Tag Archives: Fintech

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.

New Entrants Flood Into Insurance

New entrants seem to be coming out of the woodwork in insurance. The insurtech movement, the advance of emerging technologies and the appetite of the global tech titans are all contributing to new entrants, new partnerships and new business models. A few recent examples illustrate the new interest in insurance from those both inside and outside of the insurance industry.

  • WeWork partners with Lemonade. In what seems like a very natural partnership, WeWork plans to offer its WeLive members renters’ insurance through Lemonade. WeLive members rent fully furnished apartments from WeWork for short-term situations.
  • Credit Karma enters insurance. This fintech intends to build on customer relationships to expand into auto insurance. While the initial focus will be education – helping Credit Karma customers understand how credit and adverse driving affects insurance rates – the longer-term goal is to provide yet another shopping/comparison site.
  • BMW and Swiss Re partner for ADAS scores. BMW Group and Swiss Re will collect telematics data from vehicles related to the use of ADAS (Automated Driver Assistance Systems) and build scores that can be used by primary insurance companies.
  • Lending Tree buys QuoteWizard for $370 million. Fintech Lending Tree, which has been on a buying spree, moves into insurance with the acquisition of insurance comparison shopping site QuoteWizard.
  • Travelers partners with Amazon for the smart home. Travelers will set up a digital storefront on Amazon featuring smart home devices for a discount (especially security-related devices) as well as discounts on homeowners’ insurance.
  • JetBlue invests in insurtech Slice. This appears to be a pure investment play, but it is still interesting that an airline would be following insurtech and seeking investment opportunities.

Something is going on here. It is not as if there have never been new entrants or that companies from other industries have ignored insurance. But the flurry of activity and innovative partnerships, investments and market approaches may represent a bigger trend. Insurance is transforming, and, despite some of the doom and gloom warnings, a case can be made that there is more opportunity than ever for the industry. Even in the examples provided above, the emphasis is more on new opportunities than displacing incumbent insurance players. Indeed, in the Swiss Re and Travelers cases, the incumbents are part of the new partnerships – and these are just two of many examples.

See also: 5 Cs of Transformation in Insurance  

One of the main themes of the examples highlighted above is the attention on distribution and customer relationships. While insurtechs are working with insurers on many opportunities to improve underwriting, claims, and other areas, so far the new entrants from outside the industry don’t appear to have the appetite to underwrite risk and handle claims. This may change, but it is likely that there will be even more interest from outside insurance in capitalizing on customer relationships. Above all, these new entrants and innovative partnerships serve to accelerate the transformation of insurance.

What Should Future of Regulation Be?

It is of course much easier to look back and second-guess regulatory actions. It is far more difficult to propose a way forward and to do so in light of the emerging hot-button issues, including data and the digitization of the industry, insurtech (and regtech), emerging and growing risks, cyber, the Internet of Things (IoT), natural catastrophes, longevity and growing protectionism. The way forward requires consideration of the primary goals of insurance regulation and raises critical questions regarding how regulators prioritize their work and how they interact with one another, with the global industry and with consumers.

We offer below some thoughts and suggestions on these important questions and on how regulation might best move forward over the next 10 years.

Establish a reasonable construct for regulatory relationships.

Relationships matter, and it is imperative for there to be careful consideration of how regulators organize their interactions and reliance on each other. We have some examples in the form of the Solvency II equivalence assessment process, the NAIC’s Qualified Jurisdiction assessment process (under the U.S. credit for reinsurance laws), the NAIC’s accreditation process for the states of the U.S., the U.S.-E.U. Covered Agreement, ComFrame, the IAIS and NAIC’s memorandum of ynderstanding and the IMF financial sector assessment program (FSAP). Each of these provide varying degrees of assessment and regulatory cooperation/reliance.

These processes and protocols, however, have largely emerged on an ad hoc, unilateral basis and in some cases have had a whiff of imperial judgment about them that may not be justified – and certainly is off-putting to counterparties. We would urge regulators to give careful consideration to the goals, guiding principles and the process for achieving greater levels of cooperation and reliance among global regulators.

We hope these efforts would include an appreciation that different approaches/systems can achieve similar results that no jurisdiction has a monopoly on good solvency regulation. There must also be respect for and recognition of local laws and a recognition that regulatory cooperation and accommodation will benefit regulators, the industry and consumers. Most importantly, regulators need to work together to develop confidence and trust in one another.

The IAIS first coined the phrase “supervisory recognition” in 2009. In March of that year, the IAIS released an “issues paper on group-wide solvency assessment and supervision.” That paper stated that:

“To the extent there is not convergence of supervisory standards and practices, supervisors can pursue processes of ‘supervisory recognition’ in an effort to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of supervision. Supervisory recognition refers to supervisors choosing to recognize and rely on the work of other supervisors, based on an assessment of the counterpart jurisdiction’s regulatory regime.”

