Wow. What a year 2020 has been.
It is inescapable that talk of the pandemic would dominate any conversation about 2020. No doubt, it has been the most unfortunate of events, however, it is also the pandemic that brought about an odd juxtaposition of tribulations and triumph.
Looking back, the year has been challenging yet inspiring all at the same time – filled with dark clouds, yet came with the brightest of silver linings. Indeed, 2020 has been a year where we have been put to the test, forced to adapt and ultimately breakthrough with renewed confidence that come what may, there is opportunity in every crisis.
The darkest nights produce the brightest stars – we sometimes shudder at the cliche that comes with such an overused phrase. But, for Surer and our 2020, this cannot ring more true.
Momentum and a momentary breaker
We began the year all fired up. Armed with a product that we spent more than 2 years building, we were ready to take on the world. We launched the close-beta of Surer to onboard our first group of actual users. This was meant to be a period of close personal interaction with our users. To solicit feedback, observe how they used Surer and gather the final set of data points to reinforce the product.
The months of January to March were hugely inspiring, watching actual insurance intermediaries conduct their business via Surer, having in-person conversations, listening to their stories and seeing how we might really be solving actual pain points in the General Insurance industry.
It was all sunshine, we celebrated mini-milestones – our first user, to our tenth user, to seeing one of them close an actual deal. We felt like we were on a good path; close interaction in this initial stage was imperative.
Then came the circuit breaker…Everything was put to a grinding halt. We were stopped right in our tracks, as we were building up momentum. Face-to-face user on-boarding stopped. User research activities stopped.
We were suddenly faced with sort of an existential crisis – ‘Where do we go from here? Wait this out? Push on? Die a premature death?’
Solitary days that built solidarity
As we shared in our first article on KrASIA, what’s more painful than being smacked with a problem is being smacked with one that you saw coming.
It came as no surprise when we saw how intermediaries struggled to cope with their businesses. While relying on admin staff to do things manually worked in the past, the pandemic has brought to light the problems faced because it was hard to follow up. This was the spark that answered our existential crisis – if the mission was to solve problems, now more than ever is the time to push on and build for launch anyway.
No one could imagine how hard it was to work solitarily, almost in silos – one of the things that Surer was built to breakdown. Everyone was learning to cope with this almost new way of living, interacting and working. We learned, along with the nation, to build solidarity even if we were solitary.
‘Meet where?’ became ‘Google Meet or Zoom?’
‘Want to share this basket of fries’ became ‘Can you share screen?’
Scramble and then (re)assemble
Looking back, those circuit breaker months were highly frustrating when it first started (and funny, on hindsight).
Where we previously were able to meet and whiteboard our ideas for feature improvements, we now had to rely on communicating via Google Slides (which we used to replace the whiteboard) and Google Meet at the same time. When it comes to things like user flow, it is always a lot easier to be able to draw or map things out. When all our meetings were done virtually, we had to try different ways to best do this – from switching screensharing multiple times when someone wants to draw something, to drawing on random parchments of paper and slapping them in front of the camera – we eventually settled on Google Slides… and it really did serve its purpose!
Even for our user research interviews, where we previously handed our laptops to users for them to trial the product while we monitor their actions, we now had to include an additional step to provide instructions to the users on how they can share their screen, so we can still monitor their actions on Surer. Not exaggerating, but we could spend more time teaching our users how to share their screen, than the actual user interview session itself.
Tiny feature tweaks now took a lot more effort to implement as well – prior to the circuit breaker, you could sit next to the developer and point out exactly what needs to be changed. With the circuit breaker, specification and user story documents needed to be created and done crystal clearly.
Not sure how we did it, but we managed to have Surer ready for launch, by the time the circuit breaker was over. Coming out of the circuit breaker, we were fortunate enough to be selected for Antler’s SG5 cohort. This was the start of our journey to (re)assemble our thoughts, what we knew and how we could work with each other more effectively.
The three of us co-founders do have our area of expertise. However, we felt like we had to scramble, almost re-learn what we thought we knew. For example, Marketing was Gordon’s strong suit, but in these times, things are obviously going to be different – tried and tested marketing tactics might not work. Instead of organising physical engagement events, we learned to conduct webinars instead (of which were well received and have since evolved to be a monthly affair now!).
We realised that we should value-add not only by providing a good product but also to help upskill our users in terms of their understanding of blending technology into their business – we felt this tied in well with the vision of empowering intermediaries through tech.
For example, the theme of our previous two webinars were on how intermediaries can triumph during and with digital transformation and how they could blend the best of both worlds – tech and the human touch. Essentially, we wanted to share how digital transformation should happen not only with Surer but how they could leverage other productivity tools, marketing channels and supercharge their existing advisory skill sets to stay relevant.
With guidance from our coaches at Antler, we built a robust go-to-market plan and gathered the confidence to finally launch Surer to the market. While we are still early days into the business, the traction that we have driven since our launch has meant the opportunity to assemble a bigger team as well!
While expanding the team was yet another milestone for our startup, we had our fears as well. What kind of culture should we set? Will the new hires be able to assimilate into how we hustle?
We quickly figured that honesty, as cliche as it may be, is indeed the best policy.
We deliberately highlighted all the cons of working in a startup like ours at interviews – we wanted candidates to be fully aware of what they will be getting themselves into. We share very openly as well that we take every interview as a two-way chat – while we are shortlisting a candidate for the role, the candidate is also shortlisting companies to join – we encourage candidates to fire away with their questions as well.
The most common question asked during these interviews was ‘What is the company culture like?’. During the first few instances, we were pretty stumped – the truth was that we do not have a culture to speak of given that the three co-founders have had a long standing relationship. The answer we gave, and it is one that we embrace was – ‘You will be the pioneer batch of employees… you will set the tone and we will shape our company culture together’
Team expansion was really yet another point of juxtaposition – never in our wildest dreams had we imagined we would be able to grow, both in our business and team, in such a challenging year.
‘Never waste a good crisis’
To borrow this famous quote by Winston Churchill, indeed, ‘never waste a good crisis.’ The pandemic, unfortunate as it is, has indeed brought this strange juxtaposition of crisis and opportunity co-existing. Businesses are now more aware of the need for insurance while intermediaries have a heightened level of appreciation for technology. What this means is an opportunity for Surer as an InsurTech business.
Just like how this seems to be a year of juxtapositions, if there were to be one key takeaway from the team here at Surer, it has got to be that for every setback we face, there will be a chance for rebound – keep at it, work in good faith and make sure you bounce back higher.
It is with this mindset that we set forth towards 2021 building Surer 2.0 – where we expand our product capabilities to include insurance companies into the Surer ecosystem, further helping intermediaries to streamline their work processes by being able to access a marketplace of insurance products.
2020 has taught us to dream big and challenge ourselves… so bring on 2021!
Derren Teo is a co-founder of Surer, a Singapore-based insurtech startup. Surer is a cloud-based platform with market-first technology that helps all parties in the general insurance segment automate processes and drive network collaborations, enabling them to provide better service and support to their clients. It is the result of a passion to solve the problems of an industry that Teo cares about but sees in need of supercharging.
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