Business Elevated Podcast (Episode 11)
This podcast series features business and government leaders discussing what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. This episode includes a conversation between Ben Hart, deputy director at the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development and Brock Blake, CEO and founder of Lendio.
Welcome to the Business Elevated Podcast, where we discuss what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. Did you know Utah is frequently ranked the best state for business by Forbes? This podcast is a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Thanks for joining the conversation.
Ben Hart (0:22): My name is Ben Hart. I’m the deputy director here at GOED, and we are ecstatic to have with us today Brock Blake, who is the CEO and founder of Lendio. Brock, thank you for being with us today.
Brock Blake (0:35): Yeah, my pleasure, Ben. Thanks for having me.
Ben Hart (0:36): Well, it is a pleasure, and it is an honor to have you here. So, we just want to learn a little more about your career path, how you got here, about Lendio, the amazing work you guys are doing, and everything that you’re doing good in the state and around the world, which we’ll get to.
So, if you wouldn’t mind, just start off by telling us a little bit about your career path, your history, and how you got here.
Brock Blake (0:55): Yeah, I’m an entrepreneur. It started right out of college. I was down at BYU. I studied there. I played soccer there.
Ben Hart (1:01): I was going to say, “And played soccer.”
Brock Blake (1:02): Yeah, yeah. And actually, right out of school, I entered an entrepreneurial competition, kind of like the TV show The Apprentice, if you remember that. Without Donald Trump saying, “You’re fired!” and all that. But, there was a hundred applicants. They narrowed it down to twenty, and then twenty of us went through an eight-week bootcamp entrepreneurial competition.
At the end of those eight weeks, there were five of us who were selected and were given $50,000 to start a business. This was actually run by two very prominent and successful entrepreneurs and investors here in the state of Utah, Greg Warnock and Alan Hall. The program was called Junto Partners.
So, I was one of those five and could use $50,000 to kind of start whatever I wanted, or go buy a company or whatever. So, I used it to start a company called Funding Universe, which is the predecessor to Lendio.
Essentially, what we did was we were connecting entrepreneurs to angel investors and VCs, and we did it a lot through kind of a speed dating format we called speed pitching, where the entrepreneur would go table to table to table pitching investors, kind of like Shark Tank.
We had a great experience, but what we learned during that process was that 98 percent of small business owners are not going to raise money from an angel or VC. Most of these businesses are main street businesses, restaurant owners and landscapers and dry cleaners. It’s not a great business plan when 98 percent of your customers are not going to fit the product that you need.
So, we started dreaming up, on nights and weekends, this concept of Lendio, which was more connecting these small business owners to get loans. That’s the short version of a very long story of how we got this thing started.
Ben Hart (2:55): Well, and it really is amazing. So, you think of 2008, ‘09, ‘10, ‘11, you’re talking about the collapse of the financial system, not the total collapse. We get it, but it’s got to be scary to be thinking, “Hey, we’re going to start a financial…” What, the tip of the spear for FinTech in a very complex financial world. Were you nervous? Were you ready? Were you excited? Did you see opportunity?
Brock Blake (3:17): Well, we were nervous because there was one moment during that time frame where we thought we were going to be able to raise some angel money. In 2008, and the market collapses, and all of that kind of went away. So, we had to figure out how to work through that.
But really, Lendio was probably born out of the recession, because what happened during that time frame is a lot of banks pulled back, and they stopped lending to the small business owner. The demand for capital was as high as it’s ever been, and we saw that. We knew these business owners are really actually good businesses, good healthy cash flow, but banks were not lending to them.
So, what started to happen is you saw the rise of what I call the online lender, the alternative lender, non-bank lenders that said, “Hey, these are really good business owners. Maybe we could lend to them?” They didn’t have necessarily the community footprint, so once we started to see that happening, it really created an opportunity for us to be able to create a marketplace and allow business owners to go to one place and learn about all these options, both bank and non-bank lenders. So, it was a scary time, but those times also created opportunity for entrepreneurs.
Ben Hart (4:39): That’s awesome. And so, you look at the environment of the time, the opportunity… to have that community footprint and provide that. But, it’s still 2011. We’re still kind of emerging from the recession. What was it like to have a startup? Raising capital, hiring employees. What was it like going through that tail-end of the recession?
