Swag, gift card or ‘Hamilton’ tix? This San Diego startup is reinventing worker rewards

Money is such an awkward topic. Most people who get a $250 gift card from their boss aren’t rushing to brag to co-workers or post pictures of the money on social media.

What they do want to talk about: Ax throwing.

That’s the idea behind Blueboard, a company that has turned the concept of employee rewards on its head — from something private and often practical (cash and gift cards) to something public, memorable and kind of zany.

Blueboard lets employers give workers experiences, from classes (ceramics, surfing) to tickets (Padres game or the theater) to family fun (parent-child spa day) to the stuff of dreams (a Mongolian wilderness horse trek, a sun soaked trip to the French Riviera). Managers give out these prizes for stellar work, milestones or thank-yous during the holidays.

Naturally, #blueboarding is now an Instagram hashtag, with more than 4,000 pictures and videos of people hot springing in Alaska, grinning with camels in Egypt and brandishing battle axes in California.

What Blueboard is not: A replacement for good pay and benefits or compensation-based bonuses such as cash, said the company’s co-founder, Taylor Smith. Nor is it an entitlement perk for all employees — the kind Silicon Valley tech companies used to be known for. Blueboard’s experiences are meant to be sprinkled strategically among employees as a reward or incentive.

Its San Diego clients include WD-40 and software marketing company Cordial. Elsewhere: Chick-fil-A, GoPro and Shake Shack.

One question Smith gets: Why not cash?

“We would be the first ones to tell you that if people aren’t making enough money to meet their basic needs or there’s expenses that have them stressed, you should use cash instead,” Smith said.

That pitch is tricky in this economy. Advertised pay was up 6.5 percent year-over-year in November, according to Indeed.com’s job postings, but it has fallen since the spring’s year-over-year jump of 9 percent. Year-end bonuses have been complicated, with some industries facing headwinds and others competing briskly for talent. Reuters found that some major law firms kept bonuses even with last year, while others rewarded top performers.

After months of dogged inflation — which has eased but is still breaking 40-year records — and mixed economic signals, will employers want to offer thrilling experiences over sensible cash or slightly more festive gift cards? And when it comes to ROI, are monetary rewards or unique experiences the way to go?

A survey by staffing company Robert Half found that 57 percent of companies plan to give year-end bonuses — a drop from last year. “While this is down from 77% last year, it’s a clear sign that staff retention remains top of mind for many employers,” the company wrote. Companies that can’t afford across-the-board bonuses should consider other ways to show appreciation — including time off, perks or other rewards, it added.

Rethinking rewards

Blueboard’s story starts, as those of many startup stories do, with the story of its founder. About 10 years ago, Smith worked in management consulting for Accenture. The job had all the clichés: No days off for months and so many spreadsheets. It was “an awesome place to start my career.”

At the end of one particularly grueling assignment, his boss thanked him for his work and handed him a gift card. On the flight home, Smith kept thinking about the gesture, but what he felt wasn’t excitement or pride. He was weighing the card’s value against all the overtime and brain juice he’d poured into the project over many months. “It sort of cheapened it,” he said.

Did he treat himself to something nice or just pay bills? Smith blanked. “I honestly have no idea.” A decade later, that money and memories of whatever it bought are both gone.

The disconnect between his manager’s goal — to show appreciation — and Smith’s very different takeaway led him to co-found Blueboard with his then-housemate, Kevin Yip.

The product is part travel concierge and part HR rewards platform, curated and operated by a staff of about 250. To offer experiences, Blueboard signs on with businesses wherever its clients want to reward people, from San Diego to Thailand. In San Diego it has about 50 to 60 providers. Worldwide there are 10,000, he said.

Employers pay for experiences, which cost $150 to $25,000, and for Blueboard’s platform and concierge services. Workers see a “menu” of experiences they’re eligible for, minus prices. (Giving people time to do the experiences is a best practice, but it’s up to managers, Smith added.)

