EP 51: The role personalized benefits play in the future of work w Rob Whalen
James Mackey 0:00
Hello, and welcome to Talent Acquisition Trends & Strategy. Today we're joined by Rob Whalen. Rob, welcome to the show!
Rob Whalen: 0:10
James, thanks for having me. Really appreciate it.
James Mackey: 0:12
For sure. Could you share a little bit with us about your background?
Rob Whalen 0:14
Yeah. So the background is really accounting is my, you know, degree where I graduated from, you know, where, or I graduated CLU. But accounting was the degree
Serial entrepreneur, this is the fourth company that I've started or founded, and have been selling and building high tech, both hardware, and software for the last 27 years now, at least, and started this company. And the idea culminated in 2012, we founded it in 2013, as a side project or a side hustle to what we were doing, and then really launched it in 2017. It was when we raised some capital around it, to start scaling it and, and developing the idea in the market. Because it had never been done before. Anyhow.
James Mackey 1:14
Yeah. Did I see you raised like, a $5 million seed round or something?
Rob Whalen 1:22
Yeah. So that was kind of a seed to it. We raised $3 million in 2017. And then built the company out and then just raised another $5.4 million.
It's been a year ago, we raised it. And then I've been scaling the business since then. We've been doubling actually, we tripled last year, we're doubling this year, and will easily double next year, if not triple.
James Mackey 1:54
Yeah, that's really impressive.
Rob Whalen 1:56
Yeah. Well, it's a lot of hard work. But as you know, building and starting companies is not for the faint of heart.
James Mackey 2:06
No, it's not you have to be a little bit crazy, like, the good kind of crazy, hopefully. But yeah, that'd be I mean, that's how I at least speak for myself. You have to somehow really get enjoyment out of the hard work. For me, it's like I see it as this massive puzzle.
And it inspires me, I just like trying to solve it. Personally, I like this scale puzzle, I like trying to figure out how we create a tonne of value in the market and actually create something that can scale and continuously add more value.
And that, to me, is the hardest part, right? Getting technical into a solution to me is a little easier than figuring out how to create a lot more value in the market and make it work around specific unit economics that actually scales as well.
Rob Whalen 3:00
And to your point, right? You come into the office, and there are 10 more problems you have to solve. Some of them are personnel, some of them, product, some of them are just like, you know, customers coming to you with ideas, and you're saying, do we want to build it? Or do we want to deliver that? Because then that sets us on a whole nother trajectory?
And you don't want to do one-off who you know, because you're looking at that scalability piece that you're talking about.
James Mackey 3:31
Yeah, one of the best pieces of advice, I think ever was, at least it was one of the most influential pieces of advice in the early days of starting my company was from a guy named Etai Rosen. And Etai was, I think, like the first VP of sales at a company called SimilarWeb, which was, you know, incredibly successful, went from an early stage to IPO probably around 10 years.
You know, kind of the venture capital sweetheart company raised over probably 100 million probably, I think they actually got a good return on that investment. Their industry's got a good return. Anyways, Etai I think scaled them from like, zero to their first 20 million or 50 million in recurring revenue. And he moved to another place, I worked with him at a couple of different companies and I met him in person. And it was so funny. He basically, you know, in a very passionate way told me, you know, look, when you work at a startup or a growth company, there's always going to be like, 100 problems, right? He called them fires, right? And he was like, there's gonna be 100 fires and, you have to know which two or three fires to focus on and just go all in on putting those out. And you just let the rest of them burn. You have to have the judgment and know, Okay, where am I going to put my focus and deal with those things? But you can't, you're never going to put them all out.
Sometimes you just have to know like, Okay, I gotta delegate, I can't control this, it's not gonna go the way I want it to, but it's not going to enable me to grow the business if I dial in on that problem.
Rob Whalen 5:10
I think you do that with your employees too, right? Like, you have to hire employees, and then you let them do their thing, knowing that they're going to fail, and they're not going to do it the way you would have done it. And you got to be okay with that. Because if you don't, you just don't have time to do it. All. you're focused on those, as you said, two or three things that you have to get done. The point of the arrow or the spear? To get the thing to scale.
James Mackey 5:45
Yeah, and I think too, it's like reminding in my case, reminding myself to it's like, okay, you know, sometimes things happen, where it's like, I would have done it differently. But sometimes the way I would have done it definitely isn't nearly as good.
