 customers or so and as and we used to keep notes. And in one of the columns, and I was reading through some of them was pretty, it was pretty cool.

Miles

And how do you decide and Matthew is the right co founder for you.

Nadim

. And it was right around the:

Miles

Well, that's great. And you guys worked together for a long time with Matthew as CEO. And now your CEO, can you tell us more about that transition?

Nadim

Yeah. So in August to September of last year, Matthew got, he does suffer from mental illness. And he, you know, it's publicized out there. So you can go on there and Google and pull up some of the articles that he's written, he does suffer from mental illness and and came to a point last year, where he came to the realization that operating the business or being in the business in an operating role, was no longer sustainable for his life. And I, you know, that was a, it was a hard moment for both of us to come to that realization, obviously harder for him. And I applaud his vulnerability, it was interesting, we were talking about it as he was making the decision. And for people that are thinking about, like entrepreneurship, one of the best ways to think about things is just like go out on Google, if you have a question and see how other people have thought about, it doesn't mean that you have to, doesn't mean that you have to do what other people are doing. It's just helps you get the creative juices flowing. So he went online, he's like, well, should I be talking about this publicly? And we went online? And did some he did most of he did searches about, you know, who are the founders, you know, the the startup founders out there who have identified themselves as being mentally ill. And I think he found and who have something left the business or even identified as being mentally ill. And I think he found one startup that had done that, and it was like in Australia, or something like that. And so I talked earlier about like this, the social mission aspects of EarnUp, we are a double bottom line company, where we, we look to do we look to make money, we're not shy about that. But we also look to do social good. And this felt like one of those unique opportunities, were bringing this, this issue forward, and shining a light on it, we thought we'd do the startup community. Good. And so that was a decision that he ultimately made. And He's, uh, you know, it's really amazing to know, a person who's willing to be that vulnerable.

Miles

It must have been a very tough transition for both of you. I'm curious, if you think startup life is, you know, a large contributing factor for people and in sort of a high stress situation, do you have any thoughts about whether founders who may already know they're susceptible to mental challenges mental illness that they stay away from starting a company or you haven't reached that conclusion?

Nadim

I don't, I haven't reached that conclusion. I think I think startup life is very, very stressful. And this is, you know, over the course of the business, you know, and the people asked for what it's like to run a startup. And I say, like, it's a emotional roller coaster on a daily basis, you experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows almost every day. And so it makes it makes it very, very stressful. And some of the most stressful, you know, career years of my life has certainly been experienced during that time. I think one of the reasons why he decided and I was supportive of highlighting this issue, is because it's an it's an illness, right. And it's almost like a chronic illness. And with all chronic illnesses, if you manage it the right way, then life and the things that you choose to do should be sustainable. Of course, everybody's unique and has their own unique circumstances. And if we start treating mental illness, the way that we started treating the way that we treat other illnesses. And people are willing to talk about these things in their own life so they can get that proper treatment. Of course, again, everybody has their own circumstances, but I would encourage people who suffer from mental illness not to not to exclude startup life from from their careers just because they have a mental illness.

Miles

And for you transitioned into CEO, how has that been?

Nadim

It's been interesting. So Matthew and I, in many, in many ways, it's been hard to, in many ways, Matthew and I split the responsibilities of running the business so he ran external facing part of the business here in marketing and sales, he ran our people function, PR, and I ran a lot of the stuff internally, we split product duties. But, you know, I officially ran product and engineering and operations and finance. And and so having to take over? Well, well, first of all the organization. I mean, I think he's a very charismatic guy. And he, and a lot of people obviously liked them. And so just to have the organization lose the leader, you know, overnight as a, as a bit of a culture shock. And then and then, you know, we have to think about, like, how do we organize the executive team, and who's doing what functions now that I'm no longer able to focus on just a core group of four functions after I think the numbers eight, I now have to focus on eight functions and essentially doubled my workload overnight. So you know, we, that requires work, to organize, better to be able to do all eight functions, and that requires, you know, making certain personnel changes or making certain organizational changes to accommodate that. And then there's all the relationships that go with it, like he, he had certain relationships outside the business, I do too, but then we have to pass all of those over. And so it's a it's, you know, it's a bit of chaos. In the beginning, as this all happens, I think now the organization is in really good shape. And but those kinds of things take time.

