As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Zhou, the founder, and CEO of Fig.
Fig partners with nonprofits to create socially responsible financial products for underbanked Americans. They started as a collaboration with the United Way and their latest product is called Fig36, which has been called Shopify for lending. Fig36 provides turnkey lending-as-a-service solutions for nonprofits and local organizations that want to operate their own credit building programs.
Prior to starting Fig, Jeff worked at the Boston Consulting Group in their Consumer practice area. He received his MBA from the Wharton School and was an ESPN All American Swimmer while pursuing his BS in Chemical Engineering from MIT.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I am proudly born and raised in Buffalo, NY. My entrepreneurship career starts in middle school. I had two businesses. The first sold t-shirts for competitive swimmers. I made them on Custom Ink and sold them at swim competitions between races. The second was on eBay selling digital video game items I had earned. I loved that my weekend gaming could pay for things like my first skateboard and hundreds of Auntie Anne’s pretzels. My entrepreneurship was relegated to the backburner when I received a scholarship to boarding school and then college. I started my career at The Boston Consulting Group where I learned an immense amount about business strategy and operations. As I got more settled into the role, my entrepreneurial itch returned. I teamed up with two colleagues from work and we tried to create cloud-based white pages for the world. When this didn’t work out, I went to business school with the sole intention of starting new businesses. I met my co-founder John at the PennApps hackathon a week before school started. Our first project was a game called Llama Run and over the next two years we would earnestly try (and fail) to launch three other ideas. About three months before our graduation, we decided to give it one more go with Fig, and here are we are!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Like most startups, we started with a single inbox and our personal cell phones as the business contact line. These were mistakes. 1) You’re never too small to have separate email addresses for different areas of the business and 2) don’t use your personal phone number as a business number!
While we were at Techstars, they encouraged us to explore marketing channels. We setup some initial campaigns, and overnight, boom inbox 3000. We spent the entire day trying to sort customer emails from everything else. The stress of parsing 3000 emails to make sure we didn’t lose a critical email still haunts me today. However, more important than the email takeaway, is to get a business number! We started with our personal numbers and they are now forever branded somewhere in the depths of the internet as the Fig business line. Years after we updated everything with our business number… somewhere, somehow, customers still find our personal numbers and call us…
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
This is an unorthodox answer for career books… but I’m a huge fan of the book “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. We’ve all read the book when we were younger, but after randomly picking it up as an adult, I feel like this book truly transcends in terms of the advice you can takeaway. I think a level 1 learning is that you need resources, and your network is the tree. The level 2 learning is the value of changing your perspective. The tree is able to provide so many different facets of resources throughout the story. Looking at something differently can tremendously change its value. Lastly, there is such a thing as giving too much. How can we create sustainability in our lives?
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When we started Fig, the goal was to bring the sophistication of Wall St. to Main Street. We wanted to take all of the engineering, big data, and best practice from top tier finance and make that available to the single location 4-person non-profit. Our purpose is to level up community organizations across the world by democratizing access to cutting edge tools and techniques. I believe that community organizations form the backbone of civilization and, with our help, can become the future of financial services.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
“It is what it is.” I don’t know if this is a good principle, but it’s carried me through many of my toughest challenges. There’s often not much we can do to change events that have already happened, so devoting energy to them doesn’t really move the needle. Facing tough situations, I’ve found it best to just accept the situation, figure out what comes next and start doing it!
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I first experienced lower back spasms during my final year of college swimming. Since then, I have actively used physical therapy and strengthening to protect my lower back. Even so, the last few hours of long flights are still painful. One of the biggest challenges has been trying to maintain my physical regimen while quarantining in my New York City shoebox apartment. While I could have left, I chose not to because it felt irresponsible to risk bringing the infection out of NYC. The solution to this challenge has been getting creative with space and exercises. Keeping an open mind towards new combinations and knowing that even partial outcomes are better than nothing helped me reach a new steady state.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest work-related challenge I’ve faced is keeping my team energized and efficient. When we’re in the office, the energy is both contagious and amplifying. With quarantine, we’ve lost that natural resonance. Our solution has been to try and simulate the office setting through small group video rooms. This has helped our team achieve moments of normalcy where everyone is just hanging out. It also helps us remember how much we enjoy spending time together. To support efficiency, our team has focused on over-communicating what we’re working on and timelines. The first few weeks were rough, with lots of stepping on toes and collisions, but the team has definitely leveled upon communication. The early results were critical in helping us realize how important communication is.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
My personal go-to is always physical exercise. When I work out, I feel like I’m using a different side of the brain and it gives the panicked side a chance to shut down and reset. There’s a reason the Apple Store’s number one solution for your problem is “have you tried resetting your device?” It’s also incredibly hard to also be upset when you’re literally panting.
When it comes to supporting loved ones, my approach has been to be the duck on the water. No matter how I’m feeling underneath, I’m calm as a cucumber on the surface. I think the worst thing we can do is egg on each other’s sense of uncertainty and fear. Instead, if we can all work hard to be the firebreak for those around us, we’ll all reap the benefits of lower stress.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The top of mind economic opportunities are in healthcare and telework. Continuing my pattern of unorthodox answers, I think there’s a massive opportunity in travel. Yes, travel. I think this is a very interesting time for travel innovation because it has to change and people want to travel. I’m also very keen on environmental opportunities. We’ve now seen what just a few months can do for the environment, how will this positively affect corporate citizenship going forward?
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I hope it will make us better citizens to each other. In Asia, it was already common for people to wear masks when they are sick to reduce their chance of infecting others. I hope wearing masks for the benefit of others will become a permanent change in the way we behave. Though I believe behaviors are really hard to change permanently, I’m hopeful!
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Personally, I’m very focused on getting resources to our nonprofit partners. I think the Post-Covid economy is going to be slow to get going, and a lot of people will need different types of assistance. Our partners are uniquely positioned to understand the community’s needs and address them. Our job is to have the tools and information they need to help them do their job!
For our business, my team has been working on a lot of infrastructures over the past few months in preparation for Post-COVID and I’m excited for us to grow on a significantly stronger foundation. I’m personally focused on automating away our administrative pieces so we can spend less time there and more time on growing the business.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I think the transition into the Post-Covid economy is one of constantly shifting windows of opportunity. If you find one that works for your business today, go for it! But if you’re like us and think your growth opportunity is going to come a bit later in the cycle, then let’s focus on fundamentals together! I think the best thing we can do right now is prepare prepare prepare. There’s still a lot of unknowns about the Post-COVID economy so we have to be ready for anything.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be like the Willow Tree.” It essentially means don’t fight the flow. Too many times in my life I have tried to force certain outcomes or fight against things that were already set in stone. It, a) rarely works, and b) is so hard on the mind and body. This quote has become a favorite as it’s a cornerstone for my mental sustainability through the ups and downs of our startup journey. It keeps me optimistic, forces me to see the bigger picture, and enables me to efficiently allocate my energy!
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