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Loftium co-founder and CEO Yifan Zhang. (Loftium Photo)

Loftium pitched a novel approach to the real estate market last year by offering down payments to home buyers willing to rent out a spare room, and this month the company announced its expansion beyond Seattle to the greater metropolitan region. But that’s not the only thing about the startup that’s catching people off guard.

“I surprise a lot of people. Most people expect me to be a 40-year-old male — my name is androgynous,” said Loftium’s CEO and co-founder Yifan Zhang, who is, in fact, a woman in her late 20s. “Expectations and reality. There is always that gap, and you’re compensating for that and it’s tiring after a while.”

Zhang handles the fundraising, marketing and the regulatory side of Loftium’s operations. Being a woman in her role makes some things more challenging in the male-dominated world of real estate fintech (financial technology), including raising money and business development.

But her gender makes it easier to meet Loftium’s goal of building a diverse, gender-balanced team, Zhang said, and she’s is proud of the company culture that she’s helping create alongside her co-founder Adam Stelle.

“I don’t have a tolerance for ego,” said Zhang, who holds an economics degree from Harvard University and previously started GymPact and Styleta. “I want people to speak their minds, but respectfully, and judge what people say based on the content.”

As the business expands geographically, Zhang is excited to grow beyond Seattle’s super-hot housing market. Home buyers have been enthusiastic about Loftium’s effort to bring sharing back to the sharing economy in a meaningful way, but house hunting is tough here, even with the down-payment boost that the company provides.

“Expanding to the entire Puget Sound (region) will definitely help us get into markets that are not as competitive,” Zhang said.

We caught up with Zhang for this installment of Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature that looks at how tech professionals do their jobs. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

Current location:  Seattle

Computer types: MacBook Air

Mobile devices: iPhone X

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: “Evernote, Intercom, Google Suite, Slack, and a million other apps — I do a ton on my phone!”

Yifan Zhang’s workspace in Loftium’s downtown Seattle offices. (Loftium Photo)

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? “We are currently sharing a huge open office on Western Ave near Pike Place Market. It’s great because we have plenty of space to grow, and there’s room for us to hold our home buyer and real estate events, like happy hours and classes.”

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? “Learn how you are most productive and tailor your schedule to match it. The wonderful thing about running a startup is that you get to control your work schedule. I realized that I am better at deep-focus projects in the mornings, so I work from home until our daily standup to minimize distraction and I try to not take any meetings or calls until the afternoon so I can be available to the team.”

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? “Facebook and a ton of chat apps (Messenger for U.S. friends, WhatsApp for travel groups, WeChat for my family); I seriously need a chat app aggregator! I always get distracted when using Facebook for Loftium business (managing our page, posts, messages and ads).”

Yifan Zhang. (Loftium Photo)

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? “31 in my ‘priority inbox,’ thousands otherwise. Since I can never quite get to Inbox Zero, I aim for Inbox <50.”

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? “17 so far, and it’s only Monday! Most of these are external and all are in the afternoon. We try to keep internal team meetings minimal, since we’re a small team and can still just grab each other or Slack if we need anything.”

How do you run meetings? “I hate recurring meetings so I try to only meet when there’s an important decision to be made. In that case, I try to be as efficient as possible but also flexible so that we have the discussion needed to come to a conclusion. Also, I love running brainstorms. My belief is that a small team needs everyone’s ideas, otherwise we’re missing out.”

Everyday work uniform? “I used to be fully into athleisure running my first fitness startup in San Francisco, but real estate fintech has higher standards. I’m now aiming for a Scandinavian aesthetic that is comfortable, minimalist but still professional and unique.”

How do you make time for family? “My family consists of my husband and puffball of a dog. I get to bring my dog to the office, which is awesome.  He’s in a playpen with the office dogs during the day and has a blast. My husband is also an entrepreneur so we often talk through ideas, strategies, etc. We’re really understanding of each others’ work schedules since we both know how all-consuming startups can be. We also have family (my in-laws) nearby in Tacoma so it’s easy to visit, and I’m trying to get my parents to move to Seattle.”

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? “Exercise! Whenever I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, it’s so nice to turn off your brain and go for a run by the water or go rock climbing. I climb at Seattle Bouldering Project, and when you’re hanging off a wall, there’s just no room to worry about startup stuff.”

What are you listening to? “Probably the ‘Hamilton’ soundtrack; it’s my go-to power track.”

Yifan Zhang unwinds with her “puffball” pooch. (Loftium Photo)

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? “NPR and a ton of podcasts — I love listening to the pieces on anything but tech. I also keep up with GeekWire (of course!) and TechCrunch. I’m a huge fan of fiction, especially novels about people in strange, difficult situations (not sure what that says about me), and I often consume several novels each month. Since my mind is constantly filled with tech and Loftium, I find peace and inspiration reading and listening to topics I know nothing about.”

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “Just finished Celeste Ng’s second novel ‘Little Fires Everywhere,’ which made me go back and re-read her debut book ‘Everything I Never Told You’ (that one is still my favorite).”

Night owl or early riser? “Early riser — mornings are my time for productive solo work.”

Where do you get your best ideas? “Randomly, ha ha! Usually if there’s a problem to be solved, I can’t let it go until I come up with an answer, whether it comes from myself or my friends, husband, co-founder, investors or teammates after I’ve talked their ears off about the topic.”

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? “I am always learning from my good friend Tracy Lawrence, CEO of Chewse, a California-based office meal service. As a female CEO who has raised funding past the Series B stage, she’s always thoughtful about building the right team culture (transparent salaries, a team that loves what they’re doing), open about her struggles and humble about her successes. Tracy accomplishes so much but still carves out space for her own personal growth and hobbies. Dinner with her is always inspiring!”

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