See also: Global Trend Map No. 14: Regulation  

The paper noted the tremendous benefits that can flow from choosing such a path:

“An effective system of supervisory recognition could reduce duplication of effort by the supervisors involved, thereby reducing compliance costs for the insurance industry and enhancing market efficiency. It would also facilitate information sharing and cooperation among those supervisors.”

This is powerful. We urge global insurance regulators to take a step back and consider how they can enhance regulatory effectiveness and efficiency by taking reasonable and prudential steps to recognize effective regulatory regimens − even where these systems are based on different (perhaps significantly different) rules and principles, but which have a demonstrated track record of effectiveness.

As noted above, we have seen some efforts at supervisory recognition. These include Solvency II’s equivalence assessment process, the NAIC’s accreditation process for other U.S. states, the NAIC “Qualified Jurisdictions” provisions for identifying jurisdictions that U.S. regulators will rely on for purposes of lowering collateral requirements on foreign reinsurers, the E.U.-U.S. Covered Agreement and the IAIS’s Memorandum on Mutual Understanding. Some of these processes are more prescriptive than others and have the danger of demanding that regulatory standards be virtually identical to be recognized. This should be avoided.

One size for all is not the way to go.

The alternative approach to recognition of different, but equally effective systems is the pursuit of a harmonized, single set of regulatory standards for global insurers. This approach is much in vogue among some regulators, who assert the “need for a common language” or for “a level playing field” or to avoid “regulatory arbitrage.” Some regulators also argue that common standards will lead to regulatory nirvana, where one set of rules will apply to all global insurers, which will then be able to trade seamlessly throughout all markets.

There are, however, a variety of solvency and capital systems that have proven their effectiveness. These systems are not identical, and indeed they have some profoundly different regulatory structures, accounting rules and other standards such as the systems deployed in the E.U. (even pre-Solvency II), the U.S., Canada, Japan, Bermuda, Australia, Switzerland and others. Attempting to assert a signal system or standard ignores commercial, regulatory, legal, cultural and political realities.

Moreover, we question some of the rationale for pursuing uniform standards, including the need for a common language. We suggest that what is really needed is for regulators to continue to work together, to discuss their respective regulatory regimes and to develop a deep, sophisticated knowledge of how their regimes work. From this, trust will develop, and from that a more effective and efficient system of regulation is possible. The engagement and trust building can happen within supervisory colleges. We have seen it emerge in the context of the E.U.-U.S. regulatory dialogue. We saw it in the context of the E.U.-U.S. Covered Agreement. No one, however, has made a compelling case for why one regulatory language is necessary to establish a close, effective working relationship among regulators.

Similarly, the call for a level playing field sounds good, but it is an amorphous, ambiguous term that is rarely, if ever, defined. Does the “playing field” include just regulatory capital requirements? If so, how about tax, employment rules, social charges? How about 50 subnational regulators versus one national regulator? Guarantee funds? Seeking a level playing field can also be code for, “My system of regulation is heavier, more expensive than yours, so I need to put a regulatory thumb on the scales to make sure you have equally burdensome regulations.” This argument was made for decades in the debate surrounding the U.S. reinsurance collateral rules. We hear it now regarding the burdens of Solvency II. It must be asked, however, whether it is the responsibility of prudential regulators to be leveling playing fields, or should their focus be solely on prudent regulatory standards for their markets.

Finally, the dark specter of regulatory arbitrage is often asserted as a reason to pursue a single regulatory standard, such as the development of the ICS by the IAIS. But one must ask if there is really a danger of regulatory arbitrage today among global, internationally active insures? Yes, a vigilant eye needs to kept for a weak link in the regulatory system, something the IMF FSAP system has sought to do, supervisory colleges can do and the IAIS is well-equipped to do. But using regulatory arbitrage as an argument to drive the establishment of the same standards for all insurers does not seem compelling.

Proportionality is required.

Often, regulators roll out new regulatory initiatives with the phrase that the new rules will be “proportionate” to the targeted insurers. Too often, it seems there is just lip service to this principle. Rarely is it defined – but it is tossed out in an attempt to say, “Do not worry, the new rules will not be excessive.” Greater debate and greater commitment to this principle is needed. Clearly a key component of it must be a careful cost/benefit analysis of any proposed new standard, with a clear articulation of the perceived danger to be addressed – including the likelihoods and severity of impact and then a credible calculation of the attendant costs – economic and otherwise to industry and to regulators. In October 2017, the U.K. Treasury Select Committee published a report criticizing the PRA for its excessively strict interpretation of Solvency II and its negative effect on the competitiveness of U.K. insurers. The report concluded that the PRA had enhanced policyholder protection at the expense of increasing the cost of capital for U.K. insurers, which hurt their ability to provide long-term investments and annuities. Although the PRA emphasized its mandate of prudential regulation and policy holder protection, the Treasury Committee reiterated its concern with how the PRA interpreted the principle of proportionality.

