Startup Bites: Meet the Young Chefs (Part 2)

We’re excited to continue our series, “Startup Bites: Meet the Young Chefs”, where Co-Founder Sven Roehl sits down with founders of InsurTech startups to chat about their exciting solutions and how they’re on track to make big waves in the insurance world.  

In today’s blog, Sven sat down with Laura McKay, Co-Founder of PolicyMe. Read the full interview below! 

Experience the full interview — check out the recording above!

Hi Laura, thank you for joining us today! Our audience would love to hear a little bit about yourself, your history, and in a nutshell, an overview about your startup and when you found it. 

I started my journey in life insurance back at the University of Waterloo, where I studied Actuarial Science, but instead I went into Management Consulting. After school, I joined Oliver Wyman, which is a management consulting firm, to work on strategic initiatives, operational efficiency initiatives, and even regulatory initiatives. It went well; I spent a lot of my time with insurance companies, exploring the strategy side. I noticed there was progress being made in the insurance space, but it was very, very slow.  

At Oliver Wyman, I met my Co-Founder, Andrew Ostro, and we decided to take a stab at this problem ourselves. Life insurance is archaic in the way that we distribute products, how long it takes to get an approval, and the settlements of a life insurance policy. There is probably a quicker, more efficient way to serve customers, and that was how we decided to start PolicyMe. We started in March of 2018, just the two of us with our jobs, and immediately came into contact with Cookhouse Labs. You were very supportive of us in those early days, helping us with office space, making an introduction to various Canadian life insurance companies, and helping us brainstorm the future of this company. We were able to do a soft launch in September of 2018 and a more formal launch by the end of the year, and have really seen a lot of traction since then.  

It feels like not long ago, and now you’re already two years into the market. I was an entrepreneur a long time ago and I know there are quite a few sleepless nights before really making a final decision. What motivated you to quit your job and go ahead with PolicyMe?  

We started talking about the idea non-stop in December, working on it on the side. At some point, I realized that I needed to either pursue this full-time, or I needed to let it go. I am very passionate about the idea, but there was no way I could pull this off while having a separate career at Oliver Wyman. We looked at the Canadian market and didn’t see a ton of competition or innovation in this market specifically, and it just felt like the perfect place to start a company. I had a lot of support from mentors and even colleagues at Oliver Wyman, and that was the final bit of encouragement that I needed to take this on.  

 So now, a little over 2 years later, what are the biggest challenges that you faced while growing your business?  

We initially set up the business as a brokerage, which was by far the quickest way to launch the company and allowed us to get started and sell life insurance policies. What that meant is that we relied on insurance companies to help with the customer’s journey, because right now we work with insurance companies to get our applicants underwritten through them. We rely on their processes to get to an approval, and we’re held to their constraints around what applications and processes they’d like to use. What surprised us was how few enabled a smooth seamless journey starting with, believe it or not, e-signatures. In an era of COVID, it’s crazy that you wouldn’t be able to have that. In 2018, I remember calling every Canadian life insurance company that I could possibly contract with as a life insurance advisor and it was slim pickings to find insurance companies that would allow something as simple as e-signatures. Other processes and improvements like non-face-to-face sales had a lot of constraints around them, such as requiring clients to verify their IDs by sending a copy via mail.  

It took a while to get down to a list of partners who we thought would meet our demands of the online digital application process that we really wanted for our clients, but it was worth it. Since then, we’ve become pretty good partners with all these insurance companies, and they have been interested in our journey. They keep close connections with us and, in some cases, even make exceptions for us as a digital company, knowing that our clients aren’t the typical clients that are meeting their advisor face-to-face. 

As you mentioned, we met at Cookhouse Labs a little over 2 years ago and I remember it well. How did the collaboration between Cookhouse Labs and PolicyMe add value to your business? 

First and foremost, it was an entryway into meeting a lot of parties within the Canadian insurance industry. We were introduced to senior leaders at MGAs and other insurance companies. We also got to participate in some interesting workshops with people that we deal with every day, like a workshop with underwriters to talk about the future of underwriting. It was interesting to get their point of view on how far we could push the envelope, where some of the constraints are, and why those constraints exist. It was very beneficial for us early on to have those sounding boards for some of our ideas to tell us how feasible they would be! 

