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Aspire raises money for marketplace where employees pick their own company perks

A screen capture shows various perks that employees can select through Aspire, a District start-up that recently announced a seed investment worth $400,000. (Courtesy of Aspire)

A District-based start-up that allows employees to select their own company perks and benefits, such as massages, coffee delivery or leadership coaching from an online marketplace has raised $400,000 from investors.

Aspire is the brainchild of co-founders Lily Cua and Neil Shah, who started the four-person company last November as a way for employers to offer perks that their workforce is more likely to use and appreciate than those oft-forgotten corporate discounts.

“Every time you think of corporate perks, it’s wholly uninspiring,” said Shah, the chief executive. “When a company offers perks and benefits, they’re trying to offer something that makes that workplace engaging and cool.”

Here’s how it works: Employers allot a certain dollar amount for employees to spend each month. They then use that money in Aspire’s online marketplace to buy products and services from local merchants that cater to their interests or hobbies.

The company has registered more than 60 perk providers in the Washington region to date, the founders said, including yoga studios, recreational sports leagues, wine delivery services, sporting event tickets, financial planners and life coaches.

“One of the main reasons perks at companies are largely ineffective is it’s one size fits all,” said Cua, the chief operating officer. “What’s unique about what we’re doing is every single employee is getting exactly what they want.”

Can employees just take the cash instead? Not currently, Shah said.

“The main reason against it is that cash doesn’t create a strong bond between the employee and the employer,” he said. “Our perks create buzz in the workplace, improve morale, connect employees [and] save them time. Cash doesn’t do that.”

Aspire is testing the concept with three area companies — accounting firm Raffa, consulting firm IDS International and medical company GBS Health — that count a combined 400 employees, Shah said.

The company makes money by negotiating discounts from the perk providers in exchange for access to Aspire’s marketplace. It then passes a portion of that savings onto users and pockets the rest. Shah declined to discuss the start-up’s finances.

Among the local investors to participate in Aspire’s $400,000 seed round are K Street Capital and Acceleprise, an enterprise technology incubator where the company got its start. Other New York-based and international investors also contributed.

Founders said the money will allow them to recruit additional employers in the Washington area and add more merchants to the online marketplace over the next 14 months. At that point, they aim to raise more money and expand to other major cities.

“By focusing on D.C. we can offer local, meaningful perks. Offering the local yoga studio around the corner from your house is more meaningful than the big corporate [gym] that anyone can sign up for,” Cua said.

Steven Overly is a national reporter covering federal technology and energy policy with a focus on Capitol Hill. He previously covered the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital.



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