President and COO of FinLocker Brian Vieaux joins Joe Welu on Expert Insights to discuss going beyond a transactional mindset and delivering value to consumers by helping them prepare for life’s biggest financial decisions.
[00:55] Brian’s background and FinLocker story
[05:16] Financial health and wellness, and enabling customer success
[08:26] Engaging up-funnel and empowering the modern consumer
[14:37] Most innovation is focused on the transaction
[18:24] The Struggle of being a B2B2C platform
[21:56] The importance of consumer control over their data
[26:52] Possibilities with FinLocker and data management with a privacy-focus
Listen to the podcast here
Unlocking Value With Financial Health & Wellness With Brian Vieaux
I’m super excited to introduce our guest, the President & COO of one of my favorite FinTech startups, FinLocker. Please join me in welcoming Mr. Brian Vieaux, President & COO of FinLocker. Brian, it’s good to be with you.
Thanks for having me, Joe. I’ve been watching this show from afar and I’m glad to finally get to participate. I’m looking forward to the conversation.
Brian, we got some great topics to talk about. Before we get into the meat of what we want to talk about, I would love for you to give the audience a little bit about your story, your background, and then maybe a little bit about the FinLocker story.
Thanks, Joe. I don’t know how great of a story it is, but it’s a story all the same. I celebrated my three-year anniversary with FinLocker. These 3 years followed 28 years in the primary mortgage production space where I predominantly led large production operations, most recently, the third-party business at Flagstar.
Why I think that’s relevant to my current role and what we’re doing at FinLocker is that our primary clients, much like your primary clients at TotalExpert, are lenders and financial institutions. I bring the experience of sitting in the chair of who we’re engaged with as a partner. I used those couple or almost three decades of experience every day in my current role.
I got to know FinLocker from its onset. Two of the three founders are friends of mine. We go back to the late ’90s. They founded, ran and sold a company called Lenders One to Altisource. They did well with that exit. These guys are serial entrepreneurial guys so they created a couple of companies. One of them was FinLocker.
FinLocker was started as a service in the middle of the loan manufacturing process to help processors and underwriters ingest data, namely bank data and asset data, and make some decisions on that data versus the old-school way of, “I’ve got four months of bank statements. I’ve got to sift through and look for large deposits.” The premise of the company was to help in the middle of the manufacturing process. The company was a little bit ahead of its time in that regard. Consumers weren’t ready to give up their passwords and user ID.
It seemed a little uncomfortable at first.
Two other players in the equation also weren’t ready to go down their loan officers. They were not ready to ask a customer to do something like, “Give up your credentials.” Processors and underwriters had a little bit of a standoffish engagement because to some degree, they viewed this technology as a threat to their role in the process.
Before I got here, FinLocker pivoted off that single use case in the middle of the manufacturing process to take what they had built, which was an ability for a consumer to link directly to their financial accounts. They started to build a holistic consumer financial fitness experience around that piece. As I watched that happening, I started to get interested in that journey and where I thought it could go in helping lenders think about a different way to engage consumers. That’s what led me to invest in the company, and then double down on my investment by joining as a President & COO in 2019.
There is no bigger investment than going all in. Three years go by fast in the startup world.
I had jet-black hair and a jet-black beard in 2018.
I thought that you’ve aged a bit in the last couple of years. I’m just kidding. The stress doesn’t show at all. You guys are solving some big problems and great innovation from all of the mutual customers that I talk to. Hats off to the work you’ve done in the last few years. Let’s get into the initial topic that I wanted to talk about. It’s why I love what you are doing and why we align so much with your core mission in terms of how we work with lenders.
It’s around financial health and wellness as a core focus and priority for lenders and banks to be able to be a leader in the center of the financial life of a consumer and say, “How do we help enable our customers to be more financially fit and healthier?” Did I say that correctly? Give me your take on why financial health and wellness is so critical, coming from both the lender side and the bank side, which you are on, which I think is great, and also the technology side.
