The founder of Pocketnest is bridging personal finance gaps for the next generation and bringing financial wellness to the masses
BY JACLYN TROP
Co-managing $1 billion in assets as a certified financial expert for two decades means doling out plenty of advice outside of the workday. “With my friends, I have this reputation that as long as you buy me lunch I’ll give you all the free financial advice,” says Jessica Willis, founder of Pocketnest, a financial wellness platform based in Detroit.
Willis, 43, says the rampant need for guidance on handling money was eye-opening. During her corporate career, she says most financial advisers only accepted clients with more than $1 million in assets, and Willis’ friends represented an underserved market. Free mobile apps only helped users track their spending, and low-or no-cost robo advisers couldn’t provide comprehensive financial planning.
To Willis, the mission was clear: Make financial planning accessible to everyone, not just the wealthy. She decided that the best way to accomplish that is to empower banks and financial institutions to offer their customers a holistic view of their financial wellness. “People want their financial institutions with the household name to be their one-stop shop,” she says.
In 2018, Willis enlisted her friends to help her figure out the ideal user experience. “I started writing ‘if/then workflows’ by hand,” she says. “Picture ‘process workflows’ with arrows all over a page and then lots and lots of text. It became the wireframe for the app.”
“Our platform addresses true comprehensive financial planning — all the topics that keep us up at night beyond just investments.”
Willis began working on Pocketnest early each morning before commuting to her full-time job at Pointe Capital Management in Grosse Pointe. A year later, in 2019, she felt ready to trade the corporate world for the “Southeast Michigan startup ecosystem.” She began attending events at Bamboo, Ann Arbor Spark, and other startup incubators, where she found “genuine support among other founders.”
“Being a founder is so lonely, but we all mentor each other,” Willis says. “Even if we don’t know each other, we’re one LinkedIn connection away. It’s uniquely Midwest, and we should be so proud of that.”
The community helped Willis find mentors, advisers, and investors who understood where Pocketnest can shine.
Willis created Pocketnest with a vision to make financial planning fast, fun, and free. One part of the business provides employer clients — including The Henry Ford Museum, The Foundation for Financial Wellness, and eTitle — with an app and quarterly webinars to help their employees manage their financial wellness. The other part licenses and rebrands Pocketnest’s technology to financial institutions, which in turn offer the tool to their customers, 401k participants, and credit union members. The extra service provides an opportunity for clients to engage with the next generation of members while identifying cross-selling opportunities. Each user receives customized recommendations around topics such as retirement, budgets, college savings, debt, and insurance.
Fintech is a crowded space, which makes it confusing for consumers to navigate, Willis says. “A lot of financial companies who serve as planners or advisers, as well as the tech-based platforms like robo advisers or micro-trading platforms, can be siloed and focused on selling securities or insurance and not the broader financial planning topics like debt, budget, saving for college, estate planning, insurance strategies, and income tax planning,” she says. “Our platform addresses true comprehensive financial planning — all the topics that keep us up at night beyond just investments.”
John Wernz, a Pocketnest advisory board member and investor, says that Pocketnest stands apart from competitors. “There are lots of solutions in fintech for banking, investing, and payments, but there are very few that cover the main areas of financial planning,” he says. “Financial planning is often overlooked by the fintech category, but it’s one of the most impactful areas for people to improve and protect their finances.”
As a founder, “Jessica demonstrates the traits I look for when investing – strength, clarity, drive, and attitude,” he adds. “She moves between all areas of the business, from product to sales to raising funds, with ease.”
That extends to the flow Willis has created between her home and work lives, which often collide because she works out of her home.
“It’s a lot of intentionality,” says Willis, who has two daughters, 6 and 12, and a son, 10. “When I’m ‘on’ with my kids at 5 o’clock, I’ll often slide the mail app to the last page of my phone’s home screen so that I’m not tempted to peek. But sometimes just sliding that icon all the way over is uncomfortable.”
She and her husband, Tom Willis, co-founder of Michigan-based business consulting service Phoenix Performance Partners, share the tactical work of dropping off the kids, packing lunches, taking them to sports, and doing laundry. “I make sure I am letting my kids see that everything’s a partnership,” she says.
But beyond the chores, “partnership and support is really about being intentional, learning what your spouse needs and then meeting them there,” Willis says. “Plus we laugh our asses off. We spend a lot of time trying to crack each other up.”
You can download the Pocketnest app in the Apple and Google Play stores:
Read about all of the women in business featured in the 2022 Women’s Issue here.