Crossbeam's senior product manager on why she loves being one of the first hires at a startup - Technical.ly

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Crossbeam’s senior product manager on why she loves being one of the first hires at a startup

Lindsey O'Niell was hire number three at the Center City company, and Austin-based TrendKite's first full-time employee.

Project Own and Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore are helping Baltimore residents get "mortgage ready."

Project Own uses a mobile friendly site in partnership with Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore (NHS) to get Baltimore residents — especially Black residents — financially ready for homeownership. In the United States, 44% of Black families own homes, as opposed to 73% of white families, according to a 2019 report by real estate brokerage Redfin, which analyzed U.S. Census data. In an effort to improve Black homeownership through an app and mobile friendly site, Project Own pairs users with financial counselors to get them mortgage-ready. It is working with NHS Baltimore, an organization dedicated to sustainable homeownership and helping people achieve dreams of homeownership. “[Homeownership] is an enormous problem that’s really the root of lack of upward socioeconomic mobility and wealth creation in the Black community," said Tyrell Dixon cofounder of Project Own. The venture was one of the 13 companies that recently completed programming in Loyola University Maryland's Baltipreneurs Accelerator. Dixon has worked in housing and real estate from multiple angles, from the public sector with the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development to the private sector. He found that the criteria to qualify for a mortgage, or mortgage-readiness, was holding a lot of Black households back. “People assume that homeownership counseling is about helping people qualify for a mortgage. It’s not,” said Dixon. “The traditional homeownership counseling system is about taking people that are already mortgage ready and essentially showing them how to buy a house.” A 640 credit score and a couple thousand dollars in savings qualify someone as “mortgage ready.” Only 20% of black households have a FICO score above 700, compared to 50% of white households according to a 2019 study by the Urban Institute on the racial homeownership gap. Project Own is focused on reimagining homeownership counseling and meeting people where they are to improve their changes of buying a house. On the NHS site, the area where Project Own is assisting is titled financial counseling, but the end goal is to create more homeowners. While working in real estate, Dixon saw how although it’s necessary to improve and renovate houses for the community, it can be inefficient when it comes to bigger goals like tripling the rate of Black homeownership. “Even if you could renovate 20 homes on the block, what does that mean for the tens of thousands households in our city that need this type of service?” said Dixon, about programs that renovate houses for a neighborhood to sell back to legacy residents at affordable prices. “Why aren’t we addressing the fact that there’s so many Black households that aren’t ready to buy, even if they have the income to support homeownership, even if they’re grossly overpaying for rent each month?” [pullquote text="An enormous problem that’s really the root of lack of upward socioeconomic mobility and wealth creation in the Black community." cite='Tyrell Dixon, cofounder of Project Own, on homeownership disparities' align='right'] NHS allows users to meet with a financial counselor and make a financial plan toward homeownership. This can include a savings plan, or going through the process to improve credit. Before Project Own's site, about 60 households a year were using NHS services. Since Project own piloted the app and site with NHS, signups for their services have increased to 120. In the six months since the program with NHS using Project Own has started, users have begun to graduate and see a 50-point increase in credit score and a $2500 increase in savings, along with the housing subsidies NHS helps users find, according to Project Own. The advantages of the site and modernization of the process are that financial counselors can now passively track the progress of multiple clients, increasing their capacity to assist more future homeowners. They can see if a client is reaching their monthly savings goal with their accounts, or if their credit score is steadily improving. Additionally, the company says the average coaching meetings have gone from two hours to 53 minutes. Before Project Own, every part of the financial coaching process was labor intensive and in-person. The intake process required alone required 12 documents that were verified by an individual. That process has been cut to five documents and is now digital. "You can monitor clients' process from a dashboard instead of having to meet for an hour every single month, regardless of the clients progress," said Dixon. "The idea is with the same number of staff — and the pilot is to figure out exactly how many more — you can serve considerably more clients."