Sometimes it's frustrating because I'm like, "Oh, I already learned that lesson. We didn't have to make that mistake." But then other times, I'm like, "Damn, I never would have thought of that idea." So I guess the hard part is letting go, right? Because you put your blood, sweat, and tears into this thing, and then you have to take a step back and realize, "Okay, we have to delegate to the right people in order to actually scale, right?"
Rob Whalen: "Do you know, in the early days, I was the salesperson, so I was out selling, and then we hired a VP of sales. And within about three weeks, I realized how much better he was at it than I was, and I was just like, 'Okay, I'm out of this, man. He's so much better, and he's doing so many better things.' But now I can go do other things. I'm working on capital raising and productizing some of the things that we're looking at doing."
James Mackey 6:55
Yeah, I totally agree, man.
Rob Whalen 6:58
James Mackey 7:01
Well, I guess we had some topics to discuss relevant to people and talent acquisition. But to be honest, one more thing about this. A few months ago, we had a pretty, pretty tough personnel issue. And I had to go consult with, I guess, an employment lawyer. And his philosophy, obviously, he has like a biassed perspective, because he sees everything through the lens of like, employment and this type of like, labor law or these types of things. But he said, I was talking about, like, you know, okay, we have this one, you know, kind of personnel issue with the next employee. And he was like, James, James, every problem is a personnel problem. Like, at the end of the day, it all comes back. So it's kind of funny how he was like when he's talking about fires, are you talking about like, product roadmap? Are you talking about anything? His philosophy was like, at the end of the day, you know, people are a core business. So all the good things, all the value, and all the fires, like everything, come down to people at the end of the day. So I thought that was an interesting perspective.
Rob Whalen 8:03
Well, they are the greatest asset in the company, right? And the ones that actually are helping you take your idea and want to build it, deliver it, sell it, implement it, you know, and then do support around it. That's not a system. That's people.
James Mackey 8:22
Oh, yeah, it's people. It's all the value, all the challenges, and everything in between.
Rob Whalen 8:28
The product is just kind of the glue that they're all working with.
James Mackey 8:31
Yeah, exactly. I think it makes sense to start with what your product does. And then we can kind of get into how that is really relevant to the direction of, you know, how work is changing in the future of work?
Rob Whalen 9:01
Yeah, yeah, no, no, no, certainly tell you a little bit about why we're doing it and, and how it all came about.
Roughly, everyone, you know, everyone accrues paid time off or has paid time off in their compensation. And what we realized early on, when this came about, because I left Cisco, and then they paid me out all of my paid time off that had been accrued, which was a very large check. And that was kind of that light bulb moment, James, when we said, hey, what if we could have used those dollars when we were working with Cisco, to maybe put into our 401k or take our family on a vacation that we may not have been able to afford, and have a life experience? You know, would that have made a difference? And we said, Hell yeah, it would make a big difference. And Cisco, by the way, is an incredible company. But we realized that there were a lot of dollars not being utilized.
And so we said, what if we could move those dollars and build flexibility around it so that employees could self-direct a portion of that unused PTO, or dollars because those are dollars for what we call good services and experiences. And that would actually support them through their transitions in life. Okay. And I can give you some examples.
There's the lifecycle of an employee that, you know, comes out of college, they start with the company. And in the olden days, you would stay with a company for 10,15, or 20 years. Nowadays, everyone jumps companies, right? And they go, they have a number of jobs throughout their career. And what we look at it is there's the work cycle, and then there's the life cycle.
And the life cycle is your family. Okay, your personal and work cycle is your work. And each one goes through different transitions at different times, and how do you support those transitions within the workforce? And this came really prevalent because we have five generations in the workforce. And what a benefit is, to me at the age of 55, is different from the benefit for you. At the age of 31, you have a three-year-old. I have older kids that are now graduated from college, right? They're just different needs. And you may need a benefit to pay down your student loans. I don't know if that's the case or not.
James Mackey 11:45
I dropped out of school. So, fortunately, I don't have that bill.
Rob Whalen 11:55
Maybe you're trying to buy food for your kid or whatever. Right. But the benefits are different for each generation. And I think what we're trying to solve is to match the benefits or build flexible benefits that match each employee, where they're at in their lifecycle or in their transition cycle. And that's really what PTO Exchange is about.
