The Acquire Podcast Ep. 12: How Earnin uses organic community building to grow earned wage access
- Earnin’s CMO Brittanie Williams joins us on the Acquire Podcast.
- With a thriving online community and word-of-mouth strategy at their back, Earnin knows a thing or two about building customer-centric products.
Welcome to Acquire, Tearsheet’s Marketing Podcast. I’m your host, Tearsheet’s head of studio, Rebecca Cohen.
On today’s episode I’ve got the pleasure of speaking to a company I’ve been fangirling over for quite a while (who even fangirls over a company in the financial space? but it’s true). When I first heard of Earnin, a simple Google search led me to their many Facebook groups featuring a huge community of everyday people sharing their financial struggles and supporting one another in ways big and small – despite being total strangers on the internet.
I invited Brittanie Williams, Earnin’s CMO, to talk to us about building a strong and truly community-based brand, building with customers for customers, and flipping the script on what we think when we talk about the millions of people who live paycheck to paycheck.
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The following excerpts were edited for clarity.
Everyday people to the front
In any good company, your customers sit at the center of everything you do. It's incredibly important to us, especially for the customer that we serve, that our products and services always start with what their needs are.
Financial services was built a long time ago, and it wasn't always built with our customer in mind. We mainly serve customers who are living paycheck to paycheck, which happens to be over 100 million Americans now (and in the last few weeks as inflation has gone up, even more so). We're really focused on making sure that those people have products and services designed specifically for their needs.
The payday rebellion
The inception of the Earnin’ product came from our founder, Ram, in a very organic way. He was running another company, and had an employee come to him and say, ‘Hey, I need to get an advance on my paycheck.’ And he realized very quickly that that was an extremely hard thing to do. So he started doing it out of his own pocket, and keeping track of it in a spreadsheet. Then more and more people asked for the same help, so he did it for more folks.
Once the spreadsheet went public, he noticed that people that he didn't know were asking for that help. And he realized that this was going to be something important that could serve the world. Because oftentimes, when people really need that short term advance, it's for something important in their life.
It’s based on the idea that we think about everything in the two week pay cycle – but life happens in real time. Needing an advance doesn't mean you're not managing your money; it means that you have a need and that the pay cycle is not set to the way that your life is set.
I think of what we do as trying to align people's lives, so they can live a better life. And money obviously sits at the foundation of that.
Money is personal, and shared
To be totally honest, I don't think of our customer stories on the blog as expanding our reach. I think it is understanding our customer. It really is that foundational for us.
In terms of the marketing strategy itself, if we're serving the customer well, they'll actually talk to their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and people they know. We have a huge word of mouth strategy that underlies everything that we do, and that's because we're community based.
When you create a community and offer a service that someone doesn't have to pay for, that kind of blows people's minds – anyone can come and use our product at any time without paying for it. Now obviously, they have the option to tip but when you're in the position where you really need that money at that moment, and someone says to you, ‘Hey, we're gonna give you access to your own pay. We're gonna do it without a credit check, we're gonna do it without making it a loan, you're not going to get dinged on your credit if you have a problem paying us back, we're going to make it available to you without having to jump through a bunch of hoops.’ Can you even begin to know what that does for people? That just built a huge amount of trust. And from there, we find that people are more inclined to start telling their friends about it.
Honestly, people are a little suspicious in the beginning. They're like, ‘Is this really too good to be true? Can this be a real thing?’ And that sits at the foundation of our community. If someone can't tip one time they won't, because they're not in a position to, and that's okay. But that changes over time.
I just saw something about one of our users saying how he used us several times when he was in law school. And then as he graduated from law school, he actually started to tip more, because he knew that he was now in a position to tip more. He wanted to make sure that the service was available for others. So when I think about community, the product really sits at the center of it. But it's really our financial model that underpins the ability for the community to support each other, which is a pretty incredible thing. Then we have features within the product that really connect consumers to each other, like Boost, which is one of our FB groups.
Online community work
Seven of the FB groups are managed by us and come from the company. Then the other groups are owned by the community and really popped up on their own.
