In following Insurtech developments in the Boston area, Agency Checklists interviewed Casey Gustus, the Chief Executive Officer of Apliant, a Insurtech startup founded in Boston in 2015.
Apliant sees its mission as helping independent insurance agents to access and acquire more customers and better retain or win-back more clients. Apliant offers independent agencies a customer engagement platform; simplified workflow and hard to build smart technology to empower independent insurance agents so they can give superior customer experience to their clients.
Thank you for doing this interview with Agency Checklists about how Apliant focuses on the independent agent.
I appreciate the opportunity.
We understand that you have done tech startups before, but wondered how you came into the insurance industry and, in particular, to Apliant?
I have been an entrepreneur my whole life. Counting Apliant, this is my sixth start up.
In insurance, though, I started 2010, with a Massachusetts company that was then called Consumer United, as the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. When I started, we had 25 agents selling a handful of carrier products in the states of Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Over the following 4 years, the company’s name changed to Goji and I grew that operation to 450 employees selling many, many products across multiple lines of personal insurance across the country.
Goji became, by far, the largest insurance agency in Massachusetts and in the country in terms of the new business premium that we were generating. We were writing about 10,000 new personal auto policies a month.
After I left Goji in 2014, I saw additional holes and opportunities in the insurance space and brought it to Apliant in 2015.
How did the idea for Apliant come about?
My experience showed me that insurance, even personal auto insurance, is still something where consumers are looking for expert advice and information. The level of comfort is still very low with agent-less insurance shopping. The vast majority of people ultimately look to an experienced insurance agent when making a purchase decision, and experienced insurance agents do not have easy access to the customers for the advice and services they offer. I figured that there is got to be a way to better connect these two parties.
Upon further digging, what I found is though both parties want to connect to insure something, the technology that facilitates that meeting and transaction is lacking. It is lacking more so on the agent side than on the consumer side. There are all kinds of, what I affectionately call consumer mouse traps out there that are helping to aggregate pools of customers that are interested in insurance products. That means there is a high volume of consumers looking for insurance.
Many of the Insurtech startups Agency Checklists sees, seek to cut independent agencies out of their distribution channels, why did Apliant see opportunities with independent agencies?
Traditional insurance agencies have extensive local presence but they do not have the best ways to find the right customers that fit their agency and their products, or to connect with them in a way that customers today expect when purchasing insurance. That connection cab be facilitated via mobile, to desktop to tablet to whatever new technology there is.
Agents just do not have the process or the technology to provide the consumer that on-demand experience. When I say on-demand, it is like “I’m searching for a policy right now. You should be able to give me a quote right now and I should be able to purchase that right now.” It’s what the consumer is looking for now, versus the “Okay, you are going to call me back at some time tomorrow and tell me what my options are, and maybe I’ll be able to buy a policy tomorrow?”
That is not the experience that consumers are looking for. We have been able to facilitate this kind of immediate or instant process for insurance agents to be able to provide consumers the shopping and purchase experience that they are looking for, right there when they are talking to a customer on the phone.
Could you kind of walk us through it? If I am an agent what doe Apliant do for me?
If you are an agent, then the biggest benefit that Apliant brings to you is that we bring customers your insurance agency. We help market for you. We help find the customers and we bring them to your agency so that you can interact with them in the way that consumers want to be interacted with, so that they engage in the shopping experience with you.
This is interesting on its own, but we go a step further and drive agents through a streamlined process to enhance the customer engagement, and provide a better experience for the virtual customer than what you have today.
Right now, an agency may have six different systems they need in order to facilitate their sales process. Telephone system, CRM system, email marketing system, comparison rater, reporting and business intelligence, and, in some cases, even markets. We have taken all those different systems, that have a lot of duplicative data entry, that have data and reports locked within systems, that do not play well with other systems and brought them up a level into a single user interface with access to all of the information that would typically reside in all of those different systems.
How would Apliant’s be different than companies providing lead generation services an agent can subscribe to or buy?
