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10 Predictions for Insurtech in 2017

It’s time to reflect on the passing year, mark my predictions from last year and throw some light on what I see 2017 holding in store.

In my post from this time last year, I made a number of predictions, so, now, I wanted to look at how I did. Feel free to jump in and see how close to the mark I was and share your perspectives.

Reviewing 2016 — How did I do?

1. Fintech and insurtech.  In last year’s piece, I said that 2015 was the year of the zone, loft, garage and accelerator and that this would continue in 2016 with more focus. Regarding fintech and insurtech, I was right. We have seen some heavyweight investment (more so in the U.S. and Asia) and no major failures, to my knowledge. Trending up. Points: 1. 

2. Evolution of IoT. In 2015, I wrote, “2016 will be the year we all realize (IoT) is just another data/automated question set.” Evolution here is continuing, but not at the pace I expected. New firms such as Concirrus (and many others) have come up with some great examples of managing and leveraging the ecosystem. Points 2.

3. Digital and data. At the end of last year, I said 2016 would continue to be a big area of growth for both. There’s been progress, yes, and pace and traction ahead of what’s expected. Points 3.

4. M&A will continue but will slow. I think this has slowed this year, with two of the three major regions in the latter half of the year focused on Brexit and the U.S. election. Now, folks are trying to work out where that leaves fintech/insurtech. Points 4.

5. Will the CDO Survive? I said I thought we’d see a move back to the chief customer officer. Well, no sign of my chief customer officers yet! (Although, after writing this, I came across three chief customer officers, so it’s a start). Have you ever asked an insurance company or people inside the company “who owns the customer?” To me, we’re still product-centric rather than customer-centric. Points 4.

6. New business models. I said last year that we’d need to be clear on what the new business model will be — and what it needs to be. This year, there’s been lots of talk in this area, including here at Deloitte in our Turbulence Ahead report. We identified four business models for the future: 1) Individualization of insurance, 2) Off-the-shelf insurance, 3) Insurance as utilities and, finally, 4) Insurance as portfolio. It may take longer for this to materialize, but, without doubt, these models are coming. See my colleague Emma Logan describe these here. Points 5.

7. What we buy and sell. I believed that, last year, we’d move away from a product mindset to become more relevant and convenient. But we’re still in talking mode, although the ideas here are evolving rapidly. Expect an all-risks policy in Q2 2017. Points 5.

8. Cyber is the new digital. There has been an increase in the number of products and players, but there still hasn’t been any personal cyber policy. I expect that to come in 2017 still. Points 6.

9. Partnerships and bundling. In 2015, I thought we’d see a big rise in the partnerships between insurers and third parties. That’s happened. Points: 7.

So I’m marking my 2015 predictions as 7/9 (or 78% ) — a good effort, but I may have been a bit too ambitious.

See also: 4 Marketing Lessons for Insurtechs  

Moving into 2017

Re-reading the above, I still feel all my predictions are valid, be it the end of the CDO, the birth of personal cyber or an all-risks policy. I’ve been involved in enough conversations over the last 12 months to say these are all very real, although some are closer to seeing the light of day than others.

Moving into 2017, here are my top 10 trends to watch:

