Tag Archives: David Sacks

Zenefits’ Troubles Don’t Let Brokers Off

Zenefits is in trouble. Serious, existential trouble. Some community-based benefit brokers are watching the calamity at Zenefits unfold with a mixture of schadenfreude and relief. Given the scorn and ridicule Zenefits heaped on these brokers, taking pleasure from its misfortune is hard to resist. Feeling relief, however, misreads the situation and is dangerous to one’s career.

Zenefits’ Troubles 

Zenefits could go out of business, and several of its employees could be jailed as a result of the business practices reported by William Alden of BuzzFeed News and other journalists. While unlikely, this is a possibility because:

  • Zenefits created software enabling some California employees to lie to regulators concerning the time they spent on pre-licensing training. California law requires those applying for an insurance license to devote 52 hours to this curriculum. Zenefits employees signed a form, under penalty of perjury, that they had done so. Some may not have. Perjury is a felony in California, and conviction can result in as much as four years’ imprisonment. If Zenefits cheated in qualifying agents to sell in California, other regulators are no doubt looking into whether the company did this in their states, too.
  • If found guilty of violating consumer protection laws, state regulators could revoke Zenefits’ insurance licenses. Without the license, Zenefits could no longer sell new policies, and insurance companies would likely terminate, for cause, their Zenefits contracts. The insurers would then stop paying commissions to Zenefits even on previously sold policies. License revocation in one state could result in losing their licenses elsewhere. A cascade across the country of revoked licenses and terminated contracts could cost Zenefits tens of millions of dollars.
  • If Zenefits loses its licenses, commissions on current policies and ability to sell new ones, then some of its more recent investors may demand their money back. (Let me be clear: I am not accusing anyone at Zenefits of committing fraud or any other crimes. What follows is totally and only hypothetical and speculative.) In May 2015, Zenefits raised $500 million in a capital round led by Fidelity Investments and private equity firm TPG. If Zenefits management knowingly hid legal problems from them (and I’m not accusing anyone of doing so), then Fidelity and TPG could claim inducement by fraud, seek to rescind their contract and demand Zenefits return their investment. I’m not saying this happened or that investors were misled in any way. Nonetheless, I’d be surprised if Fidelity and TPG lawyers are not also speculating about this.

Zenefits’ worst case scenario, then, is that the company pays millions of dollars in fines, loses many millions more in revenue, sees employees jailed, can no longer sell insurance, irreparably damages its brand and must repay some investors.

Maintain Perspective

That’s a pretty scary worst-case scenario. Based on we know today, it is also highly unlikely to happen. No regulator has found Zenefits in violation of anything. Regulators are unlikely to impose the most severe penalties available to them if their investigations do not reveal consumer harm. The steps David Sacks, Zenefits’ new CEO, is taking will likely mitigate any penalties imposed on the company. Several employees, including former CEO Parker Conrad and sales VP Sam Blond have already left the company, and more may follow. Zenefits now has its first compliance officer. Mr. Sacks also seeks to change Zenefits values.

I’m skeptical, however, that Zenefits can or will quickly change its culture and core values. I respect Mr. Sacks’ intentions, experience and abilities. He deserves a chance to make his turnaround work. Yet changing a company’s culture usually takes considerable time, and Zenefits’ culture is deeply infused with the Silicon Valley ethos of speed, innovation, disruption and risk taking. To transform Zenefits requires a different world view. Yet in announcing Mr. Parker’s resignation, the company added three board members—all current investors with no domain expertise.

In fact, no current Zenefits board members or executives listed on the site appear to have any experience in running a human resources firm, payroll company or insurance agency—the services Zenefits delivers. What they share is deep experience in well-known tech companies. Zenefits may be a technology company, but that tech is supposed to accomplish something. Only in places like Silicon Valley would lack at the top of the company of this domain expertise be celebrated. Zenefits seems to exist in a Valley-sized bubble, and it’s tough to change what’s in a bubble from the inside.

The Real Lesson of Zenefits

Yet Zenefits is likely to survive. It reportedly has enough cash on hand and no need to seek more. The most probable outcome from the various investigations is that, absent findings of intentional and substantial criminal malfeasance, Zenefits will keep its licenses, carriers will continue paying commissions and investors will keep their money in the company.

