Advice From The CEO Of Loyalty Startup Bilt, Fastest Company Ever To A $1.5 Billion Valuation

I recently had the chance to catch up with Ankur Jain, founder and CEO of Bilt Rewards. He’s a serial entrepreneur, having sold connections tool Humin to Tinder; became their Vice President of Product (he’s rumored to have created the separate celebrity version of Tinder); and helped launch a company that solves the cashflow problems renters face from security deposits.

And he’s created the first loyalty program for renters which underscores that the single largest expense for most people wasn’t covered by loyalty marketing before. It’s such a no-brainer that Bilt became the fastest company to hit a $1.5 billion valuation, just over a little more than a year after public launch.

So entirely apart from their latest initiatives that he was talking about, I wanted to probe a bit on how they’re actually doing, what conditions made it possible for him to build this program when nobody else had done it, and what the Ankur Jain production function looks like.

ankur jain
Bilt Founder Ankur Jain Welcomes Guest To Their Launch Party With Wells Fargo

Bilt Is Almost Too Generous?

The idea of a loyalty program for renters is huge because of the amount of spend it encompasses and also because of the valuable demographic it represents. People spending the most on rent are frequently young professionals with disposable income living in major urban markets. That’s a consumer group that major brands across numerous industries are eager to reach. But to reach them, there has to be a value proposition that attracts them. Bilt isn’t just marketing directly to the consumer, they’ve managed to get into their buildings, processing rent payments for the buildings and acquiring customers where they live.

Bilt Rewards lets you earn points for paying rent with no fee, something no one else days. They have a value proposition for their co-brand card that’s similar to Chase Sapphire Preferred but without an annual fee. Then they layer on promotions, Lyft and dining earn partnerships, and transfer opportunities to both American Airlines and United Airlines – something nobody thought was possible. Even Citi ThankYou Rewards doesn’t normally transfer to American, despite Citi having the American Airlines co-brand.

This Rent Day Bilt is offering the biggest transfer bonus to an airline partner – ever – that wasn’t an accident (Delta and American Express had a 150% transfer bonus briefly by mistake in 2008). Their transfer partners and direct redemption options give them one of the most valuable currencies, and add in their transfer bonuses which are generally bigger than what anyone else offers they arguably now have the most valuable currency period.

Can it be sustainable to offer more value than other loyalty programs?

So How Can Bilt Do This?

The concern about Bilt I hear most often is that they’re giving so much value to the member that this can’t be sustainable. I’m sympathetic, because historically any out-of-sample opportunity in the miles and points space has events been closed. My point has been in response that at a minimum I think you want to take advantage of those opportunities while they last. Plus, Wells Fargo likely overpaid to launch their foray into co-brand rewards.

But are the economics really too generous? Jain says that he’s a “ruthless believer in profitable businesses.” Bilt is “profitable today and has been” and has “had to be thoughtful about where we invest in things, so that they can sustain for 10 to 20 years.”

When things aren’t working, they “iterate quickly to get it right” and they’re not going to stick with things that aren’t driving member engagement and profit. As a result, what they have is “a mature member base with meaningful volume at all tier levels… almost every residential apartment building is using the Bilt program to pay rent,” they have the credit card program, and now the ability to “think about tiers for a meaningful number of people.”

He says that “by the end of the year we’ll be doing many eleven digits worth of spend through Bilt,” meaning tens of billions of dollars. That’s not all on the card. A significant amount of that is processing rent in apartment buildings. But they’re benefiting from a percentage of all of the spend through their platform.

Elite Status Is Now A Real Feature Of The Program

Bilt launched with an elite program, based on points accumulated during a calendar year from all sources – whether signing apartment leases, spending on their card, or earning with partners like Lyft and through their dining platform. Bonus points count!

They’ve been adding program features quickly, like new transfer partners; redeeming points for travel through a portal at 1.25 cents apiece; and pay with points at Amazon.

I earned top tier Platinum status with 100,000 points earned in 2022, but the only real benefit I’d seen so far was a gift of a really nice coffee table book.

Now they’re focusing on the elite program. This month’s Rent Day offer, where there’s a basic transfer bonus of 75% to Virgin Atlantic, elite members earn more – up to a 150% bonus for Platinums. This is the first transfer bonus we’ve seen that becomes more lucrative the more a customer is engaged in the Bilt ecosystem.

Ankur Jain shared how he thinks about building out the program,

One of the areas we’ve focused on is expanding our own merchant network and Bilt wallet share, [and driving] value add to customers across the spectrum. You may be a United cardmember because you love it, and still get value through Bilt wallet and everyday spend and our restaurant program. We want to meet customers where they are, offering the best way to get rewarded on the biggest life expenses starting with rent. No coupon stuff with random companies.

I thought starting with rent might be a hint of things to come, but right now where they’re adding on new benefits for elite members, “making sure members are rewarded through status as use they the broader Bilt ecosystem, encouraging them to access that system, like linking an American Express and United card to earn rewards on dining.” He described this as part of their “neighborhood rewards concept.”

Jain “hate[s] status programs that make lofty promises and rarely deliver benefits,” where “top tier is a lottery.” He thinks that the “best services don’t need to be gamed or hacked. Rather than making promises that don’t scale, create an experience where your best customers get something better and special because we value and take care of them.”

Bilt status levels are:

  • Blue: general member
  • Silver: 25,000 points
  • Gold: 50,000 points
  • Platinum: 100,000 points

This Rent Day, Platinum gets something truly extra special in a 150% transfer bonus, and it seems like we can expect to see this model replicated with at least some of their future offers.

How Do You Build A Company Like Bilt?

