Building credit is hard when it’s hard to even get credit.
And while it’s not impossible to get loans or credit cards, they’re usually offered at high interest rates to the people who can least afford to pay them.
An Austin-based startup is out to help people build — or get — credit without going into debt. And start that up StellarFijust closed a $15 million Series A funding round to help meet the goal.
Lamine Zarrad started StellarFi in 2021 after selling another fintech company he founded, banking app Joust, to ZenBusiness in 2020. Zarrad had his own problems getting credit as an immigrant and was looking for a way to help others access credit.
He started StellarFi with the premise that people should be able to see benefits to their credit scores by doing everyday things like paying rent and bills on time. It does this by charging a subscription – either $4.99 or $9.99 – to manage member bills and recurring payments such as rent, subscriptions and utilities. The goal is not only to consolidate payments, but also to ensure that members pay on time. StellarFi then reports these timely payments directly to the four major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax, TransUnion, and Innovis.
The company does not require a credit check or deposits and does not charge interest. It claims that members see an average increase of 26 points in the first month. The average user credit score at login is 580.
As a public benefit institution, StellarFi’s mission is to help “financially underserved” communities with support to build good credit. With its new capital, the company plans to build a marketplace and then match members with lenders.
Since the offering’s launch at the end of June, the company’s growth has exceeded expectations, Zarrad said. StellarFi ended the year with more than $2 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR) – about double what it forecast.
“In 134 days, we had hit $1 million in ARR,” he told businessupdates.org. “I’ve built a unicorn before, but never seen such growth.”
While Zarrad didn’t disclose the company’s new valuation following the latest hike, he shared that it was a significant up round. In total, StellarFi has raised $22.2 million in funding. Repeat lender Acrew Capital led its Series A, which includes participation from Trust Ventures, ATX Venture Partners, Dream Ventures, Interplay, Accomplice Ventures, Vera Equity, FJ Labs, Fiat Ventures, Gaingels, Kelmhurst, Oyster Funds, Hilltop Ventures, Permit Ventures, Kindergarten Ventures, J2 Capital, Socially Funded and Capital Ventures.
“Every seed investor participated in this round,” said Zarrad. “And we added new ones. Everyone is energetic.”
StellarFi was set to close $5 million in signature bank venture capital for job extensions — a deal that fell through when that institution was forced to close earlier this month. It plans to still secure debts from another institution.
Last September, Experian—perhaps in response to the increasing number of fintechs tackling this problem—released a new product called Experian Boost that it says helps people “get credit” for paying their rent on time. According to Zarrad, Experian Boost allows users to link their bank accounts through Finicity, then automatically identifies certain recurring bills such as utilities and rent and extracts that data into their internal model designed to demonstrate alternative payment behavior. This model is only at Experian, Zarrad points out, because TransUnion, Equifax, or Innovis don’t have access to it.
“More importantly, it is not used by lenders in credit decisions,” he added. In contrast, as mentioned above, StellarFi operates as an account payment manager to help members keep making timely payments, and reports payments to all four credit bureaus, to influence all credit scoring models.
“Unlike Boost, StellarFi does not report payment history derived from linked bank accounts. Instead, StellarFi pays the bills and the members pay us back,” Zarrad told businessupdates.org. “Therefore, we can create a credit relationship that we report to all agencies that generate consumer reports that are used by lenders. In other words, our members are covered no matter what credit report their lenders prepare.”
Company has added affiliate partners and is investing in SEO and is seeing even faster growth this year, according to Zarrad.
“We signed contracts with neobanks and other fintechs send us their clients,” he said. “We are still training lenders and financial institutions.”
StellarFi has put a lot of eggs in the affiliate basket, Zarrad said, because he believes it builds trust and conversions are “much higher” than “going online and people are buying on social media.”
The company plans to build out more features and is still developing its mobile app.
“Our next goal is to completely conquer the mobile experience,” he said. “Once that’s done, members can not only get better credit, but also access capital. We want to help them get that money through partners.”
Surprisingly, Zarrad said so far StellarFi has had “zero defaults” but seen tons of fraud. “But we built advanced algorithms to catch it in advance and quarantine attempted scammers.”
Acrew Capital’s John Gardner said his company first invested in StellarFi in its start-up phase because it had “a strong conviction” in Zarrad and his team’s ability “to scale up another fintech company given their success in building up Joust.”
“Stellar’s approach is exciting because it meets consumers where they are: internet bills. We think this form factor is much easier for users to understand and connect to, allowing them to see rapid and sustained increases in their credit score in a fairly short time frame. Stellar also reports to a broader set of FICO models, which means the score advantage applies to heavier loans, such as car or mortgage loans,” he wrote via email. “When it came time for Series A, it quickly became clear that the Stellar team could execute their plans with a maniacal focus. They demonstrably improved credit scores within 30 days for members, scaled to over $1mm in ARR within a few months of launch, and established unique distribution partnerships to efficiently reach the right audiences. For consumer fintech, we get really excited about these growth characteristics, especially when there’s a clear view of profitability.
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