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Fintech Lessons Applied to Insurtech

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:

  1. Carriers cannot always articulate what problems they are trying to solve and what success looks like
  2. Decision makers aren’t involved enough or don’t provide enough support in the innovation process
  3. 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.

See also: FinTech: Epicenter of Disruption (Part 1)  

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.

15 Hurdles to Scaling for Driverless Cars

Will the future of driverless cars rhyme with the history of the Segway? The Segway personal transporter was also predicted to revolutionize transportation. Steve Jobs gushed that cities would be redesigned around the device. John Doerr said it would be bigger than the internet. The Segway worked technically but never lived up to its backers’ outsized hopes for market impact. Instead, the Segway was relegated to narrow market niches, like ferrying security guards, warehouse workers and sightseeing tours.

One could well imagine such a fate for driverless cars (a.k.a. AVs, for autonomous vehicles). The technology could work brilliantly and yet get relegated to narrow market niches, like predefined shuttle routes and slow-moving delivery drones.  Some narrow applications, like interstate highway portions of long-haul trucking, could be extremely valuable but nowhere near the atmospheric potential imagined by many—include me, as I described, for example, in “Google’s Driverless Car Is Worth Trillions.”

For AVs to revolutionize transportation, they must reach a high level of industrialization and adoption. They must enable, as a first step, robust, relatively inexpensive Uber-like services in urban and suburban areas. (The industry is coalescing around calling these types of services “transportation as a service,” or TaaS.) In the longer term, AVs must be robust enough to allow for personal ownership and challenge the pervasiveness of personally owned, human-driven cars.

See also: Where Are Driverless Cars Taking Industry?  

This disruptive potential (and therefore enormous value) is motivating hundreds of companies around the world, including some of the biggest and wealthiest, such as Alphabet, Apple, General Motors, Ford, Toyota and SoftBank, to invest many billions of dollars into developing AVs. The work is progressing, with some companies (and regulators) believing that their AVs are “good enough” for pilot testing of commercial AV TaaS services with real customers on public roads in multiple markets, including SingaporePhoenix and Quangzhou.

Will AVs turn out to be revolutionary? What factors might cause them to go the way of the Segway—and derail the hopes (and enormous investments) of those chasing after the bigger prize?

Getting AVs to work well enough is, of course, a non-negotiable prerequisite for future success. It is absolutely necessary but far from sufficient.

In this three-part series, I look beyond the questions of technical feasibility to explore other significant hurdles to the industrialization of AVs. These hurdles fall into four categories: scaling, trust, market viability and secondary effects.

Scaling. Building and proving an AV is a big first step. Scaling it into a fleet-based TaaS business operation is an even bigger step. Here are seven giant hurdles to industrialization related to scaling:

  1. Mass production
  2. Electric charging infrastructure
  3. Mapping
  4. Fleet management and operations
  5. Customer service and experience
  6. Security
  7. Rapid localization

Trust. It is not enough for developers and manufacturers to believe their AVs are good enough for widespread use, they must convince others. To do so, they must overcome three huge hurdles.

  1. Independent verification and validation
  2. Standardization and regulation
  3. Public acceptance

Market Viability. The next three hurdles deal with whether AV-enabled business models work in the short term and the long term, both in beating the competition and other opponents.

  1. Business viability
  2. Stakeholder resistance
  3. Private ownership

See also: Suddenly, Driverless Cars Hit Bumps  

Secondary Effects. We shape our AVs, and afterward our AVs reshape us, to paraphrase Winston Churchill. There will be much to love about the successful industrialization of driverless cars. But, as always is the case with large technology change, there could be huge negative secondary effects. Several possible negative consequences are already foreseeable and raising concern. They represent significant hurdles to industrialization unless successfully anticipated and ameliorated.

  1. Congestion
  2. Job loss

I’ll sketch out these hurdles in two more parts to come.

