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Jen Farmer - Chief Marketing Officer of Neat Capital

"Align yourself to your vision for what you have for your life, understand your core values, and then really make your career decisions from there."

Jen Farmer is the CMO of Neat Capital, a Colorado based Fintech company that recently raised their Series B-1 from Forecast Labs which is a division of Comcast. Neat has raised over $40M in venture capital and is revolutionizing the home lending process allowing people to compete with all cash buyers. Prior to Neat, Jen was the Head of Content Strategy for Pie Insurance where she started as employee #3 before they quickly grew to over 300 people.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Align yourself with great people

  2. Don't limit yourself by your job description. Get involved with as much as possible and look to solve problems and be helpful.

  3. Just try things and iterate quickly. Jen has done this consistently in ad or marketing campaigns to figure out what works and what can scale effectively at cost.

Topics Covered:

  • Jen's background & Neat Capital

  • Partnership with Forecast Labs/Comcast 11:26

  • Most effective marketing channel 12:58

  • Creating a brand 18:00

  • Mistakes to avoid in marketing 22:31

  • What led to her rapid rise to the C-Suite at age 35 25:10

  • Avoiding burnout 29:34

  • Favorite book & quote 32:03

  • Parting Advice 34:07

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What got you into marketing originally?

It was an accident, really. I was an English major graduating college during the last big recession. So there were no jobs anywhere at first. I knew I was good at a couple of things: I was good at writing, I was good at storytelling, and I was good at analytics because strangely enough, I was also a premed major before I was an English major. I always liked math, I liked science, and I liked storytelling and writing. I happened into marketing by accident and had always had this idea that marketing and business were for someone who was very extroverted. Since I’m introverted, I’m like, “Oh, that might not be a fit.” But I started that job anyway, and from there my career took off. So it’s kind of funny that I say it was an accident. In some ways it was out of desperation when I was trying to figure out what kind of job I could have with an English degree so I don’t have to live on my parents’ couch after college. Definitely a happy-universe kind of thing happening back in 2007.

It's interesting how an English major could be so useful in business given how much of sales and marketing is about good storytelling.

I think that’s one of the things that stood out to me when I was reading job descriptions for marketing: positioning the brand for your audience. I did things both in marketing and sales, and I would support the sales team at my first company, and I realized that you’re trying to convince someone of something pretty early on or educate them. So having that strong writing and communication foundation really helped me just get to know the industries I was in and how to best tell those stories in more complicated fields.

Prior to Neat Capital you were at Pie Insurance, which has seen massive growth over the last few years. You were employee number three, and now it’s over three hundred and fifty people over just a few years. What did you learn from that experience and being part of the growth there? What lessons did you take into your new role?

Pie really stood out to me early on. It had a couple of things going for it even before it really launched. One, when I got on the phone with John Swigart, the CEO, the company had a unique set of data that illustrated a huge problem in the small-business space, especially when it came to workers’ comp insurance, and businesses were being overcharged as much as 30 percent. So helping small businesses that were struggling have a cheaper monthly payment for those kind of required insurance needs wasn’t the hardest message to market. But the other thing [that drew me to Pie] was its very experienced founder. Like I said, John Swigart was very instrumental in building out Esurance that was sold for over a billion dollars. It’s also rare to join a startup where the CEO believes in marketing because he was the CMO of Esurance for a decade. And so it was a very unique role to be not only employee number three but the first marketing hire. We hadn’t yet raised our series A at Pie when I joined. We had some seed money, but we hadn’t even brought workers’ comp to the market yet. When I joined, it really set the foundation for growth so that we could implement some initial strategies, channels, get a sense for messaging, and what would work early on before we could launch in a market. And it was great because early on, I was working with John around the clock. Sunday morning we’d be looking at Google Ads metrics together. It was definitely a round-the-clock, very exciting time because John was so great at understanding marketing, the levers to pull, but what we ultimately needed to do to find that lowest cost possible to acquire a client.

I definitely learned a lot coming out of that, whether it’s how to test concepts, messaging, or audiences as quickly as possible. I came from a larger Fortune 500 company where when you put together an ad campaign, it usually lasted for the year whether or not it was successful. So it was so refreshing putting together some ads and being able to hit delete the next day if they weren’t effective. And that kind of gave me a whole new sense of power. You don’t always have to do something because you poured your time into it if it’s not working in the end. And so it helped me disconnect from some of the work I did and just kind of objectively see is it working or is it not working, with always that eye toward the question of - can this scale at cost?

So you’re now with Neat Capital as the Chief Marketing Officer, and Neat Capital is doing a lot of amazing things in home lending and the application process. I’d love to hear what got you excited about Neat Capital and the work you’re doing?