Lead generation just brings a customer to your doorstep. It does not give you a tool or a process or anything to best engage the opportunity and maximize the return on that marketing investment. If you have a system that you think is efficient, you still have to figure out how to go find the customers, and we do both.
Where do you find the customers? Do you find them from other lead generating sites?
We are an omni-channel platform. This means that we can partner with lead companies to drive customers,, agencies can point their partners to the platform and funnel leads into our system, they can hook us up to their agency website, and can even upload existing lists that they have. We are agnostic to the consumer mouse traps out there and want to have as many partners / opportunities for our agency clients as we can.
If you think about the world of insurance in three parts. You have consumer mouse traps which are lead gen companies, apps, or whatever it is that finds a customer that has expressed interest in insurance. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have insurance products and insurance carriers.
Then there is distribution in the middle, right? For distribution, you have two options. You have direct to consumer which has slowly gained market share over the years. You have online-only which has not been widely accepted by consumers and, definitely not, accepted by insurance carriers. Then you have the traditional agent force, the trusted source for profitable premium growth for decades. By better enabling that traditional agent force with technology that helps them find more customers and makes them more productive, as an agency owner, you now have a way to grow your agency efficiently.
Following up with Apliant adapting to various customer generating services or apps for independent agencies, how would Apliant work with a lead generating service like TrustedChoice?
Trusted Choice generates a bunch of leads. They have a whole bunch of agents. But where Trusted Choice stops is when it has delivered a customer to one of their agency partners, right? That Apliant could step in and say “Okay. We can help you better convert those leads into new customers.” In that case, someone like a Trusted Choice might want to partner with us. It would better convert the marketing leads they are generating into new policy holders. Then also, the agencies that they in the Trusted Choice network would buy more leads because those leads are now yielding greater results than they were before.
How does Apliant do with the hand-off from a lead generator before the lead goes to an agent? What happens in that interface that may create added value?
The value-added here is that we, at Apliant, are very smart with data. We have a bigger data set than an individual agency, because an individual agency only has data on the clients that they have. Apliant has anonymous data across all of our agency clients, so we have better data and analytics to optimize marketing for agency owners.
On top of that, we turn the lead-purchasing experience for agents into a real-time purchase.
Historically, an agency may have a partnership with a company that sends them leads, and those leads might come in at any point in a day. We could call that random. The agency may not have someone available right now to speak to or contact that prospect because they have other things going on in that moment. By the time that they get to that person, maybe later this afternoon, that person has likely already spoken to other agencies or even purchased a policy. With what we do, it is all real-time. An agent would have to be sitting at their desk and indicate to Apliant “I’m ready to speak to a customer right now.” Then we will go out and find that agent a lead that fits the products that they have available and is ready and is just now doing their shopping experience. It is a real-time marketing opportunity versus someone that sits in your email box and by the time you get to them, they have already purchased from someone else.
Are you operational?
We are in market. We have about 65 agents on our platform right now. We exceeded our plans for 2016 and are well underway here in ‘17. We partner with companies from your traditional, main street retail to your larger conglomerates that are national insurance agencies.
Do you have any agency in Massachusetts?
We do. We have a couple agencies in Massachusetts and are slowly starting to expand here in the commonwealth.
Can you share the pricing with us or is that proprietary?
We have a few different pricing packages based on the needs of our clients. Some of our clients like to pay a traditional SaaS fee, others prefer to be on a success-based model.
We do not absorb the lead cost. The agency covers their own costs for marketing, even with partners Apliant brings to them. There is no markup on our side, it is a straight pass-through.
You said the agent pays for the lead generation services as a pass-through expense, but does the agent have to find the lead generation service Apliant will interface with?
No. Apliant can take care of that for them. We do that as a value-added service.
Is there a fee for that to the agent?
There is no fee. We are happy to leverage our data set and experience on behalf of our agency clients to make sure that they get the right customers for their agency.
How big a universe of leads are you talking about that Apliant would be able to access for possible agency referrals from lead generating sites?
We have access to the two and a half million people a month that are shopping online for insurance.
