June 18, 2019
Fintech Lessons Applied to Insurtech
by Chris Chen
No single technology will be the holy grail. Instead, the ability for a company to continually innovate rapidly will become the goal.
Having worked in fintech since 2005, I witnessed the fintech wave forming, cresting and eventually crashing into the financial ecosystem. If there is a fraternal twin to banking, it’s the insurance industry. Both industries are built on managing risk, capital, compliance and distribution. Not everything in fintech will apply to insurtech, but there’s a lot we can learn by assessing the impact of fintech on the banking system.
The insurtech revolution will likely be more of an evolution–a more gradual shift and less of a big bang. The proof is the banking system. While it has clearly been affected by fintech, the tsunami of change has been less violent than what some predicted at the height of the craze.
Technology Is an Arms Race
Technology can be transformative, like the computer, the internet, the iPhone and many other examples. But, oftentimes, technology is iterative: One widget is replaced by a more efficient or lower-cost widget.
Advantages are often short-lived. Look at small dollar lending within fintech. Putting the entire application process into a digital format and with instant funding was incredible, but this has become the industry standard. Billions of dollars have been pumped into that space. In just a few short years, the software was commoditized.
Short of a truly defensible business model with unique intellectual property or network effects, most companies will find themselves in an arms race. No single technology will be the holy grail. Instead, a company’s ability to continually innovate rapidly will become the goal.
A lot of variables dictate how well an institution innovates, but here are some common mistakes that I have seen in fintech and now within insurtech as a potential technology partner:
- Carriers cannot always articulate what problems they are trying to solve and what success looks like
- Decision makers aren’t involved enough or don’t provide enough support in the innovation process
- Failing fast or testing concepts is cumbersome
Over the course of a year, innovation teams probably meet hundreds of startups. At Verikai, we have had the most success with innovation teams that are well-versed in the problems of the business. The challenge for startups is that we don’t know what we don’t know about your business. It’s difficult enough to sell a young technology but almost impossible to sell something to a client that can’t articulate its own problems well. It feels like some innovation teams are browsing instead of shopping; at Verikai, we believe that’s because there isn’t always alignment or support from the decision makers. By contrast, an innovation leader started off our meeting the other day by articulating all the problems he was responsible for solving and how solutions would help the business. He had me at hello.
Even if you create alignment, it’s incredibly difficult to push an insurance carrier into simple tests. There are a ton of valid reasons for why on-boarding is slow, but you have to find a way to cut through these barriers. Even the banks eventually found ways to re-engineer their internal processes to accommodate startups. Whether for contracts, audits, compliance, certifications or whatever, I would encourage carriers to find a way to “yes” rather than “no”.
Half the battle is accelerating your discovery process. Obsession over the latest technology craze is understandable, but what teams should really focus on is creating structure, culture and process that allow a company to adopt all of the relevant technologies in the coming years.
Sandboxes: Not Just for Kids
More data has been created this past year than all the previous years combined. There’s no way that any regulator can keep up with the proliferation of data and technology. While fair lending may not exist within insurance, the concept of disparate impact is shared with the industry, as is the concern for safety and soundness. In banking, regulators began creating sandboxes and town halls to encourage dialogue and learning. In addition, the fintechs began pushing regulators and Congress to change regulations to accommodate new business models. As the insurtech movement matures, I’d expect to see a lot more interaction with regulators.
It’s important that each carrier understands the shifting sands. Startups are more likely to lead with regulators, but it’s important that they not be the only voice at the table. Working with regulators is an incredibly important aspect of long-term planning for insurers.
Direct-to-Consumer Is Difficult
There are only so many people looking for financial products at any given time, and they’re not always in the digital channel. Fintech lenders, over time, became incredibly adept at customer acquisition through digital marketing. But even the digital market had an upper limit. The obvious place to then hunt for customers was through the banks themselves.
At first, fintech was the sworn enemy of banks, but now they are often partners. Insurtech, like fintech, will find a pain point that big insurance companies cannot address efficiently. Insurtechs will exploit it for what it’s worth, but will need to broaden their distribution over time through partnership. Certainly, there are MGAs that already write on behalf of their carrier partners, but I suspect an even deeper partnership is possible in many cases. While digital channels are incredibly appealing, brokers/agents are still relevant to many people. The point is that the digital market is a growing pool, but that there’s still a much larger body of water to fish from. Don’t be surprised if competition moves to cooperation over time.
Unbundle to Bundle
Fintechs were incredibly strong at finding niche markets that could be easily exploited under the noses of the banks. The same will hold true within insurance, but the demands of investors and capital will drive insurtechs to go after an even greater share of the consumer wallet.
All companies fear the Amazons and Apples entering the financial services market. However, it’s fintechs like SOFI, Marcus, Chime, Varo, Robinhood and countless others that are beginning to bundle multiple products to create modern, digital banks. The most expensive thing in fintech has been acquiring customers in high volumes. Naturally, companies can justify higher costs if they can increase customer lifetime values through cross-selling. And, there is a potential network effect for the winners. Whether insurtechs do the same thing or possibly some giant fintech player enters insurance, I suspect it’s a matter of time before someone will try to create the Amazon of the insurance space.
See also: What Gig Economy Means for FinTech
The Early Days
It’s certainly going to take a while for all of these predictions to play out, but it’s important to have a long view. So far, I’m not sensing any panic in the industry. But, at the height of the mortgage crisis in 2008, no one paid too much attention to the peer-to-peer lenders lurking in the background. Somewhere around 2015, the banks went into high alert.
Depending on who you are and how you are positioned in insurance, the hindsight of fintech may be prescient for your company.