While it didn’t exactly replicate a Norman Rockwell painting, Ulupreneur Stephen Chen’s childhood in Rochester, New York was pretty close. It was as all-American as you could get in the pre-digital age: he and his friends played football and basketball in the neighborhood and when they got bored, they threw snowballs at cars. His dad worked as a quality control engineer and his mom in advertising. Half Chinese, he grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Although racial and ethnic stereotyping existed, he just didn’t experience it growing up.
After obtaining a BS degree in systems engineering at Boston University, he worked at a small firm building software for financial services companies like Charles Schwab, Wells Fargo and Fidelity. He went on to co-found one of the first SAAS businesses in the mid-1990s, Embark, which put the college search and admission process online. They raised ~$40M for Embark and filed to go public before selling the company, leading him to see the power in building a mission driven culture and how the application of software could change the world.
He then started another consulting services company in financial services and created a small incubator to try out different ideas. During that time he witnessed his mother trying to figure out her retirement; as a result, the incubator created NewRetirement. He bootstrapped the concept and launched it in 2015. Ulu Ventures led the first venture round in 2021.
We caught up with Stephen to talk about how demographics and the lack of efficient retirement services in the financial sector are helping NewRetirement take off.
What is NewRetirement?
It’s the TurboTax of retirement and financial planning. It lets anyone build a financial plan that lets them get literate, frame their whole situation, and make good decisions—either for free or for $120 per year. Consumers can also access classes, coaching and CFPs for a flat fee. We are also delivering a platform that lets companies do the same thing. Every big financial services company is thinking about how they can engage customers in a better way. We have built a platform that enables companies to collaborate with customers in a holistic way, to better understand them and help them make good decisions. I think that is a powerful idea.
Why NewRetirement, why now?
Our opportunity is being driven by demographics and longevity. Next year, 12,000 people a day in the US will turn 65 years old. They’re also living a lot longer and hopefully healthier lives. The number of people living over 100 is skyrocketing, so our framing of life is changing. It’s not unrealistic that someone could retire at 70 and live 30 more years and they’ve got to pay for that. NewRetirement can guide the way to do that.
What are your fundraising tips for founders?
Take as little money as humanly possible. Really understand the mechanics of how venture capital works and know what you’re signing up for. Be really thoughtful and stick to your vision. Have a big picture for what you’re trying to build and get really clear about that. If you take on venture partners, you should be aligned with how they think and they should be aligned with how you think. Make sure that you know it’s never going to be perfect. You want to have good partners that will stick with you and believe in the long-term vision.
How did you get your first customers?
We built a whole community of users that has massive value and is basically our secret weapon. We have 50,000 active users and 15,000 people in a Facebook Group—they’re telling us all the time how to make our platform better, and they’re also carrying our message out to their companies and their networks. Now I just say to people, try our platform. If you like it, let’s keep talking. If you don’t like it, that’s okay. We have an NPS of 65-70, so we know that most people really like it.
Our first big customer Nationwide came when someone invited us to a meeting in San Francisco with a bunch of executives and asked us to present for 20 minutes as part of a fintech program. One of the technology execs liked it and said, “I get this, I see what they’re doing.” We received funding from them but didn’t realize we’d end up with a commercial deal later. Basically, having Nationwide as the first flagship customer made the Series A possible. We can see the power of big enterprise deals; I think that many investors believe that if one will do it, many more will do it (which has proven to be the case).
What have been your biggest challenges?
We are a remote company. We are getting incredible people, but maintaining the culture as we grow and making sure people stay fully aligned can be a challenge. And when we win deals we need to make sure we can support our customers in a great way and that they’re super happy.
I would say the biggest challenge is doing a lot of things right in parallel. It’s like you’re driving the car down the highway at 90 miles per hour—and you are building the motor and replacing the tires while you’re driving. That’s what it’s like 98% of the time.
What are your dreams for the firm?
We want to help 100 million people figure out their retirement and get to $100 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR). There are 8 billion people on this planet. We’ve seen companies like Credit Karma do this. We serve 50,000 active people on the consumer side and we’re available to millions on the enterprise side. Our vision for the platform is to build the Stripe of financial planning, powering and supporting tons of companies that support millions of people as they think about retirement and their financial future. Helping people do better in their lives. We hear on a regular basis, “You have changed my life.” People are making decisions about their life savings and we take that very seriously.