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Heidi Rasmussen

Episode 25: The Must-Have Employee Onboarding System for Your Organization, with Heidi Rasmussen

After 27 years in the retail industry, Heidi took on a new challenge — from corporate life to entrepreneurship — from fashion retail to the employee benefits industry. At JCPenney, she oversaw the largest brand launch in JCPenney history. As co-founder and COO of freshbenies, she developed the brand from zero members to one of Inc. 5000’s fastest growing companies in America for two consecutive years (#117 in 2015 and #255 in 2016).

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • How freshbenies was founded and how they help people save money on healthcare by delivering non-insurance benefits
  • The struggles Heidi and her husband struggled through as they launched their business and didn’t see immediate success
  • Why you need to create processes in the beginning stages of your business when you can’t afford expensive systems
  • Heidi’s employee onboarding system
  • Why you need to ask lots of question of people moving through processes when you first set them up
  • freshbenies’ onboarding process of brokers, employers, and members, their three different customers
  • Why freshbenies focused on customer experience internally and outsourced the “nitty gritty” development of their system
  • Why you need to be ready to react to problems that you can’t foresee
  • Heidi’s system for using new employees to document freshbenies’ systems
  • Why tweaking processes and systems is the secret for making them effective
  • Heidi’s husband’s system for following up with people after events

Ways to contact Heidi:


Welcome to System Execution, the strategy and system behind today’s successful companies. Systems can make or break your company but here, we’ll solve your physical, technological, and psychological systems issues by connecting you with experts that have succeeded in overcoming those challenges in their own business and providing you the guidelines and tools you need to implement those same strategies for immediate results. Now here’s your host, Vera Fischer.

Vera: Today’s episode is sponsored by 97 Degrees West, an Austin, Texas advertising agency built on the belief that when you combine creative talent and humanity you can help companies make their products, services, and brands relevant to the life of their customers. 97 Degrees West specializes in finance, healthcare, manufacturing, and energy. For more information, go to www.97dwest.com.

Welcome to System Execution, a podcast devoted to using processes and systems to drive to a better outcome for your business. I’m Vera Fischer, your host. All businesses, no matter the size, relies on systems. Some of these are physical systems, such as a factory. Some are technological, like project management software, while others are psychological systems such as checklists and organizational charts. Many of these systems will overlap in your business.

Today’s guest, a fellow Texan, Heidi Rasmussen, is the co-founder and COO of Freshbenies. Heidi, after 27 years in the retail industry, took on a new challenge from corporate life to entrepreneurship, from fashion retail to the employee benefits industry. At JCPenney, Heidi oversaw the largest brand launch in JCPenney history. As co-founder and COO of Freshbenies, she developed the brand from zero members to Inc.’s 5,000 Fastest Growing Companies in America for two consecutive years. Welcome to System Execution, Heidi.

Heidi: Thanks, Vera. I’m excited to be here.

Vera: Heidi, I am so happy you’re here to share your experience about your systems at Freshbenies, but before we get started, tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you got started.

Heidi: Interesting. I actually started working at JCPenney on the floor when I was 15 years old. I literally worked my way through high school and college and eventually to the corporate office. I ended my career there as a Vice President for overseeing floor design and layout and things like that. That was quite a career. When that ended, my husband is actually an ex-Canadian. Now he’s Texan I guess. Well, I’ll call him the United States. If you’re from Texas, you know Vera.

Vera: Yes, I do.

Heidi: We’re super proud of these things.

Vera: Yes, we are.

Heidi: If you’re not, you get in trouble.

Vera: That’s exactly right.

Heidi: Anyway, he came to the US, he got his health administration degree in Canada. He came to the US and when he got to the US, he decided to get into the health insurance industry. He knew the healthcare system on the Canadian side but basically, if you’re in health administration in Canada, you’re basically working for the government. When he came to the US, he got into health insurance and he really was able to learn both systems. He worked for different health insurance carriers or health insurance companies and at one point in ’09, it was Memorial Day weekend, he had been working through some things in his head.

