Tree.com Climbs to New Heights1 Nov, 2008 By: Thomas Haire Response
After closing on his new home, Lebda began to give the process more serious thought. "I began to think about it from a lender standpoint, and it seemed inefficient for them too," he says. "They had to sort through so many prospects just to close one loan. The advertising and marketing of the products also seemed incredibly inefficient."
The following year, Lebda's thoughts were clarified by time he spent learning about derivatives and hedging on trading floors at the behest of Price Waterhouse. "When you spend a lot of time on trading floors, you get to see how a number of apparently inefficient industries can be made very efficient," he contends. "Working on those floors, it began to bring together those notions of an inefficient market for matching up buyers and sellers in the loan business."
In 1996, Lebda left Price Waterhouse and spent nine months cold calling banks and signing up lenders to a new loan marketing network he was creating called LendingTree. In fall of that year, he began his first year of graduate business school at the University of Virginia.
"I was going to school from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., working on LendingTree from 1-9 p.m., and doing homework from 9 p.m. until 1 a.m.," Lebda recalls. "During that first year, with the help of my wife Tara, we created our first prototype Web site, launched our first ads on Yahoo!, and gained our first interested consumers."
The hard part of the business, though, was convincing the lenders he needed to partner with that he wasn't trying to make their business obsolete, but rather trying to save them a big chunk of their marketing costs and providing them with more qualified consumer leads. "Once we got the first couple of lenders to say they were interested, I had to make a decision at the end of the year," he says. "Do I start this business or do I stay in school and later take an investment banking job?"
After listening to motivational business writer Jim Collins speak at school, Lebda decided to take a year off of school and give LendingTree his full attention. "What was the worst case?" he asks today. "I come back, finish my M.B.A., and go to work on Wall Street?"
Whether online, TV or print, LendingTree s marketing is designed to drive a direct response from consumers looking for loan options.
Moving with his wife to Charlotte in 1997, Lebda raised LendingTree's first capital. The company was operating out of their bedroom early on. "We raised our first million, then got another $10 million from non-blue-chip venture capital (VC) companies," he contends. "We weren't Silicon Valley, which is where all the VCs were looking at that time."
After launching nationwide in 1998 and making a splash, though, the big investors came running — to the tune of more than $50 million in 1999. "Suddenly, Goldman Sachs, GE Capital and Marsh McClennan were very interested," Lebda says. The company went public in 2000, but received another infusion of cash in 2001 after the market crash.