Financial wellness startup Even pulls in big bucks, big talent
The startup Even — which has deals with Walmart and the software company Kronos to provide their employees financial guidance and advances on future paychecks — on Thursday announced a prominent new investor and hires from some high-profile corporations.
Aaron Levie, CEO of the cloud-computing company Box, is investing an unspecified but “significant” amount in Even. In the past few years it has raised $49 million from Khosla Ventures, Valar Ventures, Allen & Co., Silicon Valley Bank and other investment entities.
Even ingests payroll, timecard, attendance and bank data in its software to help people living paycheck to paycheck handle their finances. It helps them create budgets and borrow against future earnings. It now has 350,000 users; about 76% use the app every week, and 40% use it every day. It says it is getting calls from other companies that want to offer its app to employees.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco company has hired a half dozen executives from an impressive roster of companies:
- Andy Bandyopadhyay, Even’s new head of research, joins from Varo Money and previously worked at Facebook, Instagram and Salesforce.
- Olivia Bishop, director of product engineering, came from Facebook.
- Zachary Thomsen-Grey, director of engineering for banking products, came from Uber.
- Swati Karandikar, chief compliance officer, came from LendUp.
- Sean Rose, product manager of debit card, joined from Slack.
- Emily Luk, chief of staff, came from Stripe.
Also, Kelly Breslin Wright, former executive vice president of sales at Tableau, is joining Even’s board of directors.
In an interview, CEO Jon Schlossberg shared what he says are the essential elements of the 67-person company: a mission-driven culture (which almost every fintech startup says it has), a tough hiring process and adherence to four core values.
Would you attribute most of the growth in inquiries you’ve received from other companies to the Walmart deal?
JON SCHLOSSBERG: No question. When the largest private employer in the world does something, the default is you’re going to at least perk your head up. The fact that it’s Walmart, which is viewed as being sophisticated in the way they use data to understand the performance of their business, savvy Fortune 500 executives will look at that and think there must be some data-driven reason why they’re doing that. It piques their interest.
I also think this is a growing issue in our society. The fact that so many of us live paycheck to paycheck is a hot button issue right now as it should be. It’s not OK that more than half of Americans up and down the income ladder live paycheck to paycheck. If the government is not going to do something about it, then who better to work on the problem than the people you spend most of your time with, your employer.
When you speak of data sophistication, what kinds of data views and insights can you help companies and users come up with?
The No. 1 reason we work with employers is to access to data like payroll, time and attendance that gives us a complete picture of a user’s financial life. Fifty percent of Americans make inconsistent income from paycheck to paycheck. Imagine trying to set a budget if you don’t know how much money you’re going to have. It’s literally not possible. This is why so many people don’t use traditional budgeting tools, because they don’t know how much money they should be budgeting for. But because we’re connected to Walmart’s time and attendance system, we can see what you’re scheduled for, how much you’re going to earn, and automatically plug that into the algorithms that are automatically making the budget for you. So you can make a budget that adapts to how much you are actually earning.
And because we are connected not only to payroll, time and attendance but also to people’s bank accounts, we can help companies understand why people are quitting their jobs. We can help lower turnover and improve retention for employers.
How did you get on Aaron Levie’s radar?
I think he read some of the press articles about [Even] and one morning I woke up and had an email from him in my inbox saying, "I think what you’re doing is interesting — would you be willing to come to Redwood City and have dinner with me and talk to me about it?" So I drove down and met with him, and he decided to invest.
What’s the philosophical connection between Box and Even?
The parallels are that he deals with the Fortune 1000 and so do we, and the next chapter for us is, we have all this interest, how do we capitalize on it? Box has proven to be extremely good at that. The second thing is as a document storage company, they’re deeply integrated with Fortune 1000 organizations. So do we need to be in order to make the product that people love.
More generally, Aaron is interested in what he would call disruptive businesses. The fact that so many Americans are struggling financially up and down the income ladder, you don’t need to be a genius to conclude that something needs to change in financial services. Will a new kind of bank or lender or credit card magically fix the problem? No. This will definitely be a team effort with the government, with employers, with apps, with banks. There’s going to be disruption along the way, and there has to be in order for things to change. And I think he’s interested in fixing industries.
You recently hired people from Uber, Slack, Varo Money, and Facebook. What do you think is enabling Even to be attractive to people working in popular companies?
