Local software upstarts find consumers through their employers


Matt Fellowes chose to sell HelloWallet’s software to large companies that in turn offer it as a benefit. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business)
October 30, 2011

HelloWallet experimented with seven different business models when the District-based firm piloted its financial management software last spring, including direct-to-consumer sales and partnerships with mortgage servicers.

Executives ultimately chose to sell the program to large corporations and 401(k) providers that in turn offer it as a benefit to their employees and clients. It, more than any other model, would allow them to grow rapidly, said chief executive Matt Fellowes.

“Trying to buy customers or convert customers on a one-by-one basis in the consumer market is a lot like playing the lottery,” Fellowes said. “There’s hundreds of thousands of companies that have failed at that.”

Several local startups have taken an approach similar to HelloWallet, opting to bypass the massive-but-risky consumer market and instead pitch their products as a benefit that large corporations should offer employees.

But these businesses often exchange one set of challenges for another. While consumers may be finicky and bombarded with options, big corporations can be price-conscious and risk-adverse.

Corporations have scaled back the amount of money they spend on employee benefits in recent years as health care costs rise and economic uncertainty strains budgets, said Mark Schmit, vice president of research at the Society for Human Resource Management.

A report released in June by the Alexandria-based organization found that 77 percent of surveyed HR professionals said the economy had a negative impact on their company’s benefits offerings to some or a large extent.

Schmit added that the ratio of base salary to benefits has remained relatively constant in the past decade. Thus as health care costs have climbed, other voluntary benefits, such as education or relocation assistance, have been squeezed out of the mix.

“Because the money is limited, if they cut in one place, they want to try to find a way to compensate for that cut,” he said. “So they try to take on benefits that will cost them little or nothing.”

Cost savings to the employer or health care payer has been an integral part of WiserTogether’s sales pitch. The District-based software firm sells products to help people make medical decisions based on others’ experiences and what insurance covers.

“They don’t add benefits for the heck of adding benefits,” said founder and chief executive Shub Debgupta, who formerly led the Corporate Executive Board’s Benefits Roundtable. “They are driving to that bottom line and looking to manage their internal costs as well.”

But the notion of spending money to save money may hit a snag in a down economy, Schmit said, when some companies are forced to prioritize short-term survival over long-term savings.

“The problem is a lot of organizations that are running on really tight budgets can’t justify the investment, so it gets put on hold even if it has the potential to save money,” he said.

The Fortune 500-size corporations that HelloWallet, WiserTogether and a third District upstart, FitFeud, target hold significant amounts of cash in their coffers. But convincing them to spend it can require a long and arduous sales process.

FitFeud co-founder J. Nicholas Tolson thinks the potential payoff justifies the effort. His company allows employers to set up health and fitness contests that encourage employees to shed pounds.

“The bottom line is we can get into one company and reach tens of thousands of people at the drop of a hat,” Tolson said. “It may take three months to make that sale, but that’s still quicker than trying to touch thousands or hundreds of thousands of individuals.”

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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