There's roughly $400 billion that gets accrued every year, and roughly about 160 billion of that goes unused. And then 65 billion of it gets wiped off the books as the kind of use it or lose it or someone caps. And so we're just trying to use those dollars, and give people more flexibility around the dollars that are really accrued productivity that they have.
So that's the Exchange.
James Mackey 12:55
Got it. Got it. So the way that it works is that I guess the PTO, in many cases, is accrued? And then if they don't take it, as opposed to it kind of like rolling over? They're taking it out of the business, but it sounds like it's not just cashing out. It sounds like it's possibly just put into another benefit bucket or something like that. So can you walk us through the process specifically?
Rob Whalen 13:25
Exactly. So a company accrues that liability, and it goes through the net income statement and sits on the balance sheet as a liability offset by cash. The employee can go in and say, "I want to use some of that time." And there are obviously rules, meaning that the employer could say, "We only want James to use 40 hours a year on the platform. James, you accrue 120, which is three weeks, because we want you to take a vacation, too, but we will allow you to use 40 hours a year." And you can put it into your 401K or your HSA, things like that. And those are what we call plans that are decided by the employer, meaning that the employer says, "I don't want people to just cash out their PTO because PTO is really meant for well-being, distressing, disengaging, and cashing out is not really what we want." So if we can say, "Hey, we'll allow the employee to use those 40 hours of time and exchange it for maybe hotel and airfare to go use those two weeks of vacation, and have an experience that you may not have been able to afford.
James Mackey: 15:00
I love that, I really do. And so you had mentioned before, you did studies? Was it in-house studies, or did you hire a consultant or consultancy firm or something like that? But it's something like you said, nine out of 10 people would be more likely to stay when people have flexible benefits.
Rob Whalen 15:16
We did a study with Lighthouse research. So it was a third party, we paid them to go out and do a study on our benefit, and kind what people thought about it. And what we found out in return is that nine out of 10 employees, if they had flexible benefits, something similar to PTO exchange, would be more likely to stay with that employer. And, we thought that was just huge.
James Mackey 15:45
I always found it interesting. So, I think Netflix did this, at least for some time. I don't know if they currently do it. A couple of other categories, leading tech companies, I think, have done this, where they had personalized benefits options, right? So people could, you know, basically pick, okay, you had this bucket allocated to you, and cash or like, you know, cash equivalent, you can put it, you can invest in the things that you want, which overall is a really cool thing, personalized benefits, apparently, like some issues that would arise would be that some people would buy, you know, a tonne of stock options. And some people would buy, you know, more health care, right, like different types of health care packages. And then the person who bought the stock is showing up, you know, in the case of like a Netflix showing up in their Ferrari five years later, and not everybody got a Ferrari. So like, there's some kind of like, you know, there are some challenges there. But I think, overall, like, you know, obviously, people want to be able to pick their benefits packages.
And one of the questions that I always had about those programs is, where do you have personalized benefits? How do you actually deliver on that in a scalable way? Because that, to me, just seems like, such a nightmare to manage as a people function, like if you have all these people doing individual buckets, and all these types of things, but it sounds like, it's like you've to some extent, like productize, this where it makes it easier for people to kind of pick and choose, and it's not like a manual process that people have to like, that people just have to do the team or HR team, right?
Rob Whalen 17:19
Well, what we did is we looked at, okay, so if you could take your PTO, you know, what would you like to do with it? And then we kind of put what we call plans together like I said, and then the employer is the one who decides, hey, you know, what we're trying to do, we want our employees to put their, you know, do more 401k, right, to be more financially well, and in doing so, we want them to invest in 401 K.
So they would just turn on 401 K, right piece. And so they would give their employees the ability to take 20 hours and put it into their 401 K. And that's what they'd start with. And then they'd say, Okay, well, let's do you know, HSAs for health savings account, so for those people that have health savings accounts, you know, you can take those 20 hours and put it into your HSA.
And then they could turn on student loan repayment, right? Okay, we want to allow people to take their time, and pay down student loans to get out of debt, or pay for tuition because maybe they want to further their education.
And this is all turned on or off by the employer as a benefit to the employee, and then the employee has access to it.
James Mackey 18:38
So how does this integrate with a PEO?
