The story behind how Paul Williams (pictured) became chief executive officer of Ripe Insurance is one unique to the insurance market. He first met Ripe co-founder, MD – and future co-worker - John Woosey when they were sat next to each other on a bus to BIBA, he said, and they later found themselves at the same table during a dinner at the conference.
“We hit it off instantly,” he said. “And it’s funny because, at the time when I was getting to know John and Colin [Whitehead, Ripe director and former chair], I wasn’t looking for a new job. We just found opportunities to work together because it was a business that was rich in technology expertise but didn’t have the depth of knowledge of insurance that I could bring as obviously I’m steeped in insurance.
“Getting that blend of technology expertise and insurance expertise can be tricky. And it’s funny because John used to say to me, ‘finding customers is the easy bit while the insurance is the hard bit’. Which I think is literally the opposite of what most insurers find!”
Williams’ insurance pedigree speaks for itself, with his three-decade-plus career starting at RSA before he stepped into broking at Endsleigh, running its commercial division. From there, he moved across to Aviva-owned Hill House Hammond where he helped grow the business from £18 million GWP to £65 million GWP before leading its sale to Towergate. He then joined Towergate where he worked for the next decade, building up its regional empire and joining its Retail Executive Committee.
The next step in his trajectory saw Williams join Brightside Insurance as CEO, coming in to help lead the sale of the business before he was snapped up by JLT to do the same with Thistle Insurance Services. Having seen the insurance ecosystem from every angle, he said, it’s rare when you come across something that feels very new – so when the opportunity arose to become a shareholder and join the executive committee of Ripe, it felt like a natural next step.
“We’re not one of those insurtechs that’s looking to completely reinvent the insurance buying model and we’re not looking to invent marketplaces either,” he said. “When I arrived, we did a bit of a reinvention and simplification of our model. So, from a customer angle, what we do is try to unpick what insurers would normally call a ‘package’ and let the customer build their own product in a few clicks.”
Ripe’s operational model means customers can choose whether they want a ‘Mini’ or a ‘Rolls Royce’ in terms of their product selection, but it’s entirely their (informed) decision. The digital insurer utilises its own tech stack to build its products, he said, and it builds these on the premise of each customer segment being viewed and treated as a “community”.
Ripe sees its prospective audience in terms of niches or specialisms – within its remit of leisure, lifestyle and small business insurance. Because whether they’re personal trainers, caravaners, golfers, photographers or beauticians, customers do share certain expectations, he said – they want products designed around their individual risk, they want to see relevant questions during their insurance journey, they want competitive pricing and they want appropriate coverage.
By unpicking the insurance ‘package’ and allowing customers to build up their product, they can ensure their coverage is appropriate. When Ripe is looking to enter a new segment, he said, it will undertake substantial market research into the makeup of the customer market and competitors in the space – an approach that harks back to the company’s roots as a marketing agency.
“This allows us to design a wording and a policy that fits their profile,” Williams said. “And looking at what our competitors do, what we tend to find is on their websites, which are their shop windows, is that it doesn’t really matter what the product says, you’ll find two or three key USPs that they’ll focus the customer on as to why they should buy that product.
“We buy their products so we can pick apart their wording and understand exactly what’s in there in terms of the policy cover, extensions, deductibles, excesses etc. If we’re offering an economy product – a Mini – we want to know what all the other Minis look like, and the same with the premium products - the Rolls Royce’s - so we can tailor our products to always provide slightly more than the competition.”
What quickly became clear when unpicking these packages is that quite a few providers are offering additional coverages that the customer isn’t looking for which are being priced into their policies regardless. Ripe strips out those unnecessary coverages, he said, and eliminating these costs throughout the value chain is what allows it to maintain its low-cost model.
“What we’re looking to do is give customers a retail customer experience when they’re going through their insurance journey,” he said. “So, they’re super clear on what it is they’re buying and what they’re not buying. Because it’s just as important to tell people what they’re not covered for as what they are covered for.”
While Ripe works closely with its carrier partners, it does all the necessary work around product design, rating structures and data analysis because moving that cost internally and away from the insurer allows it to reduce the end cost to the consumer. It’s a data heavy business, he said, which is investing in machine learning and constantly innovating in how to utilise its proprietary biometrics technology.
For Williams, the company’s ability to blend technology and creativity is what sets it apart.
“Because we don’t hoover up customers through aggregators which a lot of other digital models do, I think it creates a different mindset,” he said. “With an aggregator model, it’s harder to care about service because you know you’ll get another 100,000 clicks tomorrow and you’ll get your share of wallet.
“Whereas in our model, when you’re spending marketing money to go out and target customers digitally, and the cost of driving them to your site has to be paid whether they convert or not, it does change your mindset… With that service mindset in mind, we took control of the claims offering to make sure claims fulfilment is speedy and fair.”
Through its focus on organic growth, the business is now at over 320,000 customers and is continuing to grow in its specified areas of expertise – leisure, lifestyle and SME – adding new products all the time. A successful insurtech needs to do three things, Williams said, it needs to obtain new customers and retain current customers; to make its carrier partners the underwriting returns they want; and to make money itself.
“We find there’s a lot of insurtechs that have fallen into the camp of saying they can do two out of three, but doing three is too tricky,” he said. “And a lot of insurtechs are going to find it tough now in the current market because the debt markets have changed so they’re going to find raising money to fund their expansions really tough.
“[…] But I think for us, we’ve always been in the camp of being disciplined, of not trying to write every single customer. We just want to make sure that, for the customers we do write, we’re giving them a really competitive price and a product that they want, while delivering an underwriting return and making money ourselves. It’s those three things together that give you a business model that has legs in the long run.”
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