Today we’re sharing an interview with Matthew Cooper, co-founder of EarnUp, a member of the 2016 Financial Solutions Lab class.
You’re an openly gay fintech founder. How do those two facts relate to each other?
Being openly gay has greatly affected my career choices and how I became an entrepreneur. Both my startup journey and queer journey are intrinsically linked; it’s impossible to talk about one without the other.
I came out to my family at 26, the same year I started thinking about EarnUp. In many ways coming out gave me the strength to jump head first into starting EarnUp and taking on the entrepreneur role. The energy to create and explore in my professional life emerged at the same time as my personal life.
And although I am very privileged to be able to be in a society where I can stand out and proud, being gay deeply shook my self confidence growing up, and still does at times today. This has in many ways made me hyper-aware of other communities facing different forms of injustices. It has driven my career path and my ultimate decision to pursue EarnUp.
The financial industry is wrought with various forms of injustices on a socioeconomic level. Across the country, millions of low-income and minority communities struggle to achieve success in an economic system that is stacked against them. This is what drove me to start EarnUp, and is what keeps me focused on making sure that our work truly helps the average American.
What made starting EarnUp inevitable, in your mind?
In my late 20s I started to become aware of the daunting injustice and inequality of our economic system. I first really experienced this with my parents, who were struggling to manage massive amounts of debt heading into retirement. I also saw this in friends and in myself. I remembered acutely my own fear and confusion with my student loans. I got angry at a system that causes so many to suffer.
These feelings spurred me to take a deeper look into these problems. And I quickly found that there was something very wrong with the consumer loan industry. My experiences and those of my parents showed clearly that the process of managing loan payments was broken. Loan statements are confusing, the customer service is miserable, and loans are constantly transferred to new servicing companies. It is a challenge just to make sure you get your minimum payments in and virtually impossible to get ahead. As I read more about the industry, it was clear that minority and low-income communities were particularly hurt by this.
In 2014 my business partner, Nadim Homsany, and I joined forces to found EarnUp. He and his family had similar financial challenges to my own. What we’ve built is a financial technology platform that is focused on helping the consumer first. It works to help people intelligently automate all their loan payments and simplify their financial lives. Our commitment is to help all people take control of their financial lives and ultimately get out of debt.
The scale of the challenges we face are daunting: Americans owe over $20 trillion in consumer debt and interest. To break that down: For the class of 2016 college graduates the average student loan burden was over $37,000. That is just student loans, not to mention credit cards, home loans, auto loans, etc. We believe EarnUp can help make these consumers’ lives better.
What would your advice be to other founders or want-to-be-founders, who think they have to fit a certain mold to get funding, to find co-founders or build a team?
This is a great question. I definitely have moments I question if being queer limits my ability to be successful as a founder. Do I act “too gay” to raise money from “tech bro” VCs? Will speaking publicly about being gay make some conservative financial institutions avoid partnering with EarnUp? I don’t have answers to these questions. What I do know is that I wasted 10 years of my life trying to be someone else. I also know that if I focus too long on any of my potential limitations I am guaranteed to fail. I am who I am. I try to live honestly and authentically, as best I can.
As founders we have to be scrappy. We have to focus on taking every piece of who we are and leverage it to make our dream into a reality. So if I am queer, then how can I make this into an advantage in a highly competitive market? I can leverage the LGBT community to help me find investors–as we did successfully through our relationship with StartOut. I can speak publicly about being queer and the importance of diversity to EarnUp in order to attract and close diverse world-class talent. I can pursue financial institutions that are excited to partner with EarnUp because of our diversity, not in spite of it.
I would like to emphasize that building a company and getting funding is incredibly hard, no matter who you are. Statistics show that few startups succeed or get funding. I have spent time with a number of wildly successful founders and all of them have been turned down by dozens of VCs and have had periods where their companies almost failed or ran out of money. So no matter who you are or what “mold” you fit in, be ready to fight the good fight.
Can you explain the role of StartOut in your own career and founder development, and what kind of support groups like that can offer people?
The queer community has been incredibly supportive as we have built EarnUp into a national platform. When we started EarnUp I moved up from Los Angeles to San Francisco and quickly met a man named Tom Burke. Tom is a serial entrepreneur and connected me with StartOut, an awesome LGBTQ organization that helped me find a home among other queer entrepreneurs and allies. Through this network I have met mentors, friends, and yes, a few dates.
The queer community also helped me connect with investors who have been vital to fueling our mission. For example, since we started EarnUp I had wanted to connect with David Blumberg. David founded and leads the first gay-owned venture capital firm, Blumberg Capital, which is also one of the preeminent fintech investors. There are few LGBTQ role models like him in the tech community, and he was someone I wanted to meet. However, David, like all investors of his caliber, is exceptionally hard to get access to. As it happened, I was able to meet David at a StartOut event in San Francisco. I was introduced through Mike Sullivan, a gay tech lawyer at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, who I met through another gay tech founder.
After a fundraising period of intense due diligence, negotiations, and “redlines” of multiple term sheets, EarnUp had an oversubscribed seed round. The EarnUp team had to make some very difficult and privileged decisions on which investors to partner with.
During our first raise, we closed $3 million in funding, including Blumberg Capital as the lead in addition to Kapor Capital, Fenway Summer Ventures, and some of the best industry angels out there. We are exceptionally humbled and honored to have such an amazing group of backers aligned with our mission. I am thankful that the queer community has helped EarnUp get where it is today. It is an amazing adventure.
Do you think people with diverse backgrounds need to find groups like this to help them find their way through fintech or tech in general? Why?
Diversity is important in all industries and fintech is no exception. Most fintech companies are lead by, funded by, and targeted at wealthy urban demographics. All of these are mostly white statistically. This unfortunately creates a massive problem when these groups are creating products that are supposed to cater to the core American consumer who is living paycheck to paycheck. Americans are suffering under the weight of over $12 trillion in debt–with much of the burden disproportionately hurting lower income and minority communities the most. So it is critical that fintech groups approach these problems from that lens, which is done best by incorporating a diverse set of experiences and ideals.
In fintech, we are creating the products that will change the world. We believe that there is a need for diversity at all levels of your organization to meet the diverse financial challenges of US consumers. This is important to EarnUp and plays a role when building a team of diverse employees, partners, advisors, investors, vendors, etc. It is a requirement that the individuals that make up that world have representation in the products we design. It is the best way to ensure that we stay focused on our mission of helping everyone, particularly the low to middle income communities successfully get out of debt.
Do organizations like the Financial Solutions Lab, with its focus on helping overlooked Americans achieve financial health, have a role to play in pushing diverse founders forward? What role did Financial Solutions Lab play for you and your EarnUp team?
Financial Solutions Lab and the Financial Health Network have been transformative to EarnUp’s success. We have been supported every step of the way since joining our Financial Solutions Lab class. The program connected us with some of our first enterprise channel partners, venture capital firms, and made high level connections and institutions that helped inform core elements of our product strategy. We also treasure the relationship we have with the founders of the other Financial Solutions Lab companies.
Financial Solutions Lab and related organizations have an important role to play in supporting underserved communities. The US has vast inequality today. We need more Financials Solutions Labs that can champion technologies that are designed to help the full spectrum of American consumers.
Have a product that can improve Americans’ financial health? Apply today to the Financial Solutions Lab – but hurry, applications for the 2018 class must be received by April 11, 2018!