Small businesses need to factor in employee benefit options from day one — and this Houston expert has some tips. Photo via Getty Images

While Small Business Appreciation month has come to an end, my work in aiding small businesses achieve financial success is continuous.

In 2009, I began my career as a financial adviser recently co-founded Volante Integrated Planning, a Houston-based office of Northwestern Mutual focused on comprehensive financial planning and helping clients achieve financial freedom.

After years of working with business owners, and as a small business owner myself, I have learned the importance of offering benefits that help attract and retain talent, foster improved work habits and provide a foundation for growth. According to the annual SHRM employee benefit survey, health-related benefits and retirement plans were ranked the two most important benefits for employees. Whether you are a new small business owner or an established one, it is important to be aware of the benefit options available to you and the considerations that go into mapping out a benefits strategy.

1. Retirement plan options

The most common retirement plans available to small business owners are 401(k), simplified employee pension (SEP) IRA and savings incentive match plan for employees (SIMPLE) IRA. The SEP IRA and SIMPLE IRA provide employers the ability to save on a pre-tax basis. While there are some required contributions on behalf of any full-time employees, the SEP and SIMPLE IRA’s are often recommended for the self-employed or businesses with part-time or contract employees. The 401(k) also provides employers with a pre-tax savings opportunity and the ability to save on a Roth basis. Because a 401(k) requires additional administration and ongoing requirements, it is often a valuable tool for business owners who have more full-time employees.

2. Health care benefit options

According to the Affordable Care Act, companies with fewer than 50 employees are not required to provide health insurance. However, offering a competitive health insurance benefits package is an increasingly important strategy to help boost both new employee acquisition and retention. Following the global pandemic, health benefits have become increasingly important. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, 51 percent of employers now offer health care benefits to attract new employees with dental, vision, and short-term disability as the most important for job-seekers.

Not only are these benefits of importance to employees, they provide protection for business owners by ensuring good health and protection from illness-related lost productivity. Some health care benefits available to small business owners include health reimbursement accounts, where you make contributions to an account that can be used by employees to pay for individual health insurance policies acquired on their own. Consider hiring a broker, benefits consultant or financial adviser to help compare your options.

3. Life and disability insurance options

As a small business owner, you have a duty to your family, employees and business partners. It is often the unexpected that can derail the success of a business. To that extent, taking the steps to ensure you and your business are protected if you are unable to work is important. Disability insurance is a versatile product that can be used to protect you, as the owner, and your employees against loss of income due to the inability to work. Additionally, disability overhead coverage and disability buy-out insurance can protect the business and any business partners from an owner’s disability, ensuring that the business can still run smoothly. Life insurance is also important, and often required if seeking a business-related loan, to provide income replacement for your family and any business partners in the event of an owner’s death.

4. Get creative with your benefit options

The small business world is ever changing, which is why it is essential — and sometimes difficult — to keep up with benefit options. I encourage small business owners to get creative with their benefit options by exploring a professional employer organization (PEO) and a multiple employer welfare arrangement (MEWA). PEO is designed to help small businesses manage their administrative overhead, benefits and compliance duties. Through MEWA, small businesses are able to collaborate on group insurance benefits for a low cost. Lastly, if your family members contribute to your small business, make sure they are on the payroll and eligible for various benefits. This may allow you to increase the benefits your household takes home.

While creating a small business employee benefits plan can be tedious, it will take your small business to the next level. Consult in a CPA, business attorney, and financial adviser to help navigate what benefits are a good fit for you and your small business.

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Jennifer Steil is principal and wealth management adviser at Volante Integrated Planning, a private client group at Northwestern Mutual.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Stuart Corr of Pumps & Pipes, Trevor Best of Syzygy, and Jennifer Steil of Northwestern Mutual. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from clean energy technology to financial planning — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Stuart Corr, executive director of Pumps & Pipes

What do Houston's three key industries — aerospace, medicine, and energy — have in common? Pumps and pipes, Stuart Corr explains. Photo via pumpsandpipes.org

Stuart Corr, executive director of Pumps & Pipes, and his team are gearing up for the organization's big annual event — which is returning to its in-person capacity. Though most people would not connect the dots on what all the health care, energy, and aerospace industries have in common, but for Stuart Corr, the connection is clear. It's all a bunch of pumps and pipes.

The Houston organization was founded in 2007 to strengthen the collaboration across Houston's three key industries. The city has NASA down the street, the world's largest medical center, and is regarded as the "energy capital of the world." Through the Pumps & Pipes network, innovators across these entities can share resources and collaborate.

