Billy Van Jura is the Founder of Birchyard, an insurance brokerage that represents a wide range of insurance plans and types, adjusting to the individual needs of their customers. He actively manages a data driven, buying process oriented company in the personal insurance space. Billy has over 18 years of experience in the insurance industry, ranging from a captive sales agent with a captive carrier to a leader in insurtech.
The following are excerpts from a conversation between Billy and Andrew Wynn, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Ascend, the first modern insurance payments platform that provides automated all-in-one financing, collections, and payables.
AW: What are some of the top insurtech trends you’ve noticed this year?
BVJ: Something that immediately comes to mind is funding. Funding in insurtech startups is still going strong, despite what some people may be saying at the moment. Many insurtech companies, even amidst the pandemic, seem to be plowing forward.
A more negative trend I’ve noticed this past year would have to do with carriers. We haven’t really seen any carriers become more aggressive or willing to embrace new technologies. There’s still some resistance and hesitancy that exists, and I hope that’s something we see die out in the upcoming years.
AW: What have you noticed still needs attention and improvement in our sector?
BVJ: There are some definite gaps in regards to what carriers can be doing for customers and earning in profits, and what they’re actually doing and earning. Distribution across all smaller segments like personal lines, SMB, gig work, etc. is really lacking what can be considered a “modern” touch. There are so many tools you can use on your phone, on non-insurance apps, that are simply not available to insurance customers or distributors. It’s stunning. That’s why I’m excited to see companies like Ascend create the building blocks distributors need to give their customers the modern experience everyone increasingly expects.
Furthermore, there’s a blatant lack of knowledge and experience on the insurance side of insurtech. As much as I admire people who try new things, you still need to build an understanding of all sides of the industry you’re trying to break into. It’s as simple as doing research or talking to people already in the industry. Yet, we are still seeing a ton of new companies and startups with a nice website and not much else. Their backend tends to do little that’s actually helpful, because they don’t fully understand the insurance half of insurtech.
AW: Where do you see opportunities for Insurtech to better serve the needs of existing players in the insurance ecosystem?
BVJ: Essentially, everywhere. There’s room for improvement along every step of the buying and servicing process. From the actual product development to distribution, which we already touched upon briefly. The opportunity is there — we just need to arrive at a place where insurtechs develop a better understanding of insurance and build the products we truly need, and traditional insurance institutions are more willing to integrate these new technologies into the system. If both parties are able to fulfill their end, which is inevitably going to happen sooner or later, then the possibilities are endless.
AW: How can distributors prepare for the future that utilizes innovative business models and products in order to become the Netflix, not the Blockbuster, of insurance? What’s the first step?
BVJ: They need to be willing to collaborate! A lot of bigger traditional players think they’re mightier than the up-and-comers, when in actuality these small newbies can help elevate businesses to new heights. There is a massive hole at the intersection of fintech/insurtech, and therefore a massive opportunity. Anywhere there is a group of customers (aka data) that can benefit from something “better,” there is room for an improved model. Insurance is no exception.
Furthermore there’s far too much focus placed on acquiring customers and not nearly enough placed on why so much effort (aka money) still goes into acquiring customers. It is almost completely unnecessary, especially when this effort/money could be the capital you need to fund your “Netflix” approach.
So how should distributors prepare? My biggest piece of advice would be to check your ego and find out where your potential customers are. You have to be willing to sacrifice initial public attention in order to focus on that group of potential customers. The U.S. public will be just fine without another “quote” site that doesn’t actually complete the process.
AW: What is your customer’s biggest pain point and how do you solve it?
BVJ: This is something that varies immensely depending on your line of business. But what many have in common is an acceptance of “this is just how it is” and an incomplete understanding of the value insurance provides. If the behind-the-scenes process of buying/servicing is improved, then the provider and distributor have a better shot at actually being valuable — versus disguising their services as such.
I suppose you could say that the pain point could be this attitude that insurance is a “necessary evil” as opposed to something you want to have. It hurts everyone, customers and insurers alike, when people forget the deeper reasons why they buy insurance.
AW: What advice do you have for people looking to break into the insurtech space?
BVJ: My biggest piece of advice would be to look at the policies you and those close to you own and dissect them. Develop an understanding of them. Insurance is massive and woven into every segment of society. We need to spend less time focusing on what seems like an investable idea because just about everything nowadays gets invested in. Be assured that plenty of half-baked insurtech ideas have launched, been invested in, and died in the last five years. And several of these have gone public or been acquired. The point being, at least in my opinion, you’ll likely find funding regardless, so maybe focus on improving society first. There are so many segments being ignored where the right insurtech can have a near immediate impact and be incredibly profitable. Don’t follow the trend of what’s investable or not just to get funding. Instead, find a segment of people you can help, and help them.
