CEOs Talk Workplace: Interview with OppLoans CEO Jared Kaplan

OppLoans CEO Jared Kaplan doesn’t believe that it’s mutually exclusive to have a high-performing place to work and a great place to work.

Jared Kaplan

Bob Fox: Tell us a bit about OppLoans and what you’re doing?

Jared Kaplan: We’re a consumer finance platform focused on giving the best available product to middle-class consumers lacking traditional financing options. More than half the country lives paycheck to paycheck with very little savings and if they run into an emergency, they need help financing it.

After the 2008 recession, there was tremendous growth in online lending solutions. What makes us different is we match you against all the other players out there. It’s very akin to the Progressive Insurance model. If you qualify for a certain loan, we will show the consumer that option and if there is a match, we will look to underwrite the customer either directly ourselves or through our bank partner. The best way to think about our business is it’s an end-to-end consumer finance platform because we get you the best products for your risk profile with the best customer service experience of any consumer company.

A bright and welcoming reception area

Bob: What is the size of your company?

Jared: The company has about 360 employees and that’s up from 15 in November of 2015 when I joined. We will have at least 420 by the end of this year and have well over 500 next year. We are averaging 100+ hires a year. We will do north of 250 million dollars of revenue this year.

Bob: How long have you been in business?

Jared: The business was founded in 2012 by Todd Schwartz. His father, Ted Schwartz, built a company out of his garage called APAC Customer Services. He took the company public, then sold it to JP Morgan’s private equity group in 2011. Todd saw this dislocation after the great recession and started this business where both APAC and OppLoans were built on a tremendous customer service philosophy.

Bob: What are the demographics of your people and could you tell us more about the culture of your organization?

Jared: First, I’d like to talk about how we define culture, which is the collective attitude of our employees on a Sunday night and how they feel about going to work on Monday morning. We try to create a place where people are excited to come to work. We make our customers happy every day and that makes for a terrific work environment.

We don’t believe it’s mutually exclusive to have a high-performing place to work and a great place to work. Those two things can coexist. It starts with that philosophy. When you walk into our office, it feels like a next-generation, paradigm-shifting company in the way that we built out the floor plans, the furniture, and the technology we have across the office tracking all of the real-time data metrics of the business.

I’d like to say we run our company like a fantasy sports team because we are highly metric and have the ability to improve our own performance. We also provide many opportunities for employees to get together through happy hours, company events, sports teams, game nights, and more. We invest in our people. It’s on us to create a work environment that will retain top talent.

An open floor plan with plenty of natural light

Bob: Are there any other types of programs that you have that you attribute to your retention?

Jared: We use online programs for learning and development programs. Quarterly, we recognize employees who are nominated by their peers for living up to the company’s core values. Each quarter, the top four employees receive $1,000 to donate to their favorite charity.

Saturday Night Live has a tradition where you receive a red jacket after hosting a show for the fifth time. Here, we model that same tradition by giving employees a varsity jacket with our logo when they hit their five-year anniversary and have a nice celebration.

Bob: You described your space as a next-generation paradigm shifting company. Can you tell us a little about what your space does to convey that?

Jared: I played sports growing up and always believed if your uniform and equipment looked good, that it showed on the field. We want people to love the space they work in and the equipment they have. Before we built out this space, we did a tour in Silicon Valley of the great firms including Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Lyft, Square, and Twitter. When you walk into those offices, you can feel the energy. There was also this terrific dichotomy between quiet space and collaborative space. It felt incredibly high-tech. When people walk into our space now, the first word we typically hear is “Wow”. That’s exactly what we tried to create with some of the sight-lines and the TV screens, and the high-tech look and feel of the space. We also have plenty of quiet and collaborative opportunities with a good mix of wide-open space for people to pick a spot to work for the day and some individual private spaces for heads-down work. We have very few offices and a terrific view that overlooks Lake Michigan.

Glass wall meeting space

Bob: You described some of the energy and inspiration that’s connected to your space. Can you give us some specific examples of things that you’ve done to achieve that feeling or experience?

