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Interview: Jimmy Williams, Co-Founder at Urban Jungle Insurance

Date:
10/06/2019
Author:
Livia Thimotheo
Reading Time:
20 minutes
Jimmy Williams

Can you tell me a bit about Urban Jungle?

The story starts with us being young renters in London and not being able to buy insurance. We lived in a huge shared house and the big insurers were like "no, you'll have parties all the time, you're students, we're not interested in insuring you".  I remember taking the best part of the week to find anyone who would insure us. We did find someone and 18 months later we made a claim and it was such a bad experience. Everything was on paper, it took three or four months to process, even though it was a pretty simple claim. It left an indelible impact on me - like, this is a really bad industry, and no one has cracked it yet. Particularly seeing other industries with challenger brands starting to come up with a much more customer-centric mindset. When you’re tech-enabled, you can actually have a big impact, very quickly, and make a real change in the industry.

That's what we're trying to do: start from scratch and build up the whole insurance experience from beginning to end with technology everywhere. But ultimately with the customer at the heart of everything we're doing.

There are many advantages to that. Because we're tech-enabled, we can do things at a lower cost and bring more value to customers. But also we think very carefully about the insurance product and how flexible it is and how responsive it is to the way people's risks are changing over time. So that it’s easier to buy, manage and claim. That adds up and becomes something quite different overall.

We've been building that just over two years. We've got over 15,000 customers now, we're growing 33% per month. So we're growing very quickly. We're one of the top-rated home insurance providers on Trustpilot. The customers understand what we're building and they like it, which is great, and it's been a very fun journey so far.

What is your background?

Early in my career, I did a lot of e-commerce, I come from that background. I was also doing work with insurers and I saw from inside how much they were struggling with technology.

And why do you think they're struggling with technology?

In some ways, insurers always spent a lot of money on technology. If you go back to the 80s, they were the first ones to build these monolithic mainframes. I don’t think they've been sufficiently brave on kicking out the entire old system and bring in a new one.

Getting a bit technical about it: their general approach is "our system is old, let's launch a new system and put new customers there" and then they leave the old customers in the old system. If you're a Customer Service Operative at a really big insurer, you're fishing in ten systems to find people's records. That's an absolute disaster.

I think there's also a cultural shift, which is very important. I have met some of the big insurer CEOs and senior people, and I have got the feeling that there's disbelief in the power of technology. They've made the move from offline to online, you can buy insurance online, but it's horrible. There's a little bit of "I can probably make it to retirement before this is really a problem for my company.” That's a huge risk that insurers are taking right now. Some businesses are investing in it, but I'd argue it's much too little, and that leaves a gap for people like us to come and steal their lunch, I guess.

Jimmy Williams

And you guys focus exclusively on millennials, right?

We don't use the word millennials here, we just call them young people. Our customers are under 40, typically urban, as you might expect from the name. What is important is that a lot of them don't drive. So a lot of people's first experience with insurance is cars and basically, you hit 17 and you start to get insured for your parents' cars and you realise it's ridiculously expensive.

What we found about our customers is because they're urban, and because people are just driving less in general, they have never bought car insurance. So on their first experience with insurance, they look at what else is out there and they're horrified by it. Because their expectations are set by Netflix and Amazon.

So yeah, young, urban-dwelling, time-poor, want to get things sorted quickly. That's our typical customer.

What are their specific needs that are not being covered by the market? You already mentioned speed, for instance, is there anything else?

One of the things that has got us a long way is the fact that our policies are effectively live. It's very easy to log in and make a change to your policy. Renters move a lot and the people they live with too. They're typically in a position in their lives where they're acquiring things for the first time such as an expensive laptop, a nice camera or smartphone. They need to be able to have an insurance policy that's much more flexible and they can just come on and make changes. That's one of the first features we put out there: the option of having a live insurance policy that you can change at any time.

A lot of it is about transparency and clarity as well. Insurance companies... you could argue it’s deliberate, I don't know whether it necessarily is, but you get in and there are pages of terms and exclusions. What we do is we'll take care of the nasties. We'll make sure there are no nasties in there so you can just relax, you don't need to hunt around. The premise here is always "Would I buy this insurance?". I have read the 40-page policy document, I know every single word in there and there's this exclusion. Given what I know about it, would I be happy buying it? That's what we test ourselves against. I think too often in insurance that is not true. People would be ashamed, really, if they realised some of the terms that are hiding at the back of the policy document. Just so that they can avoid paying when stuff goes wrong.

I think that terminology and vocabulary are one of the hardest things to tackle in insurance. Like, how do you explain coinsurance in just a few words?

It's in our tone of voice and branding guidelines, you should assume that the person knows nothing about insurance. That's the fundamental starting point. It's not something you engage with every day. That's the challenge of starting an insurance business, the fact that people don't want to engage with insurance every day and we can say that's fine. But even if you do know a bit about insurance, you're probably picking it up for the first time in a year. They're like "let's engage with this again, what's good? What's bad? What matters? Can't remember, I'm a bit lost here". Then by the time insurers start saying "Do you want this weirdly-named new insurance that you've no idea what it is'', they're like “I don't know.”

