Boston Software began in Newton Centre in 1995
Almost every independent insurance agent in Massachusetts knows their signature product: WinRater. What many agents might not be aware of, however, is that Boston Software, the company that created this unique product, is a locally owned and operated company just like many independent agencies in Massachusetts.
Bucking the trend that bigger is better, Boston Software Co-Founders Tom O’Connor and Charlie Walsh began building their first online comparative rating tool for agents in 1995. Over the years, the company has continued to grow and prosper and has carved out a niche market by staying true to its original idea – serving the independent insurance agents of Massachusetts. As the company celebrates its 20th year in business, we queried the company about its early days, it experiences and the company’s future in our exclusive interview with Co-Founder Charlie Walsh.
So who are actually the people behind Boston Software?
We’re lucky to have a great team.
Tom O’Connor and I started Boston Software in 1995 and were joined by Danny Blood (our CTO) shortly thereafter.
Since then, we’ve grown to nearly 30 employees including software developers, project managers, Quality Assurance, Business Analysts, tech support, sales, admin, and more. A number of us have been here for 6 years, 9 years…Carol Bender (our IT manager) and Craig Perkinson (our lead architect) have been with us for 15 years. We like to jokingly say that we’ve trained them in all the unique Boston Software processes and peculiarities…and now they’re completely unemployable anywhere else.
You are a local company just like many Massachusetts agents then?
I actually say this all the time to agents: We are exactly like you in more ways than not – we’re local, we’ve been around 20 years, we’re very family friendly – those are the big ones. Another big one is that, just like an independent agent, we rely on annual renewals. At the end of every year we send out an order form or an invoice and say, “We hope you license our product again.” Our clients, the agents, could all go away, and that’s really the same business model as an agent.
We are small just like them, and we’re focused on building real relationships and getting closer to the community. Like agents, we work to understand our customers’ real needs, adapt where we have to and understand the importance of service.
How did Boston Software come about?
Microsoft’s release of Windows 95 operating system really was the galvanizing force. If you recall, many small businesses didn’t use computers or if they did, they were using dumb terminals or PCs running DOS, which was kind of difficult to learn for the average person.
Suddenly, thanks to Windows 95, computers were easy to work on. And they could perform so many tasks, not just word processing. People realized how powerful they were and were clamoring for more Windows programs.
Coincidentally, in January of 1995, Tom and I became acquaintances. I was doing some marketing consulting and rented an office in Newton Centre. My landlord was Mike O’Connor, Tom’s father. Mike owned a number of insurance agencies, including Chandler Hoover & Giles, which was in the same Newton Centre building where Tom worked.
Tom and I talked about wanting to start a business. Tom pointed out that there was no Windows software being developed or marketed for insurance agents as far as he could tell. A light bulb went off in our heads.
How did you decide to build a rater? Why not something else…like an agency management system?
A management system seemed daunting. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. Tom was only 22 years old. I don’t think he had even shaved yet. I didn’t know anything about insurance. At all. So we looked around for a smaller idea to start with. The Massachusetts “Fixed and Established” auto rates were very straightforward. Remember, at the time many agencies were using the Rapid Rater to calculate auto premiums. The Rapid Rater was a paper manual! I also remember a lot of agents could calculate auto premiums in their head (or maybe using a pencil and paper). That’s how basic it was.
So Tom taught himself Visual Basic programming, worked a lot of hours, and hacked together the first WinRater Auto rating software. I started trying to sell it, which really means I tried to give it away and even that wasn’t easy!! Most agents already had a way of quoting and didn’t want to hear about some new thing.
So how were you able to sell WinRater?
Perseverance. Good, positive energy. We never got too high or too low. And honestly we got a lot of help along the way from so many people, including everyone at the MAIA. Too many to list here. One agent in particular stands out in my mind — Fran Kleindienst at Lovely Insurance Agency – she was one of our first WinRater pilot testers. She was so encouraging and empathetic and authentically happy. She was like one of those great moms from a 1950’s TV show. You wanted to make her proud, you know? No coincidence she came from a place called the Lovely agency, huh?!
Anyway, we were able to give away 70 copies of WinRater that first year. Those agencies renewed with us in Year 2 and we added about 100 new agencies.
It was a slow start…why didn’t you give up?
Good question. We weren’t making any money and it took a lot of time and effort providing tech support to agents, adding new features, etc. We were bootstrapping it as best we could, working in the attic of the building with no heat or air conditioning, eating mac and cheese for lunch. My wife was pregnant. Tom’s girlfriend at the time was tired of paying for all his meals.
But we were encouraged by agents buying more and more PCs and wanting Windows products. We set out to build WinRater Home Rating, which is why Danny Blood came on board. We couldn’t afford to pay him so we gave him equity in the company. Eventually at the end of Year 3 we released WinRater Home and that was the turning point, for sure.