He had seen some of the changes that happened in Canada when they really had to cut back on their healthcare spending. Unlimited demand and very limited supply makes things that were mandated originally start getting pulled out of the coverage for the country back then. He started seeing what had happened there in the 60s start to happen here in the US as we were about to engage into the ACA and even before that though. Out of pocket costs were continuing to skyrocket, deductibles were going up. Just the cost of healthcare in general without even involving insurance just was exploding.

He came across these really great small little benefits that were non-insurance but really helpful to consumerism, kind of a consumerism tool for healthcare. They were all tiny little things. A health insurance broker, an employee benefits person, wouldn’t necessarily sell those little individual things, but if you could bundle them together and make it a really great package, it would be more interesting to them. So he saw all these things and he started talking to his employer about it, saying, “We really need to do something with this and give me one person to help with it and I’ll launch it for us. It’ll be awesome.” They were like, “Yeah, no. Thanks for the idea, but no.”

So he went in a second time and he had his PowerPoint deck and everything. He came to me and he said, “I don’t know how to get this across. What am I gonna do?” I said, “Do you believe that people are really gonna need these services today and in the future?” He’s like, “Absolutely.” I said, “Do you believe the numbers that you’ve put together?” He said, “Absolutely.” I said, “Why don’t you just do it? Why don’t you just quit your job and go do it?” He’s like, “No, I could never do that.” That’s always the first answer. By the end of the weekend on Monday he’s like, “You know what? I’m doing it.” That was it. He just had a business plan, got out, figured it all out, and went in on Monday and gave his resignation letter, and started the company. At that point, I was Chief Sugar Mama Officer, as I like to refer to myself.

Vera: I love that.

Heidi: I was the money woman ’cause I had a really great job. Then things just went a little different at JCPenney. There was a lot of changes there and so things changed. I always say if you had a V or a P in your title, you were not long for the world there. That’s what ended up happening and he said, “You have to come work with me. It would be awesome.” I was like, “What am I gonna do in employee benefits? What do I know?” What I realized that I knew was I knew processes because JCPenney is awesome at processes. I knew processes, I knew how to talk to the end customer, our member. So he said, “Come work with me.”

I was like, “This is so cool,” because the things that we put into Freshbenies, and I always like to start here because people don’t get it. They think, “Oh, you’re gonna save me money on healthcare.” That’s basically what we do at Freshbenies. With out of pocket costs going up and just the premiums of insurance and the cost of healthcare, we come alongside most people that have insurance and we bring these different non-insurance benefits that we bundle together into one experience called Freshbenies, things like being able to call a doctor and get a prescription written over the phone if it’s necessary, being able to email doctors and get specialist advice from oncologists, and fitness trainers, and general practitioners, you name it, that kind of thing.

Then we also do advocacy. I’ve got a medical bill and I have no idea if it’s right. Half the time, people just pay it and it was totally wrong. They didn’t really owe it and it’s just like, “I don’t know, get it off my desk.” Some people can’t afford to do that so we have medical billing specialists that will make sure your bills are correct and then negotiate on your behalf if things look wrong.

Then we have other advocates that help with price transparency. I need an MRI, where do I go? On one corner it’s $200, on another corner it’s $1,500 but we don’t know that as normal Americans. They help us with those kind of things. Then we also do prescription savings. You can look up your prescription and see if it’s gonna be less expensive at your local pharmacy versus one across the street. We bundle all those things together and it’s $10-$12 per family. It’s very affordable. We mostly sell through health insurance brokers who offer it to their employer clients. Most of our business is an employer is purchasing Freshbenies for their employees.

Vera: Wow, Heidi. That is awesome. I love it. As I was going through and looking at your story and looking at the company, it’s so refreshing and I can’t believe other people aren’t doing it. The fact that you’re on the Inc. 5,000 Fastest Growing, it absolutely makes sense.

Heidi: Yeah.

Vera: When you decided to say, “Hey with my husband, I’m gonna go ahead and work with him,” which is a big decision in and of itself, what needed to be done immediately from a system perspective?

