In the old days, banks were imposing granite buildings housing massive vaults and offering 3% on savings and 6% mortgages. Later they morphed into unassuming suburban branches distinguished from fast-food outlets primarily by having multiple drive-through lanes. 21st Century banks increasingly live online, and the chief exemplar of that is SoFi.

Since it was founded at Stanford University's business school in 2011, San Francisco-based SoFi has become the leader in online banking, with $14 billion in student loans, mortgages and personal loans to more than 200,000 customers. Co-founder Dan Macklin says they've succeeded by offering innovative products, competitive rates, quality service and convention-busting attention to customers' personal lives.

Student loan refinancing helped SoFi get off the ground fast. Though barely past the startup stage in age, the company currently has about 75% of the market for refinancing the $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loans, Macklin says. "No company had offered refinancing of federal and private loans," he explains.

SoFi's entry into mortgages, personal loans and, most recently, life insurance have been refreshing if somewhat less groundbreaking. One difference is that SoFi makes loan applications easier. Borrowers can apply online without having to come into a branch for an interview. The company claims pre-qualifying online takes just two minutes and promises "no paperwork nightmares."

SoFi also uses only U.S.-based customer service reps, Macklin says. "Most people's experience with their financial services companies are not great enough to shout from the rooftops," he notes. "We want to change that."

Another difference is that SoFi relies less on credit scores when deciding to grant a loan compared to mainstream lenders. "We're looking primarily at free cash flow -- do you have enough money at the end of the month to pay us back for this loan?" Macklin says. This can particularly help youthful borrowers who haven't had time to build up hefty credit histories.

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