How a Retirement Savings Startup Attracted Goldman Sachs

IEEE senior member sold his company Honest Dollar, which offers a simple way to open an IRA

27 October 2017

Roughly 60 percent of adults in the United States do not have US $500 to their names—no savings, no employer-sponsored retirement plan, and nothing put away in an individual retirement account (IRA), according to financial services company Bankrate. When it comes time to retire or if an unexpected emergency arises, they are financially unprepared.

IEEE Senior Member William Hurley [above], a serial entrepreneur, was alarmed to learn that. After selling his startup Chaotic Moon Studios—a software and mobile-app development company in Austin, Texas—in 2015 to Accenture, he was looking to do some good in the world with his next venture. He launched Honest Dollar in Austin that year. Through the startup’s app or website, people can deposit as little as $8 per month into one of six mutual funds. And it can take as little as 90 seconds to sign up, Hurley says.

Honest Dollar is designed for people who are not offered a company-sponsored retirement plan by their employer, or are self-employed.

The company charges a $3 fee each month the first year, and $5 monthly after that. Goldman Sachs acquired the company last year for an undisclosed amount.

“People living paycheck to paycheck is not good for the economy,” Hurley says. “It’s important we have a society in which people are saving.”

IT TAKES MONEY TO MAKE MONEY

When Honest Dollar launched, Hurley contacted small businesses to encourage their employees to sign up. He noticed, however, that a large number of workers did not finish completing their registration. He realized that many stopped when asked for their employee identification number.

When he contacted a few of them he learned it was because they didn’t have one. They were freelance workers including writers, artists, entrepreneurs, and drivers for car-hailing services. Hurley relaunched his app to include those without employee identification numbers. He also formed partnerships with businesses, such as the ride-sharing company Lyft to sign up its drivers.

Honest Dollar offers access to three types of IRAs: traditional, Roth, and simplified employee pension. Within each account there are six Vanguard mutual funds to choose from.

When people sign up, they are asked when they want to retire and how much they’ve saved. Honest Dollar then recommends the IRA option and the Vanguard funds that best matches their needs.

Vanguard is renowned for its index funds which, rather than trying to outpace the stock market or one of its segments, matches it. Index funds generally have lower fees.  

One of the app’s features lets people monitor their progress by displaying a chart showing the amount of accrued savings and how much more the workers need to contribute to reach their retirement goals. People also can see how far along they are in reaching their maximum allowed annual IRA contribution, currently limited to $5,550 (or $6,500 for those 50 or older) for traditional IRAs.

Many of those using Honest Dollar are putting away money for retirement for the first time, Hurley says. “One reason people don’t invest is because they feel they’re throwing their money over a fence,” meaning they don’t see where the money is going, Hurley says. He says he discovered that concern when speaking with potential customers. He took the feedback into consideration for the app’s visual design, which can encourage people to keep saving and invest more.

The startup also allows money to be taken out before retirement in case an emergency crops up, like a home repair or medical procedure.

SELLING THE BUSINESS

One year into his venture, Hurley says, he wasn’t focused on selling his company. Rather he was talking to as many customers as possible to get feedback for improving the product. He just so happened to meet a private wealth manager at Goldman Sachs looking for new acquisitions.

The investment banking company’s research shows that some 45 million workers in the United States do not have employer-sponsored retirement plans, and those who are self-employed are often unable to save in IRAs because they often require a minimum contribution that is out of reach. Goldman Sachs saw Honest Dollar as an opportunity.

“The acquisition was a lot of luck and timing on both sides,” Hurley says, “the two things that make or break an entrepreneur.”

There will be more changes to how people save and invest in the next five years than there have been in the past 50, Hurley predicts, because technology is lowering the barriers of entry into financial services.

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