I’m glad we could contribute to your business, which seems to be very successful right now! If we look back on your journey, what highlights and moments of success stand out to you? Do you have moments where you say “Wow!” — where you immediately wanted to go and open a bottle of champagne? 
 
There’s so many to recount! I think the first highlight was the day we launched. We sold our first policy seamlessly without having to talk to someone; they filled out all the information online and got through it. I remember we were at Cookhouse Labs and my husband came by with a champagne bottle. It was just one policy, but it proved to us that everything functioned well on the first day that we launched, which was great. 

Since then, there’s been a tremendous number of wins. At this point, we have 190 5-star reviews, but even hitting that hundredth 5-star review was so exciting. It just shocked me that strangers felt so fondly about their experience working with us that they were willing to take a few moments to write us a review. And finally, when in January of this year we raised our seed-round, because sales is a lot of work, certainly a lot of work for my Co-Founder Andrew. It just proved to us that there was interest in this space and that there were a lot of opportunities to work with investors in the future. 

Speaking of the future, where do you see your business in the next 2-3 years? 

We are very focused on growing our presence in the Canadian market. We are in the process of doubling down on branding and becoming a household name for life insurance in the Canadian market. Another focus is products — we really want to take control of the end-to-end customer journey.  We’re trying to get accelerated underwriting experiences for our customers so that, if they qualify, they don’t need to go through an excessive wait time and then an underwriting cycle. I would love to get to a place where we can give decisions after they answer a few eligibility questions. After that, we’ll focus on launching new products that our customers ask about all the time, such as critical illness. We’re excited to expand the number of products that we can offer our clients! 

Exciting time ahead of you! You mentioned your business currently involves collaborating with insurance companies. On a personal level, how has your experience been with this collaboration? 

 To be honest, it depends on the insurance company. One thing that I’ve always struggled with in the life insurance space is just how many people are involved in getting an application from ‘created’ to ‘settled’. We’re pretty convinced an application goes through around 16 different pairs of hands before it gets approved. And I’m talking about a very healthy individual — it takes that many pairs of hands. If you think about it that way, we’re dealing with improving the process with 16 different people. That’s been our biggest challenge in working with insurance companies: they’ve become very solid in terms of how they work and how they structure themselves. There’s no one overseeing the end-to-end customer journey to see if there’s improvements that can be made along the whole process. As we come in and suggest changes, there are a lot of different people that we need to get buy-in from to make a single change.  

I think that that should be one of the biggest goals of this industry in the future. Do there need to be 16 different pairs of hands to approve and settle the application of a 30-year-old buying a $500,000 term life insurance policy? Is there a way we can really streamline that process for them? Because every time you introduce a new pair of hands, that hand-off can take 2-3 days. If you have 16 transition points, 2-3 days quickly turns into a very long time to settle this. So, if a customer could skip through those processes, it would be helpful to them. 

There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement in the insurance industry. Based on your experience, where do you think the industry is headed in the next 5 years? 

There’s a good amount of focus on underwriting recently, probably prompted by the current pandemic and the limitations we had for several months. I think that was the fire that we all needed to rethink whether all these requirements are necessary and whether there’s a way that we could get comfortable with a little less information from the applicant. Looking at other markets, especially the U.S. market, they have been able to get more comfortable with accelerated underwriting than what we’ve seen in the Canadian market. I think it’s time we push the envelope to see if there’s a way we can get there.  

I think another direction is to get a focus lens on the process, versus just the broker focus lens. You can even see the way some of the health questions are asked — they’re very confusing and probably written by a legal and compliance team. I think it’s worthwhile to look at the customer journey from a consumer perspective. A move to digital brokerages and digital channels is inevitable and we’ve seen it happen in every other financial services vertical. It’s typically how millennials like to do business; they’re focused on self-service. If it’s not a priority for insurance companies today, it really should be. Focusing on good customer experience could lead to their market share going up quite a bit. 

Customer experience is key, and we do our part by using a human-centric approach at Cookhouse Labs. We’re starting to see improvement and there’s definitely a lot more work that needs to be done, but we’re very happy to have organizations like PolicyMe supporting the Canadian industry and achieving this goal! Laura, thank you very much for sharing insights on your organization with us today. We wish you all the best! 

Thank you, it’s great that we’ve stayed connected even though we’ve moved out of the Lab space. It’s been just wonderful to continue to participate in your events!