Fireside Chat with StreamLoan’s CEO and Co-Founder Stephen Bulfer
Stephen Bulfer, the Chief Executive Officer, and inspirational leader of StreamLoan, has been a visionary across many industries during his career. After completing his undergraduate degree with a focus on computer science and technology, he went on to tackle dual masters (MBA) degrees from the Haas Business School at University of California, Berkeley, and Columbia Business School at Columbia University. His concentration in his MBA was real estate finance (mortgage). With a specialization in the Financial Crisis Subprime Collapse, he published analytical research on a 25 year history of residential real estate, explaining ex-post what led up to, and caused the Financial Crisis. His passion for real estate came early on, as he started playing real life Monopoly, investing in residential real estate everywhere he traveled. He built a private residential REIT across many markets around the U.S.
It was through this experience that he realized how broken the multi trillion dollar market actually was, but saw in this flaw an opportunity for improvement. With his expansive expertise he acquired in his academic career, and his hands-on real estate investments, he went on to lead an incredibly successful career at the intersection of tech, consulting, real estate, and beyond. Early on, Stephen climbed the ladder in management consulting at Deloitte, digitally re-imagining enabling over 10% of the Fortune 500 Companies across many industries. After realizing he wanted more control of the type of problems he solved in his day to day life, he built five other start-ups, across the data analytics, security, mobile, and real estate / mortgage industries in Silicon Valley. In these start-ups, he focused on problems that he believed mattered in the world. Additionally, Stephen is an angel investor and has served as an advisor for countless other start-ups, to give back what was given to him by top mentors, advisors, and leaders: wisdom and insights.
Today, Stephen and I had a fireside chat to discuss everything from his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, to the future of mortgage technology. Read on to learn more!
Hi Stephen, thank you so much for joining me today. Tell us a bit about how you got interested in mortgage technology. What sparked your interest in this industry in particular in the first place?
I’m happy to be here! I always find it interesting how people land in mortgage, including myself. I’d say that no child grows up saying “I want to do mortgage” as a career option. When I ask peers who are leaders in the mortgage industry this same question, it's always by accident they landed in this industry. I think the same applies for me. As a child, I was always interested in investments, the stock market, and real estate (yes I know that's a bit geeky.) I read “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” in high school, which was a holiday gift from a family member. That was my initial inspiration that real estate was a fascinating opportunity, and especially the financial aspects including using mortgage as a tool.
This inspiration led me to start investing in residential real estate early on in my career and life. After building an initial portfolio of rental properties, using a different mortgage product on each deal, I realized that this industry was severely broken. Each mortgage transaction I went through made my blood boil, as it was an unfriendly and stressful process, and it didn’t have to be this way. I love to identify big, hard problems in massive industries to tackle, because it creates so much opportunity.
At Deloitte, I worked with many Fortune 500 firms to digitally enable their workflow. I wanted to take these principles and apply them to the multi-trillion dollar mortgage industry. Take a look at the recent IPO of RKT, Rocket Mortgage (by Quicken Loans). They launched Rocket Mortgage Digital Mortgage during the SuperBowl in 2016, now they are the market leader with substantial (low double digit) market share. We launched the StreamLoan platform two months before Rocket Mortgage, and have been trending to be a market leader in our category (POS), to allow thousands of other mortgage lenders to have their own digital mortgage platform to compete with the giant digitally enabled lenders out there.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of being the CEO and co-founder of your own company?
Three things come to mind. First, the ability to build high-performance teams, working only with the best and brightest. There is no room for mediocrity, especially in building a company from the ground up. Every team member plays a crucial role in creating value. Working with brilliant and passionate team members is satisfying.
Second, building a product, starting with only a dream or concept of how to improve something in the world is truly awesome. Seeing it come to life, bit by bit, is powerful. Putting your own product in the hands of an (expert) user from the industry, who appreciates it, brings a huge smile to my face. And as a founder, you can take the product (and company) in any direction you believe in, without the political nonsense in some larger or more mature organizations, which often stifles innovation and opportunity.
Last, but not least, is selling (or licensing) a product which solves real world problems, that you created from scratch for customers. A product that impacts their business by helping them make more money, or save money, is incredibly rewarding. When a customer pays you, it's real validation that you have created something valuable. Engineering a product for its own sake with “cool” features is intellectually rewarding (and yes we have internal hackathons with some smaller percent of our engineering time to create cool stuff for its own sake), but when a customer spends money on it, it shows that the product is solving a real problem and creating value for their business. I’d say this is the most satisfying aspect of starting a business. It's actually quite simple, when you make your customers successful, you win.
What is one piece of advice you would give to an entrepreneur looking to start their own business from scratch?
Don’t do it for the money. It's so incredibly difficult to start and build a company. Everything is stacked against you. It's a long game, not a quick win. As a founder/co-founder, you are also the last to get paid (both salary and equity). Most start-ups fail, going to zero value (“strike out”). A few do okay (“base hits”). Only a small percentage of startups become successful, and create real enterprise value (“doubles to grand slams”).
Rather, passion to solve a hard problem that matters to you should be the driver. That’s what it takes to work long hours and days, deal with getting countless rejection from investors, customers, partners, etc. It's a seven days a week “job”. Tenacity is required to survive, let alone succeed. The inner drive must be there with the utmost belief in what you are doing, else the odds are even worse than what I mentioned earlier.
If you are lucky enough to create success and enterprise value (which there is a small probability of, as mentioned above), and get to a monetization event (IPO, M&A, some types of fundraising), it is one of the most satisfying career (and personal/financial) experiences possible.
What aspect, in regard to the current growth in mortgage technology we are seeing in current times, are you most excited about?
Making the mortgage process simple, and enabled on your phone, with real apps. Empowering users. Services like automation, mobile, and smart workflow empowered with rich data are all exciting as it makes our vision of “buying a home on your phone” with as few clicks as possible (not only the borrower, but enabling the lender to run their entire business from their phone). In the short 5 years we have been around, we have moved the needle by re-imagining how the industry can operate with magnitudes of improved efficiency and a better user experience.
In your opinion, what makes StreamLoan stand out amongst its competitors in the mortgage technology industry?
It's a combination of our deep understanding of the industry fundamentals, consultative approach to problem solving, collaborating with clients, and robust innovative technology platform. It’s less about “shiny objects”, and more about features that really work in a production mortgage environment, which move the needle for our lender clients’ business performance. We cover more of the home purchase workflow, have deeper native mobile and web capabilities, and a more configurable platform than others in this space. StreamLoan’s deep enterprise technology software experience also allows for the best connectivity and integrations with partner technology that exist in the market. A combination of these traits allows our clients to outperform their peers.
What do you envision the future of StreamLoan will look like in 5, or 10 years?
StreamLoan will be a market leader, used by thousands of lenders, and millions of borrowers, with a one-click home purchase option from your iPhone or Android device, among helping our ecosystem with other personal financial decisions, products, and services.