Customer-centricity is key. Your customer’s journey is the only one that matters. This is what makes a great product, and the reason to leverage technology. At the end of the day it’s all about making life better for your customer. Nowadays, people look for easy, digital solutions. The less steps the better, if it’s easy to do from mobile, even more so. Many startups fall in love with the product, and develop features for the sake of it. Focusing on the product is great, but always as long as it has the customer in mind.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Meeri Rebane.
Estonian-born Meeri Rebane is co-founder and co-CEO of INZMO, a Berlin based insurtech transforming the laborious insurance process with its full-stack solution where everything from buying a policy to making a claim can be done in an instant.
At INZMO, Meeri is responsible for administration, legal matters, financial affairs and developing the vision of creating the most innovative insurer with her management team. Meeri has a Law degree from the University of Tartu, one of Estonia’s most prestigious universities and previously worked as a tax and corporate lawyer for Ernst and Young.
To fulfil her passion for breaking new ground to lead social change, she left the corporate world in 2015 and founded Bike-ID, which pivoted to INZMO in 2016, with co-CEO Risto Klausen, whom she has been working together on several projects since 2010.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I studied law at university and worked as a corporate and tax lawyer for Ernst & Young for many years with some really interesting clients. However, I always felt the urge to take on more responsibility, risk, manage my own team and eventually decided that I could always go back to consulting and chose the path of an entrepreneur instead.
I met my co-founder in 2010 and we’ve been working together ever since on different projects. In 2015 we founded an International bike-registry (which also had a bike-insurance as an add-on product). We saw great value from the tech we’d built within P&C insurance more broadly and decided to pivot and became an insurtech company. We recruited the best talent and developers from the insurance space and have been building up our dream ever since — a flagship of innovation in insurance.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
We didn’t start an insurtech company.
When we began in 2015 we started an International bicycle registry called Bike-ID. Our goal was to help fight theft and enable cyclists to sign up to an international bike registry, find stolen bikes (in cooperation with the police) and provide bike protection. In order to monetise the platform, we started selling bike-insurance. So, in a nutshell, Bike-ID was a neat web and app-based service for people to register their bike and get bike insurance.
As our goal was to enter the German market, we pitched our idea to several insurers in Germany to secure a partner for our bike insurance. The feedback from those partners was extremely positive with an appetite for more products in-app as we had done in Bike-ID.
After some investigation, we pivoted the bike-registry into an insurance platform with a mission to provide the best tech in the insurance space and serve customers with various P&C products in a digital first manner.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Not sure it’s particularly funny, but one of the traps for every new founder is trying to create a perfect product as an MVP (minimum value product). Huge waste of time and resources.
What we’ve learned is that the market does not need a perfect product to provide feedback on whether your product/service is needed. Also, the service that is perfect in your eyes might not be perfect for the customer’s needs. It’s naive to believe that whatever you create will need only minor adjustments in the future. Be prepared, that the whole experience might have to be changed.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even when things were hard?
As we didn´t have a startup-experience back in 2015 we had a lot to learn about all aspects of this sector: fundraising, partnerships, doing business with corporates, building tech, hiring talent, etc. And at various points in time there have been several challenges in all of these aspects. Sometimes you don’t get to hire the right people, sometimes you don’t have enough funds, sometimes the sales are not going as planned, etc. It’s very common that if you solve one issue, another one pops up. It’s just a normal course of business and overthinking all of this is definitely not helping here. We have always been relying on our team, investors, mentors and partners. Even if life in some aspects is tough, you focus your mood on the aspects where things are great and things you can be proud of!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Throughout the whole journey, we have always had several mentors (it is literally tens of people) helping us in various aspects starting from fundraising to sales. We believe these mentors are critical factors to help founders avoid common mistakes people make in these fields. Also, we want our teams to get as educated as possible and try to find the best advisors that help them to succeed. We also have mentors who have advised us for years starting from when we were just a nice story on a PowerPoint slide.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do. Or do not. There is no try.“ — Yoda
I would say this has been the most relevant to me and we always condition our team in a way that we either make something happen or we decide not to, because there is no try. It is simple. If you condition yourself to make something happen, the likelihood of you succeeding is way higher, I believe. You cannot say afterwards “at least I tried“ — this wasn´t an option.
What is the pain point that INZMO is helping to address?