Here’s the piece that’s most interesting to me. Bilt was so obviously a great idea when I first heard it – in a “Could’ve Had A V8” kind of way – that it was hard to believe no one had already done it.

I asked Jain whether it’s hard work that’s the binding constraint? Most people are lazy and not very good at their jobs after all, so it took an entrepreneur coming along?

But Jain thinks that even if I were right about that, there are “enough smart people out there to win.” So talented entrepreneurs aren’t the binding constraint. You need “the right product at the right idea right time” and you need to be “lucky.” He offers that his “career put [him] in the room with the right leadership needed to start the program,” and this “coincided with Covid when people were willing to do different and new” things. I’d note that’s true for travel partners, real estate partners, and also Mastercard.

Furthermore, the “property tech was far along enough to be accepted but not yet mature” giving them a window to get into residential buildings.

The starting place is “not guessing what people might want, starting with the biggest pain points and evolving a product based on customer feedback.” That’s figuring out the idea, it’s not making it happen, and I think Jain himself has more to do with it than he lets on.

So I wanted to know about the Ankur Jain production function. It’s an insane work ethic, he showed me his inbox – he personally reads all of the member feedback that comes in. His approach is to

live and breathe it. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. Not that we’ve gotten this yet, but how many times do you get the opportunity to create a once in a decade category-defining business?

I’ve been working on startups for 13 years. This is the first true one started from ground up that my kids could work for [GL: once he has them!]. Grab the bull by the horns and ride it all the way. Never look back and say you could’ve done this if only you’d had an extra hour of work.

Then he shared his approach to this company and to solving business problems, which is that there’s a complex array of stakeholders, and you need to figure out how to align their interests. This is something I’ve heard from him before. Rather than keeping secrets and trying to negotiate the best deal possible with each player along every dimension, figure out the one to three things that each one cares about and how to deliver on that so that you can give your partners the wins that matter to them.

I’d extend this out a bit. Once you give on the things that your counterparty cares about, take the other things and especially small things with upside at the end of a deal that the counterparty doesn’t prioritize.

The Future Of Rent Day Promotions

It’s amazing that month after month Bilt has been coming out with consistently-valuable deals for Rent Day on the first of each month. They’ve provided elite status offers with United and with Hyatt. They’ve offered valuable transfer bonuses with Hawaiian and Air France KLM, and managed to get Air France KLM to extend their promo awards to key U.S. cities – the most generous set of promo awards Flying Blue has had in years coinciding with their Rent Day promotion. They’ve given away free Lyft credits.

These are deals negotiated with each partner, which makes them complicated, since each partner has their own interests and needs and approval processes. And Bilt needs to do this every single month, month after month, delivering new value to members to ‘pops’ and becomes focal. Normally this is the sort of thing that starts off with a bang and then falters, but the offers have kept delivering for nearly a year.

To me, and I’d bet to Jain’s staff, this is hard! But at a top level he sets the vision, telling me that rather than a paucity of opportunities there are more things they won’t execute on than that they will. They’re “not launching random stuff every day like other brands,” they focus on just “12 things a year that have to matter to consumers for the one brand touchpoint.”

That’s on top of recurring monthly Rent Day offers to earn double points with their co-brand credit card (including 4 points per dollar on travel and 6 points per dollar on dining, up to 10,000 bonus points), free point opportunities for trivia, and a chance at having rent covered for the month.

They’re going to “continue to double down on Rent Day because it could be cultural phenomenon for 10-plus years.” They’ll “continue to invest, not only [on] point hacking but how do we make it a moment where you get rewarded for being part of Bilt, from physical experiences, to cool perks, and fun games?”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Interesting interview, perhaps the best lesson for long term readers of your blog (like myself) is focus more on entrepreneurship and less on points collecting. Track it back a decade + ago was fun, getting $10k international first class for nearly free is great, but even better is to have millions in assets and then you can buy whatever travel you want without regard to points availability.

  2. Perhaps they can find time to fix the restaurant finder. Selecting by distance needs to let you set the origin. using your IP assumes no VPNs.

  3. @Dom ““profitable today and has been” On a GAAP basis?”

    Like Community Based EBITDA by Wework, its going to be called Unfunded Rewards EBITDA where you can back out sign-up, rent-day, and bonus promotions to get to positive EBITDA. 🙂

  4. “Too generous” would be offering 100K subs with $5K in rent spend.

    Bonuses are great, but when there are no points to transfer from, little value.

  5. He’s also the son of a tech entrepreneur who made it big in the dot com boom (Naveen Jain), though one who got in trouble with the feds and page large settlements. His dad gave him seed capital to try out ventures.

  6. So this essentially arbitrage, the company takes a portion of credit processing fees earned and shares it with their customers in the form of points and miles. It points out a few things, how lucrative it is to process credit card and how cheaply it is to buy points and miles wholesale (since they are a funny money currency of their own). I imagine the spread has to be more than 2%, the floor set by the 2% cash back cards.

    @Gary, can you answer these questions that I can’t find on the their website?

    Can I pay a landlord by check if he rents me a house? All discussions point toward Apartments and apartment complexes.

    Can I have a check issued for a little over $5000 (say $5500) to avoid having to make up the shortfall (but limiting the reward benefit to $5,000)

    I can truly use the rewards at Amazon at 1.25 cents per (with the MasterCard)?

    Thank you for your time.

  7. @TLU you can now earn up to 100,000 points per year on rent, but that doesn’t mean you can only pay $100,000 per year in rent. They’ll let you pay rent via ACH and by check if needed. You cannot use rewards @ 1.25 cents with Amazon, you can redeem @ 1.25 cents through their expedia-powered travel portal (the redemption value at amazon is lower).

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