  1. Speed. Almost all conversations about insurance start with a statement that we’re not moving quickly enough — from transforming and modernizing the legacy estates to quite simply getting products to market quicker. We can no longer wait six months to launch new or updated products. Look at those who managed to capitalize on Pokemon Go insurance cover. In insurance, we’ll move from fast walking to jogging and sprinting. But take caution: This is still a marathon, and there’s still a long way to go. In fact, as Rick Huckstep wrote recently, the sheer speed at which the insurance market has grown in the last 21 months is part of the challenge and attraction.
  2. AI, cognitive learning and machine learning. AI has been long bandied around as a material disruptor. On the back of collecting/orchestrating the data, it’s critical to drive material insight and intelligence from this and allow organizations, brokers and consumers to make subsequent decisions. In 2017, AI will come of age with some impressive examples, including voice. In 2016, we saw Amazon’s Echo and Google Home product launches, as well as some insurers — like Liberty Mutual — giving voice a try. Imagine asking freely, “Am I covered for…?” or, “What’s the status of my claim?” Adding this skill to the mix will likely be table stakes. In addition, AI will augment other solutions to drive value, e.g. robotic process automation, which I wrote about here. All this boils down to getting a better grip on the amazing data we have already while leveraging the vast open data sets available to us.
  3. Line of business focus shift. The insurtech world will make a definitive shift from all the wonderful personal line examples to SME (the next obvious candidate) and to more specialty and complex commercial examples. Will Thorne of the Channel Syndicate wrote a great piece on this in November. While the challenges are harder and more complex, I believe the benefits are greater once we get to them.
  4. Believers. The market has polarized somewhat between those who believe in major innovation and are pushing hard, and those who don’t (or have a different focus and near-term objectives). The range is from those who worry about the next 90 days/half-year results to those who are actively looking to cannibalize their business and investing to find the most efficient way to do this. Here, there’s no right or wrong, with hundreds of organizations strewn across the path. I still believe more will move to the cannibalization route as the first carriers start to unlock material value in 2017, including continued startup acquisition. Oliver Bate (Allianz) had an interesting and positive perspective on this during his company’s investor day in November.
  5. Scale and profitability. Over the last 12 to 18 months, I’ve seen some great startup organizations; internal innovation and disruption teams; VCs; and more. Now is the time to work out how we industrialize and scale these. This is the very same challenge the banking and fintech communities are going through. If you’re an insurance company with 30 million or 80 million global customers, should you be worried about Startup X that has 10,000 or 100,000 customers? If they do manage to scale, can they do so profitability? This reminds me of a recent article about how unprofitable Uber is, but, with millions of engaged customers, they have our attention now. Profitability will become front and center. In fact, Andrew Rear over at Munich Re Digital Partners put together a good post on what the company looks for and why he and the team chose the six they did.
  6. Orchestration. With all of these startups in insurtech, we’ll need to quickly understand what role they play. Are they a platform play, end product play, point disruptor or something else? Regardless, given the volume and velocity of data generation, the importance of both API connectivity and the ability to orchestrate it will increase dramatically. For me, these are table stakes.
  7. External disruptors. In the Turbulence Ahead The Future of General Insurance report released earlier this year, we identified six key external disruptors that are happening regardless of the insurance industry. These are 1) the sharing economy, 2) self-driving cars and ADAS, 3) the Internet of Things, 4) social and big data, 5) machine learning and predictive analytics, and 6) distributed ledger technology. The key for me within insurance is to identify what role we’ll play. I believe we’ll continue to firmly be the partner of choice for many given our societal and necessary position in the global economy.
  8. Micro insurance. Here, I specifically mean the growth of micro policies, covering specific risks for specific times. Whereas we typically annually see 1.1 policies per customer, we’ll see eight to 10 micro policies covering a shorter period (episodic or usage-based insurance) as per our business models described in the Turbulence Report. This will be true for all lines of business. We’ve already seen some great launches in this space — including Trov, which partnered with Munich Re in the U.S., AXA in the U.K. and SunCorp in Australia. There’s been global access through partnering with established players that has created a new way to market to the next generation. While we switch this on manually by swiping left and right (given some of the external disruptors and location based services), this will very much be automatic going forward. Insurers will need to find new ways to orchestrate, partner and find value to bring in clients. It won’t be just one policy, it will be many that they orchestrate to deliver clients everything they need.
  9. Blockchain and DLT. I almost didn’t include blockchain here, but two factors have led me to include this for the first time: 1) the number of requests we’re now seeing in the market for both specific solutions and more education/use cases and 2) the fact that nine of the 18 startups in the FCA’s new Sandbox are blockchain-related. In 2016, we saw lots of PoC examples, trials and the first live insurance product on the blockchain (see: FlightDelay). Some use cases are more developed than others, and some markets are more suitable than others (I’m still looking for good examples in personal lines), so I believe this will evolve in 2017 but that there won’t be scale breakthroughs. However, along with the World Economic Forum, I firmly believe that “The most imminent effects of disruption will be felt in the banking sector; however, the greatest impact of disruption is likely to be felt in the insurance sector.” We still must ask, “why blockchain?” Just because you can use it? It needs to be the right solution for the right business problem. Horizontal use cases such as digital identity or payments offer compelling use cases that can easily be applied within insurance. In many ways, blockchain, for me, feels much more like an infrastructure play in the same way we would do core systems transformation (policy, claims, billing, finance, etc.)
  10. Business as usual — for now! Partly related to No. 4, we still need to run our business. How we do this and how we set up for the future will be another challenge — not just from a technology perspective but from a people and organization design perspective. (How we work, collaborate and more.) What are the transition states from our current models to a new world in 12, 24 or 36 months. Forward-thinking organization are putting plans in place now for their organizations in the years to come. This will become more important as we embed, partner and acquire startups and move toward new ways of engaging and working with customers.