When Incumbents Downplay Disruption…

An unmanned car driven by a search engine company? We’ve seen that movie. It ends with robots harvesting our bodies for energy.

That is a line from a 2011 Chrysler car commercial mocking Google’s self-driving car project.

Another Chrysler commercial was even blunter: “Robots can take our food, our clothes and our homes. But, they will never take our cars.”

Chrysler’s early mocking of Google’s efforts exemplifies the fact that few cling to the status quo tighter than the companies that best understand it and have the most stake in preserving it. It is human nature to value what one does well and look askance at innovations that challenge the assumptions underlying current success. Sprinkle in some predictably irrational wishful thinking and you have the mindset that too quickly dismisses potentially dangerous disruptions.

Ironically, seven years later, those Google “robots” are now mostly driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Those robots have taken Chrysler’s cars and driven more than 10 million miles. Chrysler benefits by selling cars to Waymo, the spinoff from that Google project, but not nearly as much as it might have from building the robots themselves. Waymo is valued at $175 billion, about five times Chrysler’s market value.

History brims with other examples.

When Alexander Graham Bell offered to sell his telephone patents to Western Union, the committee evaluating the deal concluded:

Messrs. Hubbard and Bell want to install one of their ‘telephone devices’ in every city. The idea is idiotic on the face of it… This device is inherently of no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase.

Ken Olsen, who disrupted IBM’s mainframe dominance with his DEC minicomputers, mocked the usefulness of personal computers in their early days. He declared, “The personal computer will fall flat on its face in business.” Olsen was very wrong, and DEC would eventually be sold to Compaq Computer, a personal computer maker, for a fraction of its peak value.

See also: Why AI IS All It’s Cracked Up to Be  

Steve Ballmer’s initial ridicule of Apple’s iPhone is also legendary, though the words of the then-CEO of Microsoft were mild compared with the disdain on his face when asked to comment on the iPhone launch.

Years later, after he retired, Ballmer insisted that he was right about the iPhone in the context of mobile phones at the time. What he missed, he admitted, was that the strict separation of hardware, operating system and applications that drove Microsoft’s success in PCs wasn’t going to reproduce itself on mobile phones. Ballmer also didn’t recognize the power of the business model innovation that allowed the iPhone’s high cost to be built into monthly cell phone bills and to be subsidized by mobile operators. (Jump to the 4:00 mark.)

The biggest challenge for successful business executives—like Ballmer, Olsen and those at Western Union—when confronted with potentially disruptive innovations is to think deeply about potential strategic shifts, rather than simply mock innovations for violating current assumptions.

Another perhaps soon-to-be classic example is unfolding at State Farm Insurance.

State Farm released an TV ad that is a thinly veiled attack on Lemonade, a well-funded insurtech startup. Lemonade makes wide use of AI-based chatbots for customer service. State Farm, instead, prides itself on its host of human agents. In the ad, a State Farm agent says:

The budget insurance companies are building these cheap, knockoff robots to compete with us… These bots don’t have the compassion of a real State Farm agent.

As I’ve previously written, AI is one of six information technology trends that is reshaping every information-intensive industry, including insurance. In fact, as I recently told a group of insurance executives, I believe insurance will probably change more in the next 10 to 15 years than it has in the last 300.

See also: Lemonade Really Does Have a Big Heart  

That doesn’t mean that Lemonade’s use of chatbots for customer service will destroy State Farm. But, as State Farm should know, customer-service chatbots are only one of numerous innovations that Lemonade is bringing to the game. As several McKinsey consultants point out, AI-related technologies are driving “seismic tech-driven shifts” in a number of different aspects of insurance. Lemonade has also adopted a mobile-first strategy and is applying behavioral economics to drive other business model innovations.

State Farm executives need to get beyond the mocking and think deeply about how emerging innovations might disrupt their strategic assumptions.

One way to do so is being offered at InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, where ITL editor-in-chief and industry thought leader Paul Carroll has offered a “State Farm Lemonade Throw Down.” Carroll offers to host an online debate between the two firms’ CEOs about how quickly AI technology should be integrated into interactions with customers.