I remember I sent out a mailer announcing that WinRater Home was officially available. It included an order form, asking agents to fill in what carriers they wanted and fax in their credit card information. The next day our fax machine lit up like a Christmas tree! Orders came in fax after fax after fax — some for thousands of dollars. A tear comes to my eye just thinking about that day 🙂
This year your company is celebrating 20 years in business. How is Boston Software celebrating this milestone?
We’ve done some fun things with our employees – we try to have a little surprise every week or so, with some Red Sox tickets contests, catered lunches and some cool Boston Software gear we had made up just for our anniversary.
And at the MAIA’s Big Event last month, we had some fun giveaways and a special drink – the Moscow Mule – served in copper cups at our annual Big Event Friday evening cocktail party.
I’m saving up for a big celebration for our 25th anniversary. We may rent out the VFW Hall in Needham. Justin Timberlake said he’ll be there. Taylor Swift too.
How has the company changed over the last 20 years?
Well the look of the company has changed – Tom, Danny and I have all lost a lot of hair. Had I known this would have happened I think I would have stayed working as a marketing consultant. Consultants always seem to have a thick head of hair.
Seriously, the technology behind WinRater/SinglePoint has changed for sure, and it’s grown into a comprehensive sales and rating tool. As we speak, the way insurance gets bought and sold is rapidly changing. Boston Software, agents, and carriers are all trying to adjust. It’s a very unpredictable time but also very interesting to try and navigate.
But when you get right down to it, we are still a small business trying to help agents sell policies on behalf of carriers. That’s the value we provide to the market.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge that your company has faced over the last 20 years?
Managed Competition, no doubt about it. We went from having to produce one set of Auto rates to multiple rate plans for multiple carriers. We had to totally rewrite WinRater Auto software and enable Real-Time Rating to accommodate this change…in less than 6 months. The reason why that was so challenging is because our product [WinRater Auto] was really the original product that had been built. It had worked for 10-plus years and then suddenly we were expected to have basically an entirely new product that would quote multiple carriers overnight. In addition, the carriers were very much in the process of trying to figure out what their rate filings were going to be.
I don’t think anyone would have been surprised if we weren’t able to answer the bell after April 1, 2008.
What has been its biggest success or accomplishment?
Well, I guess that we didn’t actually go out of business after Managed Competition.
And also we’re proud that we’ve partnered with MA independent agents and carriers for this long. I like to think we have proven to be reliable and honest and helpful. We haven’t tried to move onto bigger pastures or make a quick buck. We’re in the trenches with you.
Do you think that putting “all of your eggs in one basket”, so to say, actually gave you an advantage in the long run?
Yeah, absolutely yes…I think the key for us is that we just really focused in on this small market [Massachusetts] that was heavily saturated with independent agents. We didn’t try to go out and sell to all of New England or the whole east coast or the country; we just focused on this unique market because it required unique things and we just catered to that. In that regard we’ve never changed and even though Managed Competition has made Massachusetts look a lot like the other states, we are still different. Even the Registry [of Motor Vehicles] is different than other registries, so we cater to that as well.
Speaking of the RMV, Boston Software has just announced a new integration with the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Do you see this as a game-changer?
Yes, definitely a game changer. An integrated connection with the Registry of Motor Vehicles has eluded us and agents for many years. It means agents are forced to type in a bunch of data in WinRater that should automatically be retrieved from the RMV. Agents are turned into typists and consumers don’t get the best service they could be getting.
But, the good news is that we just got approved to provide this service to agents. Thanks in large part to the MAIA, who recognized how important it is for agents and consumers alike, we’ll be rolling this out in January.
Does Boston Software operate outside of Massachusetts?
Well, we do, but only in certain products or if a carrier asks us, or if it is a specific rating implementation, but all of those instances are sort of one-offs. Our comparative rater is only in Massachusetts and that’s really where we make the bulk of our money.
If you could cite one frustration your company deals with on a daily basis, what is it? How would you like to see it changed?
Well…making sure WinRater provides agents with an accurate quote for all carriers, all the time, is a challenge. It is much easier said than done. Sometimes we make mistakes, sometimes carriers make mistakes. Often times, the agent enters vague or inaccurate information or the consumer provides them with vague or inaccurate information. WinRater will quote based on that information. In the end, we all look bad.
How do you help agents learn how to avoid these frustrations and pitfalls?
We spend a ton of time and effort trying to make sure that agents get an accurate quote. We do lots of different things. These can include webinars that we run and webinars that we run jointly with the carriers. We will go out to an agency and train staff, and we also have lots of information in our online resource center. In addition, we run surveys to see how we are doing with different carriers’ rates – we take that information and then try to make modifications in the software.
