92% of employees are stressed about their finances and this has a profound impact on their ability to be productive and to be their best self at work.
Media 7: You have a wealth of experience; could you please tell us about your professional past, emphasizing the situations that inspired you to pursue a career in this field?
Marthin De Beer: Yes, I think it was Robert Bryan who said that a life of purpose is the purpose of life, and in many ways, this has been ringing true throughout my career. I became acutely aware of how stress can lead to physical and mental health challenges in my own family, and this was while I was pursuing a tech career and working at Cisco. Then I came to a place where I decided I wanted to apply everything I have learned to help solve one of the biggest challenges for everyone, which is personal finance, so that is what led me to start this company because it has a much greater purpose than just building a business. It could potentially help millions of people have better lives. It's not just employees but also their spouses, partners and children. So that's what inspired me to pursue a career in this field.
M7: Throughout your illustrious career, how have principles such as integrity, honesty, and value-based leadership guided your actions? Please elaborate.
MB: Yes. Value-based leadership has always been core to who I am. I do believe we answer to a higher power. And in that context, that's what keeps me honest and ensures that I always try to do the right thing. I wouldn't venture to claim that I always do the right thing. I also make mistakes, but if that's your focus, being transparent and honest and whether it's in your business or your personal dealings, you are always doing the right thing, it goes a long way. The most important item in a career is always your reputation; at the end of the day, what you are known for and who you are makes all the difference in the world, whether it's for the people you work for or the people that work for you. So that has been a guiding principle throughout my career.
M7: You being the CEO of BrightPlan, what do you think are the most common errors entrepreneurs make when starting their own company?
That's a big question, and there are many potholes you can step into when you start a company, but assuming you get the basics right, I would say the nuances, the things that aren't that obvious for most people, would be items like taking advice from the wrong people. I think especially young entrepreneurs have to be very careful who they go to for advice, select as board members, and who they bring on as investors. Because if you partner with the wrong people, it can cause you to make the wrong decisions, and it can cause you to take your company in the wrong direction.
The second one I would say is timing is everything when it comes to a startup, and you can have a great idea. In fact, people often have great ideas, but they may be too early for the market. The market may not be ready for that idea or that solution, and it might be too late because there can be other ways through which the problem has already been solved. So timing in a market is very important. Talking to potential customers and advisors well before you start your company to figure out if now is the right time to start and build something, and of course, it takes you time to build something, right? So you have to kind of project forward as well.
And then the third one, your investors will have a very big say in your decisions going forward. So both board members and investors in particular are very important. And I would also say one of the toughest things any entrepreneur does is raising capital. So having good advisors around you as you raise capital, where, your first round, even your seed round in your series A, where that money comes from, has a big bearing on who you can attract in the follow-up rounds B and C, and so forth. Hence that's often where people don't think that it's so important that you're very selective around investors, it absolutely is very important.
So I would say those are three areas that especially young entrepreneurs should take care of, while starting up a business.
Read more: 'Building a strong employer brand is crucial in attracting top talent,' notes Shannon Russo
You don't have a company without employees, they are the people, the hands and the feet that do the work every day, those who have great ideas that make things happen for your customers, and for your shareholders.
M7: Tell us something about your organization BrightPlan as it is the first financial wellness solution certified for fiduciary competence that delivers a true, customized, and integrated personal finance solution for all employees.
MB: Yes, absolutely when I started this company, our vision was and still is to make financial wellness attainable for everyone because it is such a large and pervasive problem. Less than 18% of people have a basic knowledge of literacy, I should say and when it comes to personal finance, and that's in the United States, it's at the same level or often worse when you move around the world. It is a big problem and people don't know where to turn and they often turn to organizations that sell them products and do not have their best interest at heart. And so you can often get misaligned advice where someone is giving you advice, but they're really trying to sell a product, then that advice is often not in your best interest.
Thus, people can listen to the wrong advice and take the wrong advice and have very suboptimal outcomes. I will also tell you that even highly educated people, and we see this often in our client base, even highly educated people often make very poor financial decisions because they were not trained to do that, they looked to the wrong advisors to guide them. So being certified for fiduciary excellence was key and very important for me when I started the company, because we want to be known as always working in our client's best interest. So that’s the only way that they will have the ability or the opportunity to attain better financial wellness.
Secondly, I would say you have to take a holistic approach, and that's what makes this such a tough solution to build, because you have to balance both the regulatory and even the local laws around the world as to what you can and cannot do. And you have to create a very personalized journey for each employee, because everyone's journey is different so that you get them to a better place and then you have to navigate the employers and all the benefits they offer in that mix as well, so getting all of that right was a big challenge for us but I believe we have done that and we now have a great solution, both at an app that is very scalable – that provides very personalized advice to everyone. And we also have the human touch where access to human advisors is also always available. And those are the two core elements; that’s how we bring financial wellness to everyone.