Brock Blake (5:01): Well, we have a very unconventional path because we had built-up Funding Universe. We were $10 million dollars in revenue. We had 75 employees, and I just knew in my gut it wasn’t the right business model. We were trying to make this thing work.
So, in January 2011, we shut down Funding Universe and launched Lendio in February of 2011. So, we went from a million dollars in revenue a month to zero overnight. We went from 75 employees down to about eight. That was the most painful kind of experience of my career, and it was a lot more painful than we had even anticipated.
But, we had conviction around this concept of Lendio, and we had some interested investors based on some of our early data. So, it was kind of a moment of the highest of highs because we were actually able to raise money during that time frame, but also the lowest of lows because of that hurdle that we had to get through.
Ben Hart (6:15): Raising money is always fascinating, no matter the time, no matter the place. Did you feel like you were being asked to compromise who Lendio is, who you guys were? Did you feel that pull to be in Silicon Valley at any point? What was it like raising money during that time?
Brock Blake (6:32): Well, no question. There was not a lot of capital here, especially Series A capital. And candidly, a lot of the investors that were here during… the VCs that were here during the time were pretty enamored by doing deals outside of Utah. So, we had investors flying in from Boston and New York and San Francisco, so we couldn’t get investors here in Salt Lake to go drive 10 minutes up the road to see what a great company we were building.
So, from that aspect, it was learning to say, “Well, maybe we should be going to Silicon Valley. Maybe we should be going to New York. Maybe we should be going somewhere else.” But, we had conviction around Utah. We love Utah. A lot of the capital markets has changed since then. Fortunately, we were able to pull together the round without moving operations.
Ben Hart (7:34): Well, and I see a lot of companies. We work with companies all across the state of Utah. You guys really are one of the great success stories, and nobody really knows about you the way they should. We talk about some of the big names that have been around for a few years in Silicon Slopes, but you guys are as good as any of them. What do you attribute your success to? How did you get investment during those times? Was it just the right business plan? Was it the right founder? I mean, what was the success?
Brock Blake (8:03): I can’t take credit for it. We have a great team. It’s interesting. You say that. A lot of these companies, the Qualtrics’, the Pluralsights, the InsideSales, a lot of them were around a really long time before people really started to hear their name.
So, they kind of say it’s a 20 year overnight success story. People start hearing about it, and all of a sudden, it’s this huge thing. And these companies are amazing companies. But, they weren’t that well known maybe their first five or 10 years until they really hit their stride and started growing.
I feel like that’s a similar situation with Lendio. You’ve got to go through so many different iterations as an entrepreneur to really figure out product market fit, and then scale, and then hit that stride, and all of a sudden, then within Utah, you start to build a name for yourself. It’s not just a Utah thing. I think it’s anywhere.
So, I feel like we’re in that moment where we’ve hit our stride. We know which product market fit. We know our customers really value the service we’re delivering. This year alone, we’ve hired a hundred employees in six months. It’s a fun spot to be in, and hopefully, we can follow the path of some of those others that have paved the way.
Ben Hart (9:31): Yeah, well it’s certainly a great Utah success story. When you’re talking about your conviction to the state of Utah, what kept you here? Because I know a lot of people who said, “You know what? I’m just going to the Valley. I’m going to go see what I can start-up there.” What was the conviction? Why Utah?
Brock Blake (9:46): Utah is such a unique environment. It’s got an entrepreneurial spirit. It has the quality of life, the outdoors, hiking and cycling and skiing, Lake Powell, and Zions, and all that kind of stuff. It’s a real family-oriented environment. And I think that from a regulatory standpoint, it’s business friendly. So, the cost of living is affordable, good talent here to draw from. So, we just felt like it had all the recipe for us to build a company if we could get the capital. “Can we get the capital?” was the hardest component of pulling it together.
Ben Hart (10:33): So, the capital came. Lendio’s growing. Tell us about workforce. You just alluded to hiring a lot of people, and it sounds like, even with Funding Universe previously, you had those ebbs and flows of having to hire, having to let go. What is it like hiring in Utah? Are you able to find who you need?
Brock Blake (10:52): Yeah, today is probably the best environment in the history of Utah as far as, not from a hiring perspective, from an employee perspective, that if you’re looking for a job, there are more options now than there ever has been. So, it’s competitive today.
We’ve got a lot of companies coming in from out-of-state that hear about the sales force that we have here, the technology talent. So, I think one of the things that’s really set us apart, allowed us to hire that many people over the last six months, is the culture that we’ve created.
People are able to go online and read about what we’re doing, and we are helping small business owners. There’s almost something patriotic about it. It’s really kind of a mission aspect of what we’re doing. People come in our doors, and they feel that this unique, energetic, high-result company, and they get a taste of that. They’re like, “Okay, this is where I want to be.” So, half the battle for us is just getting them in the door and having them get a taste for the culture.
Ben Hart (12:14): It’s really impressive with Lendio, but you talk about the culture. People know what’s real and what’s not. They know when I’ve got to create this culture because I’ve got to get the latest and greatest talent, and they know when it’s real and when the founder believes it. So, tell us a little bit about the culture. I’ve been really impressed with the corporate stewardship I see in Lendio. Tell us a little bit about the culture and what you strive for.
Brock Blake (12:37): Yeah, so culture is not a ping pong table. It’s not snacks and drinks and stuff like that. I think that’s what people think it is. It’s much deeper than that.
Culture, to me, is first about the “why.” Why do you exist? Why are you in business? What are you trying to solve? Can people get behind that mission? For us, we say, “Fueling The American Dream,” which is helping business owners who have this dream to grow their business, and we’re going to help them provide that capital. So, first of all, people are drawn to that mission.
Secondly, I think culture is about a common set of values. We always talk about at Lendio, we hire to two attributes of we want them to be humble and hungry. The combination of those two things are really compelling. So, we screen a lot. We’re very protective about who comes in the front door based on those two attributes.
Then third, there’s nothing that replaces winning. So, if you define your goals, and you have this infectious common thread of we’re going to set ambitious goals, and we’re going to hit them, and we’re going to have high-five moments, and we’re going to celebrate that, I think that’s a big part of our culture.
And then lastly, I would just say we believe tremendously in “Be the CEO of your job.” We’re not going to micromanage you. We want to hire someone who is so passionate about what they do, that they’re thinking about it on nights and weekends, and in the shower and on their drive. Not that work takes over their life by any means, but that they own it, that we give them the resources, we give them the vision, and we get out of the way.
Ben Hart (14:33): Just reading your bio and learning a little bit more about, work life balance is something that you really believe in. You want your employees to have a life outside of work. You want to have a life outside of work. Why is that important? Why is it important not to just get lost in your job?
Brock Blake (14:49): Yeah, because I think that it’s not always balance, but I really believe that if someone is happy in life in general, outside of work, then they’re going to be successful at work. If they have a good relationship with their spouse or their family members, or they’ve got good friends, or they’re able to go and have unique experiences and travel, they’re exercising regularly or meditating in the morning or studying books, all these things just make for someone who’s in a good state of mind that when they come to work, they’re going to be more effective because they feel good. They’ve got good relationships.
Now, the opposite of that is true. So, if coming to work, they feel like, “Man, I’m in this grind, and I can’t get out of it. It’s affecting my relationship with my family.” Then, they’re going to come, they’re going to bring that baggage to work as well, and it’s going to have this negative effect.
So, I believe strongly having lived both, having gotten consumed in work and then tried to really have some balance with it, that the balanced approach may, in the short run, feel like a sacrifice, but in the long run, it pays dividends ten-fold.
Ben Hart (16:16): It feels like that’s something that extends not just beyond your employee’s life but also into the attitude of the company. We talked about this a little bit before we started, but Kiva, you guys are a big supporter of Kiva. And we talked about being a great corporate steward. In my mind, this is one of the things that really sets you guys apart. It makes you a cut above. Tell us a little bit about the partnership with Kiva and what it means.
Brock Blake (16:39): So, we have a whole initiative we call Lendio Gives, which is all about giving back. So, we’ve sponsored The Road Home, where we’ve gone in and donated hours. We made a real significant donation to the Huntsman Cancer Institute. We’ve done a company called Neuroworks, which helps people who have been paralyzed recuperate. So, we’ve picked these things that we feel like, “Hey, what can we get behind and give back?”
