GREENER FUTURES: HONEST DOLLAR, FINTECH, AND THE FISH THAT’S EATING THE WHALE

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We met Whurley on a Friday afternoon at WeWork, one of the national co-working franchises that have exploded in popularity over the past few years. Housing individual consultants, entrepreneurs, and startups, the office buzzed with activity.

Yet the Honest Dollar founder– despite his own packed schedule, from conference calls to addressing a deluge of emails armed only with a mobile keyboard–was cool, completely at peace.

Whurley, a successful serial entrepreneur and inventor, along with his most recent startup, Honest Dollar, fit in well with the hopeful, bright-eyed, and in many cases inexperienced, entrepreneurs at WeWork. The difference is, Whurley is leading a fintech startup which was acquired within one year of launch by global financial behemoth, Goldman Sachs.

Whurley, who goes by what was originally his Unix username, an abbreviation of his full name, William Hurley, is famous. He started his career as a touring musician–“as everyone now knows,” he points out with a smile, “because someone put it on Wikipedia.”

w2He never went to college, and he’s accomplished more by the age of 45 than most do in a lifetime. If you follow him on social media, you’ll see him hanging out at the White House for state dinners, visiting with President Obama, leading The Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age, advocating for open source, or rubbing elbows with Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Whurley started his career in Austin at Apple, then went on to IBM as a Master Inventor. It was then that he got the startup bug. He has seen success and failure as an entrepreneur, yet has never stopped creating. He is the author of two books and various articles, holds over ten patents, fundraises for political causes, has founded multiple non-profits for social good, and has been a producer for two-award winning films. All of this while launching companies and building gamechanging technology.

His first really successful venture was a mobile software design and development company. In 2010, along with Ben Lamm and Mike Erwin, Whurley founded Chaotic Moon Studios. Chaotic Moon developed the first iPad-only digital newspaper, built applications for Microsoft, CBS Sports, Sanrio, Pizza Hut and others, developed products such as a Microsoft Kinect-controlled skateboard (which the company named the “Board of Awesomeness”), a shopping cart that
follows a shopper around the store, and a bicycle helmet fitted with seven cameras that begin recording on impact, functioning like an airplane’s black box in case of a hit-and-run (the “Helmet of Justice”). And in July of 2015, Chaotic Moon was acquired by Accenture.

Sitting at the helm of another successfully acquired company, Honest Dollar, Whurley continues to have an outsized impact on the industry he’s chosen to displace. When it comes to the charge for starting a company like Honest Dollar, Whurley makes it clear that the company was a problem-oriented response to a clear need. “There’s a savings crisis in America,” he explains. “If you’re an average American citizen and a $400 unexpected expense arises, it could potentially bankrupt you.”

This number isn’t arbitrary–in January of this year, Princeton Survey Research Associates International conducted a survey that reported only 37% of Americans have enough savings to cover a $500 or $1000 expense, such as an emergency pet surgery or a washing machine repair. The other 67% resort to spending cutbacks (23%), charging expenses to a credit card (15%), or borrowing funds from friends or family (15%). In addition to this, the survey found that 4 out of 10 Americans surveyed ran into an unexpected major expense last year, which is a testimony to Whurley’s point: the savings crisis is a problem that has existed without being properly addressed for some time now. “And that should worry everyone, right?”

Interestingly, the problem became more complex as it was considered further–a fact that doesn’t come as a surprise, especially given the historical focus of current personal finance research. Unemployment statistics are often too insular to provide insight into the how and why of personal finance, even though the two may be linked. According to David Johnson from the University of Michigan, “people have studied savings and debt, but this concept that people aren’t making ends meet or the idea that if there was a shock, they wouldn’t have the money to pay, that’s definitely a new area of research” especially since the Great Recession.

Of all the potential savings-related spheres of the financial industry, the area of focus that Whurley landed on was retirement. “I look at retirement as kind of the Achilles’ heel of the financial system,” he says. “There are so many areas of our lives that are touched and dominated by finance. And what do people do? They choose not to think about it.” This became a root cause analysis that would eventually lead to Honest Dollar’s inception as a web-based way to make retirement investing easy and accessible to everyone, allowing individuals to create and manage their own IRAs.

Honest Dollar’s initial charge was to find insight that would better answer these questions. Several of the essential inciting topics included a basic understanding of financial behavior: if people aren’t thinking about their future financially, what are they thinking about? Essentially, Honest Dollar offers Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) designed for the way people actually live and work. Retirement accounts are set up for an industrial era where workers stayed with the same company for most of their lives, contributing equally to a long-term savings account. Today, two years seems to be a long tenure for younger generations. Saddled with college debt and stagnant wages, these younger generations are forced to put off savings for longer periods of time.

In early September, The Pew Charitable Trusts released an analysis of access and participation in retirement savings plans that found Americans on average haven’t actively saved for retirement. The reasoning for this observation envelops a variety of catalysts: from enrollment variations based on industry and region, to access differentials based on age, gender, education, and ethnicity.

Honest Dollar, Whurley tells us, aims to simplify the process and generate wider access to retirement under the customer’s own terms. The company’s recent acquisition by Goldman Sachs, announced at SXSW 2016, will ideally achieve this goal even faster than before.

When asked about working with Goldman Sachs, Whurley is quick to answer with two questions of his own. “Are we now a part of Goldman?”, leaning back with a smile. “Or is Goldman now a part of us?” His point holds true – the knowledge exchange incited by the company’s acquisition of Honest Dollar in May holds potential for innovation beyond any current
offerings for the financial services industry. “Think of it as a financial company that has been transforming itself into a tech company, and is now becoming a software company,” he concludes decisively.

Given the track record of Honest Dollar’s development, it’s likely that Whurley plans to make the most of Honest Dollar and Goldman Sachs’ partnership, but he’s not yet saying how.

Historically, SXSW has spelled major announcements for Honest Dollar. “The idea is to continually top everything, right? This year at SXSW will be the answer to questions like “how have they fared?”, “did the big company crush them?”, or “did they make the big companies super innovative” – but between now and then, it will be a whole series of new people that we brought on, the humans we brought on, and creative, innovative projects making their way into the public sphere.”

From mere observation of the company’s past track record paired with the enthusiasm in Whurley’s words, it seems like Honest Dollar has its sight set on rocking fintech with no sign of stopping. Though he wouldn’t dare give away any teasers as to what to expect from Honest Dollar next, Whurley did, with the same cool he carried walking into the room, leave interested spectators one important piece of advice: “Just wait and watch.”

Last modified: October 26, 2017