When businesses are involved with product, working on it every day, they can lose sight of how it's perceived from the outside world. How do you make sure this doesn't happen?

That is definitely a challenge more now than two years ago because we were coming in fresh. That was definitely helpful. The simple answer is we ask customers. We regularly test what we have already with customers. We're pretty proactive at picking up the phone to customers who've bought, haven't bought and say "What would you like? What do you not like? How did you find us? What was clear/not clear?". We also use tools like Hotjar. It gives you a view of what people are doing, where they're struggling. When we have information text that pops up when you're on a question, how often are people clicking on that? [note: Hotjar is GDPR-compliant]. Things like that.

Jimmy-Williams

What is your favourite picture?

The one that customers talk about the most is something that one of the engineers conceived when we went out for lunch on a Friday, then built in the afternoon and launched that afternoon. It's a feature that allows customers to send their documents to their landlord, letting agent, friends or anyone else. It sounds kind of silly because obviously you could dig it out of your email and forward it on, no problem. But home insurance, especially if you're moving house, is one of those things that you've got to prove that you have to a lot of people. It's a success page, you get there and we try to help with the psychology of it as well. It says: "well done, you've got that sorted out, great" and then one of the actions we help you take is we ask "do you want to share this with anyone?" You do see funny data coming out of it. Just by looking at the kind of names and email extensions a lot of people are obviously sending it to their mums. But a lot of people are sending to letting agents and landlords. It's a super small feature.

Sometimes those small details make a big difference.

It came from customer feedback, we were getting Customer Service queries. In one of our documents, it wasn't very clear that a certain thing that was really important was covered. So people were constantly asking us about that. "My letting agent wants this, my letting agent wants that", which made it obvious that the letting agents wanted the customers to send them the evidence. It was born out of customers asking for this.

How do you build your product roadmap? Do you let the engineers build what they feel like it's best?

No, we're pretty planned. We have a mix of improving the products that we've already got, the platform overall and launching new products as well. We're juggling those three things.

I asked this because I love that idea: hey, I thought of a new feature, can it be done by the end of the day? Instead of having to "negotiate".

I see what you mean. To bring it into context - for all of our engineers, 20% of their time they can work on their own projects. As long as you remain productive, if you've got a project that you believe will bring value to customers we're happy if they spend 20% of their time on building any feature, exploring, learning, training or whatever it is.

We're actually very aggressive prioritisers. There are various meetings and processes to get us through that. Because, as I said, business is going well and there are lots of opportunities before us. My view of one of the main drivers of success of the business is prioritising well. I actually consider it almost proprietary, the way that we prioritise.

So how do you do it? It's almost an art, prioritising.

We don't treat it like an art. It's more like a process and a science. There are certain meetings that happen every week where certain types of projects are discussed and prioritised. Everyone is encouraged to put data against projects so that you get a view of size, customer impact, sometimes it's not about selling more stuff. Sometimes it is about making customers happier.

Jimmy WilliamsWhat are you planning to do with the funding you've just got?

As I said at the beginning, things are going well. Definitely, in terms of strategy, it’s more of the same. To an extent, we've been pretty focused - particularly over the last 18 months - on developing our products. That means insurance, software, Customer Service and we have proved that we can sell it to some people. A big part of the injection of capital is to sell it to lots more people, tell lots more people about it. Scaling our acquisition and operation is the phase we're entering.

We're also doing lots of R&D alongside that. Most of the team are pretty focused on R&D so that we provide more insurance products, better versions of what we have, more usability for the customer. Particularly, we're really focused on the next few months on claims and making the experience better. There are lots of things going on.

It's good to hear that because a lot of insurers focus on the Quote & Buy experience, but not on Claims.

I mentioned at the beginning my three-months claim experience. Sadly, that's not uncommon in the industry. Yeah, it's very simple maths of people saying "you know what? Only 15% of my customers claim. If they churn, maybe it will be the end of the world. Actually, it's a bit area where I can save costs". I guess for us, we can see a world in which we build an operation that's very low cost. The customer is effectively self-serving a lot of the stuff and it's automated. Speed is also something that we're focusing on. It's not necessarily right that any given interaction with an insurer on a claim is bad or anything else. It's the steps in between. It's not uncommon to see something like a claim that gets approved by the insurer then they leave it for two weeks and then eventually someone calls the customer and then the customer doesn't have voicemail on their phone. So they don't think to email them. They just try again the next day or something like that. Or keep trying until the customer answers. We know that lots of millennials don't answer the phone, they're waiting for their email.

I think there have been a lot of insurance successes of the last couple of decades, in particular in the motor insurance world. But they don't focus on claims at all. In some ways, there have been a lot of startups over the years that grew very quickly and comparison sites. They have been very successful. Has insurance got any better from any of those businesses? Hard to argue. It's not cheaper than it was, it's more expensive than it's ever been. No higher percentage of claims is being paid nor are they getting any faster. That's where we are and there's a lot to do to make it better.

