Benjamin Miller’s fintech startup has taken on one of the biggest multi-trillion dollars markets, and they’ve already made incredible headway towards changing the status quo.
During our interview on the Dealmakers Podcast Ben Miller shared his inspiration for his startup, how they’ve raised over a billion dollars in equity, the foundation of what hyper successful, long living startups are really built on, and what it’s like taking on billion dollar giants that are deeply entrenched.
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The Emperor’s Clothes
Ben Miller was born and grew up in Washington DC, where his current startup is also headquartered.
Like the McDonald’s brand really isn’t a food business, but a real estate business, Miller revealed that while many think Washington, DC is a political town, it is really all built on real estate.
He spent his life growing up in a real estate family, and has now seen the market go through at least three sizable crises. He saw his real estate entrepreneur father go through the savings and loan crisis of the early 90s. Then he lived through 2008, and now COVID.
He’s gained the big picture perspective and pattern recognition that comes along with this.
He’s seen the financial industry collapse more than once. The ulcers that can give you as a real estate entrepreneur, and how fast companies can go from being seen as unstoppable market makers to hundreds of millions in the red, and bankrupt. How when it hits the fan that the illusion of this strength and success can vaporize overnight, and these financial giants are revealed, like the emperor’s new clothes.
The fact that these big crises are also some of the biggest opportunities has also not been lost on him.
Crises like these seem to predictably come around every seven to ten years in real estate. Almost like clockwork, or by design.
Right after school Ben went into working in private equity, and then did some time in the family business.
He had the common view that working with big funds and institutions was the way to grow and scale your business.
The Foundation Of A Great Business
Ben says that if you are going to start a business, don’t think about it from the angle of a solution, or needing to begin with a solution. Instead, he says to just find a really big problem. If you do that, you will continue to find things to solve, and create something that outlasts your own lifetime.
His perception of the trillion dollar finance industry was that it was fundamentally flawed.
Not only are the big incumbents horrific at using and implementing technology, they just can’t get their brains around creating an economy based on the customer.
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Their mindset is that “he who holds the gold makes the rules.” They make those rules to benefit them, and if anyone else wants money or investment opportunities, they just have to deal with the hoops and hassles, inefficiencies, and whatever is demanded of them.
He encountered this first hand when he began floating the idea for his startup. He recalls pitching to some of the biggest fund managers in their Times Square offices. They just couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to bother helping the small guy. Even though their Wall Street offices were being besieged by protestors who were upset by their practices.
It is a system directly contradictory to the operating thesis of new tech companies like Amazon and Facebook which built their businesses on curating for the user.
In order to bring change and avoid the pitfalls of all of those that had come before and ended up just becoming another part of the problem Ben says he realized that it was necessary to bring in capital from outside of the traditional system, and avoid owing those players and being a part of that broken system.
It is a concept that seems to have worked out well. Miller’s startup Fundrise already has around a million customers, and has raised $1.5B in equity, directly from their customers.
Storytelling is everything which is something that Ben was able to master. Being able to capture the essence of what you are doing in 15 to 20 slides is the key. For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) where the most critical slides are highlighted.
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Although their solutions have clearly been popular with the public, Fundrise has attracted a lot of confrontation from those inside the system. That includes efforts to block them from participating in funding important developments like the World Trade Center, and one egotistical billionaire flat out threatening to destroy them if they didn’t effectively just hand over their business and flow of money to them.
That hasn’t stopped him yet. Today Fundrise employs 130 people, has $4B in real estate assets, and has been doubling in size every year.
Balancing Your Macro & Micro
Ben believes another crisis is coming. One he says he has been preparing for since 2008.
He says not to let these cycles detract from your big macro vision. You should be aggressive, optimistic and dream of going really big.
Yet, he also says it is smart to balance that with the micro you are executing on every day. Sometimes that means you may throttle your own growth, and not take too many risks. To avoid being delusional about the state of and short term outlook of markets.
Listen in to the full podcast episode to find out more, including:
- Balancing your technical and creative talent
- Clickbait versus what really resonates with customers
- Embracing one of the most regulated markets
- Raising money in China