You might argue that Benefitfocus is a 14-year overnight success story.
Shawn Jenkins does.
When Jenkins, along with Mason Holland, founded the company back in 2000 — setting up shop in an abandoned Walmart building in Charleston, S.C. — he quietly began revolutionizing the benefits industry through the company’s cloud-based technology.
They founded Benefitfocus on a simple premise.
“Our idea was simply — and still is — that it ought to be easy for an employer to manage all their benefits — all types of benefits — in one place through technology. … We thought the employee and their families should be able to understand those benefits and get multiple ways of communication,” says Jenkins, the company’s CEO and president. “We set out to build a better way. And we built a web-based software platform for electronic enrollment and eligibility management.”
Simply put, Benefitfocus aimed to take the “administrative clunkiness” out of benefits. They wanted to make it easy, they wanted to make it mobile, and they wanted to make it fun.
They picked up some customers, got some attention from carriers and employers, and gained a small foothold. But for years, most people, Jenkins admits, still hadn’t heard of Benefitfocus. The founders hung around, knowing they had a good concept, and the company gradually grew.
Then things got more complex. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was getting off the ground, voluntary benefits were the talk of the industry, and exchanges became part of the picture. More people were confused and frustrated with the way things were going.
And that’s when things got good for Benefitfocus. People were looking for ways to manage all the complexity using technology, Jenkins explains. And his company was eager to help.
“The additional complexity, the compliance, the constant changing and churning of the rules [in PPACA] is kind of tailor-made for technology,” Jenkins, 46, says. “It’s been a big tail wind for us.”
“We’re one of these success stories where we were quietly doing the work and building the infrastructure on the products and the market kind of lined up for us, and it’s been great. We’ve grown exceptionally well and we’re just proud,” he says. “As a founder, it’s been fun to build a great team, a great culture, and solve a big, big problem.”
Success, after that, came fast: In 2013, after approaching nearly $100 million in revenue, Benefitfocus went public (it’s under the ticker BNFT) and profits surged. Today, Benefitfocus has four other offices — in San Francisco; Jenks, Okla.; Greenville, S.C.; and Hyderabad, India — in addition to its 40-acre campus in Charleston. The company has more than 1,000 associates. And 23 million people now belong up in the (Benefitfocus) cloud.
How it works
Benefitfocus offers its clients a cloud-based subscription service to help them manage and streamline their benefits plans, and in so doing, has become one of the largest benefits software companies in the United States. It offers two basic products — one for employers (among the company’s clients are Under Armour, New Balance, Dannon, Triumph Foods and Brooks Brothers) and one for carriers (it works with Prudential, MetLife, UnitedHealth and more than 30 BlueCross partners, among others).
Electronic billing, enrollment, sales and access to informative videos, health news and tips are all part of the Benefitfocus platform, which Jenkins describes as the “Apple version” of benefits. The company gives consumers the opportunity to manage their benefits in one place, on a computer or a mobile device, much like they would with their music library.
“The platform is really similar to the Apple App Store or the Android store; and we’re kind of a laboratory ourselves — we have multiple health plan options, dental, vision, critical illness, LifeLock, an array of other products,” Jenkins says.
What makes Benefitfocus different than other benefits software, he says, is that it puts voluntary products at the forefront during enrollment.
“As I enrolled myself this last year for my family, as soon as I selected my health plan — I selected a high-deductible health plan, and it automatically recommended Allstate’s critical illness plan to help fill in some of the gaps — so I selected that and continued on with the rest of my enrollment.”
The fact that the platform offers more than just a couple of health plan options is part of its success. Jenkins cites the importance of voluntary benefits for all parties involved — employers, brokers, carriers and consumers.
“We’ve taken voluntary benefits from kind of a sideshow and woven them directly through our recommendation and put them right at the point where people are making those critical decisions,” Jenkins says. “We can explain it through video — we have great videos that explain the capability. We are seeing incredible increased participation in these programs because of the ability to make it seamless. A lot of it has to do with technology that is making it seamless.”
Technology, of course, is the company’s central theme. Jenkins talks a lot about the company’s “fantastic software” and its investment in engineering and product development. Benefitfocus does four major software releases a year.
“Every 90 days we’re updating the platform for new regulations, new benefits support, new user experience capability — the market looks at how they can modernize their benefits platforms,” Jenkins says.
That technology, says April Floyd, benefits manager at Under Armour in Baltimore, has allowed her company to streamline communications to all employees by getting them more involved.