Posts

In 2015, Thailand’s insurance sector was valued as the 8th largest in Asia, with an annual growth rate of 4.5%. Thai residents spent approximately $334 on insurance every year, accounting for an overall penetration rate of 5.5%.

Life insurance accounts for the largest segment within the insurance industry in Thailand. These are annualized premiums paid out in the event of death or permanent disability; or after reaching a certain age. If you subtract life insurance from the overall industry pie, premiums decline considerably to $100/capita.

Photo credit: Thaire.

And this is where the largest potential for growth lies.

Thailand is already considered to be an upper-middle income country by the World Bank, with a GDP per capita of $6,033. When you combine that with a rosy economic outlook, it’s straightforward to predict that the size of motor and travel insurance will rise, too. Higher disposable incomes will lead to a greater outlay on cars and vacations – and the insurance industry is bound to benefit.

But one of the problems currently plaguing Thailand’s insurance sector is that distribution channels are antiquated and riddled with inefficiencies. To purchase an insurance plan, you normally have to arrange for a broker to meet you, prepare an unwieldy amount of paperwork, and wait for the bureaucratic red tape to churn its wheels.

The entire process is frustrating from a consumer standpoint and expensive for insurance companies too; broker commissions can eat into premiums and the process is only scalable by hiring a greater number of agents.

In 2016, a total of $5.1 billion in non-life insurance premiums were solicited via brokers, agents, and bancassurance channels. Precise figures for online distribution aren’t available, but the channel did grow by 25% as compared to 2015.

One of the startups that’s trying to simplify the insurance acquisition process is Frank. It offers motorcycle, car, and travel insurance direct to consumers in Thailand via its website. Consumers apply for their insurance product of choice, receive an instant quote, and for certain products, can have the policy in a few seconds. It’s fairly hassle-free.

Frank’s co-founder Harprem Doowa admits they’re still a small player in a very “traditional industry” but he affirms their product is largely positioned towards millennials and future Thai generations who are far more comfortable transacting online and will continue to carry these preferences along with them.

“This will take time,” he adds, referring to overall adoption of Frank’s product.

Harprem ecommerceIQ

Harprem Doowa, Co-founder and MD of frank.co.th

Innovating the insurance value chain

Another key challenge for Frank is ensuring that all parties involved in the transaction are equally adept and comfortable with technology. At the end of the day, it’s another distribution channel and isn’t inherently marketing its own product.

Frank’s policies are underwritten by companies like Bangkok Insurance and AXA – large, unwieldy, and geriatric organizations resistant to systemic change and constant reinvention.

“Insurance companies themselves are still not ready with the backend to underwrite policies immediately. Most still require manual approvals,” explains Harprem.

Another problem is that many potential customers opt out of the process because they’re unfamiliar and uncomfortable with scanning and uploading documents. They require the support of an agent or customer support advisor to complete the transaction – driving up costs and somewhat negating Frank’s value proposition in the first place.

The third aspect hampering progress in insurtech are Thai regulations: Harprem explains that while they protect consumers, there’s a real bottleneck towards online conversions because of the multiple in-person verifications required.

Value-add Partnerships

The fledgling insurtech company has experimented with a number of ways to make it more visible and enticing to customers. One of these is partnerships with popular ecommerce players like Lazada, Grab, honestbee, and foodpanda.

ecommerceIQThis may seem like a contrasting list of partners – how does quick food delivery equate to online insurance? – but Harprem is upbeat about the benefits its brought to the table.

“Doing partnerships with many companies increases our exposure 30X and when [consumers] go and search online for insurance, they see Frank. It wouldn’t be the first time and therefore they are more likely to buy from us,” he explains.

That’s a critical takeaway – startups aren’t flush with the kind of cash that large organizations have, they have to stay lean. By leveraging relationships with online companies, even something unsexy like insurtech can be galvanized into a winning brand.

“The more customers see your brand, the more likely they are to buy insurance from you at a later stage,” exhorts Harprem.

Where do the opportunities and threats lie?

Of course, it’s possible that large insurance companies eventually sidestep players like Frank and start selling direct to consumers via web channels but this will involve channel conflict.

Specifically, it will alienate the vast number of brokers who currently provide the bulk of insurance revenues. Another complication is the sheer time insurance companies take to make decisions, hampered by bureaucracy and lengthy internal approvals processes.

Harprem says the team is completely aware of this but isn’t overly worried. Frank’s nimbleness means it can continue innovating and pivoting as and when the need arises.

“It took one of our partners two years to update their home page.”

There are two additional areas which, if done right, could provide considerable value in the coming years. One is ‘microinsurance’, or insurance for low-income households that provides protection for health risks, property damage, or other specific perils.

Harprem says there’s definitely a business case for it in Thailand but adds that it’s not a priority for Frank right now.

The other opportunity is changing fintech from just another distribution channel to overhauling the entire product in itself. That’s where technologies like blockchain have the greatest potential.

In Singapore, this is already becoming a reality. Electrify, which allows users to buy electricity on the blockchain, closed a $30 million ICO yesterday. Insurtech company PolicyPal, which is powered by blockchain technology, allows underbanked consumers to purchase products like agriculture, property, life, and personal insurance.

