Innovation Comes to Employee Benefits via PayActiv, Student Loan Genius

Business Man Drinking Coffe And Reading News On TabletTwo fintech startups are bringing their ideas to an unusual — yet universal — area: employee benefits.

A few weeks paid time off and affordable healthcare, the standard benefits package for professionals, and many employees would find that package enviable. But a few financial service innovators are packaging their products as benefits and selling them to employers, and in an age where scaling is a tough challenge for fintech startups, it’s an approach that makes sense.

PayActiv CEO Safwan Shah has worked at TSYS, and is currently a partner at Adventure Capital and is on the faculty at UC Santa Cruz. PayActiv was founded in 2012 as an alternative to payday loans and is starting to gain traction with several Bay Area companies.

It works like this. Users pay a $5 fee to gain early access — not borrow — to up to $500 from their upcoming paycheck. They can only take out what they have earned, similar to Uber allowing drivers to “cash out” early. Shah said, “We used to refer to this as the velocity of money. With paychecks, your money is artificially frozen.”

The dissonance between what you have earned and when it is delivered is painful for employees, and built on an antiquated system — the slow and expensive paycheck. PayActiv users can get the money in their accounts in realtime, or sent to a participating ATM where they can cash out using a QR code.

Payday loans are a $50 billion annual industry, which includes $7 billion in fees, Shah said. The average loan is around $320, and APRs can reach into multiples of 100%. The majority of users don’t pay off their first loan, but roll it over an average of eight times. Users commonly end up paying more than twice the value of the original loan. With PayActiv, there is nothing to pay back — the money is deducted from the upcoming check.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has shown interest in increasingly the regulation of payday loans, and Google just yesterday announced that it will not sell them ad space (though it will not interfere with their availability via organic search). To say this is welcome innovation for a vulnerable class of consumers — the millions upon millions of Americans who do not have $400 in case of an emergency — is an understatement, but it will take employer buy-in and education to deliver it.

PayActiv positions itself as a financial wellness company, and also offers a savings account and some PFM functionality.

Student Loan Genius CEO Tony Aguilar says that his product not only makes sense for employers and employees, but is a valuable recruiting and retention tool. The problem is that debt is the enemy of savings, and student loans mean millennials underfund their 401Ks — if they fund them at all. With Student Loan Genius, employers can “be the hero” and pay off a portion of an employee’s student loans, and deduct payments from paychecks later on.

Student Loan Genius offers three solutions to employers — one to enable employers to help employees manage debt; another to help work loan payments into payroll; and another where employees match loan payments, as they would match 401K contributions.

Why would employers match loan payments? Aguilar argued that it is for the same reason they would match retirement contributions: to increase financial wellness and security, and improve productivity. Financial worries distract 47% of the workforce, Student Loan Genius says. Employees also spend up to three hours a week dealing with personal financial issues, and no employer wants a distracted employee.

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