You'd be hard-pressed to find a story quite like Harry Gottlieb's in the HR industry.
A self-taught filmmaker after graduating college, he went on to found software house Jellyvision and soon after developed its smash hit CD-ROM trivia game, "You Don't Know Jack." The game's combination of wit, humor and both highbrow niceties and pop culture earned it an established place in the 1990s computer gaming community.
Fast-forward 20 years: Gottlieb's no longer making games, but he's not finished making dense subjects more fun. Today, Jellyvision is re-writing the script on benefits enrollment and communication with its software platform, ALEX.
In an interview with HR Dive, Gottlieb talked about why some employers may be missing the mark when it comes to benefits and engagement. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
HR Dive: You have a fairly interesting background for someone in employee benefits. Can you talk a bit about how you eventually founded Jellyvision?
Harry Gottlieb: I started off as a filmmaker, and then a video game producer, but then I found my true love: insurance. After college, I did educational films. I was very interested in bringing these mundane, boring subjects to life. How do you make the boring exciting and the complex simple? Media that is aiming to teach doesn't have to be dry and dull.
I started The Jellyvision Lab in 2001-02 to focus on this approach of an interface that's like a host talking to you, and how we could apply that to a more corporate environment. ALEX was born out of that. The entertainment aspect gave us a ton of credibility when we went back to B2B. In HR, there aren't too many companies that have a pedigree in games.
HR Dive: So you're basically taking something that's really dry and making it fun. How do you go in and convince an employer that kind of concept could work for them?
Gottlieb: We actually had a couple of projects where we were just helping one company help their employees with their benefits on a one-off basis. That effectively ended up being our R&D and market research for ALEX. Aetna brought us our first nine customers for the first version of the product.
"Companies are doing the right thing, it's just they're only doing a part of the puzzle."
Founder, The Jellyvision Lab
But I think we were solving a real problem. It's crazy that companies spend millions and millions of dollars on their benefits that they're providing to employees. And they largely go unappreciated — in no small part — because [employers] don't realize how critical communicating those benefits and helping people select them is.
The benefit doesn't exist as a good thing in and of itself. It exists as a good thing to the extent that someone understands it and uses it. And if they don't, it's like you're throwing your money in the garbage. It's amazing how many people find their company's generosity annoying.
HR Dive: When you look at benefits education across the board, companies often cram it into one season: open enrollment. Others say it's supposed to be a year-round process. Is that a problem you've considered?
Gottlieb: Well, look, if you're in the benefits department of a company, you think employee benefits are really important. If you're just an employee, they're important when they're important. Medical insurance doesn't matter to you if you don't need medical care.
The reason open enrollment works is because if you do active enrollment, people enroll because they have to. In this 30-day window, they want to get their act together, but they want to spend as little time as possible. They don't want to become an expert in medical insurance, they want to make a decision and feel confident in their decision.
What's so key is understanding what really matters to people, and not fooling yourself into thinking that the thing that really matters to you, really matters to everyone else. When you talk about year-round engagement, what's the chance of someone opening a notification from their company about a critical illness insurance policy on a Tuesday in May? 0.1%?
If you're in the benefits department of a company, you think employee benefits are really important. If you're just an employee, they're important when they're important. Medical insurance doesn't matter to you if you don't need medical care.
Founder, The Jellyvision Lab
You have so many other things to do in your life. Open enrollment's good. You have their attention. But year-round, the missing piece is really being there when they need it. If you're trying to get them to care outside of that, good luck. But if you can be there in that moment, providing just the information they need in a simple way, then you can really provide the value that actually matters to employees.
HR Dive: It's almost a common sense thing to say, right? That being there when it matters drives engagement?
Gottlieb: Right. The whole concept of engagement has a sort of silliness about it. It's kind of based on this premise that there's some magical way that you can engage people. Granted, we work really really hard to make things entertaining. But entertainment isn't the main thing.
The main thing is, here's a person who has a need, has goals, has something that's painful. And you satisfy the need, the goal, make the pain go away and do it in a way that's simple and easy and fast. And then you get engagement!
I think people sometimes look at Jellyvision like, "it's because they're so cute and entertaining." No, that's not the main thing happening here. The main thing is that we are looking through the eyes of the employee, and not getting lost in our own expertise about insurance benefits.
HR Dive: How does Jellyvision approach generational differences, if at all? Do you believe millennials, for example, really approach benefits differently than previous generations?
Gottlieb: We do not peddle in demographics, which could also be called stereotypes, for a couple of reasons. In truth, every individual is different.
I'm also not saying you can't find trends. But we're not dealing with entire groups of people at once, we're dealing with one person at a time. To try to second guess the person who's in front of me, or for a program I've developed to second guess someone using it, what's the value in doing that? Is there really a big difference among the generations in terms of how s---ty it is to pick an insurance plan?
But if you're talking more broadly, I think the thing that has evolved is that I do think all of us expect more from our employers. The relationship now is in many respects not as lopsided as it once was, at least in certain industries.
Companies are doing the right thing, it's just they're only doing a part of the puzzle. Most people really need holistic financial planning, and it's not like there are enough financial advisers to get it. And so, I believe finding a way to provide financial assistance at scale, for millions of people, and making it easy for them to follow their financial plan, is the game changer for people. For the stress in their life, and their distraction at work.
What do we need now? Care about the things that actually matter to people. Benefits are ultimately about money and compensation. We're helping them with parts of their financial life. Help them with the rest of it.