There is a revolution starting in the insurance world, and Jimmy Williams and co-founder Greg Smyth and their insurtech company Urban Jungle are at the heart of it. I caught up with Jimmy, who was kind enough to spare me the time mid-moving back home from the country post lockdown.
Jimmy first met Greg at Cambridge, where Jimmy studied for an M.A. in economics and management studies. It was always at the back of Jimmy’s mind to have his own business, his father having had a legal firm and a consulting company. However, after Cambridge, he moved to London into the world of employment. In a short time, he became an associate partner for OC and C Strategy Consultants, and where he first became involved in the insurance world.
During his time with OC and C, he worked first with big retailers who were struggling with competition from new online brands including ASOS. They were just coming out of the recession, and most of what they needed was tech-based, questions such as how they get online together with ensuring their proposition was good enough. Another group of clients he worked with were the new tech entrepreneurs emerging, such as the founders of Wiggle.
In later years with OC and C, Jimmy was working with insurance companies. They were a revelation. Unlike the entirely customer-centric retailers, the word customer never came into it their orbit. They were accustomed to working through broker intermediaries. They were also completely unfamiliar with tech.
With an aim to have his own business never far from his mind, Jimmy had got into the habit of carrying a notebook with him over the years, noting down wherever there was a glaring gap in the market and customers’ needs not being met.
Jimmy and Greg had seen an example of a gaping one for themselves. When they first moved to London, they shared a flat along with two others. All were launching into new careers, buying laptops, bikes to get to work, and other expensive items. Yet because they were renting, getting contents insurance for their belongings was nearly impossible.
Urban Jungle – a new type of insurance company
In 2016, he and Greg set out to form a new type of insurance company, which launched late summer the following year. Urban Jungle specializes in insuring renters with contents insurance starting for as little as £5.00 per month. They can only do that by using AI and operating entirely online.
Their typical customers are under 40. They don’t go to brokers or meet people to arrange insurance. Being tech-savvy, they are used to instant customer service as delivered by Netflix and Amazon. The comparison site option, Jimmy says, takes an average of forty minutes to complete a contents insurance application with all the information. With Urban Jungle, it takes five.
Urban Jungle’s growth figures are impressive. They already have 20,000 customers and climbing. One of the challenges is that to make themselves profitable, they need to scale fast and hard. Building a platform such as theirs is a hugely costly process, but they have no restrictions on market size.
They raised 200k at the start of 2017, quickly followed by 1m in December. Another 2.5m followed in 2019. They have just achieved their latest funding achievement, raiding an additional £2.5m, despite the challenging times. They have also found the backing of entrepreneurs and investors such as former Prudential CEO Rob Devey, Octopus Group CEO Simon Rogerson, and Funding Circle co-founder James Meekings.
Their success draws on two pillars. The first is that their tech enables everything to be automated, which in turn achieves the low-cost insurance they offer. The second is their customer connection. They have always focussed on a very specific group of young renters. They talk to them constantly, finding out what they want. For example, this sector moves regularly. You might have four people in a flat, then three move out, all to different places and someone new moves in Urban Jungle have made the system to accommodate this.
I asked Jimmy what his biggest challenges were. He says entrepreneurs tend to get caught up in this concept of one huge daily average of problems to overcome. He finds it more a cycle of challenges: where for perhaps one quarter, you may be focussed on raising more money before you run out, then the next quarter you are worrying about finding enough customers. You are always worrying about something, whatever is most pressing at the time.
Jimmy and Greg have further plans. Currently, the customers they lose are mainly those who are buying a home. It is an obvious, organic step for them to go into the homeowners’ insurance market. Car insurance is on their sights.
It is deliberate that the word “insurance” is not included in their name. They are aware of other pain points for their customers, that they hope to relieve in the future. Jimmy says that the aim is to be big enough that the major companies start following them. They reckon it will take two more years now to start annoying them into starting to change.
When I chatted with Jimmy about the idea of offering advice to others, he soberly observed that in these tough times, people need support more than ever. The entrepreneur world is a small community, very inter-joined with WhatsApp and snap chat. Everyone is currently brainstorming on the government schemes, on how to help and get the best from teams, what people are doing about their offices, and how to survive. The chats are a reflection of the pain that people are going through. He thinks the stories are not yet fully out there.
Jimmy’s first advice is that you need a fantastic support group. For him, that includes a few people he worked with during his consulting days, including Tom Blomfield of Monzo Bank. They have given him great advice on what to focus on. Jimmy also brought Rob on board as a very experienced advisor early on. He has been invaluable, especially during this crisis. You have to make decisions, but Jimmy says he is so glad that he has a partner and a solid support network to test his ideas out with.
His second piece of advice is to be completely aware of what you are and are not good at. To do this, either means being incredibly honest with yourself or talking the analysis through with someone you really trust. You need to know where your strength and weaknesses lie, not just in skills, but in big or small strategy planning, crisis times, or smooth waters, soft skills, or hard.
Then you can build a team to fill the gaps. The easy mistake to make is to decide you are really overworked and find someone as near as possible the same as you to fill the gaps. The problem is that then they fall into the same traps as you do. Someone entirely different will fill the gaps.
Jimmy and Greg are complete opposites. Jimmy says he is a big picture person, with a short attention span who just wants to go, go. Greg is measured, day to day, a details person who hits the brakes as needed and insists on a sensible work /life balance. It is also good for the team to see that success takes different forms.