I think you nailed it. The concept of empowering consumers with financial fitness is one part of the equation. In the context of how FinLocker engages with our clients or the lenders, primarily, we use financial fitness as the hook or the engagement and then seek to help our lenders create outcomes for those prospective customers.
One good example that I use often is first-time home buyers. There’s study after study that still shows how the average first-time home buyer doesn’t understand, not just the process but what they should be doing and sequentially when they should be doing things to become ready. The younger generations, we know they’re digital first. They’re looking and they expect to have on-demand digital tools at their fingertips.
Traditional independent mortgage bankers and a lot of banks but more banks have some kind of personal financial management tools. Most lenders in the mortgage context don’t have a set of digital tools that engage a consumer around this concept of preparedness and readiness in financial fitness. That’s what we’re addressing.
It’s amazing. For many years I’ve been involved in the industry, the default is always, “We’re going to pitch you a product.” Here’s a 30-year fixed to 15-year fixed, or 5/1 ARM. Here’s the interest rate. Here’s the program or the product,” which might be a special program, whatever it might be. There are many different types of loan products around the home purchase and equity, but they pitch the product.
They try to close the deal prior to doing what you and I are both passionate about, which is how you invest in the long term with that relationship. How do you go along? If you create enough value for a customer, I can’t think of a better way to create value than improving financial literacy and financial education. It can lead to better financial decisions, which leads to better financial outcomes. That’s the magic.
What I saw in 28 years in mortgage banking was a trend toward transactional behaviors and point-of-sale activities. What I saw with FinLocker in terms of where this could go as we continue to develop and enhance the product was a very intentional mechanism to engage consumers well before the point of sale and sometimes before the point of thought.
Double click on that because engaging before the point of sale and engaging up the funnel, I hear a lot of people talk about that. Before though, that’s abstract. Explain that a little bit more.
Sadly, there are not enough lenders yet that are here, but I think more and more are focused here. I’m in the Detroit area. There happens to be a pretty large mortgage institution not too far for me.
You guys got a few of them out in your neck of the woods.
There’s one in particular. If you watch the Super Bowl, you may have seen them. Their focus is on customer acquisition. Their customer acquisition starts sometimes ten years before there’s a transaction to be had. They invest in the actual acquisition, but then in the ongoing nurturing of that customer who’s technically not a customer yet. If I’m an independent mortgage banker owner-operator, that’s a threat to my business every day if I don’t have a strategy, a mechanism, or tools to engage customers months or maybe years before they’re ready.
When we talk about before the point of thought, we’re talking about a set of digital tools. I’ll compare these to other apps that are out there. A lender could deploy, distribute, market to, and build their funnel around that. They don’t even talk about mortgages. They’re talking about improving credit, understanding your credit, budgeting, goal setting, and understanding spending. It’s all of the things that when you stack them together are part of the mortgage readiness equation, but they are independent.
They’re all inputs.
What we talk about a lot with our customers and prospective customers is that 2023’s and 2024’s first-time homebuyers are now going out and engaging with Mint.com, Credit Karma, Credit Sesame, NerdWallet, and all of these disparate digital tools or these apps that serve a purpose. What we’ve tried to do at FinLocker is build a set of tools that bring much of that functionality into a single existence, and then we brand it.
It’s a white-label solution, our clients can then use to market and build 2023’s customers by engaging them on credit education, financial literacy and fitness, budgeting, goal setting, and the list goes on. From a lender’s perspective, it does serve the purpose of empowering the consumer on financial fitness. We’re also a pretty cool tool in the toolkit to use as a marketing engagement opportunity to build that early funnel.
I look at what you do as having two core components. I think both are awesome and incredibly valuable. The first core component is genuinely leading from a position of saying, “We care about financial education, financial literacy, and the financial health and wellness of our customers. We care about that. Here’s content, information, and tools to help you advance whatever depth or lack of depth you have with your knowledge around financial literacy.”
