In all respects, Douglas Merrill has had a successful career.
He holds a doctorate from Princeton and was the IT director of Google for 6 years.
Now he runs his own startup called Zest Finance, an online loan service that has raised $ 112 million so far.
He also had to overcome deafness and dyslexia as a child.
But he likes to give a lot of the credit to the people he has met in his life. He says he wouldn’t be here without the help of others.
In fact, that’s what prompted him to quit his comfortable job at Google and launch Zest Finance. He wants to be that helping hand for millions of Americans who don’t have access to regular bank loans – and provide a better way to borrow money.
Conquer deafness and dyslexia
At the age of three, Merrill lost his hearing due to an infection of the auditory nerve. Fortunately, it was a curable disease, and after three years of treatment, he was able to regain his hearing.
But being isolated from the outside world for so long left him extremely shy and socially awkward. He also had to learn to speak again, which is why he says he always has a funny accent. On top of that, Merrill was dyslexic, which meant he had trouble reading and was slow at math – an irony given that he now has a doctorate in cognitive science.
Each summer his parents had to spend hours re-teaching him to read and solve simple math problems. His teachers had to constantly work with him and show him tips to improve in these areas.
“I was very lucky to have a lot of people who were kind enough to positively influence me,” Merrill told Business Insider. “In all of these cases, and up to Zest Finance, what I tried to do was find interesting issues where people’s lives could be positively impacted.
Lesson from Eric Schmidt
Merrill says the motivation to help others also came from his interaction with Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
As Google’s chief information officer from 2003 to 2008, Merrill played a significant role in the company’s IPO. But right before the IPO, Merrill says he made a huge mistake that almost cost him his job.
Although Merrill did not disclose what it was, he says the error was so serious that he believed Schmidt, then CEO of Google, would fire him immediately.
“I got a call from Eric to come meet him in a conference room. I went in with my head down, opened the door to the conference room and the whole board was there, ”Merrill said. “I thought, ‘I’m not just going to lose my job, I’m going to lose my job in public! It just keeps getting better! ‘ “
But instead of a public humiliation, Merrill says he received a coaching lesson that he still cherishes to this day. “[Eric] pulled me aside, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I understand you did [make this mistake]… Never do that again. But I still love you, ”Merrill said.
Merrill continues, “In an instant, Eric strengthened our relationship, told me he appreciated me and made it clear that he was disappointed in me. It’s something I’ve tried to learn since then, being very clear when things go wrong, but also strengthening relationships because relationships are very important to me.
Serve Americans Who Cannot Get a Loan
But of all the things he could have chosen, why did Merrill decide to enter the fintech industry?
He says it was a desperate phone call from his sister-in-law, Vicky, that made it.
She needed emergency snow tires to get to work one day, but didn’t have the money to replace them. His credit was too low to borrow money from banks, meaning his only option was to go through payday loans, which charge massive interest rates.
“Vicky’s call really turned my world upside down,” Merrill said. “She deserved a helping hand. “
Merill researched and found that 64% of Americans don’t have a savings account over $ 1,000 to cover emergency costs, and only 17% are able to borrow. money to a family member. Most of them had poor credit scores which disqualified them from regular bank loans. This meant that there were millions of “underbanked” Americans who could benefit from a better loan system.
Merrill quit his job at Google and started Zest Finance, a company that provides an online lending platform for personal loans. Unlike traditional banks that rely on 20 to 30 variables to control a borrower, Zest Finance’s technology can examine 70,000 different “signals” to quantify a person’s ability to repay a loan.
Zest Finance initially started with a service called Zest Cash, targeting “subprime” users who have very low credit scores. But last week he launched a new service called Basix, expanding into the “near-prime” market, with people with slightly better credit scores but still not enough to get favorable terms in banks.
Although online lending is one of the most competitive spaces these days, largely run by Lending Club and Prosper, both of which are worth billions of dollars, Merrill says Zest Finance is different because it serves the market. subprime, high risk borrowers most online lending sites and banks do not deal.
So far, more than 200,000 people have taken out loans from Zest Finance, Merrill says, and it is expected to achieve around $ 100 million in revenue this year. It lists some of the best VCs in the valley, including Peter Thiel, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Matrix Partners, as investors.
“I feel like I’ve been helped by so many people in my life that it’s just an incredible honor for me to hopefully help other people,” Merrill said. “I think that’s the biggest reflection of me as a human, that our culture is so focused on trying to make other people better.”