AW: What are some of the biggest challenges insurers and insurance sellers are facing right now?
BVJ: Right now insurtech and advertising are soaking up a lot of financial time and resources, yet delivering little to no return on investment. There is a perceived competitiveness in the marketplace that is planned around and reacted to, where businesses should instead be doubling down on the customers and data they already have. This is likely due to nervousness surrounding “what to do” because doing nothing isn’t typically an option for these smaller companies. Additionally, many insurance sellers are antiquated and not doing much selling. Even the ones that aren’t antiquated typically do not have a clear path forward, regardless if their business is profitable or not.
AW: How can insurance decision makers maintain existing business that drives billions in revenue?
BVJ: Many have proven that they already know how to do this, as most carriers retain over 80 percent of their clients year after year. They can earn even more if they stop abusing “price optimization,” which is something they often do in an effort to collect as much premium as they can before someone leaves. Instead, they should be asking themselves how much they can collect and still maintain/increase profits. Enhancing their existing data with the available tools and resources, and then using it in their approach to existing customers, will produce a better return than buying more data to simply sell more.
AW: How can large, risk-averse insurance carriers and brokers truly embrace innovation in a meaningful way?
BVJ: There are hundreds, if not thousands, of consultants with white papers on this. And yet most of them skip the important stuff. You need to make the decision to do something and then do it. Have a clear plan (i.e. increase profits and retention of existing data). Then do it one step at a time. Make sure that any idea you have covers all three silos: marketing/sales, underwriting, and claims. The more buy-in the better. Also don’t fall victim to “shiny object syndrome,” where you reach for the newest buzziest tech. You’re better than this. In many cases your carrier is 50 to 150 years old. Don’t entirely act your age, but know who you are.
AW: What’s something you wish you learned earlier in your career?
BVJ: Rabbit holes are dangerous, time consuming, and often unprofitable. This is, unfortunately, something that I had to learn over time myself. The insurance puzzle is huge and the usual insurance rulebooks were written by people that do not have the same goals or plans as I do. It’s best to be aware of them, but move on.
AW: Take out your insurtech crystal ball, what do you think the insurance industry will look like in 10 years?
BVJ: I think that a lot of smart insurance companies and brands that we’re aware of today will disappear from the public eye and function more like reinsurers. They’ll operate in the background. Banking has missed a huge opportunity over the last decade, but based on how many are quietly backing fintechs, I can see a similar thing happening in the insurance space. If an insurance company is really focused on profits, they’ll eventually realize what small insurance companies already know: advertising is an expense and doesn’t have good ROI.
I also think that distribution will be tightened up as more and more platforms help consumers maintain their documents and information better. People will realize that coverage is coverage. Good and bad experiences happen, but regulation makes coverage a commodity.
If things could get close to perfect, then universal healthcare and its accompanying options would be a few years old in 2031 — plus the savings and freedom that come from that will produce more life insurance sales and a stronger economy.
AW: Who is leading the insurtech space so far? And who is one insurtech expert, founder, investor, you’d like to meet?
BVJ: Lemonade launching as a carrier in New York is something I find super intriguing and ultimately well done. I am also really impressed with Hippo’s approach. Their CEO, Assaf, seems to do very little press, but what I have heard from him is interesting. Munich Re has also quietly done some really interesting things that insurtechs haven’t, especially with investments.
Hazard Hub and Wenalyze are two of my personal favorites that I know work and would make so many aspects of insurance better. At the same time, the gauntlet of insurtech wears them down. This also applies to companies like Viewspection, which I find very good as well.
In reality, I don’t think that there are any experts in insurtech. You can tell simply by looking at profitable vs. unprofitable companies. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some really cool companies doing impressive work out there.
Given the opportunity, I’d probably be interested in meeting the fintech that is trying to function like a bank but is focused on the “middle” of the consumer segment. Essentially, the majority of the country that needs help, as opposed to the easy path they think carriers and banks really want.
I’d also like to meet the person who probably exists, that is playing match-maker with insurtech and insurance. This person may not be some sort of consultant, more like a Reid Hoffman type. I don’t know if they’re out there or where they are, but I’d like to meet them and have a conversation with them for sure.
Bio: Andrew Wynn is the Co-Founder & Co-CEO of Ascend, the first modern insurance payments platform that provides automated all-in-one financing, collections, and payables. Prior to Ascend, Andrew built a home maintenance startup called Sheltr, which provides homeowners with routine preventative maintenance service and diagnostics to offer data-driven proactive care to catch issues before they become costly repairs. The company became the first acquisition made by insurtech unicorn Hippo because of its intuitive and technological approach to building an insurance product that went beyond the customer interaction. Prior to Sheltr, Andrew was at Instacart, leading the company’s product and data integration team.