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One and a half years ago, an office of software engineers working for a San Francisco-based startup opened in Helena with two employees. Now, that office employs 48 people and is on a track of continued growth constrained only by office space.

The managers of Social Finance’s engineering office say they plan to hire staff to build a workforce of 100 in Helena.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to grow something like this in a small town,” Matt Conroy, one of the original Helena employees, said.

SoFi launched in 2011 as a company that offered to refinance student loans at a cheaper rate. It has since expanded and is one of the leading businesses attempting to disrupt the existing lending model dominated by banks.

Finding it hard to attract and retain software developers in the competitive San Francisco market, SoFi started contracting with Conroy and David Thompson after the company was exposed to their work through the Helena-based loan servicing agency Student Assistance Foundation.

SoFi soon hired Conroy and Thompson and asked them to run the company’s entire software engineering department out of Helena, where Montana’s tech environment would make it easier to hire staff.

Last September the SoFi office employed 10 people in office space in the Great Northern Town Center. It then had plans to hire another 25 to 35 employees, but, as the SoFi consumer base mushrooms, so does that number.

When bank lending slumped after the financial crisis of 2008, companies looking to disrupt the existing banking model though financial services technology, or fintech, started to pop up around the country, according to Forbes.

SoFi entered the game in 2011 with a focus on student loans. Four Stanford business school graduates decided to use peer-to-peer lending, essentially lending that cuts out the middle man at the bank, to refinance student loans at a lower rate for people who likely had the ability to pay SoFi back. Before lending to someone, SoFi examines that person’s career experience, income vs. expenses, financial history and education, according to the company’s website.

Within the last year, SoFi expanded so that it now also offers refinancing for credit card debt in 49 states and home mortgages in 23 states -- not yet including Montana.

To date the company has over $4 billion in funded loans, according to its website.

Soon, SoFi plans to launch a wealth management product that is going to be free to users.

SoFi is doing it all using digital outlets, which Thompson said allows for an efficiency that is part of what makes SoFi a cheaper option.

The minds working to make the venture into that unexplored territory possibly all work out of a Helena office.

“We basically are building something nobody else has ever done before,” Thompson said.

Financial media companies like Forbes and CNBC have named Mike Cagney, the company’s CEO, one of the top disruptors to watch in the fintech industry.

In September, SoFi announced it had raised $1 billion --  a sum that puts them in a small tier with companies like Facebook and Uber.

With SoFi’s future potential unknown, so is the number of needed engineers.

“Our problem right now is projecting growth,” Conroy said.

They can fit about 75 people in their office at the old PayneWest building and another 25 in their Great Northern office, so they decided to shoot for 100 employees.

Once they have a firmer grasp on growth, Thompson and Conroy said they will likely renovate office space in Helena or build. They may open satellite offices in other areas of the state, like Bozeman, but relocating the whole operation is off the table.

“We wouldn’t ever consider moving the entire office to California, because we would lose three quarters of (the staff),” Thompson said.

A big part of the draw for their hiring is because people want to live in Montana. Even with that leverage, Thompson said, they offer nationally competitive wages.

That means they pull employees from other companies and from the state.

Sheila Hogan, director of the Department of Administration, said the state has lost two software engineers to SoFi employment. Hogan said it’s a small enough number they consider it regular attrition, but she said the state is preparing itself to compete as an employer in the high-demand tech market.

The Department of Administration recently partnered with the Department of Labor and Montana colleges and universities to offer a state information technology apprenticeship program.

“It made sense with some of the potential draw from our workforce that we look at retooling some of our workforce,” she said.

Conroy and Thompson said they see SoFi’s potential as being so big they don’t shy away from the idea that they could eventually have an impact in Helena like Blue Cross Blue Shield and other large private employers.

“I honestly see us getting that big,” Conroy said.

“A year ago we wouldn’t have said that,” he added.

Their office already makes a sizable economic footprint in the Helena economy.

The interior of their office looks like someone airlifted a San Francisco tech office and planted it on Montana Avenue. It’s complete with an open space office design, a flat screen TV on the wall, beanbags the size of smart cars, a refrigerator stuffed with snacks and drinks next to a kegerator. They cater lunch for employees every day and spend thousands of dollars on food runs to Costco and Super 1 Foods.

Their company’s growth is booming at such a pace that Conroy and Thompson said they get overwhelmed sometimes by their roles as managers, take a break and spend some time doing what got them started down this path in the first place: writing code.

“It’s definitely moving beyond what I could imagine,” Conroy said. “Especially in Helena, Montana, that’s what makes it even more stunning.”

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Alexander Deedy can be reached at 447-4081 or alexander.deedy@helenair.com

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