Rob Whalen 18:43
So for PEOs, they're obviously PEOs are meant for smaller companies. We are PEO ourselves.
James Mackey 18:59
I'm kind of being selfish on that question because we use it.
Rob Whalen 19:03
So we're in talks with almost all the PEOs right now, on integrating our product into their platforms. We do currently have integrations into Chronos or UKG payroll system, and ADP. We have a lot of Workday clients.
But you'll notice that the PEOs are smaller. We've been focused on some of the mid to larger clients. That makes sense. We have clients that have 70,000 employees. And we do have some nonprofits that are like 13 that we do a quick integration to their ADP or their paychecks. But yeah, we integrate directly to those payroll systems and or HRIS systems to enable a seamless integration when we move that money from The PTO bank, in through the payroll system, and then out.
James Mackey 20:04
Got it? And just another kind of question I have. Are there different state requirements from a compliance standpoint that make your job a headache? Like to provide the solution and all the different states?
Rob Whalen 20:20
Yes. That's, that's, that's a hard Yes, James.
James Mackey 20:27
It must be difficult to go through all. So how do you guys manage that? Because that just seems like a compliance nightmare?
Rob Whalen 20:34
Yeah, you know, I said, we started the company in 2013, we spent like four years, understanding all the laws and regulations around it to build a flexible platform, that can, as things change, the platform can change. And not only from a federal level but also from a state level and a county level, we can make these changes in the policy system at the back end, that allow for compliance and compliance is a big thing. We were compliant in all 50 states. And so, you know, that's a big thing for our customers. Because these are publicly traded companies and, and big companies. And they need to know that they're going to be compliant. But yes, we understand those laws, we understand what's going on in all the states so that our customers can be compliant.
James Mackey 21:34
Check me on this assumption. But you know, if you're working with publicly traded companies, enterprise mid-market, they are pretty well-established people, teams, and HR teams. So it sounds like it kind of be like a partnership, like you're obviously, you know, familiar and probably baked in compliance into the product, but also, they have people monitoring this from the inside and know how to set this up in such a way that you're not working, again, that we talked about PEO as being for smaller companies, might be a little bit more, you know, I guess, potentially, like they don't have as large of an internal HR team, but for your primary ideal customer profile, it sounds like, you know, they're gonna know their stuff already. They're gonna have people that are monitoring this.
Rob Whalen 22:14
Agreed. And they do. And so what happens in the sales cycle is, obviously, we wind up talking to their attorneys, you know, you were talking about the employment attorney earlier, prior to us hitting record here. And we have a number of attorneys that are on, you know, that we have around the country. And they're really good at what they do. But we're also really good, and we know a lot about what we're doing. So we'll have these conversations ourselves.
Those things are important to every company.
James Mackey 23:23
Yeah, I totally, I totally agree. Quick question about your sales cycle, or sales process. I wonder where you consider something like a qualified pipeline in terms of like higher likelihood to close? And I'm assuming that the legal stage is probably the longest time stage or the longest part of your sales process? Is it like, Okay, once legal approves, then it's like real pipeline, that's something that we can close, but I'm just curious how that impacts your sales cycle and how you think about acquiring new clients?
Rob Whalen 24:01
Yeah. I mean, it's one... it used to be longer, and used to create more of a timeline for us. It doesn't so much anymore because we have, I think, now 65 clients signed. And some of them, as I said, they're not small clients. And so when you go close to another customer and you have all this history working with very large clients, and both from a security standpoint, technical standpoint, launching sampling, you know, some of that concern goes away or shortens the sales cycle.
But the other one that I just talked about, outside of compliance or legal, is really security. And because you are touching the payroll system, and you're working with their employees, having security and being secure and having the processes in place as an organization is critical. We've been SOC 2 compliant and I think this is our fifth or sixth year. And now we're SOC 1. We did our SOC 1 this year, which is on the finances. And those things are really important for our larger clients.
James Mackey: 25:27
Oh, I totally, totally agree. Yeah, I'm assuming particularly for the enterprise space, you can't even close the deals without that, right?
Rob Whalen: 25:30
No, you can't. I mean... you can't have a conversation.
James Mackey: 25:35
You're not gonna be able to sit down with a decision-maker at that point.