The CEO of Neat Capital, Luke Johnson . . . funny enough, our paths crossed in our former business lives. So when I was working for that larger Fortune 500 company in health care, we targeted a lot of hospital and health system CEOs as well as some M&A groups. Luke was actually on that side of the business and many years ago, and I did this pretty successful direct mail campaign where you opened the piece and a video started playing. Well, apparently it landed on Luke’s desk. He thought it was so cool that he kept it. We didn’t realize that connection between us until our interview, and when we did, it was like, wow, not only is he creating a really interesting, useful company that’s really needed in the home lending space, but it was just kind of nice that our lives had crossed a long time ago. I always take those types of signs as fate.

But Neat Capital is doing some really impressive work in the mortgage space. The housing market, everyone knows, is the hottest it’s ever been. In a strange way, the traditional pre-approval process is actually dead, or that’s kind of how I see it, because there’s so much competition on each house that you can’t just have a quick pre-approval anymore to win bids on homes. I didn’t know that was going to be the case when I joined Neat two years ago, but this high-pressure environment is really where Neat shines as a mortgage lender because everyone else in the industry still uses the same tech from the nineties. And they still take over a month, usually forty or fifty days, to close on a home loan. Two things people really need right now, not only in Colorado but everywhere I look, is speed and having the strongest possible offer. So since Neat has its own mortgage tech, we really can give clients the ability to upgrade in both areas. We can close loans three times faster. We underwrite and prices loans automatically, and then once that goes through our system and into our underwriters’ actual hands, we can fully underwrite a home loan in twenty-four hours. You can get a fully underwritten approval at the start of your home-buying journey. So that way when you put a bid on a house, you’re not having to check that box that says you’re contingent upon financing. The only other people who don’t check that box are people with cash. Plus you can tell people you can close in two weeks. What’s better than saying you’re not contingent on financing and you can close in two weeks. That really helps people compete with cash buyers.

Well, clearly you’re getting a lot of traction. You just raised your Series B-1 from Forecast Labs, a Comcast Ventures group. Tell us about that because it’s not a traditional series B, right? There’s some sort of partnership involved?

Ultimately, Forecast Labs calls themselves a startup studio that uses a one-of-a-kind CPA-based TV advertising to drive customer acquisition. Their vision is to lessen the dependence on other channels like social media and paid search and use their relationship within Comcast to have TV ads running on behalf of the companies that they serve. So starting this month, Neat Loans is going to be on TV commercials around the country. I just finished up making a bunch of different commercials to test. So that’s very exciting. And Forecast Labs has famously done this model with other big companies that people probably have heard of: Acorns, Hippo, Instacart, etc. And so we’re really excited to start this journey with them because they know how to grow and partner with companies and startups to make them go from a small, no-name brand to something that everyone knows who they are. Definitely a very exciting phase of growth.

That’s really exciting. Where else are you putting dollars towards? Where are you seeing the most effective channels to really advertise into?

Even when I’m in CMO roundtables and talking with my peers, it really just differs based on industry, audience, message, and also your conversion goals. We have had a lot of luck at Neat in paid search, for instance, because mortgage is very competitive. There are so many companies out there, who not only have awareness but have reach. And there are just so many national, local, and regional players that by getting in front of people who are actively searching for a pre-approval or a home loan, using more transactional keywords was really helpful for us because then we can at least get in front of people when they’re seriously looking for that first step in the process or even further down in the process. So that was a huge success for us.

We also did see some success on radio as well. We had great success at Pie with radio, too, which is why I also wanted to try it here. I think there’s a difference in radio. It’s not always about hey, stop what you’re doing and get a mortgage pre-approval. But Neat is unique. And it allows us to have a different kind of message where we’re not just marketing on who has the lowest rate. We are uniquely different. We allow more competitive bids, we are faster, and then we also have a smart application where you can do tax analyses and breakdowns and figure out, ultimately, without a person trying to skew you one way or the other, what is the best mortgage product for your goals, long-term and financially, especially if you ever intend to have a lower payment or save money and then take that savings and put it into some other investment strategy. And so Neat really likes to own the term mortgage strategy because a mortgage is a huge debt on your balance sheet. We partner with a lot of people who have wealth managers, and we’re more collaborative in talking through what makes sense. That kind of message on radio did really well because people don’t often hear a mortgage company talking about your financial strategy versus “hey, get a quick, low rate today.” Not that we don’t have low rates, but that’s not necessarily the point. So those have been successful.

