Interview with Helen Lee, JOANY

Story by Benjamin F. Kuo


What's the best way to find a health plan which matches your lifestyle and needs? It's tough to tell, as JOANY ( co-founder Helen Lee and her co-founder, Christine Carillo, found out. The two--veterans of the health plan industry, discovered that consumers really were having a hard time figuring out what health plans worked the best for them. We caught up with Helen, the co-founder and COO of JOANY, to learn more about the company. JOANY is backed by Foundry Group and Techstars Ventures, along with Birchmere Partners and angels such as Esther Dyson and Charles Hudson.

What is JOANY?

Helen Lee: What JOANY does, is we help individuals and families sign up for the most optimal health insurance plan for them. It's a concierge service, which helps individuals and plans throughout the year. Instead of just enrolling people in a plan and saying good luck, see you later once a year, we also provide a concierge service that is unheard of in health insurance. For example, should anyone need help fighting a bill, finding a doctor or specialist, finding a medical center, or figuring out what is medically covered, we help and find that for you.

How did you start the company?

Helen Lee: Christine and I started the company back in 2014. We launched in December of 2014. We did it, because we found a need in the industry, where there are not a lot of companies helping individuals and families find plans that fit their needs. How this all got started, is Christine and I already had a boutique consulting firm. We were as happy as can be. We'd go into a health plan and a carrier, and help them implement new books of business, such as when Obamacare, or the ACA came into effect, and we also came in to help failing plans. We'd come in, make fixes, and implement systems. The, one day at a dinner party, a producer friend of ours, who had insurance through the screen actors guild (SAG) asked—if you do health insurance, help me. I keep paying $900 out of pocket in deductibles, and I don't understand, because I should have hit that deductible months ago. We figured out it was because he was paying out-of-pocket for his daughter's ADHD medication. Christine and I said we'd take a look at it, and thought it would take one or two hours—but it took the whole weekend. We realized that although the plan he was a great one, but it just didn't cover his daughter's medical expenses and doctors. There was no way he'd ever meet the deductible. We switched him to a plan where he paid more per month, but by doing so he saved $4,000 that year. We put that algorithm in a small Excel spreadsheet, and wondered if that might help other people.

So how did that go?

Helen Lee: We tested that with all of our friends and family, and we found out that for the most part, people were not signed up for the most optimal plan. They were paying out of pocket for thigns they didn't need to. Christine and I thought, this is something people really needed. We decided to create a website together, but we didn't know how to make money with it. But, she and I really wanted to do something for the consumer, because we'd always been working with the plans. We had our Joan of Arc moment in Decembre of 2014, and therefore called the company JOANY. We worked on the algorithm, and made it so you could go to our website, enter your information, and it would find you the right plan. We did this thinking it would be a side project, and realized how well it was working, and we stopped our consulting and went full force on JOANY.

What was next?

Helen Lee: From there, we wanted to figure out how to make money with this, because we didn't want to charge the consumer to pay for our services. We already felt that people were being screwed by their health plans, constantly. We looking into becoming a broker, but we really didn't like the traditional broker model because usually you'd just provide a few health plans based on how much commission they paid you. So, we split the model, and said, if we're really going to do this, we have to become brokers for every single health plan, in every state. We set forth to do that, got our broker's license, and first launched in California and worked with every single health plan. At that time, it was 14 health plans.We met Alex Isold at Techstars, he took a look at our product, and had all kinds of feedback, which was awesome. He provided all kinds of feedback from a product standpoint, and we found a lot more mentors like that at Techstars. We kept in touch kept him updated on the company, and when the next time Techstars was looking for new companies to sign up, he recommended we try it out. We did, went through the process of trying out for Techstars, and ended up as one of fourteen companies selected out of 2,000. We were super excited to participate, Christine and I moved to New York for three months, and graduated in the fall of 2015. In April of 2016, we raised our seed round, of $1.3M.

Where is the business now?

Helen Lee: Since then, fast forward, we left Techstars with around 2,000 customers, and today have over 90,000. We just raised $13M from Foundry Group and Techstars Ventures, and with that, we're scaling quite quickly.

What's next now for the company?

Helen Lee: We're going to continue to scale, and build out the company. It's about the leadership team, and to prepare not just for open enrollment for 2018, but to service the 100,000 customers we'll have on board. In the next few weeks, we'll have 100,00 customers, and it's really about building out the concierge service.

What's the biggest lesson you've learned as an entrepreneur?

Helen Lee: That's a great question. The one lesson I think I've learned, from being at a tech company, and providing service and products, is you have to have a relentless focus on your customer. In the beginning, we though we were the product people, we can build this widget and customer would love it, ad it would be all sparkly and shiny off to one side. What that didn't do, is help the customer. The biggest thing we figured out, is we have to make sure what we do is customer focused, and figure out how this is going to help customers in the future, and how this is going to help customers now. We're not doing thing to impress the tech world or health plans, what we are doing is for the customer. That's the biggest thing we've learned.



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