Jessica Ellerm is a thought leader specializing in Small Business and the Gig Economy and is the CEO and Co-Founder of Zuper, a neowealth disruptor in Australia.
Australia has one of the world’s most sophisticated, widespread pension systems. As a result, a plethora of opportunities for startups are now emerging in adjacencies to the sector. A promising startup recognising one of these opportunities is Longevity App. We spoke to Longevity’s founder, Carla Harris, to get a sense of the problem her business set out to solve in the pension space, and how they are approaching innovation in the sector.
When and why did you start Longevity App, and what keeps you and the team going?
I started Longevity App in 2017 as I was frustrated by the fact that most Australians outlive their retirement savings by over a decade and that women in particular retire with nearly half that of men. Being the former head of Research and Analytics at the Workplace Gender Equality Agency I also knew that unfortunately there’s a good few decades ahead of us to correct a retirement system, shift some old fashioned ways of working, and change our deeply ingrained gender stereotypes in our society to correct this issue. So we decided to do something about it by building a micro-savings tool to interface with all super funds. That way people can add small amounts into their super and leverage compound interest to bridge the gap over time, rather than needing to rely on adding larger sums into their super later on in life.
Over the years I’ve heard so many truly sad stories about people’s lives in older age – in particular older women, who are currently Australia’s fastest growing group of homeless people. They really keep us driven to make a difference. Being in market and seeing the amounts of additional contributions people are making through the app now, and seeing that it will help people later in life, absolutely keeps us motivated, day in, day out.
When you start a business it’s common to have some of your initial ideas turned on their head, especially about the problem you’re trying to solve. Have you had any, and what resulted from them?
We spent a lot of time understanding the problem before landing on a solution. We definitely didn’t set out to “build an app”. Through unpacking the problem of inadequate retirement savings we quickly identified that part of the problem revolves around needing to start earlier on in life and therefore a solution needed to focus on the needs and lifestyle of those who were much younger than the retiree set. We spent a lot of time on primary market research and iterating on potential solutions before writing a line of code, which I think helped us to make those learnings earlier on rather than later.
We certainly learned a lot through that process in the early days! For example, initial prototypes which had health related retail partnerships, insurance partnerships etc turned out to be confusing to testers. It was clear we needed to just do one thing, do it well, and then expand out other features and offerings from there.
You’re an established fintech in Australia, in a market that’s increasingly getting attention globally – pensions. How have you thought about your go to market strategy up until now, and down the track?
We have had to be incredibly intentional about that! Australia is the 4th largest retirement system globally, so it’s a great place to start and there’s enormous opportunity as a result of the size of the market. However (and it’s a big however) it’s also highly regulated and conservative and recently all consumed by the Royal Commission. So we had so develop our business model and associated go to market strategy to accommodate that, resulting in a business with both B2C and B2B offerings from day one.
What have been some wins and achievements you’re proud of to date?
Launching earlier this year! It took a lot more time and determination than ever anticipated to go live, and the Royal Commission slowed down certain aspects of that, so it felt like it was a long gestation period. But that was really beneficial in hindsight as it allowed us to further refine elements of our user experience that we may not have picked up by rushing things.
Just seeing the app being picked up and used by people, and the amount of top-ups going into our users’ super being way more than we expected – knowing how much it will genuinely help make them better off in retirement makes me incredibly proud.
What makes being a fintech in this space challenging, and what do you hope will change going forward?
I think partnerships is a huge area that needs to change, whether it be with corporates financial institutions or others. Many fintech startups are perfectly positioned for partnerships with larger players, and their businesses are reliant on these partnerships for distribution and scale. The challenge is that corporates have a range of issues hindering these mutual opportunities, from risk aversion (we don’t want to be first) to procurement processes that simply can’t accommodate small businesses and startups.
It’s sad as it ends up with missed opportunities for both parties and ultimately their customers and clients miss out too. I’d love to see large organisations really sit down and look at how they do things and find ways to remove barriers in order to make startup-corporate partnerships genuinely viable.
On the gender side – I think we need to be frank about that too. We still see female founded businesses receiving a fraction of the procurement contracts and a depressingly small percentage of VC funding. Bias – both conscious and unconscious is alive and well, for instance I was recently told that the perception of Longevity App when it was presented to a large corporate’s board would have been 100% different if we had a man as our CEO. I think it shows how uneven the playing field truly is still for female founders in this industry, and we need to call it.
You’re also a longtime board member at Fintech Australia. What insights has that given you into the fintech scene locally?
Quite a few actually! Fintech Australia’s recent Intersekt conference provided a perfect opportunity to gain some insights into the area. Three standouts are a) the very cool things that so many of our fintech’s are doing, and seeing them work together to create synergies massively bigger than the sum of their parts b) the growth that we’re seeing with companies that were small, early stage startups just a few years ago to being sizeable companies that are starting to IPO, move overseas etc. is really inspiring c) there are also some pretty impressive international fintech giants that are now doing some amazing stuff, who are entering, or are about to enter, the Australian market. We can’t afford to be complacent or rest on our laurels or else we’ll be the ones being disrupted.
Any plans to take Longevity App global? If so, what type of organisations would be great partners in this?
We absolutely plan on Longevity App being rolled out across many countries! At the moment we’re focused on dominating the Australian retirement market plus a number of other interesting applications for our tech before we leap elsewhere.