“This, in my humble opinion is true fintech,” says Harprem.

Southeast Asia in 2010 started to experience an ecommerce boom with the likes of Ensogo, Rocket Internet’s Lazada and Zalora, Groupon, etc. It seemed to be at the height of its peak with money pouring in, mergers and acquisitions happening every day, and Amazon finally moving in to capture the region’s potential but amid these buzzworthy headlines, down rounds plagued startups such as Lazada, were sold for scraps like Zalora Thailand, or shut down completely, such as Ensogo.

What happened? Smaller startups began venturing into other fields providing human resources (Getlinks), car wash services (Wash Mobile), recruitment (JB Hired), agriculture (EverGrow), hardware (DriveBot), and more. It seemed that startups were shifting focus to offer niche services to carve out their own demographic in a saturating market but could they sustain themselves?

A Sustainable Model: Fintech

Across the region and even in once-upon-a-time unicorns such as Flipkart and Snapdeal, news reported large reductions in hiring, peaking salaries, and a slowdown in capital flow shadowed the once profitable businesses VCs banked hard on. The customer behavior in Southeast Asia, more specifically trust, is simply not mature enough.

It also cannot be denied that a capital and inventory intensive model requires deep pockets. After running a successful ecommerce company in Thailand for three years, I realized it was necessary to go back to the basics, to start a business model that encompassed the three components of sustainability:

  1.       High margins
  2.       High customer lifetime value (LTV)
  3.       Low customer acquisition cost

A business with these characteristics usually has a strong foundation and presents a good investment opportunity because it shows promise for profitability down the line. While ecommerce does have low customer acquisition due to the nature of retail and lower commitment products, such as retail and consumer goods that are being sold, it severely lacks in margins and customer LTV (lifetime value).

Margins are often eroded away by high operation costs, packaging, shipping, and inventory while LTV is nullified by heavy competition as most ecommerce companies do not have exclusivity on products and pricing. After all, it isn’t in the best interest of product owners and manufacturers to only distribute their products through one single channel.

Fintech on the other hand, a recently booming industry, does not suffer from these disadvantages. Like most tech companies, there is no inventory to hold, the margins are much larger and once you have acquired a customer, you have an 80% renewal rate for at least the next four years (Bangkok Insurance’s internal data). By building better fintech, it would change the behavior of consumers in Southeast Asia and eventually fuel the growth of ecommerce in the region.  

fintech-southeast-asia

Lack of Innovation: More Room to Grow?

Fintech is ripe for entrepreneurs because existing legacy players such as Viriyah and MSIG in the market lack innovation. Companies like Bangkok Insurance, HSBC, and other traditional financial institutions are only beginning to realize the magnitude of the tech wave that has hit the world.

As the saying goes, it is hard to steer big ships, and ships seldom get bigger than the companies that make up our financial industries. These companies earn a vast majority of their profits from traditional channels, leaving the unexplored to opportunistic entrepreneurs like myself with Frank.co.th and many others who have managed to convince investors for support.

A recent report from Accenture found that global investment in fintech has skyrocketed from $930 million back in 2008 to over $12 billion by the beginning of 2015. Europe experienced the highest growth rate with an increase of 215% to $1.48 billion in 2014. Globally, fintech startups have raised investments totaling $19 billion according to a insight report published by Citibank. This has begun to eclipse other startup sectors as it continues to grow.

Challenges of Fintech

The next big thing does not come without its own challenges. Fintech startups need to realize very early on that there are many rigid regulations which were not created with innovation in mind. For example, in Thailand, selling insurance online requires a business to report to at least three different governing bodies all of which have their own set of rules to abide to. This increases admin work for small companies and also requires legal knowledge that most new companies lack.

Companies are also not allowed to call a customer to confirm purchase as that would be considered “telemarketing insurance sales” and requires a different license. One of the biggest challenges for fintech companies is encouraging users to trust young companies with their financial information, savings, and future to adopt its products and services.

It takes time and a lot of marketing dollars to explain to customers who you are and why they should trust you with their money. These challenges do get easier as more startups enter the space and educate their audience through smart marketing initiatives.

Rabbit, a company based in Thailand, is the first integrated online/offline payment platform in Thailand accepted in multiple retail stores, restaurants and used for public transportation. Its partnership with LINE earlier this year means over 5 million users are slowly allowing their financial information to be connected to some sort of a tech platform.

“This joint partnership [Rabbit LINE Pay] will strongly support government policy in driving Thai people into a cashless society,” says Nelson Leung, chief executive officer of BSS Holdings, the operator of Rabbit card.

Influence from neighboring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, a lot of which have already set up country specific ‘sandboxes’ to trial for fintech regulations, are also moving towards a cashless society to drive the realization that there is a need for innovation in the financial sector.

Ecommerce is a big marketbut until the shopping habits of Southeast Asians are shifted to online spending habits, it can never reach its full potential. The emergence of fintech and its supporters mean that by building the fundamentals, companies in the entire ecosystem can benefit from its success. 15 years ago, people would call a travel agent and ask them to book a ticket. And now? When was the last time someone called a travel agent to book a flight or hotel room? Behaviors change, but it takes innovation and time.

BY HARPREM DOOWA, MD & CO-FOUNDER AT FRANK.CO.TH