Lemonade’s CEO, Daniel Schreiber, has accepted. I hope Michael Tipsord, State Farm’s CEO, will accept, as well.

Better for Mr. Tipsord to face the question now, while there is ample time to still out-innovate Lemonade and other startups, than to be left to reflect on what went wrong years later, as Steve Ballmer had to do with the iPhone.

A Contrarian Looks ‘Back to the Future’

A recent week started with reading a page by Paul Carroll from his Innovator’s Edge platform. The title question was: “Will Apple enter insurance? Google? Microsoft? Amazon?” His opening statement was, “Apple’s market value crested $1 trillion last week, and its big tech brethren Google, Microsoft and Amazon aren’t far behind, all are valued north of $800 billion…”

I wasn’t shocked until he said, “All have extensive data about customers. And all have the size to tackle mind-bending problems that insurance faces – by contrast you’d have to combine AIG, Prudential and Allstate just to surpass $100 billion in market value…”

A day later, someone sent me Reagan Consulting’s “The Golden Age of Insurance Brokerage.” As I read through this short update, I could almost hear, “Happy days are here again” playing in the background for the brokers. The following captures the essence of this document: “We are living in the Golden Age of insurance brokerage. There are so many good things happening, it is hard to keep track of them all.” This was followed by six bullet points providing evidence of why the brokers are so happy. (No mention was made of insurance buyers, who may not be as HAPPY!)

A friend then sent me a link to “The Death of the Old School Agency,” by Michael Jans. This is a more in-depth view (30-plus pages) of the world as it may or will be.

From the executive summary, we learn that today’s agent faces a new world of:

  • Rapid changes in consumer behavior and expectations
  • Emerging, existing and well-funded competitive channels
  • A rising millennial generation with different expectations, both as consumers and workers
  • A pace of change unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.

Depending upon who, what and where you are, this report will bring good news or bad news, but nonetheless – it is news that (I believe) every agent needs to hear, consider, ponder and then decide on.

Agencies tomorrow are not “your daddy’s Oldsmobile.” Ask someone older than 40 to explain the phrase. This was the beginning of the end of a legendary line of General Motors automobiles and probably a foreshadowing of the collapse of General Motors.

I encourage you to study all three of these documents – they are well-written by very successful folks. Their ideas should be carefully considered, and, if properly adapted to your circumstances, all can improve your results. That is – as long as the world goes as “we the people” in this industry think it should. What follows is my contrarian view – less “raining on your parade” and more clearing the air as you look to the horizon in tomorrow’s consumer-driven economy. We are not in charge. We today are wagering on our individual and industry’s future. Place your bets. The market will pick the winners.

See also: 3 Myths That Inhibit Innovation (Part 3)  

This contrarian will offer his ideas by looking “back to the future.”

There will remain great opportunities in our future, but these will require transformational change. From today’s selling in an industry that is product-defined and product-driven, to a new client-defined and client-driven marketplace where we will facilitate our client’s buying – solving their problems and meeting their needs. In the competitive nature of tomorrow’s world – we’ll have to use artificial intelligence (AI) to anticipate these needs and deliver solutions before our clients “go shopping.”

Some of the people, gifts, expertise, disciplines, skills, etc. we’ll need will be much different than the mechanical process we use today. We will need communicators (verbal and nonverbal), empathizers, artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers, storytellers, caregivers and “techies.” This is not an all-inclusive list. (Consider reading “A Whole New Mind,” by Daniel Pink.)

