The insurance industry today is one of the last industries to fully jump into adopting technology for offering up their products, says Wayne Slavin, CEO and founder of SURE (www.sureapp.com), and just needs some help in getting there. We chatted with Wayne about how SURE--backed by IA Capital, Menlo Ventures, FF Venture Capital, Nationwide Ventures, Assurant and AmTrust--is applying technology and working with, not against, insurance companies to make buying insurance something you can easily do with your smartphone or tablet.
What is SURE?
Wayne Slavin: At SURE, we are changing the way every single type of insurance is being distributed. We're partnering with the biggest insurance brands, including Nationwide, and many, many others—25 different insurance companies—and taking their insurance policies and selling them in a unified way, making it available to consumers via iOS and Android apps and the web. We're on the journey to let people buy all of their insurance online.
What kind of insurance are you offering now through those apps and the web?
Wayne Slavin: We've been in the market for 18 months. We started in travel insurance, which was our first entry into the market, and have expanded from there. Today, we have six different lines of business in the market, both in the U.S. and internationally. It's currently centered around travel insurance, renters insurance, smartphone insurance, and soon to be a bunch of others. By the end of the year, we expect to have ten to twelve different types of insurance available on our platform.
So how is this different than how you can purchase insurance right now?
Wayne Slavin: That's a good question. For a long time, consumers had no choice but to go to agents and brokers if they wanted to buy insurance products from top tier brands. Those brands have pretty good products. However, that experience is full of friction, and is not really what you'd expect from a modern, buying experience. This is interesting, because insurance companies are realizing they are one of the last bastions of non-tech innovation, and they need to innovate. Consumers, obviously, are moving to digital, and it's a no brainer that their industry is going to change. They can't continue to do the same old things, relying on just agents and brokers to sell their insurance policies. Plus the average age of brokers and agents across the country, coast-to-coast, is 60 years old. That means in the next five to 10 years, 400,000 people, the main distribution channel for insurance sales and consumers buying insurance—that entire part of the market is retiring. When that happens, there will be an inevitable shift in the market. It's not a disruption being caused by startups, it's a change in the evolution of this market. We're here to serve, as a technology distribution platform, to help those insurance carriers become digital. We're doing that in a way that they can learn how to do this, be very fast about it, experiment with it, and help them figure out new ways of selling insurance, so that when that inevitable shift happens, they are prepared for that change.
What's your background?
Wayne Slavin: I have been in tech my entire career, mainly in Southern California. I started with an app my co-founder and I build, which was downloaded a billion and a half times. That was in 2001, with NetStumbler. It was a free app, before free apps were cool. When we figured out that an ad-driven app was not going to grow at a fast enough rate, we went to build BackupRight, which we extended to 42 countries and multiple languages by our sixth year, before we were acquired. I'm proud that we never lost a client's data, ever, even through tornadoes in the Midwest, and hurricanes in Florida. We were eventually acquired by a large competition 2012. At the same time, I realized that, even though both products were profitable and growing, we never went exponential. There was no crazy, crazy growth, and it was much more linear. I wanted to see if someone knew how to do that. I happened to stumble on a grad program at Columbia, which was really focused on technology, rather than being a pure MBA. They only take 20 people a year. I applied, and left Southern California to New York for the program.
Talking to one of my board members and advisors before I moved to New York, he told me--I had to help Barnes and Noble build the Nook. I helped Barnes and Noble as one of the first team members on the Nook. That was three days before I entered grad school. I worked at Barnes and Noble through three releases of the Nook, and then I moved over to a smaller company, Buddy Media, where I ran all of the analytics products. We were acquired by Salesforce.com for $800M. At that time, I wanted to get back to Socal and the West Coast, and one of my friends needed to hire their first VP at Tapingo. Today, they have done more than $100M in mobile commerce transactions, primarily focused on students on college campuses, where they use it to order food and to pay in advance, and so they can walk into Starbucks or Jamba Juice and pick up their order. I got experience with product development, lots of customer facing experience, and real time analytics. My thesis was using machine learning to analyze risk, and this was a chance to work on a real, consumer-facing, transactional, complex e-commerce order, and integrating that with large institutions, Starbucks, and Jamba Juice.
How has it been, as a startup, approaching insurance companies, which as you mention have been in the business for a very long time?
Wayne Slavin: We approached the insurance industry in a very pragmatic way. As I mentioned, it's been around for a long time, but they are very aware of the shift that is happening in the industry. They are not putting their fingers in their ears, and saying “la la la” this is not happening. They are there, and many of them are responding by creating technology innovation units, venture funds, and doing all sorts of things to figure out how to manage this change over a rapid period. They want to remain relevant. I'm sure you've seen this, and covered lots of startups who say they are disrupting insurance. You'll never hear me say we are disrupting the insurance space. We are really good at building technology, and we're here to enable and partner with insurance companies, and become that evolutionary catalyst for the digitization of insurance.
When we talk to them, we speak the language of insurance. We've done our homework, and now we're helping them evolve. It's not about changing their business model. A lot of folks in the technology community have come in with a bunch of ego, or maybe just naivete, thinking they know how to do insurance better. They want to sell life insurance better than Metlife. The reality is, this is not a taxi cabs. It's not about pressing a button and getting a better taxi cab. It's a highly regulated industry, with lots of rules, and you've got to play in the sandbox, and it takes time. For a startup that wants to go really fast and not play by the rules, they'll have a really hard tie in insurance. We've got a seasoned, pragmatic team, and we really know what we are good at, which is technology. We don't think insurance companies are doing anything wrong, because they just haven't needed to evolve. It' about how we can be a good partner. We go in with that message, which is why 25 of the largest insurance companies have been very receptive to us in less than eighteen months, and have been going with us, rather than other startups who have been saying very different things. I hear it all the time in C-suites. I go to all parts of the country, and tell insurance companies, this is what we're doing. They tell me, we've talked to hundreds of startups, and we're the only ones bearing this message—how can we work with you? I think that speaks about how we've really thought about their needs, and figured out what we're good at.
What's the biggest lesson from your other startups that you have applied here?
Wayne Slavin: The biggest lesson I have learned, is that dealing with big companies requires patience. They want to learn, and become better, and evolve. You need to be a good partner across that organization. Change in the industry is heating up. It requires a lot of thoughtfulness on startups. You can do a lot with a very small team of really great people.
So, having been in both New York and Southern California in the tech industry, how would you compare and contrast the markets?
Wayne Slavin: We have a presence in Southern California. I'm based here, and we have people in New York. LA, and Southern California, is having a moment. We're having a moment across all parts of the industry. Technology is one of those industries. Tech is no longer a niche, it's part of everyone's life. It's like electricity in your home, it's on your cell phone. Southern California has a diversity of industries that can attract a lot of technology. New York has strengths in fintech and insurtech, due to its proximity to the pillars of those industries. So there are a lot of similarities. I am happy that I can choose where I am, and thrilled to be building our business in Southern California.