Mark Vanzo, Founder & Managing Director of SMART Business Insurance, a disruptive online insurance brokerage, with high service levels and great prices, delivering insurances solutions to small businesses in Australia.
Mark, you come from the ad business. Why did you decide to get into insurance?
I had my own ad agency for 13 years but when I sold it I wanted to try something new. I have also been interested in selling business services online and the insurance sector looked like a market where I could attract repeat clients, generate annuity income, disrupt a traditional service model and hopefully create a business of value.
What process did you go through to come to this conclusion?
I took some time off to think about what I wanted to do next. I knew that whatever I decided to do next that I’d like to be in it for the long haul and create a meaningful business. I had a crack at a SEO business but soon realised that this was a commoditised product with downward price pressure so I shut that down.
When I was in the ad game I had a few financial services clients and I kept turning over in my mind how I could get involved in that sector. I liked the overall size of the market and its growth prospects. I just couldn’t figure out which part of it represented the best opportunity. Finally I focused in on the insurance sector, and brokerage in particular, and saw an opportunity in the SME space focusing on how small businesses like to transact today, rather than 5-10 years ago.
Building a model that used the best technology available along with a strong customer service ethos was the challenge I set myself. I also quickly became aware that, with a few notable exceptions, the major insurance brokers were not capitalising on the benefits that an online model could provide. Instead they were choosing to grow by acquisition. I saw an opportunity to become a significant player in the online SME insurance sector.
Has everything gone according to plan?
Yes and no. Like any start-up you don’t know what you don’t know. Every day I learn something new. And every day I make refinements to what we are doing. Thankfully, so far at least, we’re doing well.
What have been the main things that you have learnt?
Firstly, building an online business is expensive. Much more than you think at the start. In insurance you not only have all the normal start-up costs but you have to invest significantly in marketing dollars to build your online presence and get traction. On top of that you have a compliance regime which requires skilled people and they don’t come cheap.
Secondly, while our sales and customer growth has been strong the real benefits of scaling like this occurs later. So you have to build a business for the long term and be focused not only on new business growth but also on great customer service to minimise churn.
What has been your biggest achievement @ SMART?
If you start searching online for business insurance you’ll find us easily from a simple organic search and this is after giving other brokers a 10 years head-start!.
When you search for business insurance you will often find AAMI, GIO, RACV, CGU, ALLIANZ, NRMA, ….and SMART ….we’re in good company !
Was it difficult to find and build your team?
Building the team has been one of the most challenging and rewarding elements for me. Finding people with the right mix of insurance and technical knowledge, IT skills, and passion and resilience is always difficult and we didn’t always get it right. We now have an amazing team that have blended together well and will take the business forward.
What’s it like to work @SMART?
Working @ SMART is NOT for everyone. The people that succeed with us want a career rather than a job. They want to learn, are adaptable and are open to new ideas and challenges. It’s a fun environment and everyone’s opinion is valued. I stress to our people that it is ok to fail as long as you fail forward. Failure is an efficient teacher and we use every lesson learned from our failures to refine our processes and business model. As far as we know there is no one doing what we are doing exactly like we are , especially with blend of technology and people , so there is no template to follow.
What performance measures do you use to keep score?
We measure everything that we think helps us to improve our performance, be it daily, weekly or monthly. We use a combination of ‘lead’ and ‘lag’ indicators to measure both our customer acquisition and retention performance. Some of our most valuable measures are the most simple ones – e.g. transaction numbers, customer feedback and % of claims approved.
Who are the SMART customers?
Most of them are micro and small business owners and we are proud of that. These people are the backbone of Australia – tradies and professionals out there having a crack. We know they are busy so we provide them quick, good advice to ensure they get a great deal and the cover they need. Our clients are generally appreciative of our approach.
Tell me about your recent trip to Silicon Valley and GOOGLE in particular.
I’ve always wanted to visit the Googleplex even more so after seeing Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in The Intern!
I was really lucky to be invited along to meet with a number of Google engineers and their Head of Finance industry clients. It was a great experience especially hearing some of their own plans for the insurance market.
Visiting Silicon Valley was an eye opener too. In the space of a few hours I met a young Australian tech entrepreneur who was selling his business to a huge industry player. Then in the local Chipotle restaurant I listened to a couple of ‘kids’ barely out of their teens discussing their fund raising progress for their start-ups. Not to mention the ‘retired’ Stanford lecturers, still in their 20s, who sold their businesses for eight figures.
What advice would you give to anyone entering an established market with an online play?
You need a point of difference and a good product. That’s the starting point. Plus if you’re not solving a real problem in the market then it’ll hard going and you’ll ultimately fail.
Also, make sure you’re prepared to endure tough times and have enough money to last you longer than you think you’ll need. With the right team, product and money you can achieve wonderful things but it will be bloody hard work.
Facebook, Instagram , LinkedIn or Google ? Which works best for SMART?
After my visit to the GOOGLEPLEX I have to say GOOGLE don’t I?
Seriously, Google search is very important for us because that is how our market finds its insurance solution, at least initially. There is a combination of art and science to getting the most from Google but by making your message relevant, compelling and using the right activation techniques you can generate a healthy level of inbound enquiries.
I also think Linked In and Facebook will become important lead generators for us in the future.
Do you have a bias for capital investments over people investments?
Good question and there’s no easy answer. I think ‘balance’ is key.
During my recent visit I was blown away by what is being planned by Google especially in the area of virtual intelligence. Having said that people still like to deal with people so we need a model that recognises that.
We know what we are good at – customer activation and customer service. And we need to make sure that however we do that resonates strongly and positively with our customers. There’s no doubt that further automation will occur along with overseas outsourcing. What is important is not to lose sight of the needs of the customer, no matter what changes you make. I firmly believe that while automation is critical people can add value that automation can’t.
Will SMART be relevant in 5 years’ time?
The sector will continue to evolve and change and that is what we want because this will create opportunities for us which we intend to capitalise on. I have a feeling the more things change the better our position will be vis a vis our competitors who are less flexible and tied to legacy systems.
What is next for SMART?
We’ll be definitely entering new markets and expand our offer to home and contents insurance because that is what our business customers are asking for. We’ll also soon have access to great products provided by Berkshire Hathaway who have had great recent success in Europe and the same is expected for Australia.
We will also be investing significantly in our customer acquisition activities. Watch this space.
Who are you going to put out of business, and why?
The next generation of local “general” insurance brokers. The established brokers with an existing book of business will survive, and those with momentum will continue to grow. However there will be fewer new “general” local brokers enter the market and build a significant presence from here on.
CONTACT: http://www.smartbusinessinsurance.com.au/ and 1300 542 573.