M7: How does your organization assist individuals in understanding their retirement preparedness? We would appreciate your thoughts on this matter.
MB: Sure, let me first say that in our latest survey, 92% of employees are stressed about their finances and this has a profound impact on their ability to be productive and to be their best self at work. So employers really have to pay attention to this problem. What we see is that taking care of retirement is important, but it is not urgent. What is often urgent is now how do I get out of debt? How do I send my kids to college? How do I buy a home? Those are the real pressing matters; which benefits should I select? Should I enroll in an ESPP? And how can I better understand that? Those are the pressing questions that cause stress for employees. And so the only way, whether it's retirement as you just asked about any of these other life goals, the best way to do that is to place powerful visualization tools in the hands of people. And so, what we have done, for instance, when it comes to retirement, is we make it really simple for people to answer some basic questions in a flow in our app, and then we show them what the outcome looks like. So you can see on a chart in good average or poor market conditions, meaning stock market conditions, because you have to invest for your retirement, including in your 401K or your pension fund, so in different market conditions, what are the outcomes? Will you run out of money? In what scenario will you run out of money? And then giving you the ability to iterate around personal assumptions you may assume I'm going to downsize my home, or I'm expecting to inherit from my parents a certain amount at a certain point in time.
There are many assumptions you can bake in. It is not just about investing in your retirement. Yes, that is an additional important aspect. And how much should you save on an ongoing basis so you can retire comfortably, what is your expectation about retirement? What kind of lifestyle do you want to maintain in retirement? All of those inputs, if you will yield an output that is going to show you in our app whether your retirement is on track or not. And then, the world can change around us in a heartbeat. So if the market suddenly drops, is my retirement still on track? And if it goes off track, how do I, what do I need to change to get it back on track? So what we have built is a solution that helps an employee visualize and understand all of those questions and aspects around retirement.
And we give them very personalized advice when a goal like retirement is not on track, the things they can do, the next steps they can take to get that goal on track, and they can keep working towards that. They can keep iterating until their goal is off track, I'm sorry, is on track. So the, and, and the app will show you that. So that's, you know, that has been a powerful way for us, that we have used to get people to understand their finances, but their retirement, but also in the context of their entire life, because you have to live life now and in retirement. And so marrying those two things, the short term here and now with the long term of one day, that is what our solution is very powerful, to show people at a very personalized level.
M7: Could you please explain how your organization's management fosters a sense of inclusivity and empowers employees to voice their opinions?
MB: Yes, in a startup you have to have everyone on the same page because you cannot afford people to be misaligned and not work together to achieve your organization's goals, there's no room for error. And so what we do in BrightPlan for example, is we try to communicate everything on an ongoing basis so people don't walk around with questions in their minds. They know what's going on. And so we do an all-hands on a weekly basis. In fact, on Monday later today, I'll do this week's all-hands, where we bring the whole organization together for anywhere from 30 minutes to 45 minutes. And I will update the organization on what's going on. Some of my leaders will provide updates to the organization, and then we take any questions and it's an open forum and the employees know that any question is fair game, but in that way you communicate constantly ongoing and very transparently, and then people really feel that, they know what's going on, they're aligned with what needs to be done. And I'll be very open with them about what's going well and what's not working, and then we tackle that together as a team. And that's really empowering for the employees as well. But often, it's not me or even our leadership team who will navigate challenges. It is the employees who deal with challenges, they are often closer to the customer and to all these challenges we may be faced with. And so having them be part of that conversation and be able to speak up and give the leadership team that feedback in a forum on a weekly basis is really important. And that's what I think you cannot do in a very large organization. It's really hard to do that there. You have to kind of break it down by sub-organization to still achieve the same thing. But in a smaller organization like ours, we can still do that. That is why we have done that all throughout the pandemic and even now we continue that because it is so valuable.
Read more: 'The more engaged your people are, the more positive your company culture will be,' believes Jordan Rinaldo
People often have great ideas, but they may be too early for the market. The market may not be ready for that idea or that solution, and it might be too late because there can be other ways through which the problem has already been solved.
M7: Please elaborate on how BrightPlan's digital platforms and financial advisers create unique financial roadmaps for each employee to achieve economic security.
MB: Let me just add one small item to the prior question. I will tell you that we help employers to create an inclusive environment for all of their employees. And we do the same for our own employees. Our own employees are also our clients. They use the app and they talk to our own advisors. And making sure that you meet the diverse needs of different employee groups. One of our largest customers is Salesforce, and they have employee resource groups that are kind of affinity groups - they have different demographic organizations; they're living in a certain geography, for instance the Black Force at Salesforce is their black community. So it could be a variety of different ways that these groups form, and they often have unique needs, and we do special webinars for those groups to address their specific questions that are unique to them and that has been incredibly valuable. We try to do the same inside our organization, but it's really a part of the service we deliver.
