Photo courtesy of Credit Karma

Fintech Force

San Francisco’s Credit Karma Opens Location in Ballantyne

By Kerry Singe | Photos by Ray Sepesy

Walk into the Ballantyne offices of Credit Karma and you’re greeted with pillows bearing an image of the Death Star. Employees meet in the Hoth conference room and take meditation breaks in a “quiet” room featuring a Lego wall and starships.

Credit Karma’s new offices in Ballantyne Corporate Park pay homage to the “Star Wars” movie and the code name engineers used when talking about their once-secret project. “The Force” was how they referred to the new business their San Francisco-based company was establishing in Charlotte: a free, do-it- yourself tax preparation service.

As the home of Credit Karma Tax, the Charlotte office employs about 25 people, more than half of whom are software engineers. The office, which opened in May, plans to double its workforce by the end of the year.

“We’re building a team to disrupt an industry,” says Andy Jenkins, director of engineering, who calls the group a “startup within a startup.” Jenkins is leading the Charlotte office and manages the development and deployment of Credit Karma Tax, which started offering services last year.

The fintech industry has been growing in Charlotte, with startups attracted by access to the city’s banking leadership, finance employees and tech-driven tools.  Credit Karma’s move into Charlotte illustrates the city’s ability to compete against the likes of Silicon Valley and Atlanta to attract innovative technology companies, companies that in turn can attract more technology workers to the area.

“We’re offering that work experience from the Bay Area but in a city that offers a lot of different things,” Jenkins says. “The banks have always been here as big technology employers, but Credit Karma offers developers a really different environment. We’re fast-paced and less bureaucratic. We feel we can recruit from the same (workforce) base but offer a different experience.”

Credit Karma's Charlotte office employs about 25 people, more than half whom are software engineers. Photo courtesy of Credit Karma
Credit Karma's conference room is named after the planet and planetary system of "Hoth" from the movie "Star Wars."

Making Money from Ads

Founded in 2007, Credit Karma has earned consumer recognition in a relatively staid industry by using lighthearted advertising. Credit reporting is a crowded field with established companies offering many promises of “free”— usually free credit checks and reports. But often, free isn’t truly free or what’s free is short-lived in the form of frequent upsells and hidden charges. That’s where Credit Karma is working to distinguish itself.

Credit Karma says it is disrupting the industry by making money from strategic advertising, with both its credit and new tax prep/filing operations. The company also doesn’t sell users’ information. Instead, Credit Karma’s website matches users with targeted products. Consumers with fabulous credit are offered one type of credit card, for example, while those with low scores may be offered a product that can help them rebuild their credit.

“We’re only successful if we’re showing consumers the right product in a context where they can click and get accepted in that. Everyone has to win for that to work,” Jenkins says. “It’s not simple display space.”

The company says it is working on earning people’s trust as the place to prepare and file their federal and state taxes. Online tax preparation is estimated to be a $2 billion business, according to Credit Karma. Last year, Credit Karma acquired Cary-based AFJC Corp., a provider of online tax preparation and filing services.

In addition to the San Francisco office, Credit Karma has a Los Angeles office. The company employs approximately 700 people overall. As for how the company ended up in Charlotte, it’s all about relationships and economic opportunity.

Charlotte Connections

Credit Karma’s Chief Technology Officer Ryan Graciano once worked in Charlotte with Jenkins at IBM, where they met. Graciano left IBM in 2007 for San Francisco to work with Credit Karma, which he co-founded.

To maintain the company’s culture and feel in Ballantyne, Credit Karma hired the same architects it used for its San Francisco headquarters.
Employees can take a break in a "quiet" room featuring a Logo wall.
Taking a break at Credit Karma may mean playing foosball or grabbing a snack from the kitchen.

Jenkins joined Credit Karma in 2014, working remotely from the Queen City. Jenkins said he and Graciano would talk about the tax business and discussed using Charlotte as the home base.

“We said we could build a team around tax and could build a really robust office culture,” Jenkins says. “Because of the familiarity we had with the area — we knew banks are big technology employers and there are a lot of great computer science colleges in the Southeast — we knew we could build a sustainable office here.”

To maintain the company’s culture and feel in Ballantyne, Credit Karma hired the same architects and design firm it used when designing its San Francisco headquarters. In addition to the “Star Wars” décor, the offices have a kitchen and full bar complete with three local brews on tap.  Selections on a recent day were from Wooden Robot Brewery, NoDa Brewing Company and The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery.

The company is a supporter of the LGBT community in San Francisco and a sponsor of San Francisco Pride. Jenkins says the Charlotte office plans to get involved in local Pride activities as well.

“We wanted to come here as an employer that is LGBT-friendly and make sure people know that Credit Karma is a diverse employer,” Jenkins says. “We consider diversity a strength, and it’s something we look for.”

Today, at the Ballantyne office, the “Star Wars” references remain, but the code words are long gone. “We’re very public about talking about taxes now,” Jenkins says.

Credit Karma: Online Finance

Credit Karma, an online personal finance company, offers tools and recommendations to help consumers obtain loans, monitor their credit and prepare and file federal and state tax returns. The company reports having more than 60 million members.