Rob Whalen 25:37
Yeah. But, every time that comes up, right, we get even with our SOC 2 third-party certification, we send them all the information, they'll come back to us and have another laundry list of security questions that, you know, they have profiled as key to them. And we'll have to answer them. So, you know, we have a security person on staff that just works with the salespeople in the clients. So that can, again, collapse the sales cycle a bit. And also just start making sure that we're addressing all those issues because those are really important issues.
James Mackey 26:15
Yeah, really cool stuff. And, we got probably about five to 10 minutes left. I think as we were discussing right at the beginning of our call before we hit record, you know, the changing work environment accelerated through the pandemic. I'm curious to hear from you, you know, as the future of work is evolving, there's more kind of like gig contracting opportunities, it's becoming more common for people to hold more than one role, to have their kind of side consultancy hustle. You know, doing that for 10 years, obviously, continuing to decline, the companies that are thriving or I think despite what's popular, LinkedIn content, the companies that are thriving in this model know how to optimize onboarding and create employees and turn employees and contractors into value creators faster. But all these shifts are occurring at an accelerated pace. And I think a lot of the people playbooks that companies are running right now or, you know, ones that might have worked in 2010. And they're not necessarily adapting.
So I'm curious to just get your thoughts on, you know, maybe how the conversations with your clients have evolved, what they're valuing from your product. And, you know, how do you see your product being kind of positioned in the future of work?
Just a big question I know is like three, but like, however, you want to kind of dive into that is cool to me.
Rob Whalen 27:36
Yeah, I mean, obviously, everyone sees the work environment changing, right? Everyone works from home, and then you're getting all these larger organizations demanding some in-house work, like getting back into the office. There's the big debate, have we been more productive or less productive over the timeframe? I think we're going into a downturn with inflation and just everything else. And then, you know, you also have the gig workers, right? That's accelerated over time, the Ubers, the Instacart, and all these other companies.
I really think that what's going to happen in the future is benefits are going to disengage themselves from the corporation, and they're going to be individualized and portable. That's what I believe in now. Will that happen in five years? I don't think so. But will it happen in 10 or 15? I do believe so.
I believe it's very similar to what happened to the pension and 401k, where everyone used to have a pension, and now they have a 401k. And the reason why that happened was because of what was going on with pensions and corporations and pension ratings, and we needed to be able to have a retirement fund that was to you, not to the company so that you would have your own retirement fund that you could take with you and grow yourself. I think the benefits are going to look the same way. Your point earlier about having a bucket of dollars and then being able to self-direct it. We think that that is going to be the future. We think that there's going to be a bucket of money.
Everybody gets $20,000 of benefits. Ten of it is for medical, you know, with its tax structure and things like that. And so, I think that benefits are going to be more portable in nature and disengage themselves from the enterprise to some extent. And the enterprise doesn't want to manage this stuff, right? They really don't want to manage benefits.
And everyone's different, right? I may need healthcare from the company. But you know, the next one down the line may be married and may be on their wife's healthcare at another company, and they don't need it now. So, you know, all these different things that come into a corporation that you need to be in to vote individualize. And I think that's where things are going in the future. And I think by doing that, you're kind of addressing both the gig and the W2 with a platform of benefits that are the same and customizable.
James Mackey 30:23
I think it's actually more equitable to I mean, it's already, like if the health care plan is that it's like 50%, of dependents, and somebody has, you know, five kids, and then there's somebody else that has, you know, no kids, for instance, it's like, how was that equitable that, you know, 10, you know, 10,000 plus, you know, additional benefits are going to somebody that chose to have a large family. You know, I think I think it does create when you personalize, it creates more equitable, and I think the biggest gap has not been like, I think if a sea level were to hear this, and it was productized, to an extent where they didn't have to have a large overhead staff managing personalization, like, if they could just have a product, and it's like, done or like close to that, they just have to set it and leave it. I think most people would agree, oh, that's a great thing. The issue is, when you have, you know, a lot of other stuff going on, or other priorities, it's like, okay, this is going to be like a massive overhaul. And this is going to require a tonne of people, you know, doing this, if to the extent that you can turn that into a product, I feel like kind of removes that blocker for companies to open that conversation and say, Hey, like, this is a good thing. We all want this like everybody would benefit from this, including ourselves. Like, let's do it.
You make it, it's just why it hasn't been done sooner. I mean, is that fair to say? Or what do you think it is fair to say?