The way we’ve articulated the purpose of the company, our mission, is something people relate to. If you’re working at a bank, that bank may have a similar mission, but it’s not so clear how your work day in and day out will contribute to achieving that mission. Whereas we’re such a small company that if you’re joining at this stage you might make a huge impact on our ability to succeed in our mission.
We try to be thorough and thoughtful about how we evaluate people. When you interview at Even, you spend the day with us, you go through a very rigorous evaluation process that we refer to as running the gauntlet. It’s a bunch of carefully designed evaluations to try and understand if you have a set of core values we’ve defined as being requirements for working here, and if you meet the standards of excellence we look for in whatever job function you’re being hired for. The reason we do all this is because we want you to feel like you’re surrounded only by excellent people such that you start off at a place of mutual respect with your coworkers. That removes a lot of politics that you will get at larger companies. Having interacted with banks from a B-to-B perspective I can tell you that those politics definitely exist at banks.
The third thing is we have a culture of autonomy and responsibility, and we’ve tried to be thoughtful about ensuring that when you join you actually have autonomy and a lot of responsibility, instead of it being a lot of hot air. Once people join, they see how genuine this thing is and how concrete it is.
What are the four core values?
The first one is the desire to understand and accept the perspectives of others. You might call that empathy, but we don’t use that label because if you asked 1,000 people what empathy means, you’d probably get 1,000 different answers. Defining it explicitly is key to our ability to evaluate consistently for it and be fair and objective at evaluating people.
The second one is an insatiable hunger for improvement. The third is the desire to find and elevate the truth. And the last one is the ability to persist through great adversity.
Those are all great qualities. How can you tell in interviews that someone has all of them?
We spent a lot of time designing interviews with people who exhibit those attributes, so that they know what they look like, and we then incorporate a feedback process so that when we’re giving the interview, we are improving the interview every time. And then we train people on how to do these interviews. You don’t get to interview people at Even until you’ve been thoroughly trained on how to do the interview.
I happened upon a video clip recently of Recode Executive Editor Kara Swisher, who was asked to define success. One of her answers was, “Not having to work with people I don’t like.” To me that sounded elitist. I guess if you’re running a company you have a right to that. But can you be really selective and still embrace diversity and a range of points of view?
The reason we wanted to define these four attributes was so that we can set a baseline of value alignment. All healthy relationships, personal and professional, are built on value alignment. I’m a psychologist by training, and there’s a lot of psychology to failure and success in marriages. The No. 1 thing that makes a successful marriage is having a foundation of value alignment, looking at the world and caring about the same things. It just makes so many arguments that would or could have happened irrelevant. They’ll never happen because you already agree. That’s true of professional relationships as well. If we can put together a group of people who all agree on these four things, that would eliminate 80% of the reason you might have to dislike someone. Which then allows us be very diverse on all other dimensions.
I guess you could also say anyone could have those four things, at any age, of any racial or ethnic background — they’re universal.
Yes! And in fact, especially the last one, the grit one, persistence through adversity, we have found that people from less fortunate backgrounds tend to score higher, because they’ve had to persist through much more adversity to even get in the door at a place like this.
How do you expect to maintain these values and run the company the way you like it as it grows?
First, we monitor the incentive structure of our business model. The reason banks take advantage of everyday Americans is not that the people who work at those banks are bad people, or trying to sucker people. It’s because the business models of the products banks offer are predatory. And however you make money will incentivize your people to do more of that kind of thing. So we need to be sure that the way we make money incentivizes us to do more helping people become more financially well, not taking advantage of them.
For example, we have said we’ll never make money from selling your data; that’s a guarantee and promise we make. We will never make money on a product that bears interest, we will never offer interest-based lending. We may offer that product through the app from some other provider if we believe that’s the best product for you, but we’ll never make money from suggesting it or from the interest because we believe both of those business models have a perverse incentive.
The second thing is ensuring the quality of our team. One of the pleasant surprises in this journey so far for me is when someone we’ve hired calls me out for not living the values. I could point you to numerous examples of this. People are willing to do that because we have not settled in hiring people who exhibit those values, and they demand and expect the people they work with also have the values.
The third thing is controlling the board. The founders currently control the board of the company. That ensures that we can do whatever we want. That is the ultimate way we’ll ensure we continue to do the first two things.
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