We don’t yet know how Zenefits’ saga plays out. What we do know are some lessons this scandal teaches, especially to brokers:

Lesson one: Consumer protection laws matter. Violate them, and there’s a huge price to pay; as there should be.

Lesson two: Arrogance is unbecoming and unhealthy. Zenefits is a company whose leaders proclaimed that community-based brokers were dead meat, promised to drink brokers’ milkshakes, claimed brokers barely knew how to use email, described their profession as a dead beast lying in the desert and, well, you get the idea. The danger is that arrogance of this magnitude easily morphs into hubris. Zenefits’ hubris was the apparent belief that it could ignore rules if they get in the way of achieving the growth promised investors.

Lesson three: Even broken companies get some things right. Zenefits identified a latent customer demand. Clients want more from brokers than help with benefit plans. They want to focus on their businesses and not be distracted by HR and benefit administration. Zenefits success makes clear there’s a disadvantage to only selling and servicing insurance plans. Clients want more from their brokers. Even in the unlikely event Zenefits goes away, this client need will not.

Lesson four: There’s more where they came from. Zenefits’ demise would not mean the end of well-funded tech companies challenging community-based benefit brokers. If Zenefits falls to the wayside, others are ready to take its place using the same tactic of giving away software to employers in exchange for being named the employers’ broker of record on benefit policies.

Seeing a bully humbled is always fun, and there’s no harm in brokers enjoying the sight of Zenefits in disarray. Those brokers who believe Zenefits predicament means they no longer need to step up the services and value they deliver their clients, however, are making a costly mistake.

Zenefits: Disrupting Lives, Not Just the Insurance Industry

I’m sure you are as tired of reading about Zenefits as I am of writing about it, but, as much as I may want to, it’s hard to turn away from a train wreck in progress.

Wendy Keneipp and I have spent more time reading, writing and talking about Zenefits than we care to admit. We have spent time analyzing its model, discussing how to compete against the company and breaking down its impact on the industry. But this past week has had us shaking our heads at its arrogance and recklessness. I would like to promise this will be my last article about Zenefits, but, well….

No doubt you have recently read about Zenefits’ allegedly selling insurance without proper licenses, and we have now learned the company “may have” (according to new CEO David Sacks) taken shortcuts on at least some of the licenses it did have. May have?! At least take real ownership of the failures, Mr. Sacks!

According to several online articles, the shortcut Zenefits “may have” taken involved writing a program called Macro, which made it appear as if individuals were completing the 52 hours of online training required by the state of California to obtain a license when, in fact, they weren’t. According to a BuzzFeed.com article, those wannabe brokers were then required to sign their name, under risk of perjury, certifying they had completed the required training when, in fact, they hadn’t.

The lack of conscience, level of arrogance and number of culpable “leaders” required to execute on something like this is absolutely mind-blowing. It was bad enough when we thought this was simply a misguided company, confused as to whether it was a tech company or an insurance broker, but that possibility pales in comparison with the malicious company it is proving to be.

Zenefits garnered untold positive press for disrupting an industry and for becoming the fastest-growing SaaS (software as a service) company in Silicon Valley history, but now we are learning just how ugly the reality was behind that thin veil of success.

More than disrupting an industry, Zenefits has built an organization that is disrupting people’s lives—and not in a positive way.

Here are the victims:

INVESTORS

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this group because they provided the currency that fueled Zenefits’ reckless behavior; they are clearly part of the problem. It was investors who perpetuated a RIDICULOUS valuation and, in doing so, put untold pressure on the company to grow at a rate that would somehow validate the investors’ irrational exuberance over the Zenefits machine.

But, in addition to fueling the behavior, the investors are also victims; they invested in an illusion. They had every reason to believe their investment would be protected by legitimate (albeit misguided) business practices. It should have been reasonable for investors to assume the growth they were witnessing—and using to substantiate their investment—was being driven in a legal manner. It wasn’t.

We have already seen Fidelity cut the valuation of its investment in half. What will be the final financial toll on other investors once the dust settles? How much of investors’ collective $500,000,000 will be lost?

CLIENTS

Zenefits’ clients are potentially victimized in two ways. The first potential problem they could run into is having policies canceled as a result of having been written by non-licensed brokers. While I’m certain this is a possibility, I think it is unlikely the carriers would want to take that black eye. What is a more certain, yet difficult to measure, victimization is the fact that Zenefits’ clients did not have access to adequate advice and guidance in making policy decisions in the first place.

