Rise Interactive, a Chicago-based digital marketing firm, was quizzing its employees two years ago, making sure they were happy with their perks.
“We were doing our end-of-year employment engagement survey — what’s working, what’s not,” said chief operating officer Scott Conine.
The cafe stocked with snacks? Very popular. Ditto for the four-month paid parental leave. The gold-plated healthcare plan? Much appreciated.
But there was a a glitch.
“We were getting all sorts of commentary in the survey about how our retirement plan was ineffective,” said Conine, who sought out employees to talk about their concerns.
“They said, ‘We actually love the retirement plan; we just can’t use it,'” Conine recalled. “I said, ‘What do you mean, you can’t use it?'”
“They basically said, ‘We’re still encumbered with student debt; we have to get out from under the mountain of that before we can even think about saving for the future.'”
Rise Interactive employees are not alone. The average college graduate belonging to the class of 2017 started out about $37,000 in the hole. It’s hard for a young person to get excited about socking away for your golden years when dangling over a chasm of debt right now. Conine started looking for a solution.
“Eventually we found Peanut Butter,” he said.
“Peanut Butter” is a two-year-old start-up hatched in the 1871 high-tech incubator at Merchandise Mart. It was started by David Aronson, 36, who grew up in his family’s Tasty Bakery in Naperville, then began creating businesses. He had his latest “a-ha!” moment when he read that two-thirds of people in their 20s are not contributing to their 401(k)s.
“I thought: ‘Of course not, we’re paying down our student loans,” said Aronson, who himself owed money to Northwestern for his Kellogg MBA.
What the company does is handle paperwork — or rather, electronic work — involved with administering student loans: verifying the loans’ existence, making payments, notifying employees of how their debt is shrinking.
Those unfamiliar with the tradition of offbeat and enigmatic start-up names might be taken aback by “Peanut Butter,” which now has 14 employees. Aronson said he was inspired by the frugality of his own student days. Peanut butter was “the only thing I could afford to eat when I’m in college,” he said. “And in my business mind, a benefit your employees will stick around for.”
The name catches attention.
“People like it. It’s a good way to engage with folks,” Aronson said. “We have a really high open rate on our emails. We’ve done a really nice job of taking stale and hard-to-understand benefits and making them fun.”
What Peanut Butter does in essence is add value to otherwise fungible money. If a company dangled an extra $50 to $100 a month — the typical loan share assumed through Peanut Butter — the average prospective employee would not be overawed. But call that same amount “loan repayment” and it takes on added emotional significance, the way offering free coffee makes for a happier office than merely distributing the handful of change the java costs to each employee.
“It hits home with a lot of people,” said Aronson. “Everyone can relate to it.”
Peanut Butter typically doesn’t cover the full loan amount.
“The average person is paying more to student loans than they would to own a car, a nice car,” said Aronson. Even partial payment is “a big weight off people’s shoulders. Suddenly the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter.”
Conine, who on Monday alone hired eight staffers — though the verb he used was “on-boarded” — said he continually sees Peanut Butter’s benefit.
“It’s a huge recruiting tool for us,” he said. “Often when we are talking to prospective candidates they say, ‘You are the only guys doing this; it’s pretty awesome.’ It’s been a huge boon for us finding talent.”
Peanut Butter works with Medix and Life Watch, Calabrio and other companies but no, not yet Jelly (another start-up), though anything is possible.
“Student loan assistance will be a ubiquitous benefit in five years,” said Aronson.