An Interview With the CEO Who Created a Rewards System for Renters

Bilt aims to lessen the all-too familiar bite of paying rent.

Savvy credit card users already know there’s a whole game to play with how to squeeze the best rewards out of them. From free flights to cashback options, cards can provide a lot of perks that can make your life a little (or a lot) easier.

That said, one perk that didn’t previously exist was a way to reduce housing costs. That is, until Bilt Rewards made its debut on the scene in 2020. 

Bilt is a Mastercard (MA) – Get Free Report that offers points when you use it to pay your rent, as well as waiving the transaction fees. And it offers points on travel and dining as well, so you aren’t missing out on the benefits you’re used to with other cards.

To learn about how and why Bilt was created, TheStreet had a conversation with founder and CEO Ankur Jain.

This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.

TheStreet: When you go to the Bilt website, the slogan at the top is “We Help You Navigate Real Life Shit,” which feels like a very Gen Z way to appeal to people. Who do you think needs Bilt the most?

Jain: If you rent, you should have Bilt. I think a lot of what we built this for was for our generation coming up. You’re spending 40% — in some cities 50% — of your income on housing, and somehow your biggest expense gives you nothing back. So it’s just this really weird loop where you’re paying rent every month but you’re not able to build credit, you’re not getting rewards, you get no closer to owning a home. The whole cycle is broken and then you’re somehow supposed to figure everything else out with the other 50% of your income.

TheStreet: What were the seeds that brought Bilt to life?

Jain: We were thinking about different problems to solve and where we could really move the needle as entrepreneurs, and we kept coming back to housing. 

I remember thinking to myself, I had an Amex and a Chase card before this and I get points on everything. Why can’t I use my credit card on rent? … so I was at drinks with Barry Stern who started Starwood Group and I asked him, “Shouldn’t landlords care about loyalty or wanting to bring people on?” And he said, “What you may not realize is that airlines and hotels make all their money on their loyalty programs and card businesses … airlines lose money on flying planes typically, but they make money having a loyalty (program).”

It was a pretty eye-opening moment when we realized that those categories where you spend a hundred billion a year on travel across the United States is one fifth the size of the rental market. That was the lightbulb (moment). If we can figure this out and make the model adapt to housing, the scale of that is just massive.

TheStreet: But you did. What did it take to make that happen?

Jain: What we soon figured out is that this really simple idea wasn’t allowed from a regulatory perspective. That mortgage environment did not allow for rewards points or credit card points to be used towards a downpayment. So the next two years consisted of the following: Could we get the government to change the regulations so that we can use this? We had to go talk to FHA and FFA and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Treasure Department.

It wasn’t like there was a resistance to it, it was just that nobody had previously asked the question. Nobody had ever asked, “Why can’t my rent payment history qualify me to get a mortgage?” As a result, there hadn’t been a regulation to allow it. It was a huge moment … super exciting.

TheStreet: It sounds like it was a bit like rolling a boulder up a hill.

Jain: It was ordinarily frustrating, but it’s exciting now that it’s there. The problem was you had three stages: the first was everybody you pitched this to, and the second was, this will never work. So they don’t even engage. You talk to the real estate owners and they say everyone’s tried it, the economics never work, the banks will never waive the fees and they’ll never work with you because that’s just not how it works. 

And then eventually you wear them down and the first people start to buy it. It only takes one person to bite in each category and then people start to break through. And finally, after you ask enough times, the first person commits on each category and now you’ve got the skeleton. Eventually, you get to the third phase, which is like everyone’s on board and now it’s actually getting the product to market.

TheStreet: And you just got another $150 million in funding.

Jain: Yes. It’s a $1.5 billion business now.

TheStreet: What are the plans to develop Bilt over the next few years?

Jain: We have over two and a half million apartments in the Bilt Alliance now and we’re rolling them out every month, group by group. And I think right now we look at the next 12 months (and think): How do we get Bilt into the hands of as many renters as possible?

TheStreet: One last thing … what would you build next, if you could?

Jain: There is so much I want to do with Bilt first. (But) I think in the future there are two areas I find fascinating. I think we are on the verge of some pretty exciting breakthroughs with biology… when I look at the fact that today if you get covid they can inject monoclonal antibodies into your system and you’re giving your body the tools to fight off a virus instantly that can be scaled out to so many different diseases and infections … I get pretty excited about the opportunity there.

I (also) get super excited about nuclear energy, which I think is the most under-discussed thing. All these people, ironically, that love to talk about climate change and green energy don’t talk about nuclear. And that is the only, in my opinion, viable solution.

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