Interestingly, there are now also so many accelerators, garages, hubs, etc. that startups all now have a lot of choices regarding where to incubate and grow. This presents a whole new challenge on the rush to insurance disruption.

See also: Asia Will Be Focus of Insurtech in 2017  

Finally, there are two other observations I wanted to share:

  1. China. While I don’t spend any time in China, it’s hard not to be in awe of what is going on — specifically, the speed and scale at which things are happening. China’s first online insurer, Zhong An, did an interview with Bloomberg regarding what the company is doing with technology (including blockchain) and, more importantly, its scale ($8 billion market cap in two years, 1.6 billion policies sold) — and the only concern from the COO, Wayne Xu, is that the company isn’t moving quickly enough! Step away from this and look further to what’s happening with disruption in general with Alipay and others from the BAT (China’s equivalent of GAFA — Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) is simply amazing. There’s a good FT article on Tencent, the killer-app factory, and the sheer speed and scale of disruption.
  2. Community. The global insurtech (and fintech) community is an amazing group of people from around the world who have come together across borders and time zones to further challenge and develop the market. Each geography has its own unique features, mature players, startups, labs, accelerators, regulators and, of course, independent challenges. We don’t always see eye to eye, which makes it all that more rewarding because you’re challenged by industry veterans and outside-thinking entrepreneurs. This year’s InsureTech Connect in Las Vegas with more than 1,600 people was truly amazing to see. Things have clearly moved far beyond a small isolated hive of activity with varying levels of maturity to a globally recognized movement. It was great to meet and to see so many carriers, startups, VCs, regulators and partners looking to further the conversation and debate around insurance and insurtech. This community will, no doubt, continue to grow at a fast pace as we look for insurtech successes, and I look forward to seeing how the 2017 discussion, debate and collaboration will continue.

As always, I look forward to your feedback! What I have I missed?

Here’s to an exciting 2017!

Lemonade: From Local to Everywhere

In a meticulously planned operation, we filed for a license in 47 states simultaneously. We’ll be revealing the first states in which Lemonade will become available in a couple of months. One thing’s for certain, 2017 is going to be an interesting ride! Stay up to date with news about our progress here

Now that I got this off my chest, I can add some color to why we’re doing this.

Many tech startups go through the famous Local vs. Global debate as they start to plan a market penetration strategy. This dilemma was born with the arrival of modern internet commerce and became even more prevalent with the emergence of SaaS companies that provide global coverage right out of the box.

When you’re selling a digital product, going global may seem like small overhead. Reality is a bit different, though, and, more often than not, small startups that take a bigger bite than they can swallow get into trouble.

When feasible, startups should consider aiming their launch beams at a single city or even a town with population that represents their typical customer.

Here’s why:

1. Know thy users, and design for them

It always amazes me how often startups overlook usability testing during the initial design phase. Having videos of random people playing with your (barely working) mockup is priceless. We learned more in a couple of days of testing than we did in months working in our office.

The cool thing is that you only need about five testers to get value out of a session like that, so there’s really no excuse to not doing it. The smaller the area you launch in, the better the chance of getting valuable data in a user testing session.

