As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jared Kaplan, chief executive officer of OppFi, a leading financial technology platform focused on helping everyday consumers create a better financial path. Previously, he was co-founder and former executive vice president at Insureon. Jared has been recognized as a Glassdoor Top CEO.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I was raised in a suburb of Detroit by my two parents who were both professionals. Seeing my parents both work hard to excel in their respective professions — consulting for my mother and medicine for my father — instilled in me a strong work ethic. This, plus having an identical twin brother, meant that I grew up in a competitive, but nurturing, environment where we were encouraged to apply maximum effort to everything we did.
My professional backstory begins at Goldman Sachs, where I gained valuable experience and best-in-class training. From there, I moved into private equity to help spur innovation at established industries and companies. It was during this phase of my career that I realized the greatest opportunities could be found by addressing challenges in older and more established industries. For example, insurance. Insurance wasn’t working for small businesses and so I helped found and run a startup called Insureon that allowed small businesses to more easily navigate and buy insurance.
Then, six years ago, I got the call to join OppFi as the CEO, presenting me with an opportunity to bring innovation to another established industry: financial services and building credit access.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
Growing up, both my brother and I were passionate about sports and from an early age, I loved being and rooting for the underdog. The excitement that comes with joining a team that isn’t always on top and working hard to achieve a well-deserved win is a frame of thinking that has helped shape my career path. It’s why I entered private equity and subsequently founded a startup. It’s also why I joined OppFi.
When I was approached by OppFi for the CEO role, I immediately resonated with the company’s mission to help everyday consumers, especially the 150 million consumers who have limited savings and access to traditional financial products. This segment could be considered the underdogs of the financial system and they deserve to have a company fighting to be their financial champion. OppFi does that by disrupting the industry in a positive way to show that it is possible and affordable to make financial inclusion accessible to millions of individuals who are otherwise locked out.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
It’s easy to forget that not everyone is operating with the same amount of information as you and that people can’t read your mind — a fact that seems funny and obvious when acknowledged.
Whether you are a small start-up or a mid-sized high growth company, you are moving really fast every day. Decisions are made, ideas get lift, and teams are creating new products at so much speed, you forget that colleagues can’t read your mind. One day I heard an employee describe the company in a way that no longer held true and I realized that I underestimated and assumed everyone knew what I knew. I wasn’t communicating enough. It was a good reminder that I needed to establish regular feedback loops so that our entire team can operate on the same wavelength. Maintaining this commitment to communication has been helpful as we’ve grown many times over in the past six years.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There is no question that my twin brother is the biggest reason not only for my success, but also for my drive. As an identical twin, we were (and are) always competing, pushing each other, and most importantly we are each other’s biggest champion. It’s a natural rivalry, but a very healthy and genuine relationship because we get each other. We want to see each other succeed not only in business, but in family and personal achievements. I would not be where I am today without him, as well as our parents guiding us to support each other, take the high road, and be supportive.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Leading a start-up, you have plenty of chances to make mistakes and missteps along the way. As CEO, you have to assume that will happen and it is about how you move beyond — fix what is broken and learn from it. Sometimes failing fast is the best lesson because the quicker you fail, the faster you can improve. Even as OppFi grew quickly, we always kept the customer experience at the center. However, there were times where we moved too quickly. For example, we may not have communicated clearly to our customers on a feature change or underestimated the impact the change had on a process, quickly learning where we need to build in better training for our Loan Advocate teams. Our Advocates do such important work helping consumers navigate challenging financial situations with openness and compassion. We need to always ensure we help our teams be the best prepared to create that high-quality experience all the time.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There is nothing like the healthy competition that comes from having a twin brother! It also helps that my brother is a CEO too, so he shares an understanding of the challenges on what it means to lead an organization. Beyond my brother, I’ve been lucky to have a strong role model in my parents, both who are successful in their careers. My father is a doctor, and I remember walking with him through the hospital at times, and he was like a celebrity in a way. He had the most compassionate way about him, and people gravitated to that feeling of comfort he emulated. I always think about that when we are in a stressful moment; as CEO — how can I create that sense of calmness so we can move forward and make the right decisions in that moment as a team.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I believe OppFi is in a really solid place. We are profitable, growing and have the trust of our customers. Moreover, we were able to maintain profitability and customer satisfaction amid the pandemic, proving that our business model could weather a recession. In February, we announced our intention to further scale OppFi by going public via a SPAC opportunity with Joe Moglia — former TD Ameritrade Chairman and CEO — and FG New America (NYSE: FGNA). This SPAC is a chance to work with partners who are equally focused on the everyday consumer and driven by a people-first ethos, so it certainly feels like OppFi has achieved a certain amount of success.
Most importantly, however, is that OppFi’s success illustrates that it is possible to bring the everyday consumer under the tent of financial inclusion in a way that is accessible and good for business.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
At OppFi, our commitment to customer service is second to none, compared not only to others in the non-prime credit segment, but across industries, as reflected by a Net Promoter Score of 85, which is higher than those of well-respected brands like Apple, Costco, USAA, and Vanguard.
In fact, listening to specific customer calls to better understand OppFi and the company’s commitment to customer service was part of my interview process. The non-prime lending industry has a bad reputation for offering only predatory products and subpar service, and OppFi wanted to ensure that I understood it is different. During this experience, I heard our loan advocates interacting with customers in a way that showed they really cared about finding them the best solutions. More than once customers shed tears of relief as OppFi advocates walked them through the product and explained the repayment schedule, all while treating them with kindness.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Remember what matters to you in your personal life and make that a priority when it comes to navigating your professional life.