Miles

You mentioned that you see the company as a double bottom line company, how has that mission orientation helped you as a business?

Nadim

Well, I don't have a perfectly structured answers this kind of let me let me give stream of consciousness a little bit. One is energy, I think energy for me and energy for the team. A lot of the folks who joined the team are really are very proud to work at EarnUp, we do these engagement surveys, and I think something like 80 or 90% of our team is the mark themselves as being very proud at working at earn up. And I and and that is driven a lot by the mission. So that's one way that and for all the things that we do and try to do. And that's similar for me, right? It's, it's neat, it's moments of pride when we can say and now I'm bragging, I'll admit it, like part of our bottom line is not only serving customers outside of the organization to help them get out of debt. The mission, by the way, is to help the 200 million indebted Americans get out of the $20 trillion of debt that they owe and build a financial services system that we're sure everybody, right. So certainly we spend time trying to find ways to help consumers. But as part of our mission, we've also made some commitments to build a diverse workforce and a diverse team. And so I am willing to brag and say we were looking at numbers the other day, and 43% of our engineers are women. Right, that's something that I am very proud of. And that's something that, you know, without the mission, I don't think we would have been able to do and attract those people into the business. So it brings a lot of energy. And I think it brings a level of achievement that we wouldn't have other otherwise been able to, to bring to the business. It gives us focus. One of the cool things about having values is when you're confronted with really hard decisions, and it's unclear which way the decision should go, this is where like values can really come into the picture and help you decide on which decision to make based on those values. And so it gives us it is a Northstar for us and guiding light for us to set what our values are and help you know be the tiebreaker and some of those hard decisions. And then I'd say it's you know, for those thinking about going down this path, it's helped us build relationships and it has been positive for revenue growth in in the sense that a lot of businesses want to work with us because we we bring that mission driven aspect to their business on their side and that helps us grow revenue as well so there's a commercial component to this this goes back to my statement earlier we're like you can do social good and make money at the same time we have that belief and and are working towards that so it's been helpful for growth through those are the ones I can think off the top my head

Miles

Yeah, I mean, that's a lot motivation, help making decisions, diversity and recruiting and sales. I mean, that's a lot of benefits. I'm, I'm curious if you think there's been more to building a diverse engineering team than just mission, there's probably other things you've done. And I wonder if others could learn from you?

Nadim

hold it going as far back as:

Miles

You mentioned your investors, and you have such a range from nonprofit, social impact oriented for profit investors, and purely financial investors. And you just announced a Series B i think recently, how did you manage all those different perspectives on your cap table?

Nadim

And we have one particular investor who's amazing. His name is Miles Lasater. terrifically helpful and in growing the business. So how do we, I I find her investors to be terrific. It's interesting. I've been doing some interviews recently for an executive position in the business and and they've been executives other startups as well. And they tell me some of the horror stories from that they have to deal with on their investor with their investor base and their their board. And like, knock on wood. Our investors have been absolutely terrific all the way from you know, the folks so Blumberg led our series C (unintelligible), or series A was led by Signal Fire, Chris farmer and Helia Kunos. And then Matt Harrison, Marin Hummer, from Bain letter Series B. And they've been and then there's an remissed, I mentioned, Emily, and Shawn and her team over a Flourish, who are part of the board now as well. They're just a Flourish. For those folks who don't know, also a social impact driven driven fund. They've been awesome. And, you know, I used to I was a board member when I was in my private equity days, and, and the board can be a contentious place. And I think, that group of folks, and I think there's a movement in the VC space, which is be supportive of the founders that, you know, be supportive of the founders any way that you can be, and that's the approach that they've taken.

Miles

I'm sure they ask for stuff, but we ask them for a lot more. And and that's actually you ask me, you know, how do we go about managing that? I think that's actually the thing we've sent to all of our investors when they've either asked to invest, or we've asked them to invest, is, if they offer help, we are going to take them up on it.

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