Just hearing the words “open enrollment” is enough to make anyone groan with boredom. But what if you could enroll in health insurance at work by talking to a computer? You’re asked a few simple questions about your family, your lifestyle and your medical history, and within nine minutes, you’re done.
Enter Jellyvision and Alex, a virtual benefits counselor powered by artificial intelligence to help employees better understand their benefits packages. In the complicated and ever-evolving landscape of health care, Alex shows employees which medical plans can save them the most money based on their personal situation. Signing up for health care becomes efficient and even somewhat enjoyable.
AI has its shortcomings, but Jellyvision has made strides in tackling the minutiae of health insurance. Not bad for a company that made its name with cheeky trivia CD-ROMs, but has executed a remarkable turnabout under CEO Amanda Lannert.
Seth Meyers got rejected from a writing gig at Jellyvision in the ’90s — that’s how good the talent was.
The Chicago-based Jellyvision rose to prominence in the 1990s with games like You Don’t Know Jack and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The company had a small console game business, but by 2002, it was flailing as gaming giants like Xbox and PlayStation began to take over and Jellyvision couldn’t keep up. At one point, Lannert wrote her own severance letter. “I tasted failure,” Lannert says. “It took me three weeks to tell my parents because I was so ashamed.”
Jellyvision founder Harry Gottlieb was somehow able to raise $ 1.6 million in funding at the last possible second. Lannert, 46, got to work on shifting the company’s strategy and Gottlieb appointed her CEO — a position she still holds today. Despite the pivot from gaming to benefits management, the two aren’t so unrelated. Jellyvision was originally founded as an educational gaming company, in hopes of making boring subjects more engaging for kids. Returning to founding principles, Lannert figured: Why not do the same for adults? By 2017, more than 1,000 companies were using Alex to make decisions affecting $ 110 billion worth of insurance premiums.
Growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, Lannert had no thoughts of running a company. She originally planned to be a physician, but after spending a year abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, during college, she got behind on her pre-med courses. “I had the time of my life, drinking beer and chasing boys, but my dad wouldn’t pay for another year of school,” Lannert says, laughing. Never easily defeated, she quickly changed gears and began studying advertising. “I got a job at Leo Burnett and was wearing my shoulder-padded power suit to work the Monday after graduation,” Lannert says.
Five and a half years later, she was recruited to work at Jellyvision by the company’s then president, thanks to a connection with Gottlieb. Lannert worked her way up from the marketing department at a thrilling time for the industry. “Seth Meyers got rejected from a writing gig at Jellyvision in the ’90s — that’s how good the talent was,” she says. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was one of the best-selling CD-ROM games of all time.
The company’s reboot was a difficult one. Lannert survived with extreme frugality — “You’ll never see an Aeron chair on my watch” — and a clear vision of where to go. Alex launched in 2013 and the feedback has been strong. John Ricci, senior HR specialist at the Hershey Co., has been using Alex to enroll Hershey employees in the company’s benefits program for nearly four years now. “Alex is simple to use,” says Ricci. “Employees trust it because it’s unadulterated advice.”
But artificial intelligence is a tough business. While AI has seen great improvement in decision-making — in 2016, Google’s AlphaGo software beat a top-ranked player of one of the most mathematically complex board games in existence — there’s still room for error. IBM learned that the hard way when it deployed AI bot Watson to help diagnose and recommend cancer treatments. Physicians at several hospitals around the globe found that Watson was still struggling to learn and identify different forms of cancer.
While Lannert and Jellyvision are working with lower stakes, the risk of Alex steering someone in the wrong direction is always there. But Lannert isn’t worried about it. “The biggest risks to me aren’t in machine error but in human error,” she says. Employees might overstate their health, for example, or choose the most expensive plan because they believe it’s best. When machine learning can help us avoid those mistakes, it “becomes our friend,” Lannert says.
Tackling another thorny problem in the modem workplace, Lannert is also a member of Chicago venture capital firm Hyde Park Angels, where she focuses on investing in women-led companies. Lannert says she’s sick of CEOs blaming the lack of women in their organizations on a pipeline problem. “If we change who writes checks, we change who gets checks,” Lannert says. “Women can [invest] and are investing.”
A married mother of three, Lannert jokes that even though the family travels internationally once a year and cooks together every week, her teenage kids “want nothing to do with me.” Her balance comes because she’s “maniacally focused on execution and not easily distracted,” says Troy Henikoff, managing director at Math Venture Partners, who’s known Lannert for 20 years. “She can do anything she wants in life.”
In 2017, Jellyvision was voted best company culture in Chicago by the Chicago Tribune, and Lannert credits a team of “future awesome CEOs here.” All of whom now know a little more than jack about employee benefits.