For all of the connectivity that the internet offers, there are still plenty of examples of difficulties for people to easily access the resources they need. That’s why we see the continued growth of sites and services that do something as basic as connecting businesses with customers and clients, and vice versa. It’s a simple idea, and yet there is still room for growth.
Recently, I connected with Phillip Charles-Pierre, the founder and CEO of Semsee, a New York City platform that connects insurance agents with carriers. Philip is an experienced entrepreneur who has launched successful companies before starting Semsee in August of 2017, and is looking to bring that experience and wisdom to bear on his new company and the insurance industry at large.
Mary Juetten: What problem are you solving?
Philip Charles-Pierre: The quoting process for small business insurance has traditionally been slow and complex. We’re making it faster and streamlining the application process for new policies. This gives small businesses better options and faster answers, and the insurance agents—who are our customers—stay more competitive in the face of potential disruptors.
We give agents the ability to get insurance coverage and pricing options from multiple carriers within minutes online. This is a significant advance from the way commercial insurance has traditionally been sold where agents had to visit each carrier’s site and input detailed customer information to generate a single quote. The slow and complex process would be repeated again and again in order to give the customer options.
Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them?
Charles-Pierre: Our customers are insurance agents. We get to know them—and they get to know us—at industry conferences and events. We also work with agency associations and groups, as well as networks and wholesalers that represent large numbers of agencies.
We also get a lot of referrals from carriers. They send us agencies that are looking for solutions to make the quoting process smoother. When we started out, we thought carriers would be resistant because we are giving agents tools to easily compare coverage and pricing options. But most have actually embraced what we are doing because it adds value to the agency-customer relationship, and ultimately creates more business opportunities.
Juetten: How did past projects and/or experience help with this new project?
Charles-Pierre: Running a startup is not new to me. I managed three other start-ups before Semsee. This is my first time in the insurance sector. But my experience in other sectors—including travel and real estate—was similar to insurance in the opportunity to advance the use of technology to create more efficient operations.
My experience with Smarter Agent is particularly relevant. We created a solution for real estate agents that enabled them to have their own apps that were competitive with Zillow and Trulia. They were able to keep their own leads, enabling agents to compete against industry disruptors. Ultimately this is what we want to do with Semsee. Our platform enables insurance agents to stay relevant and competitive.
Juetten: Who is on your team?
Charles-Pierre: We have a growing team of developers, customer support, and marketing folks all working together to ensure we give agencies the best product possible. Ed Bendy, Vice President of Product and James Van Lommel, Director of Technology are the key leaders behind our patent-pending technology and user experience/design which is a big part of our secret sauce. They focus on giving agents a consumer-like online experience. Instead of UX, we call it AX, for Agent Experience. Natalie Dolitsky is our Head of Product Delivery. One of her big roles is making sure Semsee is connected to the carriers agents want, and that those connections allow us continually build features and functionality that empowers agents.
Juetten: Did you raise money?
Charles-Pierre: Semsee is backed by the D. E. Shaw Group, a global investment and technology development firm and a pioneer in quantitative approaches to trading and investment, and Nephila Holdings, Ltd., the first and largest alternative risk transfer fund in the insurance industry.
Juetten: Startups are an adventure — what’s your favorite startup story?
Charles-Pierre: Well, hopefully my favorite startup story is the one being written now. Semsee is my first foray into the insurance industry – an industry that has been around for centuries. It is notoriously slow moving. And we are trying to do what many people thought we would fail at: convincing agents to change their workflows and persuading carriers to help us.
Pre-Semsee, my favorite startup story comes from my first venture, Site59. We built the business from scratch. It was focused on selling unused travel inventory as a package for a discounted price. And while this doesn’t sound like a new idea now, in the early 2000s Site59 was the first of its kind. You might also say it wasn’t the best time for a travel company. When we launched not only was it after the dot-com bubble burst, but it was not too long after 9/11. Despite these odds, the company ran for eight years and was eventually bought by Travelocity.
But some of the most important takeaways from that experience are the relationships I formed. The people I started that company with became my good friends. We were all in our 20s when we started and experienced many major life events together. We were there for each other’s weddings and children. Two decades later, we are all still very close.
Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story?
Charles-Pierre: I’ve been running startups for a good chunk of my career and the ultimate measurement of success is the exit. I have been part of three startups that have been purchased which is always good validation.
But I also measure success by the change we help create like introducing a product that changes lives or changes the way the business is done.
At Site59, we gave consumers the ability to purchase travel at the last minute for a low price, changing how people can experience travel. And when we sold to Travelocity, we achieved our ultimate goal of a successful exit. The story is similar at Smarter Agent. We were one of the first companies focused on giving real estate agents the ability to compete with disruptors. And when that company was eventually bought by Keller Williams, we also achieved our ultimate goal.
Juetten: Any tips to add for early-stage founders?
Charles-Pierre: Although I’m not a fan of actual roller coasters, startups are all about managing an emotional rollercoaster on a day-to-day basis. Every day you are going to hear amazing things that will make you feel like you can conquer the world and then the next minute you get information that makes you think you will go under at any moment.
My advice: buckle up and be ready for the highs and lows. You have to be able to manage and lead no matter if you are going uphill or plummeting down the track.
Juetten: And of course, any IP horror stories to share (they can be anonymous)?
Charles-Pierre: When I was at Smarter Agent, we had seven patents that powered the product. Unfortunately, those patents made it difficult for us to do business. People thought we were going to play bully ball – using our patents to force our way in.
I had to do a lot of work fighting against that misconception. I reached out to potential partners explaining to them the reasons why we had the patents but also providing assurances that we would not use them to force their hands.
Juetten: What’s the long-term vision for your company?
Charles-Pierre: We want to be independent agents’ central tool for quoting small commercial business. But we want to also shrink the number of screens they use. We don’t want Semsee to just be one of the several platforms they have to log into to service a single request from a client. We ultimately want to connect to all the other tools they work with so they can use one screen to handle all of their client’s needs.
Thanks to Philip for speaking with me. As a small business owner, my experience with insurance tracks with the above. We are hopeful that his latest venture proves as successful as his first two. #onwards.