While owning a home is a fundamental dream that plenty of consumers share, so is the value of flexibility and being able to have control of how that happens. We enable that by providing a solution to help potential homebuyers unlock the security of homeownership without compromise. We provide a portion of the down payment at the start and they decide when to pay us back, whether its when they sell or after 30 years. At that point, we share in the home’s change in value, up or down. We win together and lose together — we are a true partner.
Aspart of my series “Big Ideas That Can Change the World”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Sponholtz, Unison CEO. Thomas founded Unison in 2004 and leads the company’s overall strategic direction. He has more than 20 years’ experience building large- scale consumer finance and investment management businesses. Formerly at Barclay’s Global Investors, he held various roles including Director of Alternative Investments and co-head of Active Fixed Income including a $28 billion mortgage portfolio. Thomas is a graduate of the Neils Brock International Business School.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was always interested in solving the world’s largest economic challenges, particularly those where consumers and everyday people were being disenfranchised or taking advantage of by a system that did not serve them. I started my career working on substantial economic problems plaguing third world countries. My first job was working on the safety system (think red/green/go/stop) of the 133,000 km railroad system in India. It was here that I saw an opportunity to take a project and transform it into a better solution for society. It started as a safety system project, and as we kept building and thinking it evolved into a fiber optics, sewage, and mobile communication project, enabling India to leap-frog from no telecommunication straight to mobile phones. The coverage today is much better than mobile coverage in Silicon Valley. We also build the first high-tech company and factory in Hyderabad, India which is now the “Silicon Valley of India”.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
While working at Barclays Global Investors, where I was co-head of Fixed Income, I was intrigued by the fact that the biggest asset class in the US and globally is residential real estate. What’s even more interesting is that the world’s largest pool of investable assets, pensions, endowments and sovereign wealth funds all had the same objective of outperforming long-term inflation. The largest component of US inflation (~42%) is housing related but the investors had no access to residential real estate despite it being the perfect investment for their portfolio. That is where it all started. I realized if I could use the $30 trillion of US residential equity and make it available to BOTH institutional investors AND consumers, I would be able to create a virtuous circle whereby everyone would win. It just seemed like a smarter, better way.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
While owning a home is a fundamental dream that plenty of consumers share, so is the value of flexibility and being able to have control of how that happens. Unison enables that by providing a solution to help potential homebuyers unlock the security of homeownership without compromise. We provide a portion of the down payment at the start and they decide when to pay us back, whether its when they sell or after 30 years. At that point, we share in the home’s change in value, up or down. We win together and lose together — Unison is a true partner.
How do you think this will change the world?
Until now, consumers only had one way to buy a home or access the equity in their home and that was to take on more debt. I saw the opportunity to create a solution where people do not have to compromise these goals by utilizing this available capital. The way we do things is rapidly changing, especially with the rise of the sharing economy. What we do now is bring the ability and the control that comes with equity to homeowners in a new and better way so they can really create the experience of home that they want.
We want to help consumers realize the dream of homeownership and create the life they want that comes with that. That being said, our programs may not be for everyone especially if they decide buying a home is a short-term investment. For example, if a homeowner that used Unison decides to sell their home before three years, we won’t share in the downside of the change in value.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
When we began the company, we were focused on serving investors and we transacted mostly through Loan Officers and Real Estate Agents. In 2016, we came up with an idea. What if we went straight to the consumer and sold direct? We hired a Chief Revenue Officer, ran our first test, and had radical growth in month one. That is when we realized we had to get consumers involved directly and become a brand for the people — to enable them to fulfill the dreams of homeownership. We call it Unison 2.0 — this is the time where we are launching our new brand and building momentum as a new kind of consumer company: one where the shared economy comes to residential real estate.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
We need people to know there is a company they can trust. After the housing crisis, people have become very skeptical of large banks. They were pushing people into homes they couldn’t afford which not only forced many to go into deeper debt, but created a lot of mistrust. However, Unison is a mission-based company — and part of that mission is to create a company that is fair and just — we do right by our customers. We share in the upside and the downside — we are a true partnership.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. You need to be resilient. Unison is a great example of this. Although we’ve been in business since 2004, we’ve only really seen exponential growth within the last few years. If you really believe in what you’re doing, you need to stick with it.
2. It never hurts to ask for help. When I first came up with the idea of investing alongside homeowners, I socialized the concept with various clients and former and current colleagues who provided extremely valuable insights.
3. It’s important to keep a sense of humor. Working hard will get you far, but never underestimate taking a step back throughout the day and enjoying a good laugh.
4. Good people make all the difference. In a growing company, it is critical to hire the right people who understand the magnitude of what you’re doing together. These are the people you’re going to be spending most of your time working with, and ultimately winning with.
5. Plan for the future but act now. Building a new kind of consumer company in a new category takes a lot of energy, effort and time. Unison 2.0 requires all of these, but we have never stopped helping our customers. It’s an important balance that we focus on daily while continuously planning for what comes next for us.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
The best way to “future proof” your career is to always continue to learn, which is something our company strives for every day. Helping our customers is at the core of what we do, and we are constantly looking for better ways to serve them. Whether it’s how we educate them on our products or the application process, we try to make sure we are learning from our customer insights and applying them to our business with the goal of creating a world class experience. We’re listening!
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
The fundamental need of owning a home is not a US problem — it’s a global issue.
I would invest a million dollars to expand the opportunity of bringing the equity that is in residential real estate to other countries that are still buying and selling homes with the traditional debt-based model.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
At Unison, one of our core values is to have an abundance mindset. This is something I hold very important. We always start with what we have done right, and not focused on what we do not yet have or what we have not done correctly. This is also a personal philosophy of mine. When you focus on where you are going and on winning as a team, your chances of success are very high. I coach professional sailors and windsurfers, and creating winning teams is so much about staying focused on what it means to win. That starts with an abundance mindset.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Think big. Throughout my career I’ve always had to work on finding solutions to big problems. When I realized there was a massive gap in how people were buying homes, I knew there was a bigger opportunity to create something that could come full circle and benefit everyone involved.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
This is the train to get on — we are creating a smarter, better way to buy and own homes globally. But don’t believe me; just check out our revenue and valuation! You’ll be sold.