How OnDeck designed a more personalized approach to lending

4 min read
Tom Lucido,
Liz Steelman
  •  Jan 11, 2021
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Not only does the owner of that independent cafe on the corner come up with a delightful and surprising menu that keeps you coming back for more, it’s likely they’re also the one settling the books at the end of every month. And your trusted home contractor isn’t just fixing your leaky roof—they’re probably also writing and posting the Facebook ads that captured your attention. Small business owners are some of the most creative, flexible minds fueling the economy, but even the most resilient struggled to anticipate what March 2020 would bring. As the pandemic shut down most small businesses overnight without a plan of action or a source of income, small businesses had to find money to stay afloat—and fast.

Many turned to their small business lenders, like online company OnDeck, for loan extensions or to renegotiate payment agreements. But it soon became clear that the old lending system wouldn’t work in the new environment. Along with a surge in need, lenders had to establish a new “decisioning” engine that would factor in a business’s future instead of its past (how risk is traditionally evaluated). And in April, the US government announced the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), pledging $350 billion in low-interest loans to stabilize small business operations. As the government enlisted private banks and lenders to distribute the funds, OnDeck signed up to take part in the program.

OnDeck team members at a bonding session pre-working from home.

Since 2006, the 600-employee online lender has aligned under CEO Noah Breslow’s goal of helping small businesses thrive. And though those first initial weeks of the pandemic were a testament to this mission statement (many team members from other departments jumped on the phones to help manage the onslaught of clients calling for advice in how to navigate the new landscape), rolling out product updates to build, launch, and support the PPP was a whole new challenge. As they centered themselves around future-based lending, they also needed to better understand the small business owner’s motivations and behavioral needs. Before the lenders could begin accepting applications, many, many details had to be ironed out on a federal level.

For product teams, having unclear requirements at the beginning can lead to chaos down the road. But, since time was of the essence—and many businesses were on the line, OnDeck had to forge ahead and develop a product in just three weeks—all without sacrificing their seamless user-friendly experience (oh, and with an entirely newly-remote staff.)

Representing product design was Ivis Mas, OnDeck’s new head of design. She had only been with the company since November 2019—a short time before COVID hit. When she joined, her goal was to better support the company’s strategic vision by scaling her team and establishing new standards and processes that elevate the team’s collaboration practices and help better serve their customers. With over fifteen years of experience in product design, she’s experienced major digital transitions, from the AOL era to modern design-thinking strategies and saw how customer-centricity was key in problem solving. She had just embarked on a customer research project with the team to develop customer archetypes right before Covid-19 hit. While all previous plans were now up in the air, Ivis made the decision to complete that work. She, like Noah, understood that knowing who their customers were at that moment—and identifying the ways they needed support—was more important than ever. They found that access to customers was barred until incidental moments of urgency drove their borrowing intent. The relationship with their customers became transactional—something often perceived negatively.

Two members of the OnDeck design team meeting remotely.

Going forward in the product development process, this shift from transactional to relational customers served as the north star. The team found it helped them radically align towards a goal, and push past legacy processes in aid of quick alignment and effective cross-functional collaboration.

“It was a time where we felt we could help businesses,” says Sam Verrill, director of product management. “We do that every day, but sometimes you can lose track of it.”

One of the key instruments in unifying 600 employees, though, was having a tech stack already in place that supported seamless communication and remote collaboration across the design, engineering, and product teams. As the product’s requirements trickled in, designers were able to quickly iterate and share initial ideas in InVision Prototype. Once those comments spiraled into conversations, integrations brought them into Slack. Links could be shared with compliance, and prototypes could be shared with marketing to shape awareness messaging early on.

“InVision allowed for anyone to log in, make comments, and be involved in the work in the same place,” says Shannon Smith, SVP of marketing for OnDeck. “It proved to be a really elegant solution and a great tool to push a product live as quickly as we needed.”

Over three months, the company pivoted from originating solely OnDeck small business loans, to offering both OnDeck loans and PPP loans, then to offering PPP loans exclusively. Now, they’re lending again in the existing environment with a more personalized approach to managing risk. Despite these drastic pivots, OnDeck recorded impressive metrics during this time including improved speed to market, increased engagement levels—and saved a number of small businesses from ruin along the way.

The OnDeck team meets via Zoom to go over designs.

While the loans offered some businesses the relief they needed, many are still facing hardships or closing their doors. Even as new challenges face the business, the OnDeck team is assured, knowing that the new strategies they’ve unearthed throughout the crisis have built them a solid path forward. And, more importantly, they know that as long as they stay customer focused, they’ll be able to weather any storm they face.

“How we move forward in a creative process is what truly has the most impact,” Ivis says. “How cross-functional teams work together, the tools that enable that, and the processes we adhere to is what empowers organizations to constantly adapt in this new normal.”

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard