Cagney, from managing financial products for Wells Fargo then founding and selling wealth management technology company Finaplex, had founded San Francisco-based hedge fund Cabezon Investment Group and remains the chief investment officer. Macklin had left his job as head of medium enterprises for SME Banking China, after a dozen years with the company in three countries, to take the one year MS at Stanford.
The two students, along with MBA candidate James Finnigan and Sloan Fellow and MS candidate Ian Brady, sought entry to the class “Evaluating Entrepreneurial Opportunities” that required approval of a business idea for admission. They proposed an online instructional service that would allow people to hire experts for customized video tutorials, “kind of like eBay for video services,” that could see, for example, someone with a flat bicycle tire hiring a bike mechanic for a video chat, Macklin says.
“It was a pretty bad idea,” Macklin says, but it got them into the class. Over the Christmas holiday they changed the plan, and resubmitted the idea that would evolve into SoFi. “We saw lots of people paying, in our minds, ridiculously high rates for student loans,” says Macklin, during an interview at SoFi’s office amid the manicured grounds of the Presidio in San Francisco, in a building also housing George Lucas’s Lucasfilm, located a stone’s throw from the semi-famed Yoda Fountain. “We thought there had to be a better model.”
At the time, in 2010, the average MBA was coming out of Stanford with $71,000 in debt.
“Most of us came from a finance background,” Macklin says. “We resented the fact that there were all these middlemen in finance taking their one per cent here and their one per cent there. Student loans became that obvious first product because we were surrounded by people at Stanford who had debt, and had debt at what we think were very expensive rates. ‘Why are people still paying eight per cent for their student loans?’ we asked.”
ENCOURAGEMENT AT STANFORD TO ‘BE BOLD AND THINK BIG’
In the class, one in four teams dropped out in the first quarter – some ideas didn’t pan out, some students lost interest, or the professor determined that some proposals had no future, Macklin says. Undaunted, his group continued, with three hours of class time per week. “It was a great way for us to build out the business plan in a safe environment. It gave us an excuse to do a lot of research with professors, with fellow students, with alumni,” he says. “It really gave us five months to get comfortable. Stanford is a great place to come up with new ideas – everyone’s really encouraging. It encourages you to be bold and to think big.”
Also, the program provided another highly critical asset: time. A group of would-be entrepreneurs already working separate jobs would have trouble craving out enough time and reflection to build a startup, Macklin says. “You can start a company without going to business school but it fosters the opportunity, and gives you more time to you can sit down and flesh out the idea.”
They approached alumni with experience in finance, and found them highly motivated to help. GSB management lecturer and serial entrepreneur Dennis Rohan, who cofounded and led seven companies as CEO, advised them. “He was a great mentor for us because he’d seen lots of people try to form companies, and form them, and either succeed or not succeed,” Macklin says.
Whenever possible, the group hit up fellow students about their loan experiences, and “would use any excuse to do some market research in any class we could,” he says. “A lot of the marketing-type classes really helped give us an excuse to go out and talk to people and say, ‘Do you think this is a good idea?'” Courses in statistics provoked ideas for structuring the business. “We really tapped into our professors and our fellow classmates to build out the business. You have access to so much experience and so much expertise in so many different areas.”
TURNING A SCHOOL INTO A CASH MACHINE
Now it was time to make the plan real, and that meant raising money. The group of students graduated, and then, as they had done while creating their business plan, they leveraged the Stanford ecosystem. Members of the group pitched to alumni who came to school to speak or mentor. They reached out to alumni who had graduated 10 or 15 years earlier and had achieved a level of success in their careers. They asked professors if they knew of potential investors. They shared their concept with classmates.