We spent hours in WeWork and Starbucks with our early stage, smoke-and-mirrors version of the Lemonade app. We would show it to people, ask for their feedback, ask them some questions and record the entire session. We would then sit in the office and analyze the videos to figure out what worked and what didn’t.

Our early Starbucks user testing sessions allowed us to launch a relatively mature product into the market and achieve faster adoption by our New York customers.

See also: Let’s Make Lemons Out of Lemonade  

2. Budget

Product launches require spending some money. To improve the chances of success, it is recommended to fuel the organic interest generated by social noise and PR efforts with some paid channels. Got a story in TechCrunch? Bloomberg? It will probably die down quicker than you think.

A nice trick is to use content recommendation tools like Outbrain and Taboola to promote content to users who may be interested in it. Google Ads are another obvious choice. Choosing the right outlets is one thing, but there’s a huge difference in costs between a global campaign and a local one.

This becomes much more dramatic when your company requires additional resources to operate in each region like Groupon and Uber. Lemonade recently closed its third round of financing ($60 million in one year of operation) from top VCs such as Google Ventures, General Catalyst, Thrive, Sequoia, Aleph and XL Innovate. We’re going to use this money to drive our expansion throughout the country and activate specific markets the way we did in New York.

3. Surgical use of media coverage

Getting great media coverage takes a lot of attention and time. Whether you can afford an agency or not, you’ll have to choose your battles well. Launching in a specific city allows you to focus on the outlets that are most relevant and will simplify your pitch to journalists.

If you’re creating something exclusive for a certain region, reporters who cover that region usually have a hunger for tech stuff that is happening, or launching in their hometown before everywhere else. BTW, there’s a case for launching in unexpected places like Portland or Philadelphia, which usually don’t get much attention from the tech and consumer industry for new products. There’s a good chance that media reach (which expands far beyond just the place you’re starting from) will be much stronger.

We chose New York for Lemonade’s home. We see NY’ers as an ideal representation of our target demographic and personality. So we invested our efforts in a select few outlets that are read by our first wave of early adopters of the city’s financial workers and young professionals — NY Post, Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal.

4 . Brand and messaging

Building a great brand involves a lot of consumer psychology. You spend weeks trying to figure out the best tagline, the perfect ad and the right illustrator to do your art. If you get this right, you have a real chance at grabbing your customers’ attention.

The first few months of brand activation are critical. Limiting yourself to a select region or demographic allows you to be laser-focused on framing and positioning.

Lemonade Local

Building an insurance company from scratch, in New York, one of the toughest regulatory environments in the country, is a huge undertaking. The sheer complexity and investment required to get to the starting point includes raising a lot of capital and hiring the right people to be able to get licensed by the state’s Department of Financial Services.

This is the life of a company that operates in a highly regulated industry, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the tech space. For Daniel and me, the decision to start in one state was simple. There’s no other way. Insurance carriers have to choose a state. Just one. And then maybe, if you play nice, regulators will let you go for more.

We wanted to launch Lemonade in one state — NY, and even more so when we realized we had no choice 🙂

See also: Lemonade: A Whole New Paradigm  

In the last three months since our New York launch, we’ve had overwhelming demand coming in from all over the country to open up for business in more states. This was very encouraging because it showed us hints of initial demand and product market fit to people and age groups that we never thought would be our early adopters.

But what surprised us most was the excitement coming from unexpected places, such as government offices and regulators. Having a favorable regulatory environment is a great opportunity to bring an honest, affordable, transparent and fun insurance experience to everyone in the U.S.!

Be the first to know how we’re making progress with our nationwide expansion.

Here’s the list of states where we will gradually launch in the coming year or so:

Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin

* States in bold represent the ones most requests to launch came from

This article originally appeared here, and you can find more about Lemonade here.

Is the ACA Repeal Taking Shape?

There’s politics, then there’s governing. As former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo put it, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Republicans have been campaigning against the Affordable Care Act since its enactment with rhetorical flourishes along the lines of “repeal and replace” and “end Obamacare on Day One.” That is poetry (or at least what passes for poetry in politics). Come January, Republicans will need to prove they can handle the prose part. As discussed in my previous post, that won’t be easy.

