“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you”, With Douglas Brown and Nora Apsel

As a founder, connect your passion to your business. For me, that meant starting a company that harnesses technology to advocate for people. I couldn’t imagine myself investing in Morty the same way if we were just making widgets or in it solely to make money. Morty helps people with one of the biggest personal […]

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As a founder, connect your passion to your business. For me, that meant starting a company that harnesses technology to advocate for people. I couldn’t imagine myself investing in Morty the same way if we were just making widgets or in it solely to make money. Morty helps people with one of the biggest personal transactions they make in their lifetime. Wanting to give them the fairest, best experience in that process keeps me motivated.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nora Apsel, Co-founder and CEO of Morty, a digital mortgage marketplace where homebuyers can shop for and close a mortgage online. An engineer-turned-CEO, Nora has spent her entire career building technology that advocates for good. At Morty, that means creating a home purchasing experience that is always on the buyer’s side.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Sure. I remember a time very early in my career when I worked for a community nonprofit helping to address food insecurity and hunger. One night, I found myself sitting in the office alone, with giant piles of papers all around me, thinking, if only we had the resources to process all of this information from visitors to our soup kitchens and food pantries, we could serve them so much better. At that moment, I realized that harnessing technology was the key to making an impact. Soon after, I went to Penn to earn a master’s in Computer and Information Technology and started working as a software engineer at Meetup where I was able to use technology to help bring communities together.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In the early days of any startup, no matter what your area of expertise, you end up doing a little bit of everything. I wrote the original copy for our website and may or may not have made a few typos. Luckily, I also answered the info@morty.com email address and received many messages from customers alerting me to my mistakes!

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

There comes a time in the birth of every startup where you have to take the leap and commit to it full time. In my experience, it’s never a clean break. There’s a messy period where you may find yourself working two jobs — or, in my case, three!

In 2016, Morty was accepted into Techstars, a huge vote of confidence that my co-founders and I were on to something real. But the program has intense demands on a founding team’s time, and I was an in-demand software engineer who already had a full-time job at another startup and a client on the side.

Ultimately, I had to make the choice to leave my other jobs and dedicate my attention to Morty, well before we had money or traction. What gave me faith that this was the right decision wasn’t just Morty’s early momentum as a business, but also that it represented the next evolution of my career. Just as I transitioned from nonprofit to engineering, the opportunity to stretch myself further and learn how to build and scale a business felt like the right next move professionally.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My co-founders. They’re the ones who have continued to support and push me through the highs and lows. They’ve also been my biggest champions, encouraging me to step into new roles and often believed in me before I believed in myself.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

If you’ve ever purchased a home, you know how difficult and confusing the process can be. The sad truth is, the mortgage industry relies on this information imbalance to make money. Homebuyers are adrift in a sea of middlemen, paperwork, scoring, and processes that make it difficult to close a loan, much less make sure that they’re getting the best offer. Morty solves this problem by standing side-by-side with the home buyer throughout the entire mortgage application, from pre-approval to close. Because we’re a marketplace, we bring competitive deals from multiple loan providers for the buyer to choose from. We designed Morty from the ground up to be an advocate for home buyers and make the mortgage process the way it should be: easy, transparent, and hopefully a little less stressful.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Morty stands out from other mortgage providers in so many ways. From a product perspective, Morty is the only competitive marketplace in the industry. We have a dedicated team of expert mortgage advisors who work one-to-one with buyers throughout the application process, and, because we’re a broker, our incentives are completely aligned with the home buyer, which also means our pricing is highly competitive. We get many compliments on our user experience, especially how fast people can move through the process.

But if there’s one place I think Morty really stands out, it’s that home buyers are so happy to have found someone they can believe in. The feedback I see come through on TrustPilot and via NPS surveys is full of grateful customers who are relieved, and in some cases surprised, to have found a reliable partner in their mortgage search who they know is actually on their side. As someone who’s spent my career finding ways to harness technology for positive impact, I am so proud that Morty customers sense that we care. Cause we do!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are looking at ways to extend our relationship with home buyers by engaging with them earlier in the process when they are first starting to shop around, as well as on the other end when it comes to refinancing and supporting them as homeowners. The pandemic has brought a lot of new people to home buying, and, as advocates, we want to make sure they have the information they need to make the best decision about whether, when, and where to make a purchase.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No, I’m not satisfied with the state of women in technology. Obviously, there are a ton of systemic issues at play that impede women’s ability to advance in tech, but, drawing on a lesson from my career, I’d encourage women on all sides of the ecosystem to use data to their advantage. By that I mean, whether you are working in operations, marketing, business development, or any of the critical but non-technical roles in a company, develop quantitative skills so that you can use data to back up your opinions and speak with authority. A lot of the credibility I’ve achieved with my team and our investors is tied to this skill set which I’ve refined over the years.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Many women who are interested in startups gravitate toward non-technical roles, and the tech industry encourages this. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: Because women tend to be identified as empathetic and strong communicators, they’re encouraged to leverage their “soft” skills and take on customer-facing roles. Unfortunately, that comes at the expense of exposure to the more technical side of the business. Even with all the awareness about women in tech and closing the gender pay gap, the siphoning of women into non-technical startup roles still happens because people are used to following the pattern. To break it, everyone in tech needs to be more aware, and women need to be comfortable saying no and taking risks. Not every woman has the luxury to ask for what they want or demand what they deserve, but those of us that do owe it to ourselves, and everyone who can’t, to help break the cycle.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

