My Advice for the Most Innovative Companies of 2016 (Based on Lessons Learned from Liazon)
Last month, Fast Company magazine announced their picks for the 50 Most Innovative Companies of 2016. No, Liazon didn’t make the cut (this time!) but a number of companies in health care, wellness, data science, and biotech did, from startups like Augmedix, which allows doctors to use Google Glass to update patient records, to established retailers like CVS for starting a Digital Innovation Lab to create smart devices and apps to improve health care.
For both startup and traditional companies looking to seize the opportunity afforded by this digital health care boom, remember, you’re not selling a product, you’re selling an idea – a solution to a need. In the case of Liazon, it was a need troubling employers for years but without any great solutions – the need to control benefits costs and realize more value for their employees from the company’s annual benefits spend.
Here are six lessons we’ve learned through the launch and eight-year “incubation” of Liazon, a private health care exchange that revolutionizes the current system of employee benefits by putting choice in the hands of employees:
1. Stick to your conviction.
As you evolve your innovation, don’t change your product to accommodate everyone that offers you feedback. You’re changing the status quo, and your early critics will be responding to what they know and are comfortable with. If your vision is strong enough and you stick to it, you will eventually rise above the naysayers who don’t get it upon first look. People will respect you all the more for sticking to your principles, or at least putting up a good fight for them. Be willing to walk away if there’s not a fit, don’t force it.
What we learned: With Liazon, some of the early employers we spoke to about our product said they would like to see a version of our benefits platform that didn’t require a defined contribution – the amount an employer contributes to their employees’ benefits in addition to salary. Liazon was founded on the belief that defined contribution is the cornerstone of a successful benefits system and we weren’t going to veer from that premise. Today, more employers are not only embracing defined contribution as a way to control their benefits costs, but they’re moving to prominently displaying this amount through our Bright Choices portal, as a means of showing how much they value their employees.
2. Find your advocates.
Rather than spending your time convincing the naysayers, work to find the people that get your product. Pound the pavement to find advocates who see what you see and share your vision. These are the ones who will help you grow. Let the early adopters tell your story for you.
What we learned: One of the first carrier partners we talked to was MetLife. While many other carriers originally said no, we found an internal cheerleader at MetLife who believed in the vision as much as we did. He ran it up the corporate flagpole, got buy in, and still shouts about the merits of our system to this day. We also found that Chambers of Commerce saw value in our product as a means of offering insurance to its members, as did a non-profit dance company, who not only saw corporate benefits as a “nice to have” for their organization, but as a necessity to ensure their dancers’ longevity. It may not be where you first expect it, but keep going until you find the people who get what you’re trying to do, then find more of them.
3. Make it easy for people to sell your product.
You may be a great spokesperson for your innovation, but if you’re the only one who can move people to action, you’ll never be able to grow. You can’t be everywhere talking to everyone at the same time, you need to scale. Packaging your message in a clear and simple way via marketing materials, videos, training sessions, sales decks, and more, is essential. Give them the words to make it come to life. Analogies help, for example, our flagship Bright Choices Exchange is like “eHarmony meets Amazon.com for benefits.”
What we learned: Over our eight year history at Liazon, we’ve developed an extensive database of materials for our sales team and broker partners to use to explain the product and its benefits. We send regular emails to communicate with our partners when any new materials are available. We make it easy for a sales person to meet with a new prospect with a detailed presentation and library of slides that they can tailor for each prospect. Videos work great for this purpose, too. Invest in a demo video for your product if you haven’t already.
4. Iterate and hone.
Never get too comfortable with what you’ve built. There can always be a better way to develop, create, market or sell as the market changes, your competitors change and as you learn more from your users about how your product solves their problem. Always be adaptable to refinements that ultimately serve the consumer or end-user.
What we learned: We previously only sold via a direct sales model back when brokers weren’t interested in distributing exchange-based products. Fast-forward five years – we saw a better opportunity to distribute through interested broker partners, tapping into their industry experience and “trusted advisor” status as the concept of private exchanges began to take hold. The only challenge was, we had just received a substantial round of funding at the time we came to this realization – based on our previous model. We had to go back to our investors one month later with a new go-to-market strategy. We were willing to make the change and we were willing to stand by it, and as a result, we saw a 71% increase in revenue over the previous year and brokers still remain the primary method of distribution for Liazon today. Don’t be afraid to adapt if the situation calls for it.
5. Empower your staff – encourage innovation to sell innovation.
As your innovation takes hold, you’ll want to move from a top down management approach to a collaborative effort. That means you’ll need to ensure you have the right team in place, but also that you empower them to help shape the vision of your company. Don’t give them the cookbook and then tell them to make the meal. Let them come up with their own recipes.
What we learned: In the early days of Liazon, I was told we needed an employee handbook, so we had one drawn up. We later came to realize that by pigeonholing everyone into the same set of rules, we were inhibiting innovation. I don’t want a set of rules to govern our business, I want our employees to help shape it. Today, our employees are empowered to respectfully disagree and take initiative in helping to transform our products.
6. Sometimes, innovation takes time.
Looking over the Fast Company list, I was struck by the fact that over a third of the companies on it are ten years old or more. In fact, the range between the oldest and newest companies is more than a century, with the oldest being GE (founded in 1892!) and among the newest, Shyp, founded in 2013. Even the blockbusters we keep hearing about as truly revolutionary – Airbnb, Warby Parker, SoulCycle, Fitbit, and even Uber – are all more than six years old.
What we learned: Change takes time. The concept of 401(k)s, now ubiquitous as a defined contribution vehicle for employee retirement savings, rather than an employer’s defined benefit, took over twenty years to become widespread. The curve will be much more accelerated for private exchanges as we expect 2016 to be a pivotal year for their adoption. But we won’t stop there. The private exchange concept will continue to innovate along with the health care, data, and technology sectors. As long as we all keep consumers at the focus of our efforts, our greatest innovations are yet to come.
The Liazon Growth Story:
Ashok Subramanian co-founded Liazon Corporation in 2007 to address the significant challenges he saw in the health care and insurance industries. In just a few years, together with his colleagues, he grew Liazon to become the operator of the nation’s industry-leading private benefits exchange for active employees. A pioneering solution in private benefits exchanges, Liazon’s Bright Choices® Exchange empowers employees to buy the benefits they really need while enabling employers to use a defined contribution model.
In November 2013, Liazon was acquired by Towers Watson, a leading global professional services company that helps organizations improve performance through effective people, risk and financial management, for $215 Million. Following the merger between Willis and Towers Watson in January 2016, Towers Watson is now Willis Towers Watson. Ashok continues to serve as CEO of Liazon within the Willis Towers Watson organization, and as managing director for the Group Exchange division of Willis Towers Watson.