Repealing the law outright would cause chaos in the health insurance marketplace and take medical coverage away from millions of consumers. However, doing nothing would break a promise central to the GOP’s electoral successes in the past four congressional elections, not to mention the most recent presidential campaign. Either path could lead to voter retribution that would be devastating to the short- and long-term interests of the Republican party.

See also: What Caused the ACA Rate Surge?  

A GOP strategy may be emerging that aims to avoid this rock and that hard place. The idea involves passing repeal legislation as close to President Trump’s first day in office as is legislatively possible, but delaying the effective date of that legislation by a year or two. This enables Republicans to keep their promise to repeal Obamacare “on day one,” yet gives them time for the more difficult task of working out a replacement to the ACA. It’s a political two-step that Joanne Kenen has dubbed “TBDCare.”

Yes, this would cast a dark cloud over the health insurance market for some considerable time and raises a host of questions: Is Congress capable of passing workable and meaningful healthcare reform? What happens if it doesn’t? What would those reforms look like? Who would the winners and losers be under Republican-style reform?  Not knowing the answers to these questions is terrifying. For GOP leaders trying to avoid the wrath of voters, however, living under a frightening dark cloud for a couple of years might look better than ushering in the healthcare reform apocalypse.

The repeal part of this two-step strategy is simple: Republicans in Congress eviscerate the financial mechanisms critical to the ACA through the budget reconciliation process. This type of bill requires only 51 votes in the Senate, which means no Democratic support is needed. Meanwhile, President Trump dismantles other elements of the law by either revoking President Barack Obama’s executive orders or issuing new ones. Both the legislation and executive orders become effective at the end of either 2017 or 2018 to allow for a “smooth transition.”

Then the replace portion of the program would begin. Much of any new healthcare reform legislation would need to go through the normal legislative process and be completed before the effective date of the repeal. Given the Senate’s filibuster rules, this means securing at least eight Democratic votes in the upper chamber. (Here’s a list of the Democratic senators most likely to be recruited by Republicans).

Both Jennifer Haberkorn on Politico.com and Albert Hunt on Bloomberg.com do a great job in reporting on this evolving strategy.  Meanwhile, opposition to TBDCare is already building, as evidenced by this editorial in the Denver Post.

What should not be overlooked in all this pain aversion is that the Affordable Care Act was neither the cause nor the solution to America’s deep-seated healthcare problems. Long before Sen. Obama became President Obama, everyone knew that the key to successful healthcare reform was reducing medical costs. A few provisions in the Affordable Care Act address costs, but the legislation focused primarily on health insurance reforms because, well, reforming the health insurance market is a lot easier than reducing healthcare costs. If you were a politician, who would you rather take on, insurance companies or doctors, hospitals and pharmacy companies?

See also: Obamacare: Where Do We Stand Today?

Whether using poetry or prose, then, it would be nice if, once they get past the politics of health care reform, Congress and the new administration addressed the substance of healthcare reform. Let’s hope that’s not asking too much.

What Gig Economy Means for FinTech

Earlier, I discussed the implications of the gig economy on the insurance industry. We concluded that the existence of “crowdworkers” in the gig economy creates four main opportunities for insurers: a faster flow of information, claim process efficiencies, information customization and cost efficiencies.

We at WeGoLook believe all industries must take notice of the disruptive gig economy to remain smart and streamlined, adapting to consumer needs.

What I want to do today is focus on the traditional finance industry, which includes insurance, and the new disruptive trend in fintech. When you combine two major disruptive shifts (fintech and the gig economy) the results are game-changing.

The Fintech Disruption: The picture we can already see

Fintech is an umbrella term for an array of new financial sector services that were once monopolized by large financial institutions. This is a good thing. The change is forcing traditional banks to adapt and may even keep those pesky banking fees to a minimum!

Goldman Sachs predicts these fintech startups will capture as much as $4.7 trillion in annual revenue from traditional financial companies and $470 billion in profit.