So I just wanted to add that for the prior question. Onto your next question if you think of BrightPlan, at one level, we combine data from all of your personal financial accounts whether that's your, credit cards, your checking accounts, whatever, like anything you link to BrightPlan, your 401k, etc. So any account you can link in, you can log into, you can link to Bright Plan, and we combine that data set with the employers set of benefits and compensation that they provide to you, including equity compensation, RSU, stock Options and ESPP as an example, our system, our software, then use that combined dataset that is different and unique for every employee to create ongoing personalized advice. And our software plots a roadmap for you to financial success. So we have inside of our app something called the Financial Wellness Coach.
This is a digital coach. Think of it as a financial planner at your fingertips or in your pocket. And this coach will give your ongoing advice. What next steps to take to become more and more financially well? The digital coach assigns a financial wellness score to you. So we have gratified the experience so that you can compete against yourself. It's like playing golf, getting a better score when you take the advice in the app. And we also enable you to take action via an advice right through our app. And so, you know, people can enhance their scores when they take our advice and take the right actions. We've even had, organizations compete within a company to get when you look at their average score in an organization, and there’s been contests around engineering competing with sales to get a better financial wellness score.
What our app and what our platform essentially does is it takes raw data, your data, and it turns it into actionable advice that is certified, of course, for fiduciary excellence. So it's always in your best interest. Now, another aspect why we are certified and audited annually by CFE, which is the Center for Fiduciary Excellence, is to ensure that we don't do anything with anyone's data other than providing them advice. We don't sell anyone's data. We don't do any advertising to you based on your data. It is completely secure, but also only used for your best interest. And that was another core aspect when I formed the company based on my own past experiences that was very important to me to ensure that people's data are safe and that it's only used in their best interest.
In fact, we're also as an investment advisor registered with the SEC here in the United States. And so also, those regulations ensure the data cannot be used for anything else. So with all that said, combined data set is turned into personalized advice; it creates this roadmap for every employee on an ongoing basis. But instead of just educating you and hoping you do it, we actually enable you and empower our clients to take the right steps through our app. I always like to say we are teaching people to fish. We don't just keep handing them a fish every day, but help them understand that the next steps are part of that process of learning and getting better combined with great education, of course, that we surface through the app as well.
M7: Can you share your organization's mission and vision, and how you plan to grow in the next few years?
MB: Yes, our vision is very simple, basically to empower everyone to have the opportunity to be financially well, because if you're not financially well, it wrecks your relationships. It breaks apart marriages, it causes great physical, and even mental harm to people. So our vision is to enable everyone. I view financial wellness to be as important as access to great healthcare or education. It's everyone's problem and everyone needs help with that. Our mission is to bring a certified fiduciary solution that's highly personalized and available for all employees, through employers, free of charge. That was the other big thing we wanted to do - our business model makes this service available to all employees at no cost because the employer pays for it.
And so our mission is really to drive and scale the service through employers free of charge to all employees. Then in terms of this market, it is really employers who are leaning in. We're seeing it every day and our plan is to continue to grow not just in the United States, but also globally. We already support the employees of US employers, in dozens of countries around the world, and we continue to add countries every year every month. That is a big part of our growth plan and we see great opportunities for growth over the next few years.
M7: Please tell us a few things you'd like to see changed in the HR industry to make things better in the coming years
MB: Yes, it's very interesting to me as I've been learning more about this market. Obviously I've been a senior executive at several firms, and so I've always valued the people that work, those who work for me and who I work for, because at the end of the day, the most important and strategic asset any company has is not its technology, it's not even its customers - it is its employees. You don't have a company without employees, they are the people, the hands and the feet that do the work every day, those who have great ideas that make things happen for your customers, and for your shareholders.
And so it is very important that we adequately empower, value and grow that strategic asset that every employer has. Yet that's on one hand, right? On the other hand, so often do I see in companies that the CEO or the leadership team will treat HR more as a cost center and doesn't give them a seat at the table when it comes to strategic business decision. HR leaders and CHROs can wear the business hat, can understand business, and are not just focused on employee benefits, or the performance management of the workforce. Those things are kind of the bread and butter, of course, of what HR teams does, but more importantly, if the HR team can have a seat at the table to speak into strategic business decisions and bring the perspective of the employee base to that business conversation, that is what I hope we will see more of in the coming years. And I think that will be transformational for HR to become part of a strategy much more, but a much bigger part and have a much bigger say in strategic business decisions. But I also think it's going to benefit if that happens more and more, it will benefit the employee base because they will be much better represented, when companies make decisions, whether it's in upmarket or in down markets. So, hopefully you feel the same way, but that's something that I continue to see.