It would be one thing if Zenefits was simply in the online gaming business (as an example). If it was, the model would be to allow customers to download a free game and then make money by selling additional services/features. Essentially, if the game sucks, oh well. Unfortunately, Zenefits chose to play a much more serious game in a highly regulated industry.

Zenefits’ model infringes on two of the most critical aspects of client’s lives: their financial and medical well-being.

When Zenefits takes this responsibility as carelessly and recklessly as it has, it puts people’s financial lives at risk. Even worse, Zenefits could put people’s (literal) lives at risk. That may sound overly dramatic, but protecting the financial lives of its clients (employers and employees alike) and ensuring clients have coverage in place that provides for the right medical attention at time of need, is at the core of what this industry does, has always done and must continue to do for its clients.

For Zenefits, insurance is merely an afterthought, a means to an end, a way to finance the technology it touts as “free.” The company really should be ashamed for hijacking something so critical to people’s well-being and using it so carelessly.

ADVISERS

This may surprise you, but I also see the young advisers of Zenefits as victims. While I have been more than willing to share my criticism of their inexperience in the past, I believe these are mostly well-intentioned young professionals.

The Zenefits leadership team sold these young men and women on a vision that is simply proving to be an illusion. They were sold on the idea of disrupting an industry, being a part of a “unicorn” organization doing something that hasn’t been done before. Who wouldn’t buy into something like that?

Now, don’t get me wrong; while inexperienced in the business world, these young folks still had a personal responsibility to know right from wrong. They had to know they were cheating when they skirted the 52-hour requirement. And, they had to know the personal risk they were taking when they signed their name claiming to have completed training they hadn’t.

Bad on them for not taking a stand. But, even worse on the leadership team for putting them in that position.

I can hear the arguments against me on this point, and I don’t necessarily disagree. However, anytime someone in a position of authority uses their power to coerce and take advantage of a subordinate, there is a level of victimization.

NOW WHAT?

Of course, I don’t know how the rest of this story is going to play out, but I have my suspicions.

I don’t see how David Sacks can be allowed to remain as CEO. He has received great praise for the email he sent to the Zenefits employees, and he is being hailed as the leader who will correct all of what ails Zenefits. Maybe he will be, but I have serious doubts.

The positive media response to his succession scares me. Not that I think Parker Conrad should have remained CEO, but because the change seems to be providing Zenefits a free pass—if not in the eyes of regulators, at least in the public eye.

Outside our industry and Silicon Valley, most people have no idea about how this company has been operating. I guarantee you that Zenefits is about to take its marketing and sales machine to a much higher gear. And there are countless business owners oblivious to the potential danger of a purchase through Zenefits who are awaiting promises of easier HR, shiny user interface and no cost. These business owners need, and deserve, to be protected by the regulators put in place to provide such protection.

In my opinion, Sacks, as the chief operating officer, was as culpable for Zenefits’ failures as anyone. As the executive in charge of all things operational, how could he not have known about the lack of licenses or the fraudulent acts taking place under his nose? And, if he somehow didn’t know, that is simply another kind of failure on his part. How can he be allowed to remain?

I also don’t see how state insurance departments can allow Zenefits to earn another dollar off another insurance policy. The company has left too many victims in its wake, and I believe it is about to go on an even more aggressive hunt for even more “victims.” How can Zenefits be allowed to remain in the insurance business?

It’s time for Zenefits to transform its business model, get out of the insurance business and operate as the technology company it has always been; it’s time for the company to start putting people ahead of growth. After all, done properly, taking care of people first ensures growth will take care of itself. And, if you can’t take care of people and turn a profit, you don’t deserve to be in business.

I’m not holding my breath, however. As a self-described “hyper-growth addict,” Sacks has to manage his addiction with the demands and responsibilities of his new role—a role in which he will have to balance the demands of leading a company in a highly regulated industry (requiring attention to detail and ethical behavior above all else) against the demands of delivering an acceptable return for investors who have entrusted him with $500 million of their money. Early results are not very promising.

Stay tuned. I’m certain there’s more to come.

A version of this article was originally published on Crushing Mediocrity. The article appeared here at Q4intel.com.

How Likely Is Zenefits to Change?