You give them tools to enable that progress to happen. Having that growth mindset or we’ll call it not a transactional mindset sets a different tone entirely at the beginning of a relationship or potential relationship. There is the other component, which is you’re doing all those things well. You’re educating customers. You’re providing them tools to improve their financial position in life and understanding how to make good decisions, then it becomes a customer acquisition strategy. It becomes a customer loyalty strategy.
Each of those independent tools stacked over time builds trust between the consumer and your brand. That first-time home buyer who may be on an eighteenth-month journey towards readiness, at the end of that journey, they’re still probably going to consider a couple of options. One option that they’re definitely going to consider is the brand that’s been on their phone for the last eighteen months, engaging them through their journey.At the end of the journey, consumers are still going to consider a couple of options, but one option they're definitely going to consider is the brand that's been on their phone for the last 18 months, engaging them through this journey. Click To Tweet
In the places that our company plays in and that you play in, both of us are looking at the transaction, the loan or the deal as one tiny part of a lifelong financial journey. I’m going to throw a question at you and tell me if you agree or disagree. If you think about a lot of the innovation, the venture dollars, the hype over in 2020, even the first part of 2021, if you look at the IPOs and the heavy funding rounds, there’s a lot of energy around modernizing the transactional experience, which is just a slice. If you think about the amount of value as a banker or lender that comes from having a lifelong customer relationship and the lifetime value, it is massive in comparison to that little slice. Do you agree that most of the innovation is focused on the transaction?
To be fair, the mortgage industry, the process, and all of the things that make up manufacturing a mortgage are probably still woefully behind other products and services that are consumer-facing. It had to happen. Part of it was out of necessity. We had these unprecedented spikes and volume where capacity couldn’t keep up so you need technology to help drive that.
I agree with that. You hit on something around this series of consumer financial events that happen in their lifetime. We think about the consumer experience in FinLocker as a series of on and off-ramps. Now, we happen to focus on a mortgage as one of those off-ramps, but with the data that is in a consumer’s FinLocker.
This is interesting. Something that we’ve been talking about a lot is when a consumer is fully enrolled in FinLocker, they’re essentially verified on five dimensions, identity, credit, and assets because we see the data in their bank accounts. Later this summer, we will be allowing a consumer to link directly to their payroll. Add employment and income as those fourth and fifth dimensions of this verified borrower.
We’ve attacked mortgage first, mainly because a lot of us came out of mortgages. It’s what we knew. Arguably, it’s also the most complicated consumer financial transaction. Now, in the locker, to be able to use that same data set and fire off auto lending, student lending, personal loans, HELOC, and credit cards, there’s the whole wheel of the financial life to be served.
You are thinking about the whole financial life cycle. Even though you’re not necessarily hammering away on other types of lending products, the vision for the company is to be able to help enable all of those. Basically, if you think about a comprehensive financial life of a consumer, those are spaces that are all applicable here.
A hundred percent. I talked to our team about “I want to be a verb.” I want someone to say, “Let me share my locker with you in order to get this auto loan or credit card.” Maybe it’s a QR code or some other shared item. Behind that is all of that verified data that a lender can ingest, and it’s already verified. They don’t have to do anything with it. It’s verified data and a direct source. That’s where we want to be. We want to become a verb in that context.
It’s a great vision. I love the direction you are going. For lenders and executives, we get a lot of executives on the show. For those that maybe don’t fully grasp what we’re talking about or put the pieces together, I just want to click down on one layer and simplify a little bit. If I think about taking your platform, you deliver a white-label app experience to a bank or lender and allow them to then go out to the marketplace and distribute both to their customers as well as potential customers. Is that how they should think about it?
Why would a consumer put their stuff in a locker and why would they sign up?