One of the things that is the common thread of giving back at Lendio is this Kiva. Kiva basically is a platform that provides microloans to entrepreneurs throughout the world. We’ve focused outside of the U.S., and we focus primarily on female entrepreneurs. About 90 percent of the loans that we make are to female entrepreneurs.
So, every loan that we do on Lendio, we also do a loan on Kiva. Where does that money come from to fund the loan to Kiva? Basically, our employees donate. It might be $5 a month. It might be $100 a month. But, whatever they donate, they take out of their paycheck, and they say, “I’m going to give up a coffee or lunch or whatever.” Then, Lendio matches that, and we take that pool of funds, and we go on Kiva.
And, it might be a woman who needs $25 to buy a goat, and she’s going to get the goat, and she’s going to make money off the goat milk to support her family. She just needed money to buy that goat. And literally, this isn’t a made up story. We’re only funding $25 or $50 or $100.
We’ve now put over $200,000 in that program and thousands of these micro entrepreneurs across the world. So, it’s just a program that we believe in. And by the way, it’s a very high re-pay rate. When they pay back that loan, we just take that money and keep reinvesting it. So, it’s an evergreen kind of a program.
So, it’s something we’re pretty passionate about. Again, the stories of how we’re helping these entrepreneurs, it should be done. It feels good.
Ben Hart (18:57): Yeah, well this isn’t a political comment, but it’s interesting to note what’s going on around the world. We talk about some of the immigration issues, caravan. Some of the common economic thought now is the only way that we’re really going to help people around the world is through entrepreneurialism in a lot of these countries.
So, we talk about what you’re doing to improve. It helps us. It helps everybody, I think, at the end of the day. Why is that something that you’re so passionate about? Why is that something that you’re interested in?
Brock Blake (19:24): Yeah, the concept of being self-sufficient and being able to provide for my family… There’s this common thread among entrepreneurs that when they’re successful, usually they give back. Usually, they look around them… I remember listening to Richard Branson when he came and spoke at the Qualtrics Summit, which is an incredible summit. And he said something super profound to me. He said, “What I’ve noticed is that people, especially entrepreneurs, they first have to say ‘I’m taking care of myself. I’m self-sufficient.'” Then, they increase their fear of influence, and they say, “Okay, now I’m going to take care of my family. I’m going to make sure we’re self-sufficient.” Then, usually they broaden that and say, “Okay, now I’m going to look at my neighbors. The woman down the street, how am I taking care of her?” Then, they broaden that to their local community and their town. “How can I make an impact?”
And they just keep broadening that circle. That circle keeps getting larger and larger. And he was talking about… He was there, and Oprah was there, and President Obama was there, and these are now individuals that have broadened their sphere of influence so much that it’s now I’m looking at rural problems and how do I give back and solve. And they’re not using… Well, President Obama did, but they’re not using a political campaign to do that. They’re just seeing a need and going and doing it.
So, I see that. I think there’s a common thread. I believe in that, and hopefully, I can continue to increase my sphere of influence and give in a positive way.
Ben Hart (21:01): That is so awesome. You talk about that spark of entrepreneurialism around the world. It really is something that connects us. People want to be able to start their own and to take care of themselves. It’s awesome.
Shifting back to Lendio just a little bit. Last year, you guys announced you had more than a billion dollars under asset or under loan. The sky seems like it’s the limit for you. What’s the future of Lendio?
Brock Blake (21:25): Yeah, so we’re actually now, in the last six months, we’ve funded another half a billion dollars in loans.
Ben Hart (21:31): Just in the last six months?
Brock Blake (21:31): Yeah, $1.5 billion dollars of loans that we funded on our platform, which is incredible, the economic impact. We estimate it’s about $5 billion dollars of economic impact, created about 40,000 to 45,000 jobs. That nearly fills up Rice Eccles Stadium with the number of jobs that we’ve created in that time frame.
So, we believe that we’re just getting started. It’s an enormous market. There’s millions of small business owners out there. Entrepreneurship is only growing, and if there’s a way that we can provide a platform to say, “Hey, come, comparison shop your loan options. It’s free for the business owner. The lender pays us.” Let’s give them access to options to help them to get capital and to grow their business.
