Lessons from the insurtech start-up that caught the eye of industry giants
While November has always been synonymous with National Entrepreneurship Month, you’d be forgiven for wondering if it’s really necessary to dedicate 30 days to encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit, when it seems that just about everyone aspires to be coffee-guzzling, always-hustling, meme-inspiring business owner nowadays.
Yet, as any successful entrepreneur will tell you, the journey from start-up to scaling is a grueling process, peppered with potential pitfalls along the way. So, what is the secret to getting it right?
Ctrl Financial Intermediaries (CFI), founded by three friends, Pieter Venter, Francois Venter, and Pieter Erasmus (no, they’re not related) is one such example.
Launched in 2018, Ctrl is an intelligent insurance app that provides a turnkey solution to consumers, allowing them to add assets, compare quotes from different insurers, take out cover and even submit claims. Two years later, Ctrl introduced a B2B offering that would allow intermediaries to white label its proprietary technology, thereby giving them a more convenient way to interact with clients and improving their efficiency as brokers.
By the end of 2018, Ctrl had Santam knocking on its door, and in 2021, it had gained the attention of one of the world’s biggest technology investors, Naspers. Both signed on as minority shareholders, meaning that Ctrl is able to retain its independence while reaping the benefits of this funding and endorsement.
Today, Ctrl has 16 full-time employees and a number of accolades under its belt. In the year of its inception, Ctrl won MTN’s ‘App of the Year: Best Financial Solution’; the following year it was awarded ‘Best Social Impact’ at the SA Startup Awards. Ctrl is a proud Grindstone Accelerator alumni and in 2021 it was selected to join Endeavor and the SA SME Fund’s ‘Local Scale Up’ programme — an incubation process that aims to accelerate growth, with the ultimate goal of taking a company to an international market.
A business in SEARCH mode
Pieter Venter, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at Ctrl, says that this rapid trajectory can be partly attributed to Ctrl’s unique business model, designed in response to its various stakeholder pain points. “From the get-go, we’ve positioned ourselves within the digital financial advisory space and not as an insurance aggregator.”
“We set out to identify the issues highlighted by consumers, intermediaries and insurers — and then worked tirelessly to tackle them through a multi-faceted business model. Our goal was not to displace the intermediary, but rather to enable. This research gave us the ability to read the market, which, in turn, instilled in us the confidence to quit our corporate jobs and go all in.”
Don’t go it alone
At a global media conference several years ago, the Chief Creative Officer at a WPP-owned agency was quoted as saying that in order to run an effective company, you need three types of people on your team: “a Hipster, a Hacker, and a Hustler.”
With his actuarial and insurance background, Ctrl’s Head of Product, (Francois) Venter, is the team’s ‘Hacker’, while (Pieter) Erasmus, Head of Sales, Marketing and Business Development, epitomises the ‘Hustler’; with a strong, sales-driven and broker distribution mindset that “brings cohesion to our business,” says Venter. Venter and Erasmus have dubbed Pieter Venter the “Hipster” — the ideas guy, with a big vision.
Venter believes that this combination has been key to the company’s success. “One person will always have blind spots, while two people with divergent views may find themselves in a stalemate. With a third person, this dynamic shifts, improving the team’s lateral vision and decision-making.”
Digitise vs digitalise
Venter says that there are a couple of letters and a world of difference between these two words. “For our end-user to be able to have a better online experience, we couldn’t simply substitute traditional methods with digital. Instead, we started with a blank page and designed a whole new insurance journey. This includes an algorithm that interrogates each insurance quote and then produces a recommendation based on the user profile.”
Venter says that a major bugbear repeatedly raised by consumers in their initial research, was finding out that they were not covered for a specific asset or scenario, upon submitting a claim. “We aimed to remove this barrier by helping consumers understand their cover before they buy. We do this by showing a side-by-side comparison of quotes and the protection offered and then assigning a rating based on the consumer’s unique needs.”
While ‘digitise’ means to simply convert something into a digital format, Venter says that Ctrl’s ambition has always been to ‘digitalise’, which involves redefining all business processes and products with the online user in mind.
Think big — not just when it comes to your company vision, but also your business policies. “As a result of our professional backgrounds, from a compliance and financial management point of view, we always acted like Ctrl was a big business rather than a start-up. From the get-go, we had rigorous processes in place. While this may seem unduly onerous for a small operation, the benefit was that when investors conducted their due diligence, we had all of our proverbial ducks in a row.”
Finally, Venter says once you’ve done your research, built a viable business model and taken the leap, you keep your fingers crossed for a bit of opportune timing. “There are never any guarantees, so you need to be patient and hang in there. And yes, there’s definitely some luck involved,” he points out.