We have Helpin, which was formed during COVID-19, to be able to provide assistance, and has grown its own legs and run far beyond that. That's the biggest group with about 18,000 members in there, and I think it's grown to almost 19,000 people. The Helpin group is about the community members helping each other.
During COVID, there were some really compelling stories about people helping each other out financially: making sure that people had food or diapers. We had one person who needed a home repair, and a guy literally drove from one state to another to go and repair another member's plumbing.
There are also a lot of services that exist there, like making sure that you have access to local services, finding a job, getting support in your community for food and nutrition. The members are pointing each other to those resources and saying, ‘Hey, did you know this was available? This might be of help for you.’ And now we see it transitioning to an overall conversation.
For example, people want to know, ‘Did you get your tax refund yet? Has it come in? Are you seeing any problems? Did you get this communication from the IRS?’ So it just gives people insight into how they might be able to manage their finances.
By the customer, for the customer
It’s called Earnin Boost Official (and this is actually one of my favorite stories). Boost is the ability to connect with someone else in the community to boost their max, which means that they have more availability of cash.
Boost Official was not founded by us – it was started by one of our community members, an amazing guy named Jeff Brown. We saw him create this and thought, ‘Jeff is a really smart, interesting person and he's doing so much for the community. Maybe we could get him to do a little bit more work with us.’ So he came on as a part time moderator and did that for about six months. And then last year, I was able to hire Jeff, so Jeff is now a full time member of my team, and he moderates all of our communities.
It’s amazing because when you have the people who live in your community working inside the building, it really changes the POV and the deep connection that you have to your customer.
We also have an Earnin Express community, which is a product where you can get your pay two days early, and that product has some unique needs –- that's a closed community that's managed, and we do a lot more customer service through that group.
Then we have our Product Champions, which is a group that is specifically focused on how we develop our products and services. It’s a deep partnership with our product team so that we're smarter about how we're building and doing some early testing with our customers.
Meaning in the workplace
I'm so happy to hear you say that, because I think that that sits at the heart of who we are, and it's the reason that I came to work here.
You can work at great big companies, do really great work, and have a really good time, and have amazing, smart coworkers. But something feels different when you get up every day to go to work to serve your end consumer in a way that really understands their needs and their day to day experience. A lot of the people that work at Earnin have a personal history of living paycheck to paycheck, so our employees carry that spirit into the work, and have that understanding. It's really hard to understand what that feels like, unless you've lived that on a day to day basis: the financial anxiety that people experience when you're working hard, doing all the right things, but your car's out of gas because you don't want to put $100 worth of gas in your car in case something happens and an emergency bill comes out, so now you can't get to work, and it creates this spiral.
People are really amazing, they do so much, and sometimes it's just little things in the system and the way things work that trips them up. For us, it's about seeing all of that hard work and ambition, and making it as easy as possible so that finance is not a blocker.
You can have $100 or a $100 million, but if you ask somebody if they're stressed about money, they'll say ‘Yes’ most of the time. It's a very, very universal thing to have financial anxiety. So if we can remove that from the day to day experience of someone's life, it creates a space where they can focus on their family, the next promotion, the schoolwork that they're trying to do, and put their head in a different space.
I talked to a consumer once who said, ‘I need Mucinex, because I had a terrible headache, so I just cashed out and I went to get some.’ That is so fascinating to me – I wouldn't even think about cashing out for $30 for such a thing, but now he doesn't have a stuffy head and he's getting on with this week – it just changes the way that people experience daily life.
Flipping the script on the everyday American
I’ll say this about our community: they are so smart.
Some people might say that ‘If you don’t have $30 for Mucinex, perhaps you're not managing your money if you don’t have that on tap.’ Not true. They have five apps, spreadsheets, whiteboards on their wall with all their bills that they're paying, they're working so hard and so smart to keep everything on track. I guarantee you that our customers could tell you how much money is in their bank account better than most people that you know.
It's not about laziness or an inability to manage your finances. It's about how much income you have available, and whether it’s available in the moment of need.