Ben Hart (22:21): I think from those of us that have watched the industry grow, particularly FinTech, you would assume there’s more competition now than there’s ever been. But, you guys are still growing like crazy. Is the competition factor there?
Brock Blake (22:33): It is there, but this is a really difficult problem to solve, and I won’t even get into it here on this podcast. But, we’ve been able to kind of “crack the code” in a few areas of how to help that business owner connect to the lenders and do it in a way where we have a kind of self-sustaining profit unit economics. A lot of people have tried to do it, and they haven’t been able to get their economics right. So, they’re burning a lot of money, and they’re not able to grow.
So, about 18 months ago, we feel like we rounded that corner, and it put us in a position where we definitely are the largest in the U.S. and have the opportunity to be much much larger.
Ben Hart (23:18): So, as you look out to the future of FinTech, and this is something we’re always concerned about from a governmental standpoint, whether it’s regulation, whether it’s workforce, what are the biggest threats? And, I want to go into opportunities as well, but what do you see as the biggest threats to both FinTech, Lendio, to the online lending platform?
Brock Blake (23:36): Yeah, probably for us, we’re dependent on the demand for capital, which is the small business owner looking for it and the supply of capital, which is the lenders that are trying to do loans because we aren’t the lender ourselves.
So, the biggest threat is probably the supply. If there’s an economic recession, do these lenders stop lending? Do they really reduce the profile of the type of business owner they’re trying to lend to. So, before they might have lent to a hundred customers. Now, all of a sudden, they’re lending to 20 because they’ve tightened their credit box. I think those are probably the things that we think about the most as far as threats.
I think regulatory is out there, but at the same time, I think from a political standpoint, most feel like if I can provide access to capital, it’s going to help the economy. There’s so much science behind that. So, most are trying to say, “How do I get money into the hands of business owners?” And they’re trying to enable that. Okay, let’s put parameters around how do we do that. We’re okay with regulations because honestly, it will just help us and separate us even more from the competition.
Ben Hart (25:00): That’s awesome. You have that much confidence in the business model. That is really tremendous.
We talk a lot about the Silicon Slopes. You’ve been there since the ground floor. You’ve kind of seen it rise up here in the state of Utah. Why Utah? Why do you think Utah’s kind of experiencing this success now? We see tech happening in a lot of places, but Utah, in terms of growth, size, stability of the industry, why Utah?
Brock Blake (25:25): I really believe that Utah is in such a great spot because of the success of companies that have gone on before us. You kind of look at Silicon Valley, and you look at some of the dynamics. You get one really good company that goes public, that has an exit or whatever, and then, all of a sudden, you have how many individuals who were able to gain wealth from that?
If you go public, and then all of a sudden, you have 50 employees who are now millionaires, well those 50 employees are going to now create the next batch of companies either through investing or they said, “Hey, I learned this here. Now, I’m going to start my own company over here.”
So, if you were to trace back Utah, it probably started with Word Perfect, Novell. Then, that next crop of companies, probably the Omnitures of the world, and Omniture went and had this incredible run and selling for $1.8 billion dollars. Okay, how many in that next generation, where my brother was a part of that and was able to pay off his house. And now, he started another company. So, you just look at this generational impact.
Now, we’re on generation probably four, where each one of those companies, now it’s Qualtrics, whether it’s Instructure, Vivint. They go public, and there’s wealth that’s created that that money gets put back into the economy through the form of investors or entrepreneurs. Let’s say we’re on generation four or five, with this amazing tree of entrepreneurs, that’s the way I think about it. I don’t know if I articulated that very well, but there’s definitely that entrepreneurial spirit where we’ve seen these other companies and say, “I want to be the next Domo. I want to be the next Qualtrics. I want to be the next Pluralsight.” It gives the rest of the community something to really shoot for.
Ben Hart (27:33): Yeah, and so, we’ve got just a few more minutes with you, but I want to explore that concept. What can we do to really raise the next generation of entrepreneurs? What can the state do? What can the industry do? How do we get people really excited about starting their own business? It seems like it’s a natural progression, but is there anything we can do?
Brock Blake (27:50): Yeah, anything we can do to incentivize capital being deployed here and jobs being created here. But, I really think that it comes from the success of these companies.