That’s the toughest question. That’s part of the struggle of being a B2B2C platform because I don’t control the middle B. At the end of the day, maybe the pandemic was our friend to some degree. It did advance the general comfort of people to transact digitally from a financial perspective. For a while, you had to. You didn’t have a choice.COVID was our friend to some degree because it advanced the general comfort of people to transact digitally from a financial perspective. Click To Tweet
If you couldn’t take a picture of a check and deposit, then you’re out of the system. The pandemic has accelerated the acceptance of linking accounts and doing things digitally. I do still believe though that it’s fundamentally up to our client and their brand and the trust that their brand has with either that prospect or customer to ultimately get them to download this app and use it.
This is why we started in the first-time home buyer space because there’s a need. That segment has a need to get prepared and better understand the process. Because there’s a need, there’s potentially a higher likelihood of engagement to do some of the things that the app is going to ask them to do like a link to their credit and their financial accounts.
One of the hooks that we’ve built around that first-time homebuyer experience is this concept of perpetual readiness. Because we’re sitting on a rich set of consumer-permission direct source data, we can run analytics on an ongoing basis around that consumer’s readiness across multiple dimensions, including credit, DTI, income, assets for the down payment, etc. We can use those attributes and progress as engagement opportunities to pull them back in under that brand and logo of the lending client.
The anchor up the funnel is on that readiness as a need and addressing the need area. On the other end of the continuum are the current customers of a bank or a mortgage company. Much of what’s valuable to a consumer up the funnel remains valuable after they’ve got a mortgage. They still want to track their financials, understand their credit, and track the value of their home, etc. The extension of our app is it does continue to engage after the mortgage closing as well.
You sent me a link the other day. I wanted to get back in and check it out. I was going through the onboarding and sign-up process again. One thing I’m impressed with that you did a good job on is the way you have the consumer control the permission on their data. Can you talk a little bit about why that’s so important right now and how it plays?
The backbone of our product is this concept of consumer permission and consumer control data. It runs a little counter sometimes to our business model because my client is a lender. They’re the ones paying for the license. The way we think about it is that the concept of consumer permission and consumer control extends the trust to the brand that’s providing the app, which is our client.
We feel like with the consumer permission and consumer control aspect, consumers are more likely to engage fully with the app. This means they’re going to link more of their information, which is going to bring more of the tools available to them from the app. This is going to hopefully pull them deeper down the funnel ultimately to a place where they’re compelled from the app to share that direct source data directly with the lender, in this case, for a mortgage application as an example.
It’s only once they’re ready. What you’re doing is you’re starting from a place of, “Let’s have a high-trust relationship. You’re in control. We’re here to add value along the path,” and then being able to go back in. That makes total sense. Some of the work you are doing is around closing the homeownership gap. This is on a lot of people’s minds, the underserved communities, and giving everybody that wants it the ability to build wealth through homeownership. Talk to me a little bit about how you are involved there and how some of the companies you work with can get some benefit by partnering with you. Any comments you have about that?
To be super transparent, we didn’t set out to build this app for the purpose of “serving the underserved.” There are some elements that we have not fully enhanced for that segment as a targeted segment. By and large, the financial tools available in the app include credit education and do-it-yourself credit improvement. We have some simulator tools, budgeting, and goal setting.
Banks and lenders that are focused locally on serving segments of their market that are generally considered underserved are looking for ways to engage that segment differently. Ideally, they would love to engage them with products that get them into homeownership. In a lot of cases, that segment needs a little more time, a little more handholding, and some different tools to get them to a place of readiness.
We have several banks and mortgage companies who, in addition to the standard first-time homebuyer segment, are using their version of FinLocker in their community as another way to engage that underserved segment. They’re doing specific workshops in the community and providing the app as a free add-on to the workshop or partnering with non-profits in the market that are serving that consumer segment.
We have a couple of non-mortgage lending clients who use our product as an onramp towards homeownership. Both of these clients are what I’d call credit-build companies. They are not lenders. They focus on helping consumers, specifically the underserved, build credit through different mechanisms. They have a version of our product now that extends into that home ownership journey, and then they partner with lenders and match the lender with that consumer who’s on that homeownership journey.
