Ryan Kelley is the Founder and CEO of The Home Loan Expert, LLC. We interviewed him recently to learn more about his entrepreneurial journey. (Answers have been edited for brevity.)
What’s the nature of your business, and how did you get started?
We’re a residential mortgage banker. We assist people in financing for home purchases and refinancing.
I’ve been in the industry about 20 years. During my first five years, I worked my way up to a managerial position, essentially babysitting loan officers. Then I got married. My wife got pregnant on our honeymoon. Five months later, I came home and broke the news to her: I quit my job. I was done working for somebody else. It was time for me to go out on my own and start creating my vision of The Home Loan Expert brand.
Sounds like a scary decision to make, with a child on the way.
In the beginning, I didn’t have any money—any marketing dollars. So I did what I could do: I knocked on doors 14 hours a day, seven days a week. I talked to people about their mortgages and asked if they had any needs for refinancing or buying. These were the days before Google Maps. I would photocopy streets and paste them on the wall. Every night, I’d come home, highlight the streets I’d just walked, and collapse on the couch and fall asleep. Then I’d wake up and do it again. I did that for seven days a week for almost two straight years. When we’d close a loan, my wife and I would get caught up on our bills, because we were always behind. We’d stock the pantry. Whatever was left went to marketing.
How did you finally escape this phase?
As tough as they were, those early years were a blessing. The knowledge I gained talking to people around their kitchen tables is still valuable.
After two years, we saved up about $7,000 for marketing. I took a second mortgage on my home for about $30,000, and then my wife liquidated and gave me her 401(k) that she had brought into the marriage. I used that money on radio advertising—a $42,000 annual marketing buy. At that time, that was everything.
On the radio, I knew I wanted to stand out and separate myself from the old guard. So I went live. I’d go on sports show, talk some sports, and segue into mortgages. The gambit paid off, and the leads came like crazy.
What happened next?
We started hiring more. I started growing. I brought on probably 10 employees over the next two years. Then I picked up more stations and more employees. We expanded into our second market, Chicago, which is a notoriously tough city in my industry. But we figured if the brand could work there, it would work anywhere in the nation.
And you made it?
We did get Chicago up and going. It did well. We expanded in Indianapolis and then into Nashville. We kept with the sports theme—about 80% of my marketing is tied into sports. We advertise with many professional teams: the St. Louis Cardinals, the Blues, the Colts, and more.
How did you handle all this change happening so quickly?
I’m a dreamer, so I always dream ahead. When I go to bed at night, I’m not thinking about the next day. I’m dreaming about five years from now. Also, a lot of success is all about timing. It’s not about me; it’s not about my business; it’s about the timing. When we’ve executed well and been first to market with certain projects, we’ve seen huge growth. So we’re always eyeing trends in our industry. When we see something big coming—and we think we can brand it—we jump on it.
Pivotal moments can come at any time. For instance, when we expanded into Birmingham, Alabama, I realized I was constrained. There was no way to go nationwide given our current process. The best we could do was one major market per year. I only had four states at that point. So going nationwide at that rate would take another 46 years! So last year, we made a big shift.
What did you do?
I essentially opened up my lending platform to other top originators in the nation—people like me who are not in my markets. So for example, I formed a DBA, and I now have Texas Loan Expert, Colorado Loan Expert, California Loan Expert, Florida Loan Expert… and I’m picking up additional states as we speak.
I have amazing teams working underneath these brands. I’m different than the big banks: I’m a company built by a top originator, and so it’s been easy for me to connect with other top originators and get them excited. I offer them a whole lending platform; fund all their loans through my systems, and help with all their marketing. These people are already dominating locally, and I can grow them to the next level. Both the pricing and the experience are better for them.
But to achieve this growth, I had to break out of old patterns of operating the business and look ahead to see what was truly possible.
If you could meet the Ryan Kelley of 12 years ago—the one knocking on doors seven days a week—what advice would you give him?
Don’t be scared of change. Once you start moving in a direction, sometimes the target moves. You have to adapt. As you create things and start moving, different opportunities might come up. And you need to harness yourself and go a different direction if the situation demands.