A lot of these companies early on, they would sell too early. They wouldn’t see it all the way through. Over the last little while, to see the amount of IPOs that we’ve had and stuff like that. I just think it will naturally happen because the number of people that were trained through Omniture that have now gone off and started all these incredible companies, and since then, it’s like one Omniture probably creates 50 other companies, literally. I imagine Josh James has probably invested in 50 companies himself.
So, maybe that one deal has created a hundred companies. I don’t know, but it’s how do you foster the environment so that these companies don’t sell too early, that they keep growing, that we provide a fertile environment for them to do it, and then if that happens, I think it will naturally come about.
Ben Hart (29:09): So, the state of Utah right now, we’re looking at our incentives programs. We’ve done a good job bringing people in from out-of-state at times. We’ve done a good job trying to keep people here that are expanding. If you were king for a day, and we’re actually listening to you, what would you do in terms of how we incent? Would it be local companies? Do we want to focus on out-of-state? Would it be trying to attract VC here? What’s the best incentive the state of Utah can provide?
Brock Blake (29:37): I don’t want to be a broken record on that, but I just think it’s capital. How do you attract venture capital here? And actually, it’s early stage capital. Kickstart and Peak Ventures, I believe, made a real impact on this community. Angel investors, Scott Frazier and John Pestana and Josh James and Jeremy Andrus and all those individuals that are out doing a bunch of companies because entrepreneurs, you’ve got someone who’s an entrepreneur who’s super ambitious and wants to get it off the ground. Usually, they need $50,000, $100,000, something to bridge that gap. We still have a lack of really good angels, early stage, seed stage VCs and even Series A.
So, anything that we can do to attract that early capital. Once they’re about that, they’ll be able to attract capital from other places either in-state or out-of-state, and they’ll come to Utah. But, we don’t want people early-on with great ideas leaving the state to go to Silicon Valley or New York just because they’re trying to look for angel or seed stage money. Then, we’ve lost them.
So, I feel like those formation early stages of getting capital here is the most important thing that you can incentivize.
Ben Hart (31:08): Well, Brock, you personally have added tremendously to the state of Utah, our economy. But then, when we look at the impact of Lendio, not only in the state of Utah, but again, across the country and even around the world. I think that I speak on behalf of the governor and certainly the state when I say we’re very fortunate to have you in the state of Utah. We’re grateful for all that you’ve done, for all that Lendio is.
Where is the future for Brock Blake? Where do you see your career path going? I’m sure Lendio is awesome. You want to stay with that forever, but I’m sure you want to invest. You want to find the right environment. What’s the future for Brock Blake?
Brock Blake (31:44): I don’t know. I just want to say, I have benefited from being here in Utah, and I think the governor and others have created a great environment for us entrepreneurs, and we’re appreciative of that. They understand that entrepreneurs really make an impact on the community, and that’s fantastic.
For me personally, I want to build a great business, and that’s my focus. I want to build an environment where people love coming to work, that we’re mission driven, we give back to the community. At some point, maybe we’ll either go public or someone will come and give us an offer we can’t refuse. Then, we’ll kind of take a step back and say, “Okay, what next?”
It’s in my blood, but I want to follow in the footsteps of the Ryan Smiths and some of those others and hopefully, not only build a great business, but have an impact on the state of Utah in some way.
Ben Hart (32:45): Well, that’s awesome. We recently had the governor in New York meeting with SAP. It was just right after the acquisition, and it was interesting to hear that story. We weren’t sure if SAP had acquired Qualtrics or Qualtrics had really just determined the future of SAP. That’s the kind of corporate culture Qualtrics had.
Brock Blake (33:02): No kidding. They have, Ryan specifically, and again, I don’t want to leave out names, but man, what a story. Now, think about the amount of impact that he’ll be able to have on the state and he is having on this state. Same with Aaron Skonnard and all those guys. It’s fun to watch. It gives us a great example to follow. Hopefully, we can stand on their shoulders and then even have a greater impact on the state.
Ben Hart (33:34): Well, Brock, you’re a tremendous part of that. Your story is incredible. We love Lendio. We’re excited to see the future, so thank you. You have been more than generous with your time today coming to visit with us and sit down, talk through your history, talk through your career path, and also the path of the company, so thank you for being with us.
Brock Blake (33:50): Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
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