Simplicity rather than complexity.

Over the past 10 years, there has been a staggering increase in proposed and enacted regulatory requirements, many of which are catalogued above. There is a danger, however, that increasingly complex regulatory tools can create their own regulatory blind spots and that overly complex regulations can create a regulatory “fog of war.”

Andrew Haldane, executive director at the Bank of England, in August 2012 delivered a paper at a Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s economic policy symposium, titled “The Dog and the Frisbee.” He graphically laid out when less is really more by talking about two ways of catching a Frisbee: One can “weigh a complex array of physical and atmospheric factors, among them wind speed and Frisbee rotation” − or one can simply catch the Frisbee, the way a dog does. Complex rules, Haldane said, may cause people to manage to the rules for fear of falling in conflict with them. The complexity of the rules may induce people to act defensively and focus on the small print at the expense of the bigger picture.

Focusing on the complexity of the banking world, Haldane compared the 20 pages of the Glass-Steagall Act to the 848 pages of Dodd-Frank together with its 30,000 pages of rulemaking, and compared the 18 pages of Basel 1 to the more than 1,000 pages of Basel III. The fundamental question is whether that additional detail and complexity really adds greater safety to the financial system or has just the opposite effect and significantly increases the cost. Haldane’s analysis provides compelling evidence that increasing the complexity of financial regulation is a recipe for continuing crisis. Accordingly, Haldane calls for a different direction for supervisors with “…fewer (perhaps far fewer), and more (ideally much more) experienced supervisors, operating to a smaller, less detailed rule book.”

Although Haldane’s analysis and discussion focuses on the banking system, his assessment and recommendations should be considered carefully by global insurance regulators. The sheer volume and complexity of rules, models and reports that flood into regulatory bodies raise the real question of who reviews this information, who really understands it and, worst of all, does a mountain of detailed information create a false confidence that regulators have good visibility into the risks – particular the emerging risks – that insurers are facing? A real danger exists of not seeing the forest for the trees.

See also: To Predict the Future, Try Creating It  

Regulation should promote competitiveness rather than protectionism.

At a time when competition has been growing not only from within the established companies but also more importantly from outside the traditional companies, protectionism will only inhibit growth and stifle better understanding of risk in a rapidly changing business environment. The goal must be to make the industry more competitive and to encourage transfer of innovation and create better ways to address risk, distribution of products and climate changes. Protectionism will only limit the potential of growth of the industry and is both short-sighted and self-defeating.

Recognition of the importance of positive disruption through insurtech, fintech and innovation.

The consensus is that the insurance industry is ripe for disruption because it has been slow (but is now working hard) to modernize in view of an array of innovative and technological advancements. Equally, regulators are trying to catch up with the rapid changes and are trying to understand the impacts through sandbox experiments and running separate regulatory models. The pace is fast and presents challenges for the regulators. Solvency and policyholder protection remain paramount, but cybersecurity, data protection, artificial intelligence and the digital revolution make advancements every day. Where this will lead is not clear. But changes are happening and regulators must work to understand the impact and need to calibrate regulatory rules to keep up with the industry and encourage innovation.

Regulation must be transparent.

Too often, regulation is drafted in times of crisis or behind closed doors by regulators believing they know better how to protect policy holders and how to prevent abuse of the system. As we have said, getting it right matters. A strong and healthy industry is the best way to protect consumers and policy holders. Industry engagement is essential and acknowledging and actually incorporating industry’s views is critical. This is particularly true given the dramatic changes in the insurance sector and the need to adopt regulation to new economics, business practices and consumer needs and expectations

This is an excerpt from a report, the full text of which is available here.

Startups as Partners: A Failed Experiment?

I was in New York City recently and found myself talking to the founder of a fintech. His company had recently raised several million dollars from a large investment bank. It raised some questions about how insurers go about partnering with startups.

Things were going really well.

I asked him about progress engaging with the bank as a “supplier.” I guessed that a bank that had invested such a sizable sum would be eager to get its hands on the startup’s technology. I wanted to hear how banks had solved some of the problems around partnering with startups experienced by insurers.

It turns out they have the same challenges.

