Yet Lebda, 44, couldn't seem more confident as he's leading a transition of the business he started while in graduate school 18 years ago to meet the new and evolving lending paradigms.
Perhaps that's because Tree.com's revenue from non-mortgage products more than doubled, growing to $5.8 million in the first quarter, a 107 percent increase from the $2.8 million a year ago. That's now about 14 percent of revenues, and Lebda sees it growing even more. Additionally, in the past year (from June 2013 to June 2014) personal-loan revenue has increased approximately 720 percent.
"We launched reverse mortgage, credit cards and personal loans last year. Our business model is pretty simple: We have a cost to get a customer in the front door; we advertise and bring them in. So if lenders are demanding customers at a level we can profitably afford to attract, then we'll do it," Lebda explained.
"The mortgage industry operates very much like the airline industry or the hotel industry, believe it or not," he continued. "You have a fixed amount of capacity. You can only process or close so many loans in a given month. When lenders have all they need, they don't necessarily need us. When that volume dries up, they need us more."
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The company is continually exploring new ways to diversify its revenues. When you go to LendingTree.com, it's about home loans, auto loans, and the credit cards/personal loans Lebda mentioned, but a look at the Tree.com site signals an even broader approach to their matchmaking agenda, with brands such as LendingTree Education (online universities), LendingTree Auto (car buying/financing) and LendingTree Home Pros (home services) that will pit them against competitors like Plus-U.com, Cars.com and AngiesList.com.
This year, Lebda said, LendingTree is looking to roll out small-business loans. "The lenders are asking us for volume. ... We are going to continue to grow in those new verticals."
"We changed a lot of our technology platform to make it easier to add new products," Lebda said. "And we've made it easier for the consumer to fill out the forms. Now that the lenders are there, we just have to step on the marketing gas and it's just a matter of advertising. As soon as it gets profitable to do it, we dial up search campaigns and display campaigns and offline campaigns. Our personal-loans campaign has roughly doubled from six months ago."
For Lebda, as long as he can keep lenders competing, everybody wins, especially Tree.com.
Needham's Rice, who worked at Hambrecht & Quist during the height of the first dot-com wave, said in 1999, "It was all about bandwidth and fiber and building out the concentric circles of fiber, and then the economy went south and the tech bubble burst and the fiber stayed unused for a long time." He thinks that Tree.com's business is in some ways analogous. After all of the twists and turns over the years, a skeptic could say the company will never reach the size people had expected it to originally, but on the other hand, it survived a couple of big macro negative trends, and it wasn't until 2009 that more and more consumer-related products and services truly shifted online.
"I still think there is a good amount of secular growth to the online channel and to benefit Tree.com," Rice said. "It's a 20-year-old company, but when you think of the penetration, it's still very small in the lending market. So it has a long life ahead of it and lots of opportunity," he said.