Last week Robert F. Smith, the founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm that invests in software companies (more here), announced during a commencement speech at Morehouse College that he would pay off the student debt of every individual in that year’s graduating class. If you’ve seen the video, the feeling of stress dissipating is nearly tangible among the graduates in the crowd.
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It’s going to cost Smith around an estimated $40 million to pay off that debt, and that’s just one graduating class of 400 students. Thousands and thousands of other students won’t have a multi-billionaire step up to the plate to take care of the costs of a system which many believe has failed young people, particularly in the last few years. In fact, debt from student loans has reached an all time high of over $1.5 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve.
That’s why Michael Bloch founded Pillar. After his wife graduated from law school with $300,000 in debt, the two felt lost doing research to find an effective way to pay it off. So, he dropped out of Stanford Business School just shortly after starting to found a consumer fintech company that aims to help people pay off their student debt more quickly.
Today the company announced that it has raised $5.5 million in a sizeable seed round led by Kleiner Perkins. Other institutional investors include Rainfall Ventures, Great Oaks VC, Financial Venture Studio, and Day One Ventures along with individual investors that include the former CEO of Wealthfront and Acorns board member, Adam Nash, and Robinhood’s Head of Growth, Patrick Kavanagh, and Head of Finance, Nadia Asoyan, among others.
“The student loan industry in the US has been fundamentally unchanged for over 15 years at this point,” Bloch expressed in an interview with Crunchbase News, adding that people distrust giant lenders. “These [massive] companies literally make money by keeping people in debt where every dollar that somebody tries to pay back towards their loan is a dollar that these companies are not going to get in interest from you in the future.”
Pillar syncs with users’ student loan and financial accounts. The software analyzes an individual’s income, spending behaviors, loans, and interest rates.
“We then present them with a recommendation in the app, and if [they’d like to move forward], we’ll then handle all the implementation in the back end,” Bloch explained. “We’ll move the money from point A to point B, and we’ll fill out whatever paperwork is necessary. Our job is to automate away as much of the process as possible.”
But the company also wants to make loan repayment feel less like a black hole, and more deliberate and optimistic.
“We found that by saying, [for example], a $5 contribution today might actually save you $50 in the future, and a year off your repayment actually makes it super clear and easy for users to understand exactly how their today actions will affect their financial future.”
Bloch said that the average borrower can save about $6,000 on their loan and reduce the length of repayment by about four years with Pillar.
In terms of monetization, the company says that all recommendations will be completely free, but premium features, or the backend work that facilitates paperwork and payments, will be a low monthly charge of about $1 to $2 per month.
Debt Management Consumerized
Of course, Pillar isn’t the only company that is aiming to solve people’s problems with loan debt. Yesterday, Sofi announced a $500 million investment for its loan refinancing platform.
Another company, Goodly raised $1.3 million for a debt repayment benefit program for employers. But Pillar’s Bloch said that in the case of debt management, he believes consumer-oriented technology is the way to go.
“In our opinion, the only way to really build a billion dollar company in the space that’s going to be able to impact all of the borrowers that are out there is by building a consumer product in the likes of a Robinhood, Acorns, or Stash and really take it from a consumer perspective, rather than an employer one,” said Bloch.
For now the company is focusing exclusively on student loan debt, but Bloch said the company’s long term vision is to be an automated debt management platform for people with student debt, auto loans, credit cards, mortgages and more that acts as a layer on top of a person’s bank account.
Pillar is currently available for download on the iOS and Android app stores. Individuals can sign up for a waitlist for now, as the company doubles down on solving edge cases prior to Pillars full public launch, which will happen within the next few months.
Illustration Credit: Li Anne Dias