Last year, American consumers’ trust in financial services companies hit an all-time low of 8 percent, down from 13 percent in 2015. The reasons for this downshift range from government deregulation to people’s doubts in their own ability to make sound financial decisions. Startups such as Aspiration are stepping in to try to make things right.
Aspiration, which opened to customers in February 2015, is a bank that allows customers to set their own fees and learn more about where they’re putting their money. Early in his career, co-founder and CEO Andrei Cherny spent years as a White House aide and speechwriter during the Clinton Administration. Later, he worked with Senator Elizabeth Warren (who was then a law professor) on setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He also spent time as a financial fraud prosecutor, as well as a private sector consultant whose clients included major banks.
All of this experience made him aware of the opportunity to create a financial company that, as he puts it, “would work for ordinary people” -- one that’s interests and incentives aligned with theirs.
One aspect of how Aspiration does business is its “pay what is fair” model, which allows customers to decide what they pay for Aspiration’s products -- even if it’s $0. (While Aspiration’s website explains that the company hopes its customers won’t choose to pay nothing, it insists it won’t treat them any differently if they do.) Another is its Dime’s Worth of Difference program, which donates 10 percent of its revenue, often in the form of micro-loans. Aspiration also has a fund that invests in companies that do good in terms of their “sustainable, environmental and employee practices.”
But for Aspiration’s socially conscious customers, all of this wasn’t enough. They kept asking for more ways to do good with their dollars. So the company created a new feature called Aspiration Impact Measurement. Launched this past April, it allows consumers to log into the Aspiration app and see how the companies they purchased products from treat their employees, communities and the environment.
Cherny spoke with Entrepreneur about how he makes these models work for his customers and his company.
This conversation has been edited.
What have you learned about growth while doing good?
For our first customers, it was a two-way leap of trust. They were putting their money with a new startup that didn’t have a track record of delivering. And we were putting our company’s future in the hands of these initial customers. If they chose not to pay us, we would be in obviously a bad situation. It’s up to us to earn that fee and to show that we’re doing a good job. I think it’s helped power our growth. Today, we see over 90 percent of our customers choosing to pay, even though they don’t have to.
What have you learned about culture while doing good?
The ‘pay what is fair’ aspect of what we’re doing really does keep everybody mission focused -- in a way that’s not just about hanging a mission statement or some principles on a poster on the wall. The company’s future rests on whether we’re able to so delight customers that every time they touch Aspiration, they’re choosing to pay. So that keeps everybody really focused.
The 10 percent we give to charity is a big choice for a company. Ten percent more would come into additional revenue and profits for the company if we weren’t doing that. So that means our furniture isn’t as nice, or we don’t have lunch delivered to the company and its 40 employees every day. But we’ve made a choice about what we prioritize and what’s important to us, and that filters through to everybody who’s part of our team.
What advice do you have for other businesses looking to do good?
It’s really important to be authentic. I think consumers are really smart, and if you have a business model or product and you don’t actually do good, people will be able to sniff that out from miles away.
My advice would be to jump in with both feet. You will be rewarded by customers if you are doing what’s right. If you build a different relationship with them, one that’s built on mutual trust, and you really deliver, people will be excited to be along for the ride.