The founder told me that the first thing he had to do post-investment was to sign a policy confirming that he does not use child labor. His team was currently in the process of filling in a 60-page questionnaire on data security. It was months before he expected to be live with any kind of even limited pilot.

The startup was one of the first to be accepted by the bank’s incubator. Recognizing the process challenges, a technical employee had been seconded from the bank to help the team four days a week. The employee was advising on how to build technology to be compliant with the bank’s requirements. This was helpful – but rather than shortening the timeline had merely made its requirements achievable.

All this oversight “red tape” despite the fact that most of the founding team are former employees of the bank and that one of bank’s senior managing directors was a director (through the investment).

See also: Startups Take a Seat at the Table  

I was surprised by this. On some dimensions, fintech is ahead of insurtech, notably on investment volumes (see page 3 of our presentation to the Slovenian Insurance Association). But it seems that banks suffer from the same challenges engaging with startups.

This made me wonder: Is the startup-as-a-supplier model a failed experiment? How can it be that a bank is willing to invest millions in a startup but then finds it so hard to use its product?

It is too early to know for sure if the model is a failed experiment.

However, it is fair to say that the model is not currently working for most insurers. This blog proposes two changes in the way that insurers could partner with startups – one pragmatic, the other radical.

Design a “startup-grade” governance framework (or “sandbox”)

It is very easy to produce slideware that tells management teams to be more “agile” and launch “innovation pods.” The problem is that an innovation strategy needs to be rooted in detailed operational analysis to be effective.

A vital component is a “startup-grade” governance framework – in other words an onboarding and oversight process that is commensurate with a startup’s resources and the scale and likely risk of any early implementation. For example: What are reasonable information security requirements for a small-scale trial; how does procurement get comfortable with a pre-revenue business?

These are questions that companies tend to tackle in an ad hoc way at the moment. There are two consequences: First, engagement processes are slow, and, second, solutions are bespoke. In other words, companies are not “formalizing” their learnings to speed up future engagement processes.

We believe that insurers with ambitions to engage with startups should design these governance frameworks – sometimes referred to as “sandboxes” – soon after settling on their innovation “vision.” Avoiding this operational detail will slow or kill the startup partnership.

Critical in all of this is differentiating between genuine “red lines” and “nice to haves.” An insurer must, for example, be satisfied that its startup partnership is not contravening the rules imposed by the GDPR; on the other hand, the procurement process could probably be shorn of company-imposed requirements like the need for suppliers to show three years of audited financials.

At Oxbow Partners, we are currently helping several clients develop startup-grade frameworks and the processes that sit underneath.

A new startup partnership model: “buy in-spin out”

A startup-grade governance framework may, however, not work for all companies. Some will simply find it too hard to find an acceptable compromise between their standard compliance processes and the needs of a startup. There is some legitimacy to this outcome: As we have pointed out, the penalties of non-compliance with legislation will mean a “sandbox” is not to every organization’s taste.

This would mean that for some companies the startup-as-a-supplier model will not work. So how do these companies get access to the best ideas, technology and talent?

It seems to me that the point of failure in the current model is that a startup is an outside partner. This is beneficial in some ways – a management team that has incentives to build a business; separation from a corporation to allow for creative and rapid development. But where there are advantages there are disadvantages: Alarm bells might ring in a corporate risk team when they see the words “creative” and “rapid.”

We therefore suggest more attention should be paid to an alternative model, which we call the “buy in – spin out” model. (Some companies are already offering elements of our model, but not, as far as we know, in the form we are proposing.)

In this model, corporations would buy a controlling stake in startups early in their lifecycle and run them as internal development teams. The startup’s objective is to make the technology work for the “host” organization. This simplifies the startup’s objectives, makes the governance framework clearer and also gives the startup access to internal resources to comply with these requirements.

See also: Will Startups Win 20% of Business?  

At a certain point, each side has the opportunity to buy the other out. Either the startup believes that its idea is broadly marketable and buys out the “host” with a consortium of investors (“spin out”). Alternatively, the corporation thinks that the business gives it competitive advantage, in which case it might offer a higher price than the consortium.

Clearly, there are many issues to test before implementing the “buy in – spin out” structure. The most obvious is startup appetite: The startup will have a deep fear of either being crushed by a corporate owner or being tarnished by the host when trying to distribute to competitors.

The solution may not yet be clear, but the problem is well-defined. While there is a lot of activity around partnering with startups, we are yet to see many implementations beyond limited POCs. Insurers need to ensure they are not just defining their “vision” but building an effective operating framework to make it happen.

This article was first published on the Oxbow Partners Blog.