Heidi: In the beginning, we couldn’t afford necessarily systems. We had a CRM and a website, some of those things, but most of it was working in Word and Excel and PowerPoint and really creating processes. I would say not computer systems but actual processes. There was a lot of things. He did a major pivot in his business as he was getting going. I think at the first year he said he sold $8,000. He said, “Not profit, I sold $8,000.” He says, “I think I could’ve sold more if I had just gone door to door talking to people about these kind of services.” So in the beginning when I very first got there, we had no profit, no revenue, and now two double no incomes. We really took a big leap off the cliff together.

When I very first started, he had a few things in place but we were really getting going with the employer model, so working through an insurance broker who was presenting Freshbenies as part of a strategic benefits package to their employer clients. When an employer would say, “Yeah, that’s really interesting, I’d like to get started with that,” we didn’t really have a whole lot of processes to get them through that. Really, it was setting up all of that step one, step two, step three, creating guides for the employers and that has been a total evolution of making that better. Actually, all of the processes that we put in place have been a total evolution in making them better and more streamlined as we go.

Vera: Heidi, let’s focus on that first employee onboarding system where you had to use spreadsheets and other layman tools, if you will, without necessarily going into automation. What is step one, step two? Let’s really focus on that and let our listeners know, how do you get started?

Heidi: I think you get started by asking a lot of questions. I think a lot of times we assume that we know what’s happening with all the different stakeholders and we don’t necessarily. So it’s important to ask a ton of questions of the people who are going to be experiencing or going through the process, especially if you want to have best in class service and make them feel like it’s not a total complete mess as they’re going through it. It should be totally streamlined. I think that’s the first thing, is to ask a ton of questions from all the different people who might have to touch the process, or either do it, or be on the other side of the process.

Vera: Heidi, give me an example of some of those questions.

Heidi: A lot of times, I like to sit down with somebody and actually walk through it with them and just ask them, “In a perfect world, how would this work? How would I onboard you?” Sometimes you need a straw man to put out there to people to give them an idea of, here’s an idea and how do you feel about that? Most people don’t dream things up from the beginning. If you had told me that I needed an iPhone five years ago, however many years ago, I would’ve said, “Whatever,” but if you put it in front of me, I’m like, “Wow, now I can tell you all kinds of changes I’d make to it.”

I think if you put a base plan in front of people and then ask a lot of questions around that and how does it go, what would happen next, what communication would you like at that point? I also think that communication gets left out of a lot of processes. Just letting people know where they’re at in the process as they’re going through it and where do you build in those communication points so they don’t feel in the dark as they’re going through it?

Vera: That’s a really great point. In my mind, Heidi, I’m imagining that from this employer onboarding process that there’s the outward facing with the client, the employer, but there’s also the inward facing, the folks that have to get them onboarded and through the system so that they are now an official customer and all of their employees can get their cards, et cetera. From a process perspective, did you work on both of those in tandem or did one lead the other?

Heidi: That’s a great question. We have actually three clients. This is a little maybe no circuitous, but here’s how it works. The broker actually is the person who’s doing the sale and then the employer is the person who’s purchasing Freshbenies, and then the member or the employee is the one who’s using it.

Vera: Okay.

Heidi: We are having to onboard everybody at the same time. With the broker, they’re getting onboarded a little bit earlier through our onboarding system. We’re talking to them and we’re recruiting them and we’re talking to them about why Freshbenies, and how it works, and all that. Then we’re having to train them on the sale process. When you’re ready to sell your first employer, here’s how you would talk to them. I think it’s all happening at different times.

The broker is getting onboarded, taught how to sell, then they’re selling. Then they’ve sold and they have to get taught how to onboard and employer. The employer’s learning how to onboard at the same time. Then the employer has to learn how to tell their employees about it, which is also what the broker is doing too because they’re both educating the employees about this new service they’re getting in their benefits package. Then we’re onboarding the members at a totally different time and making sure they know how to use the services and that they’re loving them and all of that too. It really is kind of happening at different points but some of them are in tandem.

Vera: Let’s keep in that vein of best in class service and let’s keep focus on the employer/broker facing for this next question. Have you gotten to the point in perfecting this system where you only have a couple of places where you have a little it of wiggle room, but other than that, it is a very systematized process in that we don’t deviate?