One of the smartest things we did at Morty in the early days was to identify key performance metrics (KPIs) that reveal the health of our business and invest in building business intelligence tools to track those metrics. As you grow, those KPIs are essential in helping you navigate new challenges, but you also need to continuously re-evaluate to determine if they are the right KPIs. At Morty, our main KPI today is different than when we launched years ago, and I anticipate it will change again when we hit new phases of growth.

So, if you’re looking to boost your growth, evaluate the metrics you typically review and ask yourself, are these the right KPIs for challenges we face today? If you feel you don’t have the data you need, or what it’s revealing is confusing, then go straight to your customers. Listening to your customers will always unearth new insights, as will talking to outside mentors and experts when you need a fresh point of view.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

While a mortgage is at the heart of the home buying process, many other companies provide products at different phases of the home-owning journey. Finding and attracting the right kind of customers for Morty often means understanding what other home-related products our customers are shopping for, and creating partnerships with companies in that space who share our values. Identifying partners like these is important. Because we really value the user experience inside our platform, we want to make sure we choose partners whose experience can match Morty’s.

Another observation I’ll share is that our target audience has evolved over time. We initially focused a lot of our messaging on first-time home buyers, who we felt were most likely to seek out a partner like Morty to help them through the mortgage process. In reality, people who have purchased homes before — so many of whom have had a poor experience — are Morty’s biggest fans. Like us, they had a vision of how much better the home loan process could be, and they actively sought out a company that could provide it to them.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

The single best thing a company can do to provide great user experience and customer service is to show empathy to your customers. At Morty, we always remind ourselves that while we’ve gone through the mortgage process thousands of times, this is the first time for most of our users. That “first-time” mentality really helps when you get a sharply worded email or question. Chances are, what’s causing concern is just a lack of information, which is why we always take the time to educate customers on what’s happening as they move through our platform.

In addition to empathy, which can be baked into the entire brand experience, companies should also make sure their business model and incentives are aligned with, not against, customers. This is particularly important in the fintech and real estate tech sectors in which we operate. The traditional financial services landscape is layered with middlemen taking cut after cut, often at the expense of the end customer, not to mention some financial products that are actually designed to benefit banks and insurance companies at the expense of customers. If you care about user experience and customer service, your company should be built to succeed as your customers succeed and not when they fail or make mistakes.

So, in summary, be empathetic, take time to educate, and understand that user experience and customer service isn’t just skin deep.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

Because Morty serves customers at a very specific moment in the home buying cycle — the time when they are interested in a home and looking to finance that purchase — we aren’t as concerned with churn as other tech companies. We know that people will walk away from Morty after their mortgage closes until it’s time to purchase another property or refinance. As we develop our product roadmap, we have lots of ideas about how to stay in touch with customers in between home purchases, and you’ll see more from us there as we mature.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

I don’t think there is a single recipe when it comes to creating a successful tech company. What I can offer are five things I believe have worked for me as a co-founder that are a big part of Morty having achieved the success it has to date.

First, as a founder, connect your passion to your business. For me, that meant starting a company that harnesses technology to advocate for people. I couldn’t imagine myself investing in Morty the same way if we were just making widgets or in it solely to make money. Morty helps people with one of the biggest personal transactions they make in their lifetime. Wanting to give them the fairest, best experience in that process keeps me motivated.

Next, build the technology first, and let technology drive efficiencies within the business. A tech company may have a mission, but it starts with a product. Make building the product central to what you do and not an afterthought.

The team you surround yourself with is key. I heard somewhere that a startup CEO should make the first hundred hires in the business, and I get it. I lead all of our hiring efforts because I recognize it’s my job not just to get the right qualified people in the door, but also to make sure they share our team values. I also think it’s my job to be the chief salesperson when it comes to convincing people to take the leap and join Morty at an inflection point in our business.

You also need to recognize what you don’t know and surround yourself with people who can fill in your knowledge gaps.

Finally, find your balance. Founding a company is one of the most stressful career paths anyone can choose. Don’t wait until burnout arrives to get serious about your physical and mental wellbeing. Figure out what you need to stay balanced early so that when you’re feeling stressed, you know what rituals you require, people you can chat with, and decisions you can take to bring yourself into alignment.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to see more people get involved in issues related to housing and homeownership. I believe everyone should have access to, and the choice, to own their own home. Making a smart decision when it comes to homeownership has huge financial implications for the rest of your life. It should be a fair, transparent, and accessible process for all.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to meet the new CEO of Citi, Jane Fraser, and learn more about how she navigated her career in the banking world.

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