The Key to Digital Innovation Success

More than a half century ago, Ted Levitt transformed the strategic marketing agenda by asking a seemingly simple question. In his classic Harvard Business Review article “Marketing Myopia,” Levitt declared that truly effective executives needed the courage, creativity and self-discipline to answer, “What business are we really in?”

Were railroads, he asked, in the railroad business or the transportation business? Are oil companies in the oil business or hydrocarbon or energy business? The distinctions aren’t subtle, Levitt argued, and they subverted how companies saw their futures. Marketing myopia blinded firms to both disruptive threats and innovation opportunities.

Levitt’s provocative question remains both potent and perceptive for marketers today. But my research in human capital investment and “network effects” suggests that it, too, needs a little visionary help. Increasingly, successful market leaders and innovators – the Amazons, Apples, Googles, Facebooks, Netflixs and Ubers– also ask, “Who do we want our customers to become?”

That question is as mission-critical for insurance and financial services innovators as for Silicon Valley startups. The digitally disruptive influence of platforms, algorithms and analytics comes not just from how they transform internal enterprise economics but from their combined abilities to transform customers and clients, as well. Successful innovators transform their customers.

See also: The 7 Colors of Digital Innovation  

The essential insight: Innovation isn’t just an investment in product enhancement or better customer experience; innovation is an investment in your customer’s future value. Simply put, innovation is an investment in the human capital, capabilities, competencies and creativity of one’s customers and clients.

This is as true for professional services and business-to-business industries as for consumer products and services companies.

History gives great credence to this “human capital” model of innovation. Henry Ford didn’t just facilitate “mass production,” he enabled the human capital of “driving.” George Eastman didn’t just create cheap cameras and films; Kodak created photographers. Sam Walton’s Walmart successfully deployed scale, satellite and supply chain superiority that transformed “typical” shoppers into higher-volume, one-stop, everyday-low-pricing customers.

Similarly, Steve Jobs didn’t merely “reinvent” personal computing and mobile telephony; he reinvented how people physically touched, stroked and talked to their devices. Google’s core technology breakthrough may appear to be “search,” but the success of the company’s algorithms and business model is contingent upon creating more than a billion smart “searchers” worldwide.

The essential economic takeaway is that sustainable innovation success doesn’t revolve simply around what innovations “do”; it builds on what they invite customers to become. Simply put, making customers better makes better customers.

Successful companies have a “vision of the customer future” that matters every bit as much as their products and services road maps.

Insurance, fintech and insurtech industries should be no different. The same digital innovation and transformation dynamics apply. That means financial services firms must go beyond the “faster, better, cheaper” innovation ethos to ask how their innovations will profitably transform customer behaviors, capabilities and expectations.

In other words, it’s not enough to answer Levitt’s question by declaring, “We’re in the auto/property/life insurance business.” The challenge comes from determining how insurance companies want their new products, innovative services and novel user experiences to transform their customers. How can insurance companies invest in their customers in ways that make them more valuable? Who are they asking their customers to become?

So when insurers innovate in ways that give customers and prospects new capabilities — like Progressive’s price-comparison tools and Snapshot vehicle-usage plug-ins or Allstate’s mobile-phone-enabled QuickFoto claims submission option — they’re not just solving problems but asking customers to engage in ways they never had before.

Who are these companies asking their customers to become? People who will comparison shop; allow themselves to be monitored in exchange for better prices and better service; collaboratively gather digital data to review and expedite claims. These are but the first generation of innovation investments that suggest tomorrow’s customers will do much more.

This is of a piece with how a Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Reed Hastings innovates to make their customers — not just their products — more valuable.

Today’s Web 2.0 “network effects” business model — where a service becomes more valuable the more people use it — are superb examples of how smart companies recognize that their own futures depend on how ingeniously they invest in the future capabilities of their customers. Their continuous innovation is contingent on their customers’ continuous improvement. Call it “customer kaizen.”

How rigorously and ruthlessly fintech, insurtech and insurance companies champion this innovation ethos will prove crucial to their success. Being in “the blockchain business” is radically and fundamentally different than asking who we want our blockchain users to become.

See also: ‘Digital’ Needs a Personal Touch  

Giving better, faster and cheaper advice on risk management via digital devices is different than fundamentally transforming how customers perceive and manage risk. It’s the difference between “transactional innovation” and innovation based on more sustainable relationships of mutual gain.

The insurance industry needs to transform its innovation mindset. Start thinking how innovations make customers and clients more valuable. If your innovations aren’t explicit, measurable investments in your customers’ futures, then you are taking a myopic view of your own.

Today’s strategic marketing and innovation challenge is how best to align “What business are we in?” with “Who do we want our customers to become?”