For me, this means spending time with my family, and making sure I am fully present when doing so. This is another lesson I learned from my mother and father — even when they had to work a lot, in the moments that they were at home and with us, they made sure that they were not distracted by their commitments to their jobs.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As CEO of OppFi, I have helped 1.5 million everyday consumers gain access to credit. This work has helped better the financial situations of people who otherwise would not have been able to access credit, which is a fundamental component of the American financial system — these customers unfortunately would have been forced to turn to periphery services with increased exposure to predatory practices. Plus, we have managed to broaden credit access in a way that is customer-centric and rooted in respect, so that people trust and enjoy working with OppFi.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
These lessons have reaffirmed my personal leadership philosophy of always taking the high road. This is yet another thing I learned from my parents, who always taught us that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Those words were directed quite often at my twin brother and me, as we fought and competed for literally everything. The lesson was invaluable, however. Now being a CEO, I run into situations all the time in which this lesson needs to be applied, and my experience has strongly reinforced my parents’ words.
Fortunately, the approach of taking the high road was already ingrained aspect of OppFi culture from the very start.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something; you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
There’s a quote that says, “good judgement comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgement.” Unfortunately, truer words have never been spoken. Sometimes lessons just need to be lived to be truly appreciated.
I believe that it is important to learn from experience. For example, in all of my professional roles I’ve understood there is great importance in delivering a high-quality customer service, but it was only through my role as OppFi CEO that I was able to understand first-hand the impact of prioritizing customer service as an offering in an industry where a positive customer experience is not always the norm.
First-time CEOs bring many positive traits to the table, but of course, experience is also valuable. I’ve always tried to be self-aware, and I truly do listen. Six years into my journey as CEO, it feels in many ways like we’ve barely gotten started, and I continue to try to take the experience I’ve built to date and never stop learning and applying those learnings.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’d like to demonstrate by example the idea of applying a strong work ethic to the things that matter to you both professionally and personally so that you can “have it all.”
While this will vary from person to person, for me this means working hard to be both a great CEO and father. As a leader, I am committed to ensuring my team is prepared and excited for the next phase of OppFi, while also giving my all to my responsibilities to be a great father and husband. The same is true vice versa. At times this means setting boundaries for one role so that I can respect the boundaries of another. It’s difficult, but I believe in a world where both are possible, and people can have it all.
This is an idea I’ve previously spoken about and it’s a topic I address with OppFi interns each summer — it’s hardly new, but it is one that deserves a renewed focus with many of us having experienced a blurring of the lines between our personal and professional lives over the past year due to remote work.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Customer experience is always the most important product you can offer that can’t be replicated by your competitors.
Whether you’re selling a service or a product, companies are well-suited to remember that their mission is to provide the best possible solution for their customer. At OppFi, this means providing consumers with responsible financial options and an unmatched customer experience — even if the ultimate solution is not one of our own products. During my six years as CEO of OppFi I’ve seen first-hand the loyalty impact of a high-quality customer experience in a segment where service isn’t a valued competitive advantage.
In fact, we are so laser focused on the customer experience that we actively help consumers find a better alternative. I believe we are the only digital financial platform and servicer in our segment who actively helps customers find a better priced product with other financial providers first. This work is a core part of OppFi’s mission and value system to “hold the door” for customers. And this has resulted in OppFi maintaining a high Net Promoter Score of 85, which is well above average for the financial services industry and we stand uniquely alone in the credit-challenged space.
2. The best barometer of culture is how people feel on Sunday night about Monday morning.
In the past five years, our OppFi team has grown from a modest count of 15 to more than 500 people in 2021. This growth meant that as CEO a lesson I learned quickly was how to prioritize the fostering of a culture where employees — whether in the office or working remotely — are excited about the work that they do. Some of this excitement naturally comes from the pride we have in serving customers, but much of this is about our mission and values we emulate as a company. And it also means illustrating a clear commitment to investing in our people so that we can attract and retain top talent.
As CEO, there is no question that reinvesting in culture is a critical expenditure for company performance and just the right thing to do.
3. Always work to test and ensure your business model can sustain outside risks and make a plan to mitigate risks before they happen.
Growth in a bull economy is exciting. But it is absolutely imperative to plan for the unknown and outside risks that will come, and they will come. Leading a company through a global pandemic was the single most important leadership lesson I gained this past year. Leading through the ambiguity and unknowns has changed how we plan and mitigate going forward, and for the better. It not only taught us how to look at every aspect of the business, but it also pushed us to ensure we are always leading employees through unknown times with transparency, authenticity, and honesty.
4. Innovate and evolve to meet customer needs.
Any CEO can tell you that innovation is key for continuous improvement, and so most leaders recognize the need to listen out for new ideas can, and do, come from anywhere and anyone.
As a fintech company, we are reliant on innovation — our ability to provide financial access and graduate everyday consumers looks different now than it did even a decade ago. We work hard to identify and capitalize on ways to serve customers differently because their needs are different now than they were a decade ago, and they will be different in the next decade. We want to be ahead of that every step of the way.
5. Always hold the door, always.
I’ve always been a big believer in holding the door for others throughout my life. Strong teams in sports, business — anything — have leaders who hold the door. But it is one thing to believe and another thing to act on. My experience at OppFi has enabled me to be in a position where I can see my impact of holding open the door for others. It sets the tone for the entire organization, it creates an inclusive environment to help others succeed, and it infuses the importance of kindness, collaboration, and supporting each other for a common goal and mission.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My LinkedIn page: Jared Kaplan
My twitter: @JaredSKaplan