When I was thinking of questions for today I wondered how it must be this clash of two worlds: the superfast techy attitude and the cautious culture of insurance. How is this fusion of worlds from your point of view?

And the third is marketing and acquisition. It's a bit of a theme of fintech in general, actually, if you look at fintech successes and failures, the successes are from people who have been able to bring those two together. You see businesses that are starting just by people from the insurance industry, they can't get their heads around the acquisition and all the technology. Just as technologists can't get their head around the insurance or the acquisition. You have to put those three things together.

One thing is understanding that this is a challenge. Then to make it a priority.  The simple answer is giving equal-ish importance to each thing and recognising how critical it is in your business. It would be very easy to ignore one bit. The next thing is about hiring. We do have insurance expertise in the business, we hire people out of Lloyds and you have to choose the right people. From our point of view, that's been people who have seen some of the problems from the inside and are looking for something more. Yes, there's a bit of a culture shock and it takes a bit of time. But once they get through that, it's actually very infectious. When you come out of a world where you have to wait three months for a decision and then in 10 minutes decide on it and get going. That's much more motivating.

What do you think that the insurance industry doesn't understand about insurtech?

Two things that I say a lot whenever I go to a conference:

1. Speed. Certainly when we work with insurers, when things have gone badly was their failure to understand speed. In lots of ways, if an insurer is going to do something with you, you'd rather they say no fast than say maybe and you waste loads of time waiting to see if something is going to happen. Something we had to learn pretty quickly was that you have to get in the room with the decision makers very quickly and you have to force them to say yes or no right there and then. Otherwise, you can waste months and months. It's very easy if you're in an innovation team in an insurance company and get excited about insurtech. The insurtech thinks everything's great but in the end, you get nowhere and then you end up out of money and you die. That's what I think that the insurance industry fails to understand is that these are not profit-making businesses yet, they do not have time. It's their own money at stake, the business will die and they'll lose a lot of personal money. That's what I tell people to think about, to imagine that founder crying late at night for having failed because insurers haven't achieved what was promised.

2. When you get to a more senior group of people within insurers, I don't think they quite understand how much the venture capital community thinks that this [industry] is going to change. If you think globally, there are billions of dollars being invested in insurtech businesses. Venture capital doesn't invest in an industry where it doesn't think that there's massive disruption potential. I think insurers should be more scared than they are. It's still early days, it's not certain. If you look at things that are further down the line like payments, for example, it's one of the first bits of fintech to do that. It may be that venture capitalists are wrong, maybe right. But if they're right - and they often are - then traditional insurance has got a very big problem. I think they've been a bit slow to wake up to that.

Jimmy WilliamsAlthough you're not constrained by legacy systems, there are still challenges building something from the ground up. What were the challenges that you've faced and how did you overcome them?

One of the challenges you always have is the scales that you have to begin with. You start off with two or three of you in a room. It's very rare you've got someone who's done everything. But you need to build everything. It's made a lot easier now because there are a lot of SaaS (Software as a Service) things out there that you can integrate quickly for something like Customer Service. However, there's always going to be a point which you've got some people who have never done something before trying to build the best version of it in the world from scratch. That is hard. There's also the question of where do you start?

How do you overcome them? I don't know if there's a magic formula to solve those problems. Particularly in those early days, you don't make much discernible progress. If we push any feature now, you see the numbers move. In the early days, you get no feedback at all. You're building, building, building, put it live and certainly in our case the few weeks and months it was silence. Until you're live and in the market, you get no feedback at all. So I guess one way to solve this is to go to market quickly - and that's exactly what we did. I wouldn't have changed this for a second, if we could have gone even faster I would have done.

How would you like the insurance industry to be in five and then in ten days?

Much more passive. I think there's a lot of anxiety associated with insurance right now and certainly what we're trying to get to is not a lot of exclusions, everyone's eligible, you buy it and it just does the right stuff, you don't have to worry about it. I hope that if we do that we'll be able to improve the market with us. So yes, fundamentally no one wants to buy insurance, but it's not something I worry about, it's sorted.

I don't have any more questions, so now is your chance to say what's been on your mind.

The only thing we haven't talked about was brand and how important that is. What we're trying to do over time is build a brand where the user understands straight away the terms, I don't need to read the small print. That's been an important part of our journey. The scrappiest way we did that in the early days was reviews. All we did was to be very practical about asking for reviews. Now we're at a level that we're asking ourselves what do we want to be known for?

 

To experience Urban Jungle for yourself check them out at https://myurbanjungle.com/

If you're interested in enhancing your online offering then speak to the mortgage website experts at hello@dock9.com or call us on 020 7977 9230.



Pictures by Judit

9859---Livia
Livia Thimotheo

Livia is a UX Designer at Dock9. She's worked in digital products in the financial sector including applications, websites and chatbots. The Design of Everyday Things was her first design book and it completely changed the way she sees the world.