Texas native Lindsey O’Niell made a job switch early on that helped her understand the trajectory of her career for the next few years.

In 2011, the recent computer science grad had taken a job in software consulting at a company that was soon acquired by IBM, and the smaller company feel was soon gone. Per a friend’s suggestion, she started looking at local accelerators for companies that might be looking to add technologist to their growing venture.

She got in even earlier: After meeting QuotaPath’s AJ Bruno in Austin, O’Neill became the then-first time founder’s first hire for TrendKite, a PR analytics software company.

“I remember craving having more autonomy over things that’s just not possible at larger companies,” she said of her switch to the startup.

O’Neill stayed with the company until September 2018, when its staff had grown to more than 200 people. She got a lot of say in the hiring and culture aspects of the startup, but after five years was beginning to get the itch to jump back to early-startup days. The southerner had never lived outside her home state, and decided it was time to try out another city (and its startup scene).

After setting her sights up north, Bruno told her that if she was considering moving to Philly at all, she needed to seek out Bob Moore. Cut to a few months later, and O’Niell became Moore and cofounder Buck Ryan’s third hire at the Crossbeam, the 2019 RealLIST Startups list topper that describes itself as “LinkedIn for data,” in 2018. (Her work there got her named to the inaugural RealLIST Engineers this past October.) By August 2019, the company announced a $12.5 million Series A, and in early 2020, has about 20 employees.

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“Lindsey has helped take Crossbeam from pitch deck to live product, leaving her mark on just about every feature we’ve shipped since launch,” Moore told Technical.ly. “Most importantly, while her impact on our work has been profound so far, I have a distinct feeling that the best is yet to come.”

Here’s what O’Niell had to say about her move to Philly, jumping in to a new startup and the growing pains that come with it. The conversation has been lightly edited for length or clarity.

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Technical.ly: What drew you to Philadelphia? 

O’Niell: I wanted to move somewhere colder. I spent my whole life in Texas up to this point and Austin felt like a big town, which I liked. So when I was looking north, that eliminated New York City and Boston. I was drawn to the size and atmosphere here in Philly and had gotten a good sense from AJ Bruno about the startup scene here. I really like it now; if you asked me six months in, it probably would have been different answer. The people in the Northeast in general are different than those in Texas and the South, and that took some adjusting. But I love how direct and blunt people are. And I love being able to walk everywhere.

How has your experience with Crossbeam been different or similar to when you were at TrendKite?

It has been a very different experience this time around. At Trendkite, all the founders were first-time founders and a lot of the people who joined early were kind of in similar spots in their career. But at Crossbeam, Bob is a third-time founder, it isn’t Buck’s first time either, so the group in general has a few more battle scars. There’s at least one level of guess work that’s taken out of the equation.

I thought going back to an early-stage startup would be easy. But having the knowledge of where a company should grow is a challenge. It was definitely challenging to step back from how a 200-person company was running and knowing which pieces to pull back on, remembering parts of my job that I had to relearn because there had been full-time people doing them for me at TrendKite.

What do you like about getting in on a company so early? 

One of my favorite parts about joining early is experiencing the journey. I really enjoyed getting to go through all the different stages. I’m invested in the journey here, seeing it grow.

Do you see yourself continuing the pattern of working on small startups?

Generally, yes. For me, I feel like it’s time to move when I stop getting what I need or want out of the job. My goal is to grow with the organization. I think when I was earlier in my career, I didn’t grow with the org as much as I would have liked. I want to make sure that we’re ready to get there, making sure we have the right amount of process in place, adding the right process that will let us scale really quickly. But after that, I could see myself seeking out an early-stage company again.

Do you ever consider becoming a founder yourself?

Ahh, I go back and forth about that. Being really early on at two companies and getting close with the founders, you get to see everything they deal with. Ownership-wise I think it would be fun to feel like I owned something and all the fun stuff that goes along with that, but at the same time, there’s a bunch of stuff that you have to do that doesn’t look fun at all.

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