These fintech companies include budgeting platforms such as Mint and Acorns, automated investing services such as Betterment or lending services such as Lending Club, OnDeck and Kabbage. What these companies are accomplishing is the decentralization and democratization of financial services like loans, banking and investing.

These fintech companies are making traditional services more accessible to consumers. Remember, the gig economy — or what some people term the “sharing economy” — is all about access.

See also: ‘Gig Economy’ Comes to Claims Handling  

In 2015, the Economist declared fintech to be a “revolution” of the finance industry, and Time Magazine stated banks should be “afraid” of fintech.

The Role of the Gig Economy in Fintech: Flexible workforces

In the gig economy, intermediaries disappear. But don’t ask me — ask your local taxi owner, hotelier or car rental agency if Uber, Airbnb or Turo have affected their way of doing business. This is a rhetorical question; of course there’s been an effect. This is a good thing, but how we react will define our businesses in the years to come.

When discussing what fintech means for the traditional finance industry, Barry Ritholtz, a Bloomberg columnist, aptly said: “What is much more interesting to me is how the traditional money-management industry will respond to and adopt the latest technologies for helping it operate more efficiently and with greater client satisfaction.”

This flexibility is something most industries, including the financial sector, have yet to fully embrace. There are a number of gig economy companies out there that have access to thousands of on-demand workers who can perform a number of tasks that were traditionally in the wheelhouse of full-time employees.

Why would an insurance company or other large financial institution have tens of thousands of employees across the country to verify assets when they can leverage a stable of trained, vetted and professional gig workers? This is the gig economy, where people with spare time are self-identified as willing to complete on-the-ground tasks in their location.

See also: The Gig Economy Is Alive and Growing  

Gig economy companies aren’t just a vendor service — they can be part of the process. Need we get into the amount of money this can save a company?

Let’s dive into a specific sector of fintech — online lending — as a case study of how the gig economy can enable and complement the lending process.

Gig Economy Case Study: A flexible workforce and online lending

Online lending, including peer-to-peer lending, is an old concept reinvented for a digital age. Entrepreneurs, business people and citizens have always borrowed and lent money, but only in recent history has that become much more sophisticated and accessible through online marketplaces and fintech services.

Foundation Capital predicts that more than $1 trillion in loans is expected to have originated through these new lending marketplaces by 2025. Let that number sink in for a second.

Indeed, fintech has enabled a safe lending environment between people and businesses through innovative screening and credit checking. Investors and businesses of all stripes can now lend and borrow through internet platforms without traditional bank applications or even the need to physically exchange documents.

In most of these cases, however, asset or document verification are still requirements.

Take, for instance, common financial loan transactions, such as vehicle financing or refinancing, property financing and business loans. All these transactions require some form of physical verification that an asset exists and is “as described.” Whether that is a car, property, business or some other assets, someone needs to fulfill lending requirements.

Gig economy companies such as mine, WeGoLook, have access to thousands of workers across the U.S. who are ready and trained to travel to a specific destination to complete asset verification tasks.

The Gig Worker Landscape: What that means for fintech

Technology allows us to direct our “lookers” to capture the correct on-site data and perform tasks in a consistent manner across the U.S. (and now in Canada, the U.K. and Australia). The benefits of this gig model are numerous, and a looker, or gig economy worker, can now:

  • Replace multiple vendors;
  • Augment or supplement employees in the field;
  • Augment, supplement or replace employees dispatched from a bank to verify assets or perform a task;
  • Provide faster task completion at a lower cost; and
  • Capture and store all data in the same place and format.

For an example of a real estate report we provide to many of our banking clients, click here.

Because of the flexibility inherent in gig work, there is a significant increase in flow of information to clients. For instance, companies like mine can provide an electronic “live” report, which allows clients to review photos and information prior to receiving a traditional report.

There is also the ability to support video, enabling a walk-through of a property, a demonstration of a piece of equipment in operation — and much more. This walk-through can also be done live with the client, if needed.

In the past, a customer would need to bring documents to a bank and work face-to-face with a branch employee for notarization and paperwork completion. This is no longer the case.