Heidi: Absolutely, yeah. Obviously there’s when maybe you get a client who comes in late ’cause we start them all on the first of each month. They might have their information into us a little bit later or whatever, but for the most part, it’s a pretty well streamlined process to the point where I am really never involved anymore because the team who’s doing that has it down to a well-oiled machine.

Vera: How many points of communication does your system require? Let me add one more level to that. Is it typically by email communication or some other type of communication?

Heidi: Yeah, right now it’s very email driven. It’s the broker sending things to us in email to say, “Here’s the agreement, here’s an Excel spreadsheet with the census basically with every employee’s information. Then there’s a lot of back and forth with that to get all of that figured out and moving that forward to the point where you can print packets and get them in the mail and all of that. It’s pretty email driven but we’re right in the middle of creating a total automation process where everything will be completely, for the most part, automated from start to finish.

Vera: That’s time consuming, but it’s also really exciting.

Heidi: It’s really exciting. I’m thankful that we’re working with a partner who helped us with other tech that we created from apps and portals for our members, and our brokers, and our employers. We’re working with a trusted partner who we’ve been through a few things with before, which is also great advice. Start on a small project.

Vera: You know, I think that’s a really important point on your employee onboarding system for our listeners, is you did not think or go down the path of we’re gonna do it all in house and do it ourselves. Really, what it sounds like you were able to do is really focus on the experience of your clients and employees and let someone else worry about the true nitty gritty.

Heidi: Yes. Are you talking about from the systems perspective? The company who is helping us build the automation?

Vera: Absolutely.

Heidi: Yeah. No, that is not an internal gift that we have or talent that our team has. We are very blessed to have an amazing development company that’s helping us with all of those things. I will say we are absolutely getting into the nitty gritty with them because we have to go through, and I’m sure everybody knows, your listeners know just the process of getting into every little box of this flows to here, and then it goes to this next thing, and then we need an email to go to people to say, “Yes, we’ve received your,” that whole flowchart process. I always say to them, I go, “I know that behind every one of these little boxes are about 700 to do’s or tasks that need to happen to make that one little box come to life.”

Vera: Exactly.

Heidi: It’s crazy but yeah, it’s pretty nitty gritty. I think that if you’re not in the detail into that nitty gritty in the very beginning, you’re not gonna get on the back side. I don’t think that you get a very good product in the end, I should say. What I found is that who you assign to the project is so important that you have somebody who understands the process from start to finish. Like we talked about earlier, actually goes to the stakeholders and talks to them, and interviews them. How does this work and how did that work for you? Would you like this? What if I could do that? Dream big, what would you like this system to do?

To really get that information but then to be able to really be in the detail and I’m talking down to error messages that come up. I even say, “That error message is not on brand. We do not want it to say that. It sounds very technical and that’s not who we are at Freshbenies.” We’re really into the detail here and I think that that’s what’s made our launches be as successful and without error as they have been. We have been very, I won’t say lucky, but planned in that.

Vera: So Heidi, I want to circle back. One of the things that I don’t want to let go of and I want our listeners to really hear is in the very beginning, you had to start with pen and paper, and doing the interviewing, and figuring it out. Two questions. First, what messed up? Give me, “Oh wow, that’s dreadfully wrong.”

Heidi: Yeah, I wouldn’t say that this was dreadfully wrong. I would say that no risk no reward and you’re just gonna have mess ups. Some things that have happened was we didn’t tell our development company that it’s possible that people might try to log into our site. This is hard to explain. We have the credentials coming from our administrator so if somebody had been credentialed by our administrator, there’s an API that’s going over to them to verify credentials.

We were giving a specific list to our development company to say, “Let these people in,” but we didn’t tell them to disallow other people who might try to get into the system. That just happened this last week, which is why it’s fresh in my mind. I was like, “Yeah, that person should not be in there and they shouldn’t be seeing what they’re seeing right now.” We had to get on the phone, that kind of thing. I just think there’s things like that that come up that you’re just never gonna see it, no matter how much planning you do. The critical thing is to get in there and be really listening during your launch week, that was huge. We use Slack here. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that.

Vera: I am.

Heidi: Yeah, so we have a whole channel just for launch issues. If there’s any issue at all, just put it in there and we’re all on high alert watching it and working with our development company to get things fixed very quickly.