That’s awesome. It’s a huge opportunity if you think about doing the right thing, which is we definitely need to make progress as a country on the homeownership gap. It’s also a great fit for business if you can help those people get into that. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bank that offers a full suite of products or you’re a lender that just does mortgages and maybe HELOCs. Ultimately, getting those customers to a point where they can achieve the American dream is powerful. You are a huge piece of that as you think about how you’re going to market in working with these customers. I appreciate that context.
As you look forward to what’s possible with FinLocker and the forward-thinking organizations, some of the banks and lenders that I know of, I would constitute very much, are forward-thinking that partner with you. We won’t mention any names for confidentiality. As you think about what’s possible, what are the things that most excite you in terms of things that you aim to tackle and potentially enable?
We’ve got a lot of work still to do in the mortgage, so I’m not going to get on your show and say we’re pivoting down this next great path. We’re still squarely focused on real estate finance and supporting that ecosystem. When we can step back and sometimes think about 3, 4 or 5 years down the road, we want to be a verb. We want to have consumers empowered with their own data, and to be in control and empowered with their own data to use it to their advantage, versus in most cases, it is used against the consumer.
We think that those forward-leaning lenders who are partnered with FinLocker, many of which partner with TotalExpert as well, are of the mindset that they’re looking to build tomorrow’s business by engaging consumers years, sometimes maybe even five years before they’re realistically ready to transact. We’ve got one customer who’s doing an initiative to launch a campaign for recent college grads around early journey financial fitness. There’s not a mortgage to be had there anytime soon.
They play the long game. The last point I want to make here is a powerful one and you hit on it. Many consumers sign up for these different tools online, credit monitoring, shopping for your rates, or whatever it is just to get information. Many of those services actually monetize the customer’s data. You guys don’t. I want to be clear on this.
Your business model is to say no. Effectively, what you’re doing is if a lender is going to market with your platform in a white label version, they have the opportunity to then go, “This service is not going to steal your data or monetize your data. It’s all about privacy and trust. There’s no fancy sales thing happening on the back end.” That’s legitimately the angle.
That’s it. There’s a wall for every one of our launches if you will. For every client that we launched, the data in those lockers are solely the consumer’s data extended to the lender to some degree. Never does it cross over. FinLocker doesn’t do anything. We don’t sell other ad space. We don’t market any other products and services. We essentially built a piece of technology that our customers can then use for their business purposes. Our play here is not a customer acquisition play to then monetize that consumer down the road. We are truly software as a service provider for the lending industry. Soon, we’ll touch into these other non-mortgage lending spaces.
It’s super exciting what you are working on, Brian. I appreciate the opportunity to sit down and chat with you as always. I’ll look forward to seeing what’s going to come from FinLocker in 2022 and beyond.
One thing to add. We’ve got a great partnership with TotalExpert. It’s one thing to build great digital tools for consumers in an app. The reality of it is most of us spend most of our time outside the app. As we thought about how to best engage users or consumers in FinLocker, we did our own analysis and roadmap. Let’s build our own engagement strategy layer if you will. We ended up talking with your team in 2020 and stumbled across the possible conversation. We’re super excited. We launched the first set of TotalExpert Power Journeys through FinLocker. We don’t consider this a TotalExpert product. You’re now part of our product. You are the engagement layer of our product. It’s super exciting to watch how that’s going to evolve here going forward.
Thank you for the comments. We both align on how important communication and engagement with consumers are. We’re thankful for the opportunity to be a part of it in a small way. Where can people reach out to you?
It’s FinLocker.com. I’m Brian.Vieaux@FinLocker.com. I’m on LinkedIn. You probably see me at a conference or two as well.
I’m sure I’ll see you on the road soon, buddy. Thank you, Brian.
About Brian Vieaux
Brian Vieaux is passionate about financial literacy and empowering lenders with digital financial tools to attract, engage and retain customers. His 28-year executive career in mortgage banking and extensive experience building business channels have positioned him to help lenders execute an embedded finance strategy, transitioning from a transaction focus to one of continuous engagement.