Rob Whalen 31:42
Yeah, I think the equitable thing is the biggest thing, though, right? What you're giving to one employee you're giving to another and we see this happening all the time, where you see, hey, we want student loan repayment, right? We're gonna match student loan payments, you know, because we have all these, you know, we're trying to attract that generation. Okay. Well, the problem with that is you're giving $500 to this generation to pay down their student loan, but the generation like me, that's 55 is sitting there going, Wait a minute, I don't have student loans. Why don't I get the 500 bucks to put on my 401k? I mean, that's, it's just not fair.
It also goes back to the whole family leave, and nothing against having a family, I have three kids. But what if you decided you didn't want to have children?
James Mackey 32:25
Okay. That's a tough one, though.
Rob Whalen 32:28
And you and you sit there and go, Okay. I just had a kid and now I get 12 weeks off for parental leave, and I don't get 12 weeks off.
James Mackey 32:40
How do you do that? Okay, so that's a tough one, right? How do you resolve that in terms of like,
Rob Whalen 32:48
Well, here's how you resolve it. You resolve it by saying, you get so much paid time off and or paid leave, and you can accrue as much as you need. So instead of in today's environment, you have this, companies will have a user to lose it. So you get three weeks, if you don't use it, it's gone. They'll also have a cap, which is you can accrue up to two times your annual leave. Okay, so if that's three weeks, you get six weeks, and then it stops accruing, okay? And the reason why these things exist, James, is because it's a liability sitting on the books. It's dollars. If I could say, Hey, I just want to expense it off to a PTO bank that James Zone's just like your 401k it's not on my books anymore. I expensed it, it's sitting over there, when you want to use your PTO you use it. Now, James, you can actually save up six weeks, or however long you want. Because you're going to have a kid, and you want to be able to take that time off.
And on the same end, back to that equity. I can use it however I want it.
James Mackey 34:02
Yeah. Yeah, that's, that's really interesting. I think. I do agree with you. I think that this is something that more companies are probably going to gravitate toward. the easier it becomes for them to know that there's a product solution out there that can just make it a lot easier. Yeah.
Rob Whalen 34:20
Yep. But I think the equity thing is like, you just run into these pieces where you kind of go, Okay, why are they getting $500 for a student loan? And I don't know anything. Why are they getting 12 weeks to take time off? Because they had a child? And I don't want to have a child so I don't get it.
James Mackey 34:43
Like, I'll just, you know, I'll just say it. I had never thought about the parental leave part of that like I've thought about equitable benefits in other ways and the benefits of personalized benefits but I never considered the parental leave part. And that's a big one.
Rob Whalen 35:04
I mean, as I said, I had three kids, and my wife and I had to figure out how to make it all work. We didn't get six weeks or 12 weeks, or whatever it is today. I wish I could. But then on the same end, if I could have done it, someone who didn't want to have kids should have that same 12 weeks available to them for a sabbatical for, you know, all sorts of things.
James Mackey 35:28
That's very well said.
Well, look, I think this has been a really fun conversation. I've definitely learned a lot. And I think that there's a lot of valuable takeaways, for leaders that are listening to this, I don't know, an HR people leader that hasn't received complaints about not having equitable or, you know, evenly distributed kind of personalized benefits. This is something that, you know, every organization where I've been involved with people, teams, it consistently comes up. So I definitely, I see like, your product, your company, I when I look at the vision of the future, like of people and talent, I do see your company very well positioned to thrive in that future. It just makes a lot of sense. So this has been really wonderful. I appreciate you joining me. And for those that want to, engage with you online. Where can they find you? How can they engage with your company?
Rob Whalen 36:31
Yeah, they can find it so they can find the company at PTO exchange.com They can find me on LinkedIn, and LinkedIn with me and message me if they want to learn more. You can also just email info at PTO exchange. And we can have a conversation, send you some information if you're interested. And that's how you can get a hold of me.
James Mackey 36:56
All right, that sounds good. Well, hey, Rob. Thank you. I appreciate you coming on and joining me today.
Rob Whalen 37:02
James, thank you for your time.
James Mackey 37:04
Yeah, for sure. For sure. All right. We'll talk to you soon.
Rob Whalen 37:06
Yep, have a good one. Take care. Bye.