TV is also a great medium. We’re lucky to be part of this partnership because TV is traditionally expensive to break into. Knowing what channels to be on, what markets to be on, is a lot of work, and so this partnership with Forecast Labs does give us that advantage.

You’ve had a really rapid rise to being a CMO in your career. What do you attribute that to?

You know, it’s funny that I was and still am an introvert. I was the type of person who couldn’t give a class presentation without the room spinning and going dark. It’s strange that I found myself in a CMO role by thirty-five. But I guess if I break it out, I would say that early in my career, I rose from being the entry-level person on the team to the head of marketing in about five or six years because I was involved in everything. Now there are some dark sides to this, including burnout. I was working eighty to a hundred hours a week. I was just so invested in my career and the company. I was the type of person who didn’t want to let people down. So there are some dark sides to that, of course. But I didn’t really know much about boundaries back then. I didn’t know much about burnout until it hit me. But that in some ways was a blessing because I was involved in writing sales proposals, I was involved in direct mail . . . we had a big process-improvement team in that corporation where I would, since we employed a lot of physicians and anesthesiologists, get to go to the hospitals, do case studies with them, even see surgeries in action, which was pretty cool. I just became kind of the go-to person for literally everything. And so when we merged with a bigger company, my knowledge and history was so deep that I just ended up leading more and more teams. I think over the next couple of years, I went through two major mergers, and instead of being one of the people cut—as you know, there are always people cut in mergers—luckily, because of my depth of knowledge and all the relationships I had built in that company across departments, I was not only staying in my role but being promoted to handle more and more stuff.

Joining Pie was a risk because in my head it wasn’t a stable Fortune 500 company, it was just a startup with some seed cash. But I didn’t want to focus on my title and things like that. I did see it as a learning opportunity. I was very intrigued by the CEO. He’s one of the smartest people I know, and he’s one of the smartest marketers I know. I knew that I would learn so much, and I love learning in general. So I was like, “You know what, I’m going to leave the stable Fortune 500 and go to the startup.” And everything I learned at Pie, all that rapid testing we talked about, the metrics, really thinking about that cost per end user, those were things that were never discussions in that larger company that could spend money on NASCAR or could spend money on the PGA tour, and they weren’t ever really tracking it down to a relationship. So it kind of filled out some gaps in my own expertise. Luke saw that right away when he brought me in as their VP of marketing initially, and I got really involved in Neat. I spent a lot of time in board meetings and doing presentations. I helped Luke with fundraising conversations. I also volunteered to take on inside sales when that was starting. I really just get involved as needed. If I see a problem, I’m not the type of person to ignore it and say it’s not my issue. So I helped out with some B2B things, I helped out with some process-improvement stuff, and that really led me to where I am today.

As we wrap up, is there a book—it could be a marketing book, or it could be just a book you love—do you have a favorite book that’s served you well?

The Little Prince. I think it’s a book for adults. I read it for the first time as an adult, and so anyone listening who is an adult and has not read The Little Prince, it will probably take you an hour or two. But when I read that at the end of college, it just was one of those very impactful stories about friendship, about loss, about connection. I found it very moving.

Do you have a favorite quote?

“If you can do it, why do it?”

Gertrude Stein

And I think that’s interesting to think that when I make decisions. Do I do things because I can and it’s easy, or do I pursue things that I think I can’t do but I want to do? Why are you only doing things that you think you can? I think some people limit themselves when they only stick in a lane that they’re like, “Oh yeah, I can do this, but I can’t do that.” A lot of those self-limiting beliefs are just things that you have internalized or repeat to yourself that aren’t necessarily true. So that’s how I go about my career and my life in general.

Do you have any parting advice for fellow CMOs, aspiring CMO’s or people in general?

We’re in a kind of crazy world right now. A few people recently have asked me, “Isn’t it risky to be working for a startup?” In my career, I’ve seen risk be equally spread amongst whatever company you work for. Yes, a startup is risky because you also have more transparency. You can see that you have limited cash, might have lots of burn, might have to plan ahead toward growth and raising more money; it can be scary when it’s so visible in front of your face. And what I don’t think people always know is that in big corporations they might be having similar conversations or strategic decisions or mergers that will also affect people’s stability and their roles. And so when I was at my large Fortune 500, we merged and had acquisitions so often that at one point it was almost like every few months we had to decide who’s staying, who’s going. It was very stressful. So I actually found way more stability in a startup where at least I know—here’s how much money we have, here’s how much money we need, here’s what we need to get that money, and you can at least see that’s happening. That kind of stuff is all behind closed doors in those larger organizations. And so really, everything is a risk, I’d say. Align yourself to your vision for what you have for your life, understand your core values, and then really make your career decisions from there.

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