"Pumps & Pipes is all about our network — about innovation on demand. It's the idea that we understand what's in other people's toolkits and innovation and technology portfolios," Corr says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovator Podcast. "Ideally, we want to use these new technologies to solve our own problems."

The event is on December 5 at the Ion. Tickets are on sale now. Read more.Read more.

Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics

Syzygy Plasmonics has raised a series C round of funding. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

Houston-based Syzygy Plasmonics closed a $76 million series C financing round led by New York-based Carbon Direct Capital.

The investment funding raised will help the company to "further development and delivery of all-electric reactor systems that eliminate fossil-based combustion from chemical manufacturing and reduce the carbon intensity of hydrogen, methanol, and fuel," per a news release.

"Closing this fundraising round with such strong support from financial and strategic investors and with commercial agreements in hand is a signal to the market," Syzygy Plasmonics CEO and Co-Founder Trevor Best says in the release. "Forward-thinking companies have moved beyond setting decarbonization goals to executing on them. Syzygy is unique in that we are developing low-cost, low-carbon solutions to offer across multiple industries." Read more.

Jennifer Steil, wealth management adviser for Northwestern Mutual

In observance of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day on November 19, a Houstonian shares her four key considerations for women who want to start their own businesses. Photo courtesy

Saturday was Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, and one Houston-based financial planner shared some tips and considerations for aspiring female founders.

In her guest column for InnovationMap, Jennifer Steil, financial planner for Northwestern Mutual, explained the importance of authenticity and advice on building the right team and support network.

"Being a female business owner has its challenges, but it is also extremely rewarding. If you’re considering starting your own business, it’s important to remember to stay true to yourself and do your due diligence to prepare for whatever unique challenges may be thrown your way," she writes. Read more.

In observance of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day on November 19, here are four key considerations for women who want to start their own businesses. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: 4 things female founders should know before starting a business

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Almost four years ago my business partner and I started Volante Integrated Planning, a Houston-based office of Northwestern Mutual focused on comprehensive financial planning. I always aspired to run a business; however, I knew there were many factors to consider before making that leap.

According to the 2022 Northwestern Mutual Great Realization survey, 24 percent of respondents say they want to start a new business in the next two years. While starting your own business sounds appealing, leaving your current job and becoming an entrepreneur can be a difficult transition and it’s no secret that women have to approach our career paths differently than men.

As I recognize there is no one-size-fits-all approach to starting and managing your own business, I wanted to share a few valuable lessons and key takeaways that I learned from my own experience:

1. Seek advice and counsel

When it comes to starting your own business, it’s important to go through the proper financial and legal steps. In order to do this, there are three people you should consider developing a relationship with. The first is a financial planner who can assist you in growing your business by creating a budget and finding ways to leverage your current assets to set you up for long-term success. The second is a Certified Public Accountant who has experience in your industry to help you navigate the unique intricacies of being a business owner. Lastly, an attorney who can help you draw up the necessary documents and think through what needs to be included to protect you and your family.

2. Build your team

You will always need a support system and business team to lean on no matter how much experience you have in your industry or in running a business. I knew early on that I wanted to partner with someone to make it more fun and add higher value to our clients. Before launching our business partnership, we went through varying business cycles together to ensure we would mesh well, from a value standpoint, both financially and personally. This business “courtship” is critical to ensure you build the kind of trust needed. It is also important to develop the culture and values you want for your business first and choose partners or team members that align with those values.

3. Don’t be afraid to be authentic

People are drawn to authenticity rather than if you try to fit into a box, which is why it’s important to stay true to yourself in all aspects of your business. By being your true, authentic self, you can put a plan in place to start a business that is a reflection of your values and morals. If being a working mom is a part of your identity, don’t be afraid to make that known to the team. There is nothing that says you have to start a business a certain way, so make it yours and own it.

4. Give yourself grace

As women, we have a tendency to want to do it all, but it’s important to give yourself grace and be intentional with how you prioritize your time. There are certain life factors and considerations that ultimately influence how women prepare for their financial futures, especially when it comes to running a business. If starting or managing your business is the priority at the time, it’s OK to let your social life or fitness routine, for example, take the back burner for a period of time.

Being a female business owner has its challenges, but it is also extremely rewarding. If you’re considering starting your own business, it’s important to remember to stay true to yourself and do your due diligence to prepare for whatever unique challenges may be thrown your way.