Insurance customers are generally underserved by the industry today as global trends relating to digitisation intensify the disruption to traditional ways of living. It is a service that nobody wants, but everybody needs.
INZMO is filling the gap between the demand and offer, by being the facilitator between traditional insurance business and digital minds (younger generation) who have zero patience and loyalty towards any service they are using. They want everything immediately and in a fully digital way.
Our goal is to make everything instant in the insurance: starting from purchasing and ending with claims payout. Also, we strongly believe, it is a service that is not something extremely exciting that people want to engage with — rather the expectation is to have it embedded in other products and services.
Therefore, we have built up a significant tech-stack to embed insurance products to other offerings (like electronics products, bikes, private rentals) and provide these products to our customers via partners. Once the customer has bought their first product with us, they can enjoy a fully digital and instant insurance experience in managing, purchasing and claims handling in INZMOs app and web.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The fact that it is founded by people outside insurance.
My co-founder and I had zero experience in the insurance field 5 years ago, but we wanted to create an experience of how we want to use insurance ourselves and how we see our kids to be using it in the future. We found out that today’s experience vs expectations of the digital minds are far distant from each other. Which also means, there is a massive opportunity to provide innovation to this space.
We are all about killing the terrible experiences in insurance that all the regular customers are facing. Because we are regular customers.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have just launched a new product called rental deposit guarantee to unlock billions of euros of our customers’ money.
With this product the renters won’t have to pay thousands of euros in the beginning of a rental agreement. Instead, they provide their landlord an insurance policy which provides the same coverage as a regular cash deposit.
In Germany alone there is over 50 billion euros sitting dormant in the bank accounts of the landlords serving absolutely no purpose. The average rental deposit is €2,400 and our product allows renters to use this money for better purposes (i.e saving, investing, travelling) with just €10 per month for the guarantee.
What changes do you think are needed to change the status quo of women in tech?
The gender financing gap is, in my opinion, one of the most high-profile and persistent problems in entrepreneurship and the finance gap for women-led tech entrepreneurs is proving hard to shift. The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic is also amplifying these inequalities. I predict it will be felt for several years now. Startup entrepreneurship here is no exception. Even before the pandemic, there was a significant gap between access to capital for female-led and male led companies.
I do feel a bias is still playing a huge role here, which eventually will change, but shall be addressed more intensively.
Adding more women to the investment committees or VCs can, yes, be one solution, but it is more important to plant a different mindset in the funds: for a fund it is important to have companies that are innovative, thriving, and viable for both now and the future. Therefore, diversity needs to become a key component.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I happened to read a very interesting study recently about male and female-led companies and investor biases. It found that male entrepreneurs with non-technical backgrounds are being evaluated as having significantly more leadership abilities than men with technical backgrounds. When the entrepreneurs in question were women, the opposite occurred: women entrepreneurs with non-technical backgrounds were perceived as having fewer leadership abilities compared with women with technical backgrounds. Moreover, women with non-technical backgrounds were also viewed as significantly less competent than their more technical counterparts.
These findings further illustrate the extra scrutiny women entrepreneurs face. Investors tend to believe in the leadership potential of a male entrepreneur — even one without an engineering degree. They do not extend this same benefit of the doubt to women.
The funding gap can’t be explained away by a difference in quality or potential between male-led and female-led start-ups (like sector, geography or amount of intellectual property owned). Male-led and female-led companies are quite similar on paper. Therefore, I see that we still have a lot of work to do on the bias, but it’s definitely something that will change over time.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Be brutally honest with yourself. The reason for a standstill is never the product, the team, the money — it’s always you as the leader. Acknowledge this responsibility and seek for people, who help you to swift first your own mindset and then the business.
Get fresh blood in the company. Get people who inspire you and challenge you, but also want to achieve a common goal.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
I strongly believe that you have to nail the point of sale. Think about when and where the customer needs your product the most. Is it really when they are scrolling on Facebook? (might be)
For us (as we insure assets) it is usually the point of sale when the customer is making the purchase of a new phone, laptop, bike or renting a new home. We had to unlock what we have to do in order to have these POS-s recommending our product. And the huge factor here was being a hassle-free partner. For us it meant providing a full product with all necessary tech (API-s, etc) and a fully digital customer service after sales.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
1) Invest in market research — Talk to the customer and build up a product based on the information you have gathered from hundreds of customers. Learn from the feedback and adjust.