These adventures might cost the same as a gift card, but they do a better job of making people feel valued, Smith said. Give someone a few hundred dollars and there are gutters to be cleaned and braces to pay for.

But give someone “Hamilton” tickets?

Jay Schellenberg, 38, a site reliability engineer with Cordial, recently got his first Blueboard reward and took his wife to see the musical when it passed through San Diego last month. Then he posted pictures to Slack, his company’s messaging system.

Gift cards he got in the past have felt “generic,” but Blueboard “helped me find something that I would actually use,” he said.

Meghan Walneuski, Cordial’s head of human resources, said the rewards are “super well received.” Employees there are well compensated, she added, so they don’t need extra money to afford groceries.

One person who has never gotten a reward: Walneuski. “I guess that’s one of the benefits that I don’t get as the head of HR. Nobody’s gifting it to me!” she said and laughed.

What do workers, and bosses, want?

Eight years after Blueboard launched, just over 500 companies have signed up, from around 150 in 2019. In 2020, Blueboard got Series A venture funding from firms including Graycroft.

The pandemic almost killed the company, because travel and activities outside people’s homes came to a halt, but it added in-home and virtual experiences and hung on. In 2021, demand surged because companies started prioritizing wellness and loyalty as workers’ own priorities changed during the pandemic, Smith said.

2022 has been mixed. Sales this year are in the mid-eight figures, he said, adding the company is not yet profitable.

This environment is challenging for people who set compensation, bonuses and rewards. If you’re staffing restaurants or schools, you’re competing for workers while salaries have lost value. If you’re in an industry that’s shedding jobs, you might be handling layoffs while trying to retain key people.

“It’s a very interesting job market,” said Phil Blair, the executive officer of Manpower Staffing. “We are seeing the ratio of people looking for work to open jobs beginning to normalize. It’s still very high, historically high, but it’s not outrageous like it was before.”

Blair said employees in this job market are enticed by practical things, like longer parental leave or a chance to learn skills that will help them advance on the job. They also want to feel proud of where they work.

“I’d rather go to a seminar or I’d rather go learn a new software, update the equipment I’m using. Or help me do a better job at work and help me develop myself as a better employee. (This is) where I think the emphasis is, what employees want,” Blair said.

What they don’t want: seeing money “wasted on fluff” like retreats or team building events that don’t seem justified. Even time off or an activity a worker chooses is risky if other needs aren’t being met. For example: “They’re feeling burned out and you give them a half a day … during the workday and they come back and go, ‘That’s great, but now I got to work till midnight to catch up.’”

Blair said employers are giving year-end bonuses to workers who didn’t get inflation-pegged pay increases this year. “Let’s give them each $3,000 bonus to sort of catch up,” he said.

Jessica Kriegel, the chief scientist of Workplace Culture at Culture Partners, a national consulting firm based in Temecula, said rewards and perks don’t create company culture.

“Culture is the experiences that we have every single day. When we talk to our manager, when we have a team call, when we work on a project with our peers,” Kriegel said. “And those experiences lead to beliefs that we have about the work that we do, and the purpose in our work, and the colleagues that we have, and so on and so forth. That’s what drives our action, and that’s what gets results.”

Offering perks and rewards “is a green flag as opposed to a red flag,” she said. It could make someone “feel excited about the fact that I work for someone who’s trying to think outside the box about how to make me happy. And if they’re doing that, it probably means they’ll do other things as well, which are a little bit more connected to actual culture.”

Whether these gestures take the form of cash, gift cards, a team-building event or an invitation to indulge in a unique experience, an in-tune manager will find out what resonates with workers.

“There’s the employee who absolutely hates the Christmas party, and there’s the employee who has been looking forward to the Christmas party all year,” she said.

Even more important, she added, is that companies meet basic needs before offering perks and rewards. She remembered a client whose “reward” was old swag that had been sitting around in storage. The reaction: “Can I please get a computer that doesn’t die every four weeks?”

When it comes to stale swag, an experience — learn to build your own computer — or a perhaps gift card to cover a new computer both seem like an upgrade.