How Snapdocs’ Product and Engineering Teams are building a new foundation for homeownership
More than 5 million families bought a home in the U.S. last year. Nearly all of them started their search online, yet on closing day, the vast majority sat down to sign a thick stack of papers they likely didn’t understand — and that likely contained errors. Now, thanks to Snapdocs, that’s beginning to change. Below, Briana Whelan (Director of Product), Devin Powell (Product Designer), Leslie Stetz (Frontend Engineer), and Greg Krathwohl (Software Engineer) explain the technical challenges and company culture that first drew them to Snapdocs and share what’s exciting about the road ahead.
Interested in joining the team? Check out open positions or email Head of Talent Greg Russell at email@example.com.
What problem does Snapdocs solve?
Briana: On the surface, the real estate industry is different today than it was in 2008, when the financial crisis hit, but it’s still operating on the same infrastructure that led to the crisis in the first place. A lot of the technology is a decade behind. Most mortgage closings still happen on paper, and more than half of them have errors. Closings are also extremely expensive because there are lots of stakeholders, and all those costs get dumped in the buyer’s lap. As a homebuyer it’s not like you can say no; you have no control over closing costs. So there’s not much accountability.
The insight Aaron had — Aaron is our founder and CEO — was that there’s nothing connecting the dozen sub-industries that are involved in the process. That’s what we’re building at Snapdocs. We think of the platform as the connective tissue that’s going to unite this entire pillar of the U.S. economy. Lenders and title companies use it to collaborate on mortgage closings with everyone else involved, which makes the process not only more affordable, but faster, more transparent, and a better experience for home buyers. We’re focused on closings right now, and there’s a ton more to do down the road.
Devin: Mortgages are still collapsing at the last moment because a name is misspelled. People are still using fax machines. So there’s room for improvement. I’m confident in saying there’s no version of the future where closing on a home will still cost thousands of dollars and take two months.
Why did you decide to join the team?
Briana: I wanted to join a team where I could help build not only the product, but also the company. And I was so impressed with the people. Aaron has a strong vision, but he’s open to letting others help execute. As a product person, that balance was really important to me.
Building a product in the real estate space was also exciting to me, because it’s one of the only major industries where technology hasn’t had a big impact. And just like retail, it’s moving toward more consumer control. Pre-approval has already been brought online, so buyers are getting a pleasant, smooth experience at the beginning of the process. They want the same thing at the end, and they have access to more options than ever before. So digital closing has become a competitive advantage for lenders.
Devin: I joined for a lot of the reasons people choose a small company — ownership, impact. There’s an incredible opportunity to make a difference in the mortgage industry. I met Aaron right after Snapdocs finished Y Combinator, and I remember asking why he wasn’t going crazy with marketing like the other companies. He told me he’d rather focus on executing. He said, “My dream is to build a great product and deliver so much value to the industry that folks look up one day and realize Snapdocs is the standard.”
Greg: The tools we use were part of the reason I joined, too. In addition to the frontend work Leslie mentioned, there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in the backend and on the data science side. We’re using machine learning for things like classifying documents and adding annotations. And our DevOps team is doing cool stuff, too. We’re using Kubernetes in all of our staging environments and plan to roll it out to our production environment. There are lots of interesting problems to solve and lots of ways to learn.
How would you describe the work environment and company culture at Snapdocs?
Greg: Day to day, engineers, designers, and product people are all working together. We have a daily standup where we talk about our current projects, and we use Jira and Slack to keep up to date. We’re also in close communication with Support whenever we’re rolling out something new, or if there’s an issue we need to address.
Leslie: It’s easy to collaborate, because everyone is super self-aware and down-to-earth. They really listen, and we can have open, honest conversations. I’m always trying to find ways to make it easier for people to build on the frontend even if they’re not frontend experts, and sometimes, my solutions end up interfering with something. But it’s never like, “Oh, Leslie, you messed up.” I just ask questions, learn from the experience, and try a different path.