2) Innovate or die — Your customer is constantly changing and therefore your business has to change. Even if you are today delivering the service according to the needs of the customer, the customer’s needs are constantly changing over time. There are various reasons: technology changes, customer demographic changes or other events that affect the customer behavior.
3) Exceed expectations — Think of: what additional value you can add to your customers lives based on the data you have collected about them? What is something they would need, but don’t expect from your service, yet.
Studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Insurance sector in general has shown smaller churns than other services. This is changing over time as the new generation has different expectations to insurers and they are also less loyal to brands and products.
It’s all about customer centricity now — meaning that the insurers have to deliver immaculate experiences based on their customers expectations — especially on the claims handling side. Today, we see that a lot of customers have lost their confidence in insurers and insurers are often seen as someone that is quick to collect your premium, but slow or reluctant to reimburse damage. This whole perception needs to be changed and we can change a lot to bring trust back to the insurance sector.
We also see that in order to retain the customer relationship, insurers have to start thinking about adding more value to their customers’ lives and go beyond plain insurance (i.e providing value added services in addition to traditional insurance products).
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
1: Make sure you are solving a problem that actually needs to be solved
An example is related to our rental deposit insurance in Germany. A few years back I moved to Germany and had to find an apartment. There, it’s three months’ rent as a minimum for a deposit and I was asked to pay €7,500 as a deposit. It’s common practice for tenants to be asked for around €2,500 on average in Berlin, which is a great deal of money for many. Especially if you consider the additional expense of relocating. We started to zoom out and found that there are more than €50 billion tied up in deposits across Germany, which is one of the countries with the highest percentage of renters versus property owners. A lot of that money is doing nothing, only sitting there. It could be moving in the economy and put to much better use.
2: Choose your co-founders carefully
It’s extremely rare for tech startups to only have one founder. It’s a huge workload, many areas to look after, and investors usually won’t back solo founders. In other words, you need a co-founder. And your choice is really important. A startup is not a job, it’s not just a company, it goes far beyond that. So you will spend a lot of time and rely on your co-founder on a lot of things. It’s really important that you have complementary skills to spread the workload and responsibilities, but also for you to get on well and be able to give each other the space you need. In my case I’m glad to have started INZMO with Risto, with whom I had collaborated on a number of projects in Estonia in the past, so we knew the professional relationship would work smoothly.
3: Customer-centricity is key
Your customer’s journey is the only one that matters. This is what makes a great product, and the reason to leverage technology. At the end of the day it’s all about making life better for your customer. Nowadays, people look for easy, digital solutions. The less steps the better, if it’s easy to do from mobile, even more so. Many startups fall in love with the product, and develop features for the sake of it. Focusing on the product is great, but always as long as it has the customer in mind.
4: Understand where you need to be based
At INZMO, we are two Estonian founders that until a few years ago spoke no word of German. However, we had created a great product and found the right people, and it turned out that for what we had achieved, Germany would be the best base for us to be based in. Estonia is a tiny country of 1.3 million, yet we have a number of startup unicorns and tech companies that have left a mark across the world. An example of that is Skype, but now others like Bolt are leading the way. The key to that success is understanding how to go global from the start and for us that path starts in Germany.
5: Only hire the best: hire people who are experts in their field and the smartest in the room
At the end of the day, a startup is made up of people. The more skill, experience and talent you can attract, the higher the likelihood of success. That is why it’s so important to work to create an attractive culture, a friendly atmosphere and a vision that can persuade top talent to join your company. We’ve worked hard on all those and are lucky to have hired top talent from insurtech itself as well as other industries. The same goes for agencies.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would love to inspire a non-violent living movement that encourages people not to be abusive in their actions and words. To exist and live in a way that you are not hurting yourself and those around you, not only physically, but also mentally. For example, being a firm vegetarian for almost 10 years now, I truly believe that humankind can exist in this world without killing anything. But being non-violent goes far beyond the fact that we can get by without eating animals. It all starts from within our own selves — the shift in the belief that we can be kind to everyone and first and foremost to ourselves.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Gary Vaynerchuk. He is such an authentic guy, built himself and his businesses up from almost zero and created an entirely new way to look at content and marketing. I just admire entrepreneurs who find the edge to really crush it with marketing of any kind.
How can our readers follow your work online?
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!