An Open Letter to the Financial Press: Is It Because I’m Hip Hop?
January 19, 2012 · Print This Article
- In recent weeks, coverage of prepaid debit cards launched by Suze Orman and Lil Wayne has repeatedly portrayed me as a “celebrity endorser.” Some of these stories have gone so far as to depict my RushCard business in the same light as the ill-fated Kardasian Kard. The truth is, eight years ago I invested millions of dollars, putting my reputation on the line to found UniRush LLC. With the issuance of the first RushCard, I created the first Prepaid Debit Card Account, requiring no linkages whatsoever to a consumer checking account. Today, millions of Americans manage their financial lives with the assistance of prepaid debit cards issued by UniRush and our competitors.
I created this industry because my customers had been left behind by the banking industry. These hard-working Americans had been left to fend for themselves, managing their lives largely with cash in an increasingly cashless society, accessing their money from people sitting behind bulletproof glass windows at check-cashing stores charging high fees. The process was downright awful, requiring long waits in line, oftentimes with children in tow, just for the privilege of cashing a check or paying one’s bills. Prepaid debit cards put our customers back into the American mainstream, eliminating the indignity and dangers of carrying cash while providing a smarter, carefully considered alternative to banks and check cashers.
What did I do to earn the title of “celebrity endorser? Richard Branson endlessly and lovingly promotes his airline’s cell phones, cable channels and spaceships, as he once did his retail and music empires; is he a “celebrity endorser”? How about Mark Zuckerberg, the “celebrity endorser” of Facebook? Success certainly breeds celebrity, as it has for Branson and Zuckerberg. Yet neither of these astute businessmen is categorized as a celebrity endorser. I submit this is because each is an innovator and a creator, having taken thousands of risks and enduring the pitfalls that trailblazers brazenly face. Just as I did when I created an industry with an uncertain business model and no path to earning a reasonable return. Like these respected businessmen, I manage my business for the benefit of my customers, never veering from my company’s long-range mission. At RushCard the mission, or more appropriately the “big hairy audacious goal,” is to help my customers achieve their financial well-being with a powerful range of tools and services offered at a fair price.
I demand constant improvements in every aspect of my company, investing millions each year in innovative new benefits and features. Just like Branson and Zuckerberg, I created products that garner strong customer loyalty and evoke genuine emotion. RushCard was the first prepaid card to offer features such as budgeting and saving tools, mobile phone apps, and the choice of a “pay as you go” or monthly fee plan. RushCard was also among the first to offer card-to-card transfers (an economical alternative to standard money transfer products). Some of these features are now industry standards, but I’m proud that RushCard spent the time, money and energy to provide them to our customers first. Since when do celebrity endorsers do this?
Each morning I wake up asking how we can do more for our customers, for less. That’s right, more for less — not less for less. I strive to be the iPhone of this business – simply the best, at a price that our customers believe is fair. We invest substantial portions of the fees we collect into a vast array of technologies to service and protect our customers, as well as extensive R&D. We’re constantly rolling out benefits and features that advance our customers along the road to financial well-being. In 2011 we introduced a range of new tools and services. These include: mobile applications; early access (up to two days) to customer funds for those who direct-deposit their paychecks; and RushGoals which helps customers set and achieve their savings goals, and rewards them with rebates worth up to 4.8% when they set aside $500 or more in a RushCard sub-account.
On the subject of fees, we constantly examine our fees to ensure that we deliver fair value to our customers for the money. Needless to say, we’d like to charge less – and we’re going to try to use our size and scale to lower our fees over time. But let’s be clear, serving our customers is expensive. There’s a cost to setting up customer accounts, processing their charges, running these charges over the Visa network, protecting against fraud, insuring customer funds via the FDIC, offering a world-class website (www.RushCard.com), and operating 24/7 customer service.
Income from holding our customer’s cash doesn’t cover even a fraction of these costs. Interest income is declining with record low interest rates while costs are increasing, so much so that banks are continuing to move away from serving RushCard customers. Jamie Dimon, the Chairman of JP Morgan Chase, unveiled that it costs Chase $350 per year to serve the average checking customer. Not surprisingly, Chase and others are raising fees and imposing monthly minimums. Some banks require customers to maintain average balances of as much as $5,000 per month in order to avoid paying monthly maintenance fees. The average RushCard customer, if fortunate enough to live near a bank like Chase, has far less than $5,000 to keep in their account every month. Bank Of America’s chairman announced that BofA is focusing on their top 20 percent of banking customers and, just this week, it was rumored that BofA will be exiting some consumer markets.
By no means do I feel that the banks are bad. The reality is that their cost structures and expensive branch networks, especially for the big banks, are simply too expensive for them to serve the inner cities across America. Community banks and credit unions — frequently cited as offering “free checking accounts” — acknowledge that they cannot profitably service most RushCard customers. This is why many either have or are considering some form of minimum balance requirement, fees and restrictions on whom they serve. RushCard, as a core value, accepts everyone.
My experience in the financial arena is supplemented by my work with more than 70 financial literacy summits mostly over the past seven years through the Hip Hop Summit Action Network. I didn’t just participate in those summits, I organized and co-funded them. 50 Cent, Eminem, Lil Wayne and even Suze Orman are just a few names who contributed their celebrity cache, energy and time to the cause. (But I would never denigrate their contributions by referring to them merely as “celebrity endorsers”.)
I welcome new entrants into an industry which, like every one of my businesses, no one took seriously when I got started. I welcome them and celebrate their belief in a real alternative to banks even though they lack the years of experience, knowledge of customers’ financial preferences and spending habits, and branding insights needed to be truly laser-focused on customer needs. When they get there, I will have already taken RushCard’s innovation to the next level.
But please don’t call me a “celebrity endorser.”
Russell Simmons is Chairman of Rush Communications, Chairman and Founder of RushCard, Founder of GlobalGrind.com and Author of Super Rich, a best-selling book on how to achieve mental and spiritual richness.