Warren Bennis offered the following wisdom decades ago: “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

Consider the following – brief observations from one man’s experience:

  • In 1978, Fireman’s Fund/Famex Agents offered a GM-endorsed insurance program for dealers. I was the SW Louisiana agent. In those days, the No. 1 concern of GM and its dealers was that GM would reach 65% market share and the federal government would break GM up into separate companies, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, etc. GM’s arrogance, the dealers’ complacency, foreign competition, a poor product and a marketplace wanting change reshaped their world. GM never made it to 65% market share. I believe the insurance industry is ripe for a similar transformational experience.
  • In 1994, I was speaking to a bank in St. James Parish (Louisiana) about change. I said, “Today, GM, Sears and IBM are the kings of their respective jungles. I believe, in my lifetime, one of these companies will fail.” I was laughed off the stage. Fourteen years later, I was vindicated with the bankruptcy filing by GM. I personally believe that I’ll also prove right on Sears.
  • In June 2008, I was an instructor for attendees in a risk and insurance class at the KPMG Advisory University in Chicago. This was a continuing education week for KPMG consultants. A rookie consultant asked, “How does an insurance company fail?” I explained with the Champion Insurance story.

Then he asked for an example of a “rock solid” insurance company. I said, “AIG.” The KPMG senior partners in the room nodded in agreement. Less than 100 days later, AIG was functionally bankrupt, requiring a $182 billion bailout by the government. None of us saw that coming. (I’ll bet you were surprised, as well.)

As I wrap up this article, hoping I’ve stimulated a much more important discussion about the future, consider the following:

  1. Companies valued at $100 billion are “big” until measured against trillion-dollar operations in a world in transformation – especially if the giants have better technology and data!
  2. Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon (AGMA) are kings of their respective jungles. Yet these companies are not even as old as the majority of readers of this column (with the possible exception of Microsoft and Apple, founded in the mid-1970s). Why would we think that our “old and stoic” industry is “safe” and “promising” for tomorrow? Are we celebrating our past when we should be planning our future?
  3. Do you think that any of your clients who have recently received a rate increase will be as enthusiastic about the profitability of our industry and the future of the world of brokers as stated in the article offered by Reagan? I’ve rarely (if ever) heard a client celebrate the profitability of our industry when it is an expense to theirs…
  4. Generational changes, social media and our societal rethinking of issues of race, gender, ethnicity, family, values, economic models (socialism / capitalism), etc. may result in our going in directions that we, 10 years ago, would have never considered possible.
  5. Has our industry let the government get its nose into our tent/economic system. NFIP has been in this industry as long as I have. The private sector didn’t want to address the flood risk. Now, these nearly 50 years later, the flood program is a government program and not sustainable. Unfortunately, the government may be ready to have the camel stand up in the tent? Medicare for everyone is no longer a crazy idea. It may not work, but….
  6. If the insurance industry was being designed today to do what it does, do you really believe it would be what we have? If you answered yes, please reread the question!

See also: What Is Really Disrupting Insurance?  

Bookstores, travel agencies, video stores, etc. were important in our communities of yesterday – UNTIL THEY WEREN’T. Should we begin redesigning our own operations and industry and future before a competitive innovator does it for us?

How Tech Is Eating the Insurance World

Amazons and Apples and Googles. Oh my…

What do these companies have in common? Devout brand loyalty from the modern consumer coupled with world-leading technology. This poses a massive threat to insurance companies that value ownership of the customer above all else and are seriously lagging on tech. In a post-financial crisis world where financial brands are reflexively distrusted by modern consumers that have incredibly high digital UX standards, technology brands and emerging insurtech startups have a considerable advantage in winning future insurance business.

Amazon, Apple, Google and other tech giants don’t do anything small. It would be foolish for insurers to think that these disruptors will enter the industry to play nice and simply serve as their brokers or lead generators. They have capital in spades, massive captive audiences, piles of valuable data and are perfectly comfortable navigating complicated regulatory landscapes. Insurers like to hide behind this regulatory complexity as a reason to dismiss new market entrants, but this is simply a speed bump for those who want to make insurance a point of focus – not an insurmountable barrier to entry.