Jared: We like to add a lot of greenery to our space, so we incorporated living plant structures like moss to brighten things up and make it lively.

We had a graffiti artist come in to paint our core values on the wall.

From the way the office is set up, you get a pure, sight-line environment where you can feel the activity and energy. People are facing each other at their desks, which helps to facilitate engagement between employees. We have maximized the open space and minimized the desk space.

Bob: I’m fascinated that you took the tour of Silicon Valley office spaces. Is there something that you did to make your space unique or to brand it as OppLoans?

Jared: Implementing our core values into our space was important so that people understand why and how we’re serving our customers. The other benefit of seeing all of those Silicon Valley spaces was that we were able to take what we wanted from them and put it all together in our downtown Chicago office.

The puppy button is an important part of OppLoans’ culture.

Bob: Taking the best elements of these companies is unique in and of itself. How are you using the space as a leadership tool to help drive your business and achieve your goals?

Jared: There’s one feature that is software driven but plays well into our space and I give my CTO all the credit for. We have a ‘puppy button’, which is literally a big red button resembling what you would hit to blow something up. When you hit the button, all of our TV screens revert to videos of puppies playing.

There is no better way to reduce stress and tension when someone is having a bad day than that. It’s a terrific example of how we’ve taken a jovial approach to the workplace. We have a lot of high-technology and it can be intimidating to some. We’re always showing real-time stats but the moment you hit that button, we’re all just looking at puppies.

The puppy button takes over all the screens in the office!

Bob: That’s so great! How did people react to that the first time they saw it?

Jared: They loved it! People were dying laughing. We have an emergency channel for when something is broken and I have never seen anyone react faster than when someone posted that the puppy button was broken. People take it seriously because it’s such an important part of our culture.

Bob: It also sounds like you’re using the visuals on the screen to drive your business so that everyone sees the performance and knows what the expectations are.

Jared: Yes, you can see everything from how many people are on the site, to the various company metrics we’re tracking against, to individual metrics.

The open plan office provides plenty of casual meeting space for employees

Bob: Is there any particular aspect of the space that you think helps drive performance?

Jared: There’s no question that the real-time visibility of the data drives performance, and that we have such high standards of unbelievable customer service.

Bob: Is there a priority or important function that your space serves for your organization?

Jared: I think the collaboration piece is a big deal. It’s creating casual areas for people to generate creativity. We have whiteboard walls and lots of seating, which drive a lot of informal dialogue. Sometimes, the best conversations generate great ideas.

Bob: Can you tell us about your personal office within the space?

Jared: I’m a huge believer in standing desks and we hold a number of meetings using them. The walls are glass and there is lots of seating to be used for informal opportunities to gather and get to the answers. The best parts of my day are not in the office, it’s walking the floor. I think it’s one of the most important things that I can do. I ask people what we can do better and I get answers because this is an environment where people are comfortable enough to speak up.

The kitchen area

Bob: As you are building out your expansion space, where are you most willing to spend money?

Jared: The idea of glass offices is a good example. Drywall is much cheaper, but we’ve deliberately spent more on glass so that we can increase sight-lines and transparency. We also are willing to spend more on comfort. When we built up our last floor, we added standing desks for everyone. We also spend on equipment so that employees have the best computers, etc. so that things are easier for employees.

Bob: It almost sounds like your space truly is a leadership tool for you. Can you share your thoughts on that?

Jared: It’s definitely a tool because you’re proud to walk into this office and feel motivated to go into work every morning. When employees walk in the door on Monday morning, they don’t have that sinking feeling in their gut. They feel excited and ready to make things happen and feel that they’re changing the world. That’s the mentality we want people to feel.

Bob: When people leave your space, what story do you think they tell about OppLoans?

Jared: I think they walk away with saying they just saw one of the coolest, up-and-coming companies in the country. We often hear from people that they can feel we are building something special.

All images are courtesy of OppLoans.
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