Executive Branding: Partners Rise Above Tainted Industry


Brad Stroh and Andrew Housser are co-CEOs of Bills.com (formerly Freedom Financial), a California firm they founded in 2002 to help consumers manage their personal debt. The firm makes money by taking a share of the savings it achieves for its clients. Bills.com manages $200 million in consumer debt for more than 5,000 clients. When the two entrepreneurs and former investment bankers were looking for start-up opportunities, they discovered the credit counseling business, an industry that had earned a reputation for exploiting consumers desperate for relief from crushing personal debt. Instead of continuing their search for a more reputable industry, Stroh and Housser saw an honest opportunity in debt relief. They figured the best way to differentiate a business in an industry with a bad reputation is to establish a good reputation. The partners developed an executive thought leadership strategy based on financial literacy education among American consumers, contrasting their “blue chip” backgrounds (Ivy League educations and experience at top level finance, consulting and technology companies) with the seedy reputation credit counseling agencies had developed. Consumer Education. A common charge leveled at credit counselors is they have not made financial literacy a priority, since it is not in their narrow interest to do so. Stroh has authored a detailed consumer education guide called “Budgeting & Financial Education Tools for Today’s Consumer.” The document provides budgeting tools, worksheets and general advice to help consumers avoid or escape debt. All Bills.com customers get a copy, along with a monthly newsletter offering practical advice. Media Outreach. Stroh and Housser sell their message and their personal stories aggressively to the news media, much of it around branding themselves as experts on consumer debt. In the midst of an IRS crackdown on credit counseling firms, Bills.com issued a press release offering Stroh and Housser as experts to comment on the issue, something only a company with a clean reputation can pull off. Since the beginning of 2005, Stroh and Housser have been featured in more than 150 published articles, including Fortune, the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor and San Jose Mercury News, reaching a total circulation of 16.5 million. Contributed Articles. Bills.com also builds its credibility by submitting bylined articles on personal finance issues. Housser is a regular contributor to WorldNow’s Local Media Network, a service that syndicates editorial content to more than 170 local TV media websites. His articles have on websites for stations including KRON San Francisco, KMOV St. Louis and WABC New York. Their efforts to set themselves apart have worked out well. In May 2006, the Internal Revenue Service revoked the tax-exempt status of every one of the 41 credit-counseling agencies audited during its crackdown on the credit-counseling industry. Bills.com, by following a set of ethical practices, has stayed above the fray and out of trouble with regulators. The company has tripled its revenue every year since it opened, and expects to double its employees over the next year.


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