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Jennifer Steil is a Houston-based Northwestern Mutual wealth management adviser.

One in two Houstonians say they have a great business idea — and two-thirds have gotten the ball rolling on making their idea a reality. Getty Images

New data shows over half of Houston has an idea for a business

City of innovation

If you're sitting on a game-changing business idea, you're not alone. According to data from Northwestern Mutual, over half of Houstonians surveyed said they they've got something up their sleeves for a startup — and a third of that group said their idea has the capability to change the industry.

Of the respondents who said they had a business idea, almost 60 percent have already taken first steps to making their idea a reality. But for those yet to take a plunge, the factors holding these aspiring entrepreneurs back were primarily financial. More than 60 percent said not having enough finances were what's stopped them from taking the next step, while over a third indicated that they weren't sure what their next step would be. About 30 percent identified the fear of failure as what's held them back.

Similarly, when asked what the biggest hurdle in starting a company for their business idea, almost half of those surveyed said financial support, followed by "making money" with 17 percent. Of course, that's what Carrie Neumann, director of Multicultural Market Strategy at Northwestern Mutual, expected. Enter: Northwestern Mutual's financial advising services.

"A personalized, holistic plan sets business owners on track to achieve their goals, and it also puts protections — for the business, the owner and current or future employees — in place for the expected and unexpected," says Neumann in a release.

"For entrepreneurs, a trusted financial adviser is not only a great resource for the many questions that come up when starting a business, but an adviser can also help plan for the longterm."

Northwestern Mutual conducted a survey in partnership with OnePoll with a sample of 8,000 individuals in the United States. Houston was one of the 12 major metros included in the survey — and the lone Texas city. The other cities included in the survey were Chicago; Cincinnati; Denver; Miami; New York; Los Angeles; Omaha, Nebraska; Raleigh, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; San Francisco, and Washington D.C.

Houston skewed a tad more ambitious than the other metros surveyed. Across the sample, 41 percent of survey respondents said they have an idea for a business compared to Houston's 51.4 percent. Miami, New York City, and Los Angeles all had a higher percentage of respondents that said they had a great business idea. Los Angeles had over 60 percent of its surveyed participants respond affirmatively to that question.

The city of Houston has its advantages for entrepreneurs. A recent study shows that salaries stretch further in Houston, with the Bayou City ranking as No. 7 nationally. The study conducted by BusinessStudent.com factored in average pay of common jobs and the cost of living.

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Houston-based VC secures oversubscribed $160M fund for early-stage startups

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A Houston venture capital firm has announce big news of its latest fund.

Mercury, founded in 2005 to invest in startups not based in major tech hubs on either coast, closed its latest fund, Mercury Fund V, at an oversubscribed amount of $160 million. Originally expected to raise $150 million, Fund V is the largest fund Mercury has raised to date.

“We are pleased by the substantial support we received for Fund V from both new and existing investors and thank them for placing their confidence in Mercury,” Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury Fund, says in a news release. “Their support is testament to the strength of our team, proven investment strategy, and the compelling opportunities for innovation that exist in cities across America.”

The fund's limited partners include new and existing investors, including endowments at universities, foundations, and family offices. Mercury reports that several of these LPs are based in the central region of the United States where Mercury invests. California law firm Gunderson Dettmer was the fund formation counsel for Mercury.

Fresh closed, Fund V has already made investments in several companies, including:

  • Houston-based RepeatMD, a patient engagement and fintech platform for medical professionals with non-insurance reimbursed services and products
  • Houston and Cheyenne Wyoming-based financial infrastructure tech platform Brassica, which raised its $8 million seed round in April
  • Polco, a Madison, Wisconsin-based polling platform for local governments, school districts, law enforcement, and state agencies
  • Chicago-based MSPbots, a AI-powered process automation platform for small and mid-sized managed service providers

Mercury's investment model is described as "operationally-focused," and the firm works to provide its portfolio companies with the resources needed to grow rapidly and sustainably. Since 2013, the fund has contributed to creating more than $9 billion of enterprise value across its portfolio of over 50 companies.

“Over the past few years there has been a tremendous migration of talent, wealth and know-how to non-coastal venture markets and this surge of economic activity has further accelerated the creation of extraordinary new companies and technology," says Garrou. "As the first venture capital firm to have recognized the attractiveness of these incredible regions a dozen years ago, we are excited to continue sourcing new opportunities to back founders and help these cities continue to grow and thrive.”