Gig employees can now immediately travel to the customer’s home or place of business. The gig worker can take photos of the asset, deliver documents, notarize originals, deliver them to a shipper and submit all relevant information via an electronic report.

This allows the bank to view all information and verify all documents are properly signed. The bank can then fund a customer before the FedEx or UPS package of original documents arrives.

See also: On-Demand Economy Is Just Starting

All this flexibility allows for faster turnaround times, the elimination of multiple vendors and a reduction in lag time waiting on a customer to try to get to the bank during business hours.

In the end, what we have is a smarter and faster process, which is important, particularly when a loan rate guarantee is in place.

Changing entire industries takes time, but the gig economy and fintech are rapidly altering the landscape of the traditional finance industry. As discussed, all three of these industries aren’t mutually exclusive. Traditional financial services can embrace the better use of technology through fintech and greater efficiency through the gig economy.

Will Your Website Get You Sued?

Plaintiffs’ attorneys have discovered a new, rich litigation vein to exploit, potentially yielding a treasure of targets to sue. Using Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and applying it to a modern societal institution (the internet) that was not in existence or contemplated when that law was enacted, lawyers may have hit pay dirt again by claiming that websites are not accessible to the disabled.

Title III of the ADA requires places that are open to the public to not discriminate against individuals due to their disability or otherwise deny them “the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.” These rules apply to any company that permits “entry” by the public. Although traditionally Title III of the ADA has been applied to physical structures, recent cases have raised issues as to whether these rules may apply to websites, as well.

To date, the case law addressing these issues is very limited and has been mixed. Case law from the Seventh Circuit has applied the ADA to websites, and the First, Second and Eleventh Circuits have applied the ADA beyond physical structures, providing ground for plaintiffs to argue that the ADA can extend to a virtual space such as websites. Meanwhile, the Third, Fifth and Ninth Circuits have applied the ADA provisions to physical locations only.

See also: Broad Array of Roles for Disability Coverage  

The Department of Justice, which is responsible for interpreting and enforcing Title III of the ADA, says that Title III does apply to websites. However, in typical government fashion, the DOJ has delayed releasing its “accessibility” guidelines for webpages, with an anticipated release date in 2018.

While the regulations and laws on website accessibility may be unclear, a few law firms are nonetheless sending out demand letters targeting specific industry sectors nationwide (for example, private universities and real estate brokerage firms) and demanding compliance with onerous website standards. The letters ask the recipient to hire the plaintiff’s law firm (or their preferred vendor) to help reach an “acceptable level” of compliance. In addition, several national retailers, including Patagonia, Ace Hardware, Aeropostale and Bed Bath & Beyond have been named in lawsuits regarding accessibility to their sites. According to Bloomberg’s BNA reports, 45 of these type of lawsuits were launched in 2015. That number is expected to increase substantially in 2016.

With the law so unclear on this topic, how should businesses navigate these murky waters? First, if you receive one of these demand letters, you should consider contacting an attorney and should avoid engaging in discussions with the plaintiff or their law firm without representation. Then, along with your attorney and an IT representative (in-house or a vendor), develop a strategy to bring your webpage into accessibility compliance. Although there is no “one-size fits all” approach to move toward compliance, depending on what is on your website, businesses can consider providing audible text on each webpage and providing audible captions for pictures. Ultimately, to play it safe you may want to take all reasonable steps to improve navigation and access on your website.

See also: New Products and Combined Approaches

Takeaway

Lawsuits related to website accessibility could likely be next cash cow for plaintiffs’ attorneys. As the early case law on this issue is so mixed, there is little guidance as to who has to be compliant and what exactly compliance would look like. Until the DOJ gets around to issuing guidelines (assuming they provide much guidance), businesses should consider reviewing their websites and documenting reasonable efforts to make the sites accessible to the disabled. Further, companies should consider purchasing a robust employment practices liability (EPL) policy with broad third-party coverage that can potentially pick up the defense of claims related to website access claims.

This article was co-written by Marty Heller.