Thomas Sponholtz is the founder, CEO and chairman of Unison, a company that’s changing the way people purchase homes. Rather than ask buyers to save up full down payments, Unison contributes to the down payment in exchange for a share in the value of the home at the time it is sold.
Prior to founding the company in 2004, Sponholtz had worked at Barclay’s Global Investors in various roles, and has more than 20 years’ experience building large-scale consumer finance and investment management businesses. Under his oversight of the company’s strategic direction, Unison has helped thousands of homebuyers, raised $40 million in funding, according to Crunchbase, and was named one of the Top Fintech Startups of 2018 by CB Insights.
Each week, GOBankingRates sets out to discover what makes the people behind top companies tick. We like to call this series “Best in Business” — and Sponholtz really is one of the best. He told us why he wanted to change the way people buy homes, why it’s essential to have people you can turn to for support and ways that you can find (or build) your own dream job, too. Below, find our favorite moments from the story of how Sponholtz launched his business.
He’s Disrupting the Traditional Way People Buy Homes
Homebuying and home owning hadn’t changed for hundreds of years — and that bothered me. You could only buy a home if you piled on a bunch of debt. In the rest of the financial world, you finance with debt and equity. And if you own too much of something you can sell some of your equity. So I thought, why not add equity into the housing equation? I wanted to break the old way of debt and more debt, so people could afford the home they want.
I didn’t want to do what the rest of finance industry is doing. This is your home and I wanted to create a long-term relationship and partnership. I wanted to create alignment between homeowners and patient capital so they win together. By combining debt and equity, we are putting the homeowner back in control.
It’s so obvious that this should have existed all along — equity exists everywhere in finance. So, I wondered if there was a reason it didn’t exist — and that I wouldn’t find out until after I spent my investors’ capital. I feared the risk of the unknown.
I was surprised by how quickly the idea spread. When I explain our business to people, they quickly see how it’s a better way to buy and own a home. Also, it was surprising to see how easy it was to find investors. The hardest part was starting the company two years before the financial crisis. During the crisis, my biggest shareholder collapsed and couldn’t fund the company, so I had to scramble and rebuild.
@myunison Co-CEO Thomas Sponholtz. "we are in 14 states which is 60% of residential real estate value in the U.S." pic.twitter.com/FtJF9mpnA0
— Michael Micheletti (@MichelettiSF) March 7, 2017
He Wouldn’t Be Where He Is Without People to Lean On
[The person who has helped me and supported me the most while launching my business is] definitely my wife. [She supported me] with my mental health and when I needed someone’s shoulder to lean on. From a business standpoint, every company I worked for invested in Unison. And [I lean on] my former boss, who joined the board of directors. He taught to me act, not react.
He Believes Having a Purpose Is Way More Important Than Money in the Bank
Start a company because you have a mission and a deep passion, and you could not live your life without bringing that mission to life. Do it for yourself not for wealth.
As a longtime sailor, I think of the analogy that you haven’t won unless you have earned the respect of your competitors and of the people around you.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.