At Relevant Founders, we present Ken Ruggiero – the co-founder of Ascent Funding – a private loan organization that revolutionizes how students pay for higher education at colleges and coding boot camps. Ken and Ascent’s team support the student through their loan program delivering on the challenge of providing credit opportunities to emerging consumer credit individuals with little or no credit history.
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Ken Ruggiero has come a long way in his 30-year career, gaining deep financial experience and a unique understanding of people and strategy. A good example is his investment company – Goal Solutions, where Ken’s leadership and ability to see beyond the “here and now” was instrumental.
Goal Solutions now manages $26 billion of consumer loans, providing superior options to their clients. But while a segment of student lending remained uncovered, this gap had to be closed by the Ascent Funding program.
“I did not have to beat out investments for this project – it was self-funded by Goal Solutions. We took $15 million of our profits and poured it into an idea. We believe education is an investment in students’ futures, and we want to empower students of all economic backgrounds and disciplines to maximize the return on that contribution.
We now partner with over 2,600 coding colleges and training courses and were named Best Private Student Loan for 2021 by Forbes Advisor and NerdWallet. To set students up for success, we offer scholarships (over $70,000 this year) and exclusive benefits for students.”
“It was interesting because we didn’t have time to make the perfect business plan. And we had only 60 days to hit the target for the initial MVP. We knew that we had to outsource.
I’ve seen management teams take all of the benefits of outsourcing and then focus on all the negatives. I wasn’t going to focus on the flaws. But, it is true that when you outsource, you lose control. And it’s usually a trade-off for speed and access to resources.
You have to ask yourself two questions: “Can I get the vendor to move closer to what I want? Am I willing to pay the money for the custom software development to get what I need?”
It’s a delicate balance of your triple constraints – time, money, and resources. We balanced time and money and tried to hit the date in 15 months. That was a crazy time.”
“When we started, everything was 100% outsourced because we weren’t technologists. We were specialists in financial credit and quantitative analysis. But, we didn’t have a CTO at that time.
So we chose an outsourced CTO model with offshore resources – a team of six or seven people. It included project managers and quality specialists who created our first origination system.
Then we switched to onshoring, but after the pandemic hit, we couldn’t hire people at a reasonable rate, so we were struggling. But why confine yourself to one area?
“We knew we had to hire people willing to go on this journey with us, regardless of where they were in the world.” Ken Ruggiero, CEO, and co-founder of Ascent Funding
Now our company is running both – outsourcing and in-house models. So we still have outsourcing developers; we hired them through a third party, but they’re like in-house employees who always join our monthly ‘all-hands’ meetings.”
“I mentioned the traditional triple constraints as a CEO. When you’re small with only a dozen employees and have an idea, but you’ve got access to a developer, you can prototype stuff, bring it into the market, test it, get the feedback loop working, and then, later on, go on and fix it.
But when you grow and take in literally billions of dollars of loan requests, it’s impossible to change things quickly because you have more employees, partners, and processes. They all have corporate and individual goals, and you can’t just drop in a new idea or functionality you’d like to test like before when your company was smaller.
I realized that the echo that used to go to one person and back to me is now an idea that a group of people has to discuss and approve. So I had to recalibrate my definition of speed. And it was hard.
To be honest, I liked it when we were only 20 people, and we could quickly change something about our product. But now, there is a process that we have to go through. So, I believe that sacrificing speed to reach particular scale levels is the most frustrating but also one of the most significant stages of maturity for an organization.”
According to Ken Ruggiero, the key to the success of public, venture, and private companies is simple: build a team of dedicated professionals you enjoy working with, define your vision, values, and goals, and then execute them.
“As a CEO, I believe that you change the culture every time you add even one more employee to your company. Everyone comes in with different views, backgrounds, curiosities, and anxieties, influencing your culture. The culture is the people.
So, we put a lot of work into onboarding our employees. We immediately create a brand view in the candidate’s mind about what your company stands for.
“The foundation of a successful business is a culture started by the founder.” Ken Ruggiero, CEO, and co-founder of Ascent Funding
You must be willing to spend time with your people and ask them what they need and care about. We organize a culture committee, which meets monthly with the HR team and gets feedback to create new programs to reward employees. One of the programs that came out is that we have unlimited PTO when each can take as much time off as needed.
Also, every month, the manager gets up and celebrates one of the five core business values exhibited by their partner or colleagues over the last year. I think it is just amazing that now all of our employees know what each other does and how their work is having a huge impact on the company, and then celebrate their achievements.”