Devin: Yeah, there’s a real sense of pragmatism. When we first rolled out a new product for lenders, for example, we knew the onboarding flow we built wasn’t perfect. But that’s okay. We solved the immediate problem, and delivered an early win for our customers. When the data wasn’t super clean a few months down the line, we were in a position to solve that, too. Before we build for scale, sometimes we just need to answer a basic question, and we can do that because there’s space here to iterate and make incremental improvements.
Briana: Transparency is big in our culture, too, and it’s something we look for in job candidates. We ask them to tell us about a time they failed, but it’s not really about the failure. It’s about whether they can be open and honest, and whether they applied what they learned.
We also celebrate a lot — happy hours and team outings, but little things, too. For example, there was this annoying blue bubble that was popping up on some page, and the other day, someone added an X so you can make it go away. One of our teammates sent a Slack message that said, “Whoever fixed the blue bubble, you just made half the company the happiest people on Earth!”
Greg: And then a bunch of other people were like, “Confirmed! I am now the happiest person on Earth!”
Briana: We share messages from users, too. One of our team goals is to make escrow officers happy, and someone recently shared a quote from an escrow officer that read, in all caps, “I LOVE SNAPDOCS!” We were like, “We did it!”
Tell us more about your team’s approach to challenges.
Devin: We focus on the problems that are immediately in front of us, where we know we can make a difference, and I think the team is very empathetic to the people who work in this space. A lot of companies just want to disrupt things and blow everything up. For us, it’s more about understanding the challenges people are facing and how we can help them do better, faster work and make fewer errors.
Leslie: And one of the cool things about our product is that part of our team uses it every day, so they understand the problems firsthand. We can test things on ourselves and get great, quick feedback.
We also have a lot of support to really try things out. When we release something, we live with it for a certain amount of time, but we don’t hesitate to analyse it and make improvements. As we’ve been building this new frontend with React and Redux over the last six months or so, we’ve been figuring out which patterns work and which ones don’t. Now we understand the challenges, and we’ve been able to come together as a team and design an informed, holistic road map for the application of our dreams.
Greg: “Application of our dreams.” I like that. To me the big challenge is balancing that long-term vision with the practical short-term approach. We start by satisfying the needs of one individual company, and then another, and another. Sometimes, that can lead to a mess, but as we explore those individual solutions, we get closer to a solution that will work for everyone.
Briana: Right — you have hypotheses about which features will be successful, but you can’t know for sure. In consumer software, you might use A/B or fake door testing. But in enterprise, because our paying customers have high expectations, we have to get creative if we want to test a new idea.
Often, we’ll try something manually at first. If we want e-signatures on every page of a loan document, for example, we can’t write a rule and throw a template on there, because every page is different. But to truly solve that problem, we’d have to take on a ton of machine learning and algorithm work. So instead, we’ll offer a service manually to one customer and see if it’s something they’re willing to pay for. Sometimes, we try things people don’t want, and we shut them down. But other features turn out to have huge demand, and then we invest in building the technology behind them.
Looking ahead to the future, what are you most excited about?
Devin: We’ve already provided a lot of value from an operations standpoint, behind the scenes. And that’s great — title companies and lenders see that value and they’re willing to pay for it. But a homebuyer might not even realize Snapdocs is involved. Ultimately, we want to help consumers feel more comfortable and confident about their mortgage, and we’re exploring ways to do that more directly.
Briana: Because of the base we’ve built, now we have the opportunity expand our impact, and decide how much of the process we want to be involved in. It just feels like a really exciting time. People talk about rocket ships, but I’ve never felt like I was on one at other companies, even when we were growing 40 percent every year. Snapdocs feels different. We’ve had some great early success, and I think if we continue to execute, there’s a huge opportunity right around the corner.
Interested in joining the team? Check out open positions or email Head of Talent Greg Russell (pictured below!) at firstname.lastname@example.org.