Zenefits changed CEOs the other day, but is meaningful change really likely at Zenefits? Founder Parker Conrad is out as Zenefits’ CEO, and David Sacks— who was its chief operating officer—is now in charge. The reason: lax compliance procedures leading to investigations by Washington state and others concerning alleged sales of insurance policies through unlicensed agents. If found guilty by Washington regulators, Zenefits could face a criminal fine of as much as $2.8 million, see some employees go to jail and potentially lose millions in commission dollars. While the penalties are unlikely to reach those levels, that is what is at stake.

Perhaps this situation is a result of incompetence and naiveté by the company’s management. Maybe. Then again, it could be the result of a culture that puts growth above adherence to the rules—an “act now and ask for forgiveness later” attitude—an approach sometimes applauded and rarely condemned in Silicon Valley and similar locales; unless, that is, it hurts the bottom line.

Not surprisingly, then, when Sacks took over he declared the company’s old culture inappropriate and promised to instill new values in the company. On taking over as CEO, he informed employees that “a new set of values are necessary” for the company to continue considerable growth. He ended his letter proclaiming, “This is Day 1.”

I don’t doubt Sacks’ commitment or intentions. But is Zenefits really likely to change its core values? Can it transform its culture? The problem, as I see it, is that the company, its values and its culture reflect those of Silicon Valley. That is both a blessing and a curse.

They dream big in Silicon Valley, and Zenefits became big, one of the fastest-growing enterprises in American business history. The company is funded by an A-list of Silicon Valley heavyweights. As of May 2015, Zenefits became the single largest investment of Andreessen Horowitz, one of the Valley’s most august venture capital firms. Several of its board members are Silicon Valley royalty.

The Valley values speed, innovation and disruption (“worships” might be a better word). While I’ve questioned whether Zenefits’ business model is innovative, the fact remains that the company has quickly shaken up more than one established industry.

However, being of the Silicon Valley model also means Zenefits exists in a bubble (not the stock market-crashing kind, but the island of unreality variety). For example, none of the executives listed on Zenefits’ site has any background in human resources, payroll or insurance sales. Yet that is what the company does. Outside Silicon Valley, this would raise eyebrows, maybe even create concern. But not there. Of course, Zenefits has direct reports with subject matter expertise, but why do none of the company’s top eight leaders (nine before Conrad’s departure)? It looks like a bubble to me.

Sacks is a Silicon Valley rock star. In a December 2014 Pando’s article reporting on Sacks’ joining Zenefits as chief operating officer, Conrad was quoted as saying, “When you have an opportunity to hire LeBron, you hire LeBron.” And it was an apt analogy. Sacks is good. Extremely good. He was the first COO of PayPal and was the founding CEO of Yammer (purchased by Microsoft for $1.2 billion). He knows how to run a company—a Silicon Valley company.

It’s also true that Sacks has been COO and a board member of Zenefits for a year now. Doesn’t that make him part of the company’s “old” culture? As chief operating officer, didn’t he have at least some responsibility for knowing about Zenefits’ compliance problems? Maybe he did and raised the alarm internally months ago. Maybe.

So that’s where Zenefits stands at the moment, stuck in a vortex of maybes. Maybe it takes an insider to lead the company outside the Silicon Valley bubble. Maybe it takes someone who has seen the company’s failure to understand what can no longer be overlooked or ignored. Maybe Zenefits can both grow and follow rules. Maybe the company can swagger less and execute better.

Maybe.

Who knows? Until it’s clear Zenefits has the willingness and ability and to change, perhaps a bit of skepticism is in order.

Maybe.

zenefits

Zenefits Compliance Saga Takes a Turn

Things happen fast in the start-up world.

Early yesterday, I wrote a post on how Zenefits’ compliance challenges in Washington state could cost the company millions of dollars in lost commissions. While noting that it was only a matter of time before someone at Zenefits lost his job over the situation, I had no idea that Zenefits CEO Parker Conrad would resign later in the day, citing the compliance problems.

In a press release cited by VentureBeat.com announcing Conrad’s departure, Zenefits’ new CEO, David Sacks, who had been COO, declared, ”I believe that Zenefits has a great future ahead, but only if we do the right things. We sell insurance in a highly regulated industry. In order to do that, we must be properly licensed. For us, compliance is like oxygen. Without it, we die. The fact is that many of our internal processes, controls and actions around compliance have been inadequate, and some decisions have just been plain wrong. As a result, Parker has resigned.” (The entire press release is worth reading).

