Neil Vaswani cofounded Corestream (originally branded as Empower Benefits) nearly 13 years ago, to streamline the delivery and administration of voluntary employee benefits. What was originally seen as an industry disruptor has since become a valuable human resources partner and tool to deliver benefits to many employees in companies the world over.
I spoke to Neil about the way Corestream is helping employers to attract and retain talent in a tight tech job market.
How did the idea for Corestream come about?
As an entrepreneur, creating something special is in my DNA. I get a lot of that from my father, who is also an entrepreneur. Watching him run his jewelry business, he was not someone that would take no for an answer. He would find a way, pull every lever, to accomplish his goal. Plus, I’ve always had a passion for technology. Before starting Corestream, I was implementing and managing voluntary benefits solutions for companies like Citigroup, GlaxoSmithKline, Applebee’s and Wachovia. Voluntary benefits are elective add-ons – such as supplemental health benefits, pet insurance, student loan refinancing, employee discounts and auto insurance quoting – that businesses offer their employees to complement existing traditional benefits.
Throughout the time I was doing this work, I could see there was a better way. Employers wanted to offer their employees a greater number of voluntary benefits, but the administrative overhead that goes along with each program was just too much. Consider that, before Corestream, any time an employer wanted to offer a new benefits program they had to be prepared to deal with an avalanche of administrative work, including payroll integration, contract negotiation and mediation with providers, remittance of payments, reconciling premiums for each individual employee, and on and on. While that workload is bad enough, the challenge is compounded by a lack of standardization, meaning all plan designs, billing processes, protocols, policies and disclaimers across brokers and carriers are all different. It was a nightmare for employers to think about what adding another benefits program would mean. So we created the Corestream platform and a suite of APIs through which all industry participants – brokers, carriers, providers, employers and employees – integrate. This single point of integration allows employers to administer voluntary benefits offerings without having to worry about all that administrative overhead, so they can rapidly scale both the number of benefits offered and the number of employees reached.
Today, Corestream manages voluntary benefits for over 1.2 million employees, and that number is growing rapidly. We’re the organizational partner for HR Teams, brokers and vendors at numerous Fortune 500 companies including ADP Benefits, Canon, Pfizer, Samsung, CVS, L3, Wawa, ADT, Quest Diagnostics, Canon, Arby’s, GoDaddy, Levis and more. In 2017 alone, the Corestream platform reconciled over $100 million in premiums for our partners.
How is the automation of voluntary employee benefits selection and administration becoming an important weapon in the war for top talent?
We are fortunate in the United States to have an 18-year-low unemployment rate. Employers will tell you that the competition to attract and retain the best and the brightest hasn’t been this fierce for decades. Voluntary benefits offer employers another opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of their employees. There was a 2017 study in which 90 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds (millennials) said they would prefer benefits over a pay raise. Another, in June 2018 from Randstad U.S., showed that benefits can be a bigger employment draw than money; more than half of workers polled said they had left a job for one with better benefits. Furthermore, by using technology to administer voluntary employee benefits, employers can see patterns in the types of benefits that are most valued by employees and offer additional benefits based on that learning. And HR departments have another channel through which they can communicate with and provide value to employees.
Do you have any advice in terms of best practices for other entrepreneurs who might be looking to build a business disrupting a very complex, highly-regulated industry like HR benefits?
You’ve got to have a passion for what you’re doing, be in business with the right people, and realize that you can be disruptive while creating value for even the incumbents whose industry you’re disrupting. Corestream adds value to each party that touches or is impacted by our presence and role. We’re proud that we are accretive to all constituents.
In getting started, we invested years and millions of dollars in the creation of our platform, which is so advanced it gives us a very defensible competitive advantage. That kind of investment required the right investors that understood our vision and our timeline for growth. Today, our investors are glad they stayed with us through those early development years because we have produced an unmatched technology and a unique business model that is generating great success.
We also weren’t afraid to pivot when we needed to during those early years. As you navigate your market, you’ll learn and evolve. Keep an open mind; be open to making calculated change.
Lastly, particularly in a complex industry, you want to align yourself with as many subject matter experts as you can. The knowledge and deep-rooted relationships with benefits brokers and providers that I and my co-founder developed over the years, for example, have been key to our success. Align yourself with subject matter experts and you’ll avoid many “unforced errors” and accelerate your progress.
Originally we had two groups of naysayers, those that said it couldn’t be done because of the complexity of the industry, and those that didn’t want it to be done because they were part of the industry and perceived us as a threat. I still laugh when I think about the time an incumbent legacy partner actually told us that his mission in life was the relentless pursuit of the status quo! Change can be scary, right?!
Our goal became creating a win-win scenario that would enable the incumbents, rather than disintermediate them. This approach is unprecedented and often unbelievable at first to the incumbents in our industry. I wonder what that incumbent legacy partner would say now.
M.R. Rangaswami is co-founder of Sand Hill Group and publisher of SandHill.com.