We consistently call our customers, particularly when a carrier has a rate change. We will call as many agents as we can to see whether they understand a specific rate filing, what’s working for them, what’s not. Again we’ll make modifications in the software.
We also make countless updates throughout the year thousands of tweaks. We have our project manager and product manager meet once a week to just go over accuracy issues. Then we chip away at those issues… I think there are at least 12 of them a week. They can be really small things, but we constantly monitor them.
Agents may not want to hear this, but more than 90 percent of the time an inaccurate quote occurs because somebody put in bad information. As the old saying goes, “Garbage in, garbage out,” but we are always trying to help with that too.
I’d say we spend at least 30 percent of our time helping agents get an accurate rate. The upcoming RMV data pre-fill will be a huge help in terms of eliminating consumer and agent error on the Auto side.
Do you have plans to roll out any new products in the near future?
Yes. We’ll continue to improve our SinglePoint Leads program, which allows online insurance shoppers to visit an agency’s website or Facebook page, enter their Auto or Homeowners information, then get instant real-time quotes from multiple carriers.
We’ll continue to convert MA carriers from manufactured rating to Real-Time Rating.
Of course we’ll continue to enhance WinRater too, including the RMV integration feature, a new quote presentation, and…some other things up our sleeves.
How has the response been to SinglePoint Leads so far?
It’s a little surprising to us how few agents really use it. I think we have approximately 225 agencies that use it. We are really confident and psyched about how solid that product is and how it can really work. Certain agents are getting a lot of traffic and closing sales using SinglePoint Leads. It can feature all the carriers that an agent writes with and, most important of all, it’s extremely affordable. It costs $500 a year for both Auto and Home, no matter how many carriers you write with.
I’m not by any means suggesting it’s the answer to everything, but it’s an easy way for an agency to demonstrate to the world that they are trying to connect with online consumers and we all know that many shoppers are now online.
Do you think agents need to become more in tune with their online presence?
Yes, for sure! A lot of agents are in tune, but it seems some still haven’t even picked up an instrument yet. Digital marketing is different than traditional marketing, but it is still marketing and the same basic principles apply. Agents can connect with customers and prospects online and still maintain the personal touch. I really believe that.
I do have to admit one thing that’s interesting is, that during the first 15 years of our existence, agents never … it never would have occurred to an agent to ask me how they should market their services. It just never would come up. We provided a specialized calculator, allowed them to get price on the table. They would do the rest. They knew how to sell insurance. You didn’t need to tell them. I never even presumed I would suggest how they should sell insurance.
Now with the internet and with the consumers wanting to quote online, agents ask me all the time how they should sell insurance. It’s a funny, interesting mental twist there. When I talk to them directly I often say, “You guys can figure that one out.”
I have a lot of faith in them. I think the internet is a new thing, but they just have to fit it in. Wedge themselves in there and roll their sleeves up and understand it more. It can feel overwhelming and daunting, but it’s like anything: once you start doing it, you bite off a little bit, a little more, a little more, a little more. I find it interesting that they are asking my advice on that. I guess that’s because of the software and that we’ve demonstrated that we know how to market over the years.
Boston Software has a unique perspective on the Massachusetts insurance industry. How do you think the Mass. Personal Lines market is faring right now?
I agree with Frank Mancini – all things considered, everyone has fared pretty well.
What’s your thoughts on the fact that the current five top private passenger automobile insurers are Massachusetts-based companies?
I’m not surprised at all when I think of the carriers that are really engaged and continue to market and stay on top of things, specifically regarding technology. Those carriers [the top 5] come to mind immediately. There are other ones, obviously, like Progressive and Travelers – great technology companies and carriers. But locally those top 5 do a great job.
Do you see any trends in the marketplace that trouble you?
Mullets — I heard they’re making a comeback. Very troubling.
Anything else? What do you see as the greatest risk for an independent insurance agent in the near future?
The obvious one to me is the agent who ignores the changes taking place in the market right now and the speed of change. I find there is a bit of “learned helplessness” among some agents and this allows them to throw their hands in the air and not do anything.
An agent doesn’t necessarily have to do anything differently in response to the changes, but you should at least legitimately consider what you are up against and analyze the potential problems it causes you.
How about any trends that you are excited about?
Generation Z, born between 1994 and 2010, will start to enter the workforce in 2016. I know lots of people point out that the insurance industry is as old as the hills, but I think this generation will be savvy enough and entrepreneurial enough to see the opportunity this represents and they will fill the void will energy and enthusiasm.
If you could give one piece of advice to Mass. Agents what would it be?
That’s tough. They already know everything 🙂