Chirag Chaman left his position as CEO of KobeMail a year ago to build Fynanz, a peer to peer lending site for student loans. Fynanz describes their service as "an innovative marketplace where students can get one of the most competitive rates on private student loans. Students apply for a loan and it is funded by individual lenders – friends, family, alumni and others who believe what we believe – Education is the Best Investment!" Chaman took some time out of their aggressive schedule to talk to PLR about the service they will be launching soon.
What is your background and what inspired Fynanz?
I graduated with a double major in Mathematics and Computer Science, but was always drawn towards business and finance. I started off my career as a software engineer working for Oracle in the Bay Area, and it did not take long to realize that I would be happier on Wall Street. I moved to New York and worked for Salomon Smith Barney/Citigroup in their Investment Banking Division focusing on financial institutions. These institutions were in the business of making student loans, and my job was to securitize these loans (sell bonds to investors against them). The institutions we worked with were primarily making loans under the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP). Private or alternative student loans were not very common back then. Business was always good for our group regardless of how Wall Street did. After all, nearly every student took out loans and education was only getting more and more expensive each year. Coming from a technology background, I was a little bothered by the lack of technological and procedural advancements over the years in this industry. Frankly, I don't blame the financial institutions, the schools, the federal/state agencies, or anyone else, as I believe they all have the best interest of the student at heart. There are a lot of moving parts to the Federal loan program which made this process hard to change. What did bother me a lot was when private loans became more and more prominent, there was little done to improve the process. The institutions simply rolled out the new private loan train on the "old FFELP tracks". And why not, it made it virtually free to get the process started. It might have made good business sense at that time, but it did not bring in savings to the students and today when Private loans are more and more in demand, this lack of initial investment to improve the process means students are not getting the best deal. No! I did not do anything about it back then. I caught the Internet bug in Web 1.0 days and started a venture backed company. It was not until 2006 when I saw an article about Zopa, did I start to connect the dots. So here I am, 10 years later back in the Student Loan industry.
Where did you get the name for Fynanz?
We initially called this "Project BlueNote" and starting asking students in college and recent grads who they have their student loans from. Would you believe it if I told you less than 20% actually knew who their lender was? When we asked them what razor they use or who makes their cell phone, over 90% knew the answer. We realized there was a big branding opportunity, but for it to work, we had to come up with a name that students would relate to. Hence we went back to them with a few ideas. Amongst us In the office and a few parents liked conservative names with "Education" , "Academic" or "Lending" in the name as it portrayed experience & trust, but it was nixed by students (our primary target). I can clearly remember a guy from Hunter college telling me with a look on his face as if I was an idiot - "Do you really think I'll put THAT name on my facebook?" One day a friend, who was a recent grad herself and was helping us with student surveys sent me a text referring to the company as "fynanz idea". Soon a couple more used it and it stuck! (Apparently, thumb-typing Fynanz is easier than Finance as the keys are closer)
How long have you been working on the project?
Initially we thought it would take us 6-8 months. We soon realized that putting "new train tracks" in place is not an easy task. It took us about 8 months to plan the process and understand the legalities. In late 2006 we stared the planning phase -- so just over a year.
Tell us about the team. How did you bring everyone together? And who is responsible for those cool drawings on the site?
Okay, this is by far the most important aspect about any company. Fynanz will be my third venture and looking back I can say the times it worked and the times it did not, had little to do with the idea and more to do with the people who executed the idea. I am fortunate to have a team that has known each other a few years and work extremely well together. Everyone checks their egos at the door on the way in and goes about their business. In a startup you're working 12-14 hours a day very closely with people and it not always easy. I cannot stress how important team spirit is -- A team comprised of 5 average people will out-execute 10 very bright individuals every time! Drawings may not be all original, but modified to suit our needs. The graphic design was done by the fine folks at Design'N Print.
You encourage students to exhaust all federal loan options before using your service? Do you think that will hurt business?
It depends on what our business is and what we believe in. We're in the business of making sure students get a competitive student loan and we believe that Education is the best investment! If students can't afford to go to school, they are not making this investment in themselves. So, while it may see that sending students towards Federal loans is bad for our business, it's actually good for our business over the long term. See it this way:- Federal loans reduce the overall burden for the student as their combined (Private and Federal loan) interest expense will be a lower. More students can afford to go to school and get jobs...jobs help borrowers to pay off their loans, reducing the default rate on student loans...thereby making these loans a good investment for lenders as well. More lenders means competition and a lower interest rate for the student. Similarly, Fynanz will advocate only taking out what you need right now and will be putting checks and balances in place to ensure that a student is not over-extending. Part of the reason we are in the current credit crisis is because a few mortgage lenders made it easier for borrowers to over-extend. Might have been a good short-term strategy which hurt them (and a whole lot of others) in the end.
How will Fynanz be different than Prosper, LendingClub and other P2P lending sites?
Do we need to be different? I see us all as retail stores, with a slight difference in what we have on our shelves. Our focus is just student loans -- which is a very different loan product. Our borrowers are students looking to pay their education expenses. If they wanted money to pay-off their credit card or to take a spring-break trip, we just might send them Prosper's way. However, the big difference lies in the lenders of our community. We expect the goal of our lenders not to get the maximum interest from a loan, but balance an attractive return with the satisfaction of knowing that they are building a student's future.
What have been your biggest challenges as you prepare to launch a new company?
In a startup, I don't think there is a biggest challenge. Most things will end up being a challenge and once it gets resolved you realize "Wow, that was simple to work through", and you're on to your next biggest challenge. It's only a challenge until you learn or come up with a creative way to overcome it, and 99% of the time you do. So I guess the biggest challenge has more to do with your mindset and attitude, and less to do with aptitude. That said, I think the real challenges are those that are outside your control, even if it's the simplest thing and you know the process. My biggest challenge right now is finding great Ruby on Rails engineers to join the team.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Did I mention we're looking for Rails engineers? Oh, and a couple of business development and operations folks with student loan experience.
Update (3/21/2008): Fynanz has launched - Fynanz becomes the first P2P student loan marketplace