We can help with bringing it in the moment when you need it. It sounds really simple, but it's kind of hard to do in a way that's elegant and reliable and convenient and low cost. If you can do that, though, it's pretty transformational for people.
Wielding data – responsibility
We take consumer privacy incredibly seriously. It is easy when you have access to that much data to use it in a way that might create income for your company, and we choose not to do that. We take customer privacy and PII (Personal Identifiable Information) incredibly seriously, so I'll just start there, because I think that's important, and everything that we do is done with that in mind.
We have some incredible partnerships through our data. There's a group out of Harvard called Opportunity Insight, founded by Raj Chetty, and we work with them to understand people's economic experiences through data sharing. For example, during COVID, we were working with them to understand: If you take away the stimulus, does it incentivize people to go and get a job?
People were really surprised to learn that it does not increase employment outcomes, because people are already motivated for a job. What’s underneath that, though, is people asking if it’s the right job, with the right pay that meets their needs.
We're also looking right now at a couple of new studies. One that I'm really interested in is: What are the emotional outcomes people experience when they have more access to income? It's very easy to say, ‘Hey, we know that someone is saving $58 a month in overdraft fees’ or ‘We know that 66% of people can pay their bills on time.’ What's harder to understand is, ‘How does someone feel on a day to day basis? How has that financial anxiety been taken down?’ We're trying to understand the emotional outcomes that people would experience on a day to day basis, and tie that together with the great foundational data that we have that sits inside of our system.
A never-ending customer journey
I'll just give you a peppering of consumer insights that we've had recently that I found really amazing. We were talking to one of our community members – a bank manager – and she needed to get money because her son needed some equipment for soccer at school. She came to us because she needed to be able to get the paperwork on time, and she'd been going through a divorce.
One of the things I've learned is that you can't begin to know someone's experience and what their day to day life is. I think people often think of a low wage worker as someone who's living paycheck to paycheck, but it's also bank managers, teachers, and all sorts of people, who have a lot of really good reasons to want access to money in real time.
Another interesting thing we've learned about people is that they might come to us because they have an emergency use case – something happened, and they needed to come to us – but then, even if their income goes up, they continue to use our product, because it gives them a sense of safety. There's a psychological safety that exists when you know you have that little bit extra in the bank, and it's worth it for them to go in and cash out just to have that.
As a marketer, I see an opportunity to continue to serve people in whatever stage they are in their financial life over time. You have an opportunity to grow with people as long as you can continue to anticipate those needs.
Vulnerability breeds growth
The customers’ vulnerability always inspires us – and being inspired by your customer is the best thing possible. They're incredibly vulnerable with us. They tell us what's really happening. Struggle isn't pretty, and it can actually come with a lot of shame, but we also see these really incredible moments.
If you can stand with them in that moment and help them as they pass through it, you can build a much deeper relationship one.
We trust people to pay us back – we don't go after you if you don't pay us back (I'm sure that my CEO and CFO would love me saying this all over the internet, but it's true). It's a relationship built on trust, understanding, and a real spirit of generosity, because it's the community supporting us as a service, and supporting each other to make sure that it continues to be available when people need it. As a company, we want to make sure that we're shining a light on their ambition.
We interviewed a customer the other day who was working on her master's degree; her picture was so complex, she had it all together: she had the most amazing Instagram I've ever seen in my entire life, she was creative, she was going to school, she was helping her family; still, she needed and wanted to use a service like ours because it hadn't always been that successful. This person who's getting a Master’s degree might have a not-so-great credit score that doesn't put her in a position to take advantage of the traditional services.
So in a sense, we’re betting on people, and in turn, they are willing to bet on us. At the center of our community is this reciprocal nature, and a belief that we can do something that's a little bit crazy.
Our founder Ram went to a traditional Silicon Valley investor and said, ‘Hey, listen, we're just gonna run on tips.’ And they were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But then it started to take off and they were like, ‘Oh, okay, we get it. We see it now.’
The customer inspires us every day, and we’re in that space of vulnerability with them as much as we can.