It was already 10pm, but the emergency room at the Queen Mary Hospital was packed. A broadcast announced: “Patients who have been here since 330pm, please be patient.” A wait of almost seven hours for emergency medical attention! That was back in 2015, when my mother was diagnosed with late-stage cancer and I was in and out of hospitals a lot. Many entrepreneurs can identify the exact moment or event that prompted the trade of a relatively stable career for the start-up life. For me, that was the moment.
I had comfortable savings from working at an investment bank so I could pay for private care, but not everyone can afford to do so. Even if patients have medical insurance, complicated claim procedures and long wait times still leave many people paying out of pocket. Having witnessed these pain points, I knew I wanted to do something that can make some real changes in our current medical and insurance systems. That’s when I started getting really interested in insurance technology (InsurTech) and how it can bring about disruptive changes.
I was 34 and my career was on the rise, so it was to the surprise of many when I took the plunge to become an entrepreneur. Insurtech was still a very nascent trend in Asia back in 2015 and I couldn’t find anyone in Hong Kong who was familiar with it. Eventually, after a lot of cold calling and a trip to Silicon Valley, I met my now co-founder, Alex Leung, and convinced him to start OneDegree with me.
Fast forward 3 years, we are now a company of over 60 employees. We’re among the debut batch of virtual insurers approved by the Hong Kong Insurance Authority and the first “TechInsurer” – a tech firm operating in insurance vs. an insurance company building digital processes. To date, we’ve raised more than US$30 million and our investors include some of the biggest players in the financial technology space. We’re just getting started, but allow me to share some insights gathered from my experience (and mistakes) as a start-up founder:
Chart your own course
In Hong Kong, life insurance dominates with 90 percent of the insurance market as it is seen as the most profitable for insurers and distributors. They are less incentivized to offer products with lower premiums and lower profitability, which leaves many niche segments underserved by the insurance industry. That’s the gap we’re looking to fill, and InsurTech makes that possible by lowering, and even in some situations completely removing, barriers for a start-up to enter this competitive industry.
Pet owners are one such segment. There’s huge potential demand but few pet insurance plans in the market because it’s not as attractive compared to other products, according to the traditional insurance model. But our digital insurance platform enables us to “make the uninsurable insurable.” Just because no one else is doing it doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Differentiate, innovate, repeat
After deciding on pet insurance as our first product, we went about brainstorming what would truly differentiate us from others. Claims is the most frustrating part of insurance for many people, so we slashed the process down from 4-6 weeks to just 2 working days. We discussed partnerships with clinics one-by-one to establish a wide vet network across Hong Kong for our customers to easily seek medical help if their furry friends are sick. Those are just a few of the breakthroughs our team worked tirelessly on, not settling for less.
We’re very proud of the hard work that has gone into our debut product, Pawfect Care pet insurance, but we don’t want to just replicate that going forward. To ensure long-term success, we must continue to think outside the box and challenge ourselves.
Friends, not foes
Other insurers find OneDegree’s technology platform intriguing and have approached us about using it. One may ask why would we work with our competitors? Our mission is to set new standards for insurance that puts customers first. Other insurers are our partners, not foes, to make the insurance experience better for everyone.
It is a win-win solution. We have the technological solutions to make insurance more efficient and cost-effective, as well as to drastically improve user experience. The big players have superior brand recognition, data, and marketing resources. It makes sense to work together, rather than against each other. Keep an open mind and be creative about how you can work with existing players in your field and perhaps even in other sectors.
Share the upside
All of our full-time staff have stock options in the company. Some of them are just starting their careers and don’t have much savings. I personally offered up to 6 months of advanced payroll so they could take part in our last 2 rounds of internal share subscription. I want our team members to feel like they have a stake in our company, and with everyone as co-owners, we can work hard together towards common goals. Our achievements are only possible because of everyone’s contributions, so it’s important that they are recognized and share the upside.
Looking back, I don’t think I ever imagined that I would run a start-up and the last few years have been challenging and humbling, to say the least. Yet, it has also been immensely rewarding. When the going gets tough, I just think back to that defining moment in the hospital and remember what OneDegree is all about.
Our first product, Pawfect Care pet insurance, is now live. If you’re a pet owner in Hong Kong, you don’t want to miss out! Check out our website for more details: www.onedegree.hk.