We can access customers wherever an agency is looking for them. The issue for us, it is not accessing the consumers. The consumer demand is massive, and we have branding dollars from big companies like Geico, Allstate, State Farm to thank for that. They are spending billions of dollars on advertising which are driving people to shop for insurance. The consumer demand is definitely not the issue in the industry.
The problem in the industry is the fulfillment of the customer’s request. More and more we are hearing from shoppers and seeing in data that consumers want a comparison experience. 80% of them start online and then 80+% of them finish with an agent. We all know the stats. What the challenge becomes is, how do you connect the right customers to the right products via the right distribution channel that gets the customer the experience they want, and the confidence thatthey have purchased the right policy.
Does Apliant have venture capital financing or is it being self-funded?
We are backed by MassMutual Ventures, Kepha Partners, and a handful of insurance industry executives and agency owners.
What are your goals for 2017?
I think we can end the year with around 200 agents using our platform. We want to be in as many agencies as we can be. We have some new cool product features coming out and we will start to integrate things like text messaging so that agents can engage consumers over mobile if that is the preferred method for the consumer. We have a whole slew of product enhancements that we will release geared toward enabling better communication between the agent and the consumer..
What is the profile of Apliant’s target agencies?
It ranges. We are looking for agencies that have been in business at least 3 years, that might have a million dollars in premium under management right now. All the way up to, your major companies that have been around for 10+ years or might have dozens of agents. We can help just about everyone.
What we look at most is the mindset of the agency and the agency owners. “Are you actively looking for ways to grow your business?” We do not really care what size you are, it is more so that culture and desire for growth. Are you in that mode of looking to acquire new customers versus in the mode of making sure you retain the customer base you have already established.
Is Apliant’s business plan mostly directed at personal lines agencies?
Apliant does focus on personal lines agencies today. For right now, we focus specifically even more personal auto and home. Over time, we expect to expand into other lines of insurance.
Where does Apliant stand with independent agencies in Massachusetts?
Massachusetts is a very attractive market. We have some clients here in Massachusetts. There is still a lot of legacy issues within the commonwealth around the regulations of the past. Which has made it difficult for insurance carriers and technology providers to work here in Massachusetts and to be helpful to insurance agents.
Now, it is on carriers, companies like Apliant and other technology companies to put efforts into Massachusetts to be able to help Massachusetts agents. Because of the regulations, it is just a little further behind than say other states in terms of being able to have new technologies that agents would expect to have given what technologies agents use in other states.
Does Apliant work with rating engines like, for example, WinRater, here in Massachusetts or some of the national rating platforms that will allow rate comparisons?
We have partnered with a number of national technology companies and leveraged a lot of different tools out there to be able to provide to an agent a seamless experience. With Apliant, we have taken what has been a fragmented agent user experience with a lot of duplicative data entry from system to system and disjointed sales process. We have simplified that by having it be one single platform, one single experience that still enables the agent to get all of the major functions from the different platforms that they currently use.
How can interested agents find out more about Apliant?
They can look at the website: https://www.apliant.com.
One last question, based on your experience where do you see Boston’s place in the burgeoning number of Insurtech startups?
Boston is still a hotbed of insurance innovation. There are a bunch of companies that were born here in what I would call the first wave of Insurtech. The nice part about Massachusetts is that when I look around at most of the startups here, they are started by people who have insurance experience in their background.
When you look at other parts of the country, most of the companies were started by people that knew nothing about insurance. A lot of them have consulting backgrounds or financial backgrounds, and thought like most that “Hey, there is an opportunity in insurance.” But they are not coming to it with a deep insurance understanding like a lot of us here in Massachusetts have.
But here in Massachusetts, we are building with consumers, agents and carriers in mind. We know what we can do and what we cannot do, and we are already very far down the road in terms of our understanding of what we will have to do once we reach different levels of success to do right by all the parties in the insurance value chain. It is very different, when you are doing something with a high level of experience in the industry versus just coming in and saying “Oh. Everything here is messed up, let’s disrupt the heck out of it.” We can focus on innovating what works already, and address what needs some upgrades.
Thanks again for taking the time. This was really interesting.
Absolutely, thank you both for your time.