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Tipping in a Cashless World: Elle Rustique, founder and CEO, TipBrightly

As the daughter of a hotel housekeeper, Elle Rustique knows the importance of tipping. When she was a child, a tip for her Mom could mean a trip to McDonald's for a Happy Meal! For her own career, Elle pursued education. Starting as a high school history teacher in New York City, she earned her master’s at Columbia, a Ph.D. from University College London, and then went on to Stanford University to work as a researcher.

Elle Rustique, founder and CEO, TipBrightly
Elle Rustique, founder and CEO, TipBrightly

Her position at Stanford evolved, and she was traveling frequently, building partnerships for the university addressing issues of equity, opportunity, access, and large-scale change. On the road, always armed with her cell phone, but without cash for tips, she grew increasingly frustrated. She saw the change towards a cashless society––fewer than 18 percent of Americans always carry cash––and she understood the impact of lost tips on low-wage workers. Elle knew there had to be a tipping solution utilizing mobile technology, but it didn’t exist yet. So in 2019, she decided to create one herself.

We talk to Elle about her tech startup, TipBrightly, which in less than three years has won a bunch of awards, and is not only increasing compensation for hotel employees but also improving retention and morale!

Hi, Elle, tell us how did you come up with the idea for TipBrightly?

My career was in education, prior to starting TipBrightly, I worked at Stanford University, first as a researcher, then creating partnerships between the Schoool of Business, School of Education, and the (a design school at Stanford). These partnerships focused on issues of equity, opportunity, and access, and enabling systemic change.

Frequently on the road, I kept finding myself without cash to tip. Tipping is very important to me because my mother was a hotel housekeeper for over 20 years. I know how hard she worked. Growing up, I knew when she earned tips because she’d take my brother, sister, and me to McDonald’s and get Happy Meals for each of us. Looking at my phone I wondered why wasn’t tipping possible when then technology existed for other payments?

I knew from my work and research that this is what happens with the financially and socially under-served. Innovation doesn’t make it to them.

I knew from my work and research that this is what happens with the financially and socially under-served. Innovation doesn’t make it to them. And because they are not empowered to ask for change, nothing changes.

Wow, it is true that the underprivileged don’t feel empowered to ask for help. How were you motivated to start TipBrightly?

First, I thought of my mother and the millions of workers who rely on tips and knew that the shift to mobile payments which we are now seeing would have a disproportionate impact on tipped service workers on a variable income.

Second, I knew what needed to happen: Bring the technology to tipping. The key was figuring how to create the conditions, incentives, and structures that would encourage guests to tip (often and more with a mobile phone) and incentivize businesses to adopt (and pay for) it.

Amazing, you figured out how to create a mobile tipping platform. How exactly does TipBrightly work?

TipBrightly optimizes existing mobile payments technology to make tipping seamless and easy. We've taken the friction out of payment, enabling anyone with a mobile phone to scan a QR code and send a tip in a way that is faster and better than cash.

how TipBrightly works
how TipBrightly works

Hoteliers provide employees with unique QR-coded “tipping cards,” akin to business cards, and displays signage, which provides instructions on how to leave a cashless tip. When a guest scans the QR code, the attendant's name appears. This allows the guest to confirm that the tip will be received by this employee. Processed securely by Stripe, the payment is sent directly to the employee and deposited into their bank account the next day. It also gives the tipper the opportunity to leave a comment.

What you are doing to help employees get tipped is great, do most people not carry cash anymore? I know I don’t! Like you, I’m often in that awkward place where I want to tip but don’t have money on me.

Only 18 percent of Americans carry cash at all times (source: Travis Credit Union) and in the UK, only 14 percent of people always carry cash – and just 8 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds, so a cashless society is quickly becoming the norm (source: Samsung UK). And when people do carry cash, 8 in 10 people are not carrying bills less than $20. In other words, no one is carrying the cash needed to tip!

What has been the hardest part about starting your own business?

Fundraising. The bar to securing funding is higher for women, less than 2% of VC funds go to female-owned businesses. We must defend our idea, conversations often start with me having to prove that I know what I’m doing, not what I can do or have done. I realized very quickly that this would be a mountain that would be tough to overcome without a track record and results to prove that my company would deliver. But as I sign on more and more hotels, I am determined to secure funding.

“Tip shaming” has totally blown up on TikTok, which is not a great trend for managers and owners, what are your thoughts?

Videos, comments, and fierce debates reflect the confusion that rapidly changing technology, varying company policies, and outdated wage laws are creating for customers. There is not a lot of guidance and what is helpful for one tipped service worker is not for another. While cash is king, the reality is that we live in an increasingly cashless and contactless world with COVID. Consumers make a judgment call based on what they know is expected, what they can afford, and the level of service. It boils down to education and emotional intelligence.

At its core, I believe tipping should be fueled by awareness, appreciation, and recognition for the service being provided. Everyone, regardless of their job, deserves that.

What hotels are using TipBrightly so far?

We’re in hotels all over North America, from Canada to California. We’ve recently signed with Curator Hotels, a collection of independent properties, and some of our first customers have been Kimpton properties.

How has TipBrightly helped?

Overall, we are seeing 5-10% increases in wages due to cashless tipping. Since entering the market, we’ve recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in tips, helping everyone from musicians to hotel housekeepers to aestheticians and to artisan beer delivery services. One of our most successful customers is a luxury boutique hotel that offers valet parking, where tips have skyrocketed for the attendants.

elle rustique tipbrightly

Congratulations! TipBrightly has scooped up a bunch of awards since you launched.

Yes, I am super proud, we won the 2021 “Truly Disruptive Award” for Hotel & Hospitality at the Innofac Show, we were a finalist in 2019 at “The Financial Solutions Lab, Workplace Financial Health Challenge,” we were sponsored by the Center for Financial Solutions Innovation in partnership with JP Morgan Chase and have been named by as one of “Five New Travel Startups To Watch for Building Better End-to-End Trips.”

Now to the nuts and bolts, how do hotels sign up?

There are three parts to setting up TipBrightly — design, onboarding, and deployment. We help with each of these steps. We offer a high level of customization and a range of configurations that allow a hotel to make the tipping experience brand-aligned. Our demos are like a free consultation, so it is easy to decide whether our system will work for you.

We make the tipping experience is quick, light, and seamless. Tipping doesn’t require a mobile app, hardware, or integration, just a smartphone that almost everyone carries today. Finally, our system of guest feedback allows the employee and management to be notified instantly. Employees own their data and can track their tips, management gets to see all the amazing feedback, which fuels morale and productivity. The value for employers is undeniable: by increasing their employee's earnings they can decrease turnover and morale has gone way up!


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