The loss of a founder and CEO is another cost Zenefits will pay for the alleged failure to comply with states’ insurance laws. I don’t believe they’re done paying for their mistake, however.

What follows is a slightly edited version of my earlier article:

Washington regulators are investigating Zenefits’ alleged use of unlicensed agents selling insurance policies in the state. This is not only embarrassing for a company as brash and boastful as Zenefits, but the company’s finances could be substantially affected, too. Not just because, if found guilty of this felony, Zenefits could face a multimillion-dollar fine. The far greater risk to Zenefits is the prospect of losing commission income — a lot of it.

William Alden at BuzzFeed News has done a great job pursuing the story of Zenefits’ unlicensed sales. Now Alden is reporting that, based on public records, it seems “83% of the insurance policies sold or serviced by the company through August 2015 were peddled by employees without necessary state licenses….”

The potential fallout is quite substantial even though only a small number of sales are involved — just 110 policies out of 132 sold or serviced by Zenefits in Washington between November 2013 and August 2015. “Soft dollar” costs include a damaged brand because of the bad press, distractions at all levels of the company and the need to address whether the company is ignoring other consumer protections.

Then there are the hard costs. 110 policies times the maximum $25,000 per violation that Washington can impose means fines of as much as $2.8 million. Financial penalties imposed by other states could add to this figure. While paying a $2.8 million fine is no laughing matter for a company losing money every month, this represents less than 0.5% of what Zenefits has raised from investors. However, the legal fines are, potentially, just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As Alden points out, the fallout from this investigation could result in carriers dumping Zenefits, and that could cost the company far more than any criminal fines.

Carriers require agents to meet several requirements before contracting with them, and agents must continue to meet these requirements to keep the agreement in-force. Common provisions include being appropriately licensed, maintaining adequate errors and omissions coverage and not committing felonies or breaching fiduciary responsibilities. Fail to meet any of these requirements, and agents can find their contract terminated for cause.

Terminations for cause usually allow insurance companies to withhold future commissions from the agent and, depending on the specific terms of the contract, from the agent’s agency, as well. If an agency or agent knows or should have known he was in violation of contract terms when executing the agreement, carriers may be able to rescind the contract and demand repayment of commissions.

Being found guilty of a felony in Washington state could allow a carrier — any carrier, anywhere in the country — to terminate Zenefits’ agent contract for cause. Late last year, Zenefits CEO Conrad claimed the company was on track to earn $80 million in 2015. So, let’s see, millions times 50% … carry the one … yeah, this hurts. A lot.

A nuclear outcome is highly unlikely. The Washington state investigation into Zenefits is continuing, and Zenefits, to date, has been found guilty of nothing.

Even if Washington regulators find Zenefits committed a felony, for reasons described in a previous post, the outcome is highly unlikely to be a fatal blow to the company. Insurance regulators have considerable leeway in determining fines and penalties. Absent proof that Zenefits intentionally violated state law or that consumers experienced actual harm, the Washington State Department of Insurance is likely to conclude that this situation resulted from incompetence. The department might then impose a modest fine on Zenefits and subject the company to enhanced review of its licensing practices for a few years.

Let’s put this in perspective. Richard Nixon resigned the presidency as a result of what started off as a two-bit break-in. That kind of cascading escalation is extremely rare. What we’re seeing unfold in Washington state is probably not Zenefits’ Watergate moment.

Zenefits has already paid a small price for what it allegedly did. I’m guessing the whole mess has been a bit distracting to management. And the fact remains: Mishandling more than 80% of sales in a state is a sign of immense ineptitude, arrogance or both. Having this reality aired publicly is not good for Zenefits’ brand, and resources will need to be expended to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I’m not aware the company has fired anyone as a direct result of the lax licensing controls, but that could happen.

As a result of this fiasco, Zenefits has already taken down its controversial broker comparison pages in which the company used carefully selected criteria to compare itself to community-based agents. (I guess the company was reluctant to add “being investigated for multiple felonies” as one of the comparison points). This is a small sacrifice as the comparison page was likely an attempt to enhance search engine optimization rather than an effort to take business from the competition.

Zenefits has paid a small price. The open question is: How large a price will the company ultimately pay?