Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Matthew Bjonerud of Cerebro Capital Is Helping To Change Our World

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Focus is everything: For the first three years we were unsure what products would resonate with the market and so we developed three different products to hedge our bets. Ultimately, we moved too slowly and didn’t make as much progress in any area that we could have made if we combined efforts on just one. Once we slimmed our product down from 5 products to 2, our business grew much faster.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Bjonerud.

Matthew Bjonerud is CEO and founder of Cerebro Capital, a data-driven corporate lending marketplace that matches mid-market companies to the top lenders. Expert in finance, FinTech, and entrepreneurship, he is passionate about helping others succeed. Matt also served as the President of At Jacobs Well (AJW), a nonprofit that is the only exclusive provider of housing to the mentally ill homeless in Baltimore City. He is a graduate of Georgetown University McDonough School of Business.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Prior to launching Cerebro, I worked at a large company that engaged in several billion dollars of financing transactions across both the public and private offerings. I saw firsthand how much easier it was to execute on desirable terms in the transparent public markets versus the opaque private credit markets. Platforms for public financing, like the Bloomberg Terminal, made it easy for me to anticipate the financing terms we could get, by reviewing comps of similar companies with similar credit ratings. However, anticipating what terms we could get in private bank loans was significantly more complicated.

To get loans in the private market, I had to spend a great deal of time calling random lenders with no knowledge of whether they could even make a loan to the business or what kinds of terms they could offer. It seemed obvious that there should be a way to use technology to deliver an experience like the Bloomberg Terminal to private companies. So, that’s when I left to launch Cerebro.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The most interesting story, so far, has been when I was invited to meet the CEO of Goldman Sachs, one on one. At the time we had about 100 lenders on our marketplace compared to the 1,500 we have today, and we were relatively early in our development. Nevertheless, we had caught his attention and that was a huge motivational shot in the arm for me and my team. The fact that our work in an early-stage company in Baltimore had caught the attention of one of the most powerful people in finance, helped us validate that what we were working on had the potential to usher in great change.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we started the company, I drew the first several drafts of the website and platform in Microsoft Excel. I was meticulous using the full color palette, transparent shapes, stock images and everything. It is important to know that I am not a designer, a UX expert, a professional artist. I spent countless hours drawing and even more time on calls to our CTO to make sure he got the proportions exactly the way I had laid it out in the Excel. Overall, this caused great frustration and a lot of wasted time. I learned quickly that if I was going to try and do everything myself, we would fail badly. Instead, I got comfortable giving up control of details and projects and learned to trust my team to handle those things better than I could myself. As a result, I spent less time in the details and more time finding the right people to add to our team.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

It is our mission to make accessing debt capital, easier, faster, and more equitable. We believe that our world is better when access to loans is based on the merits of company performance rather than the limitations of personal networks. As we bring this vision into reality, we are increasing access for minority owned businesses, diverse CFOs, and diverse lending officers who historically have been left out of the “old boys club”. We are also studying unmet lending needs and are working with banks to innovate their loan offerings to lower the barriers to access for companies who are in need of capital for growth and operations.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

A family-owned company needed a larger credit line to grow faster and to make sure they had enough liquidity to support payroll of their growing 400-person team. Initially the CEO, CFO, and Founder all called on commercial bankers that they knew personally. When that failed, they hired a boutique investment bank to run a process across over 100 bank and non-bank lenders. The company paid large retainers to the investment bank and lost tens of thousands of dollars in deposits to banks that ultimately were unable to close the transaction on their $7 million credit facility request.

The company was stuck in holding pattern until they discovered Cerebro. The value of a data driven algorithm and streamlined common application that plugged directly into the under-writing criteria of the lenders resonated. The CFO was able to launch their loan request within 24 hours on Cerebro’s platform and had term sheets days later that met their needs. After a brief negotiation period, they were able to win double digit reduction in interest rates and fees. A few weeks later, they closed on fresh capital and were able to continue hiring and growing across the country.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

State Governments: should work to create loan guaranty programs to help medium sized businesses that are left out by the SBA. These loan guaranty programs could help unlock low-cost capital from Commercial Banks who often require hard collateral or personal guarantees that make it difficult to access capital.

Federal Government: The federal government should expand the SBA cap to handle loan sizes from $ 5 million to $20 million to allow tens of thousands of mid-sized businesses to get the capital they need to hire, purchase equipment, and grow their customer base.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

There are many facets of leadership, but I think one of the key components is the ability to successfully execute on vision. I often reference a quote in the movie Lincoln about true north. At one point, Lincoln is challenged by a colleague to “heed his inner compass” to reprimand Lincoln for moving too slowly in the effort to end slavey and to solidify their rights in the Constitution. Lincoln, portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, responds “A compass will point to true north from where you’re standing. But it’s got no advice about the swamps and the deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If we’re heedless of obstacles and sink in the swamp, what’s the use of knowing true north?”

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

In real estate it’s location, location, location, but in business, it’s people, people, people: I am naturally analytical and when the company first started, we collected tons of metrics and data in an effort to solve all of our problems across marketing, sales, and tech through analysis. However, solving problems by logic takes much longer than solving problems by getting the right people with the right experience. The company started off slowly, but once we brought in the right people, things really took off.

Focus is everything: For the first three years we were unsure what products would resonate with the market and so we developed three different products to hedge our bets. Ultimately, we moved too slowly and didn’t make as much progress in any area that we could have made if we combined efforts on just one. Once we slimmed our product down from 5 products to 2, our business grew much faster.

Let the fires burn: Before jumping into an early-stage company, I spent time in large organizations in mature industries with tens of thousands of employees. In those big company environments, most paths are well trodden, and success comes from simply doing the work diligently. However, diligence in early-stage ventures is a prerequisite that alone isn’t enough. Early-stage ventures require simultaneous pioneering and scaling a new product or process, which requires moving forward quickly even when all the pieces aren’t completely figured out yet. There are no process documents written, information on personas and customers is incomplete, and the competitive and investor landscapes are always changing. To be successful in this environment, the team has to be clear on understanding what problems unlocks leverage and which ones are just painful and frustrating, but ultimately don’t move the needle yet.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Elon Musk: “Running a start-up is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. After a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends”. — This quote is very important because coming from Elon Musk who has built several billion-dollar businesses, it dispels the notion that even successfully growing early-stage ventures into unicorns is supposed to be a comfortable ride.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Peter Thiel — His book Zero to One was inspirational for me for several reasons, but one because it dispelled the myth that successful tech companies need to be 100% fully automated and touchless. It goes along with his theme that there is no formula for the next big thing. In our lending industry, we have found that the markets accept fully automated for small loans below $500k, but for loans of $2 to $100 million, the market does not yet trust a fully automated solution and needs to have some interaction with experienced humans to ensure adoption at scale.

How can our readers follow you on social media?



This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Matthew Bjonerud of Cerebro Capital Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.