The Google Experience

Google dipped its toe in the industry in 2015 with Google Compare and then quickly withdrew in 2016. Insurers like to point to this as the shining example of how technology companies “don’t understand insurance” or how they “underestimate the complexity of the industry.” What they forget (or simply don’t mention) is Google’s core business model – advertising. What is the sixth most expensive word on Google AdWords? Insurance ($48.41 per CLICK!). Who buys that word and drives significant revenue to Google? Insurers. Google’s exit was not the result of execution failure or naivete; it was a consequence of rocking the boat with some of their highest-value advertising customers. The rest of the companies listed above, among countless other tech giants and well-funded startups, do not have that same conflict. Insurers are not immune to disruption from them.

Shifting Consumer Behavior

The modern consumer is a digital native and does not want to speak to people on the phone or fill out piles of paperwork. Consumers want to be offered insurance when it’s top of mind – how they want it, when they want it, from brands they trust, instantly.

One of the biggest problems we see with tech-insurance partnerships is insurers’ insistence on controlling the underwriting and sales process, which creates massive friction with technology companies that offer far superior digital experiences. Consumers don’t want to leave Amazon to start a separate purchasing process on an insurer’s website, and Amazon doesn’t want them to leave its site, either. This is something that is easily solved through API-driven technology systems and programmatic underwriting – words that often give insurers heart palpitations.

See also: What if Amazon Entered Insurance?  

Consumers don’t want to shop around for insurance on quote comparison sites. They don’t want to engage with insurance companies more than necessary or share troves of personal data through an insurance app. They want to purchase insurance when they need it, pay for what they use and never think about it again. Insurance incumbents have responded by building their own apps, offering discounts for more shared data and doubling down on advertisement spending.

Insurance in the Background

Insurance is an important feature, but not always the star product. It’s sold well to the modern consumer either purely digitally or as part of a broader offering – typically at the point of purchase for a non-insurance product or service. That’s an unpleasant thought for insurers that take a tremendous amount of pride in their history, processes and brands. However, letting pride and status quo dictate your business strategy is a good way to get your business killed.

Why not offer homeowners insurance in 15 seconds (not minutes) through fully digital workflow like Kin does? Why not combine cyber protection software and cyber insurance like Paladin Cyber does, so risk is reduced even further in the event of a cyber incident? Why not offer white-labeled SMB insurance to the millions of third-party retailers currently selling on Amazon? Or episodic renter’s coverage directly through Airbnb at the point of booking?

Here are a few reasons why insurers aren’t being more innovative:

  • insurers’ technology simply can’t support seamless distribution through digital platforms
  • insurers/agents/brokers insist on owning the customer
  • insurers don’t want to alienate their traditional distribution network of brokers and agents
  • insurers want full underwriting control through traditional, and often analog, methods
  • insurers don’t want to share data with tech companies but expect tech companies to open their proprietary analytics models to insurers.

This simply will not work.

The Everything Store

Apple already disrupted the warranty space by owning the whole AppleCare stack for themselves. Google has the conflicts discussed earlier. Facebook has the same. As a result, I believe Amazon is the most likely tech giant to make a big splash in the insurance industry as they continue to build their “Everything Store.”

We already see what they’re doing in healthcare, their investment in Acko in India, and rumors about an imminent play in banking. They recently acquired Ring, which has obvious insurance applications, for a reported $1 billion. The writing is on the wall. While I’m not entirely convinced that consumers will search Amazon.com for auto or home insurance, having millions of third-party seller merchants, adding 300,000 in the U.S. in 2017 alone, is a good starting point as far as addressable commercial insurance markets are concerned.

See also: 11 Ways Amazon Could Transform Care  

I am a huge admirer of what Jeff Bezos has built at Amazon, and I’m modeling Boost after what they did in the data storage and hosting space with AWS. It would be foolish for anyone to underestimate the impact a company like Amazon can have on any industry – no matter how old, established or huge the insurance incumbents’ businesses may be. Just ask Barnes & Noble, Walmart, media companies or any grocery store right now.