How Our Own Employee Benefits Feature Turned Into A New Product Launch

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Every year, companies' leadership teams typically look back on the past year, evaluate if they met their goals, and set goals for the upcoming year. We were going through this exercise at CommonBond in the fourth quarter of 2015 and identified hiring and retention as one of our key goals for 2016. Without hiring the 30+ people we needed in 2016, and retaining our talented existing team, we wouldn't be able to hit our ambitious goals in the year ahead. In discussing how we could scale our team rapidly, we identified innovative employee benefits as a means of differentiating our company versus other companies, both big and small, that similarly were trying to attract top talent in NYC.

From the point we identified the need for innovative benefits, we set out to figure out what those key benefits needed to be in order to attract and retain top talent. Had we just figured that out, we'd have been happy. But instead, the outcome was a far greater opportunity: we uncovered an unmet customer need that formed the basis of our newest product: the CommonBond Employer Benefits Suite a suite of products that can help all employers more effectively compete to win the war for talent.

Here's how our initial exercise to identify the best benefits to offer employees led to our new product designed for employers who are looking to bring relief to their employees' monthly student loan bills and retain top talent in the process.

The first step we took to understand if employee benefits could help us attract and retain talent was to re-evaluate CommonBond's existing benefits package. Our package was a mix of traditional, big-company benefits (medical insurance, dental coverage, disability, gym discounts, and parental leave) infused with the innovative benefits startups had become known for (unlimited vacation, flexible work environments, free lunches, snacks, and beverages). However, in order for our benefits package to truly be used as an advantage that could help us achieve our ambitious hiring and retention goals, we knew we had to offer more: something unique that really helped our employees solve a nagging challenge.

We surveyed other fast-growing upstarts as well as large companies, talked to our own employees, and brainstormed, trying to understand what types of benefits would truly provide value for our employees. At the time, about 50% of our 45-person team held a total of $800,000 in student debt and that debt was a real cause for concern. It was causing our team members to delay major life milestones like home-buying and marriage, and saving for retirement.

In retrospect, it was a no-brainer: as a company focused on providing solutions to help alleviate student debt, we decided to provide a student loan benefit to our own employees to help them pay down their debt faster and allow them to move forward faster with major life milestones. In December of 2015, we added to our benefits package what was at the time, the country's most comprehensive student loan benefit: we committed to contributing $100/month to pay off any employees' student loans until they were able to completely pay off their debt – regardless of their role in our organization and with no maximum on the number of years they could take advantage of the benefit.

We brought this benefit to our employees before student loan benefits were deemed "the hottest new employee benefit" by Bloomberg, Entrepreneur, and many others.  But over the course of 2016, we saw firsthand why these benefits were becoming so hot: in just one year, we have seen a material impact on our ability to on attract and retain employees.

I remember one of our employees telling me that when he was evaluating options for companies to join, he noticed that CommonBond had a student loan benefit that helped him pay off his student loans faster. And that such a benefit was a key factor in his decision to choose CommonBond over another company.

In addition, the benefit has had a real impact on our employees' lives, saving them thousands of dollars and years off their student loan payments over time. With our $100 monthly contribution per employee, we expect to save each employee $11,402 on average and cut 2.4 years off the life of their loan. In total, we'll be saving our current team $228,045 on their student loan payments and cut 48 years of loan payments.

Our own experience successfully attracting and retaining top talent by offering an innovative student loan benefit helped us realize that we had stumbled upon a new product idea, if our employee benefit could help us attract and retain top talent, it could help other companies solve this same critical unmet need.

Our experiences with offering the benefit to CommonBond employees coupled with primary and secondary market research published by companies like Willis Towers Watson gave us the confidence to turn our internal benefit into an ambitious new product opportunity.  In October of 2016, we announced the development of our new product: in addition to new students loans and student loan refinancing, we would now offer the CommonBond Employer Benefits Platform.

We launched the first part of our Employer Benefits Platform, Student Loan Evaluation, an online tool that provides employees with personalized recommendations on the best way to manage student debt. The next part of the platform, Employer Contribution, is technology that mimics our own internal benefit by allowing employers to seamlessly contribute to their employees' student loans. This feature will launch in Q1 2017 and we've already seen tremendous demand from our existing network of 100 employer partners that offer CommonBond student loan refinancing to their employees.

As I look back on our journey that started with just trying to find the best benefits to offer our own employees and wound up building a new product for all employers, I realize that it all comes back to building products that solve real customer needs. CommonBond was founded on that basic ethos: years ago, I was trying to fund my graduate education using costly and confusing student loans and knew there had to be a better way so we created one.

Similarly, employees around the country, are telling us "as are employers" that they need benefits tailored to new needs that have arisen over time.  I'm proud to be in a position where we can play in role in helping employers meet those needs.

Originally published by Forbes.

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