Real estate giant taps downtown Houston tower for new smart building tech

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Houston-based real estate giant Hines is rolling out a new smart building platform with the goal of better serving workers and workplaces at its buildings across the country, including one building in Houston that's aiming to be an office building of the future.

From the employee perspective, the new Hines app will allow employees and employers to book spaces within buildings, order food from on-site cafes and restaurants, book on-site fitness classes and access the building via their smartphone or smartwatch. For employers and tenants, the app will help them gain insights into building performance, occupancy data, ESG targets and employee satisfaction, according to a statement from Hines.

“We’re committed to a people-centric experience and this investment takes that commitment to the next level,” Ilene Goldfine, chief digital strategy officer at Hines, says in a statement. “The traditional systems were managed building by building and made it difficult or impossible to track performance across a portfolio. This new digital ecosystem, which unites back-end technology with front-end experiences, will deliver long-term cost savings to our investors and clients.

"Our clients will also be able to track employee satisfaction, make informed decisions about their space needs and ensure they’re monitoring their carbon targets,” Goldfine continues.

The new digital platform will be launched at eight Hines buildings across five cities, including 717 Texas Ave., a 33-story Class A office tower in Downtown Houston.

The other buildings where Hines will roll out the app include:

  • Salesforce Tower in Chicago
  • 1144 15th Street in Denver
  • The Kearns Building in Salt Lake City
  • CIBC Square in Toronto
  • T3 Bayside in Toronto
  • Two buildings at T3 Sterling Road in Toronto

The company plans to add more locations across its global portfolio.

Hines' opened its first location of The Square coworking space at 717 Texas Ave. in 2020 as part of its coworking concept Hines². The company, in collaboration with Montreal-based Ivanhoé Cambridge, opened a second Houston location of The Square recently and has a coworking space in The Kearns Building in Salt Lake City where it will roll out the new app.

Earlier this year, Hines also launched a sustainability-focused business unit, known as EXP by Hines. The unit, led by Hines veteran Doug Holte, aims to address “the disruptive changes in the built environment.”

Houston expert encourages energy industry to bridge its generational divides

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What’s the biggest obstacle between us and net-zero? Is it policy? Technology? Financing? All of these are important, yes, but none of them is what is really holding us back from our energy transition goals.

The biggest obstacle is a lack of open-mindedness and an unwillingness of people across the industry and across generations to work together.

In October of 2022, I was invited to speak at Energy Dialogues’s North American Gas Forum, a conference that brings together executives from across the energy industry. Over the two days of the conference, I was amazed by the forward-thinking conversations we were having on decarbonization, the future of clean energy, emissions reduction, and much more. I returned back to campus at Duke University, energized by these conversations and excited to share them. But rather than seeing the same sense of excitement, I was met with doubt, disbelief, even scorn.

There’s a fundamental distrust between generations in this industry, and it goes both ways. Experienced energy professionals often see the younger generation as irrational idealists who are too politicized to be pragmatic, while the younger generation often paints the older generation as uncaring climate denialists who want nothing to do with clean energy. Neither is true.

Over the past two years since founding Energy Terminal, I’ve met hundreds (maybe thousands) of people all across the energy industry, from CEOs of major energy companies to students just getting started on their career journey. Despite being so different on the surface, their goals are strikingly similar. Almost all can agree on three things: we want to reduce emissions, we want to expand energy access, and we want to do so while encouraging economic prosperity. The perceived barrier between generations in the energy industry is exponentially larger than the actual barrier.

For experienced professionals — take a chance to engage in conversations with young energy leaders. Understand their priorities, listen to their concerns, and find the middle ground. We are a generation passionate about impact and growth, and enabled with the right resources, we can do incredible things. The changing energy world presents unbelievable opportunities for both progress and profit, but without the next generation on board, it will never be sustainable.

For the young energy leaders of the future–listen to the experiences of the leaders that have come before us. Understand the balance between energy that is clean with energy that is secure, reliable, and affordable. We have brilliant ideas and an insatiable appetite for progress, but we won’t do it alone. Every person and every company has a valuable role to play in the energy transition, so consider how we can amplify our strengths rather than attack each other’s weaknesses.

If my co-founder, a climate activist from New York, and myself, the son of an oil and gas family from south Texas, can do it, so can you. This is a call to find the middle ground, to open up your mind to new possibilities, and to make real progress by working with each other rather than against each other.

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Michael Wood III is co-founder of Energy Terminal, a platform that aims to build the next generation of energy leaders and to bridge the gap between youth and the energy industry.

This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.