Vera: In the very beginning when you were putting this whole system together, I’m sure you had a few people who may have left the company or knew people that joined the company. How do you educate people on your particular processes? Is it a big binder? Is it an online tool? How do you do that?

Heidi: Actually, we call it the Online Manual. We use Dropbox and so within Dropbox we have a whole folder that is just Online Manual and it’s broken into different areas of the company and different documents for each of the processes that we’ve really spelled out step one, step two, step three from marketing processes, to service processes, to sales processes. We’re really trying to make sure that everything is in there and not in heads just for everybody’s safety. Usually when a new person’s coming in, if it’s a new position, I always say, “You’re the boss of documenting all the processes as part of your 90 days as you take on new things.” They’re the one that’s documenting the first time. I always say, “In case John Jr. comes on,” and I name their name with Junior with it because when they come on, it’ll be so much easier for you to train them because you have the processes all in place.

Most of the time, if you’re a business owner, you’re the one doing all the processes and it really is head knowledge. You absolutely have no time to actually get it on paper. I always just say the first person who’s coming into that position and actually creating the position, if you’re a brand new company, it’s really helpful. On the second one, when it’s the second person coming in, we’re just always constantly going through our processes and making sure that they’re accurate and updated so that when the next person comes on, it’s as buttoned up as possible.

Vera: Is there an implementation aspect to the system that could get messed up with each new person added into the mix or is there a fail safe way that you have that insures that it’s implemented correctly?

Heidi: In a smaller company, we have 14 on our team and there are pretty specific areas in jobs, I don’t know that anything is fail safe. I think that things just sometimes can slip through the cracks no matter how organized you are, and no matter how great your processes are. No matter how great your team is, I think things are just gonna happen. It’s really the recovery and knowing that we gotta be fast on those things just so that we can keep our service levels up and keep going at the pace that we move at.

Vera: That’s interesting. Heidi, before we close out I have a couple of comments. I am a big believer of processes and systems, as you know, and there’s a significant amount of time and commitment that you have to make to incorporate processes, documentation, in order to deliver the best product, the best service, the best experience. From your perspective, about how much time, and you can ballpark it, monthly, whatever, do you spend with your team on this subject matter?

Heidi: I would say, if I had to give a percentage, probably 10% but it’s very fluid and constant. It’s not like, “Okay everybody, we’re gonna sit down and look at processes.” It’s very much we found a little break in this process so let’s get it fixed. It’s a constant thing that’s happening. We do 90-day reviews with everybody so we’re always looking at them during those reviews also. One of the things we always say is, “We should constantly be looking at our processes and streamlining them.” How do you make it easier? How do you make it faster? How do you make it more effective? It’s really part of our culture to be process-oriented, and to have those things documented, and to be constantly looking at it.

Vera: I think that that’s so important because what’s happened over time with your company is because you started with that initial spreadsheet, documents, writing things down, figuring it out, you now don’t have to eat the elephant in one big bite. You can literally sit down with what you have and tweak it. It’s just so much easier and people’s eyes don’t glaze over.

Heidi: It’s so true. The tweaking thing is the secret, it really is. Just get something on paper and start tweaking it from there. Even just two weeks ago I was tweaking our recruiting process. When we need to hire somebody new, what’s the process? Well, we have to go create a job description and then we have to figure out what kind of testing we want to do. We have to put it out on LinkedIn and put it out on Facebook and wherever we’re gonna advertise it and that kind of thing. Even there, I was going through it. You don’t do that as often so every time you do it you just go back through the process and you make updates and tweaks as you go. You’re right, it’s so much easier than, “Oh my God, I gotta write this whole thing down.”

Vera: I think that’s where a lot of listeners get frozen. You may have 15 processes you need to write down or figure out, as I’m sure you do, but just one at a time and not getting overwhelmed is the key to taking the next step and the next step.

Heidi: It is. Baby steps and how do you eat an elephant? It’s so true. One bite.

Vera: One bite. Heidi, the insight you’ve provided to us around your employee onboarding system is truly insightful and you’ve given us an incredible set of takeaways. To wrap up, let’s talk about what your next challenge is.

Heidi: Let’s see. We started our company. Reed, my husband, is kind of an industry thought leader in the insurance industry. We really started with me telling him, “You get out to those industry events and speak.” He loves to speak so that’s great. He was at all of these events and he would speak. He was so excited when he went to his first one as a business owner ’cause he used to speak prior in his company. He would go out and talk, but this was his first one as, “This is my business, I am promoting my business.” We really spent no money in marketing in our first couple years because we didn’t have any. It was really about, let’s see if we can get him out to speaking events where they actually wanted his knowledge and his thoughts.

At the end of his first one, he walked up to this guy that was the president of the association. He was like, “How’d that go? How was that?” The guy goes, “You didn’t ask one person for a card or anything when you got done. You were just wasting it.” He goes, “Oh my God.” The guy gave him this great piece of advice. He said, “Make everybody hold up a card at the end of your talk and say, ‘If you want more information about Freshbenies, put an FB on the back. If you just want information about the topic I shared, then put that on the back of your card and I’ll just send you some information about that.'” That was life-changing for us. That’s really where we started everything.

We would take all the cards, and we would try to get an email out to everybody, and we would follow up with everybody. Now, just the evolution that has happened, we started using HubSpot so that we could follow up with everybody. The evolution that has happened since that and where we’re going with that with nurturing process emails and not just for the broker population but now we’re gonna start doing it with our employers. As they come on board with us, we’re gonna do a series of nurturing emails that helps them to understand how we operate and how we can help them. Then our members are gonna start getting nurturing emails to help them use the services. It’s just exploded and really evolved out of just that first … We speak at an event and how do we follow up with people after?

Vera: That’s gonna be a great segue to have you back on the show because just the idea of having people write a code on the back of their business card and hold it up and gathering, that’s huge.

Heidi: It’s such a simple thing that we never ever thought of. I share it with other people who are like, “Oh my God.” The secret to that is if you tell people you’re gonna do something, you dang well better do it.

Vera: It’s true.

Heidi: And you need to continue with them. We always said if we get that card, we’ll just talk to you every month in an email. Every month, if I was up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, it did not matter. That email was going out and it was gonna make it in the month. I always say, “If you tell someone you’re gonna do it, stick to it,” because otherwise, as a marketer and as a business, you totally lose credibility if you don’t stick with that, what you told people you would do. We really love HubSpot because it helps us to do that in a better way. I don’t know whether it’s HubSpot or Pardot or whatever, ClickFunnel, whatever channel people like to use. It’s a really great system to help.

Vera: Well, I agree with you. Us Texas women, our word is our word and without that, you’ve got nothing.

Heidi: That’s right. Amen.

Vera: I get you on that. Heidi, you’ve shown us that processes are needed to get the work done and you’ve provided a few of the nuances that our listeners need to hear regarding the execution of a successful system. Before we go, we can close out today’s discussion with any final advice you may want to share and then tell us the best way we can connect with you.

Heidi: Oh man, I gave all my good advice.

Vera: Well, just tell us how to get in touch with you.

Heidi: Okay, good. I tell you what, if you want to save on your healthcare and you have $12 a month for your family, then my advice is to get a Freshbenies card at freshbenies.com. Freshbenies is a fresh approach to benefits, benies, benefits. It’s freshbenies.com.

Vera: I love that. I’m gonna be the first one after this interview, for sure.

Heidi: I’m so excited to have Vera as a member.

Vera: Yay. System Execution fans, no matter how many notes you took or how often you re-listen to this episode, the key is every successful business uses systems to drive to a better outcome. Heidi, I want to thank you so much for sharing your expertise and insight to our listeners today.

Heidi: Thanks so much, Vera. I really appreciate it.

Vera: Attention System Execution fans. Do you have a system that would be valuable for our listeners? We want to know about your system. Go to www.systemexecution.com, fill out the contact form with your information. Don’t be shy. Systems are cool.

We hope you found this episode of System Execution on employee onboarding systems to be enlightening. For free examples, case studies, e-books, and more, be sure to visit systemexecution.com/resources. Contribute to the conversation by reaching out to Vera directly on email at vera@systemexecution.com. Until our next episode, thank you for the privilege of your time.




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