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Electronic Chat with Ty Harris, Co-Founder, Openly Insurance

Before founding Openly in 2017, Ty Harris spent 12 years at Liberty Mutual, a top 5 global insurer, where he was most recently EVP and Chief Product Officer. In this role, he led an organization responsible for product, pricing, underwriting, and innovation across all personal lines of business. Prior to Liberty Mutual, Ty did research at the Brookings Institution and taught economics and statistics at MIT and Northeastern. A Duke and MIT alum, Ty is also a fully credentialed actuary (FCAS).

Founded in 2017, Boston-based Openly is an insurtech that specializes in premium home insurance sold through independent agents. Now operating in 10 states, Openly is aggressively expanding into coastal markets, starting with Massachusetts and South Carolina, with others to follow. 

NOAA is predicting a likely range of 13 to 20 named storms in 2021, of which 6 to 10 could become hurricanes. How is Openly using new technology to enter into the coastal homeowners’ market?

Openly now operates in 10 states, and recently entered our first real coastal state, Massachusetts, with South Carolina to launch soon, and other coastal states to follow. Most of these states have high hurricane and coastal exposure. We don’t see ourselves as a coastal specialist, but don’t see reason to fear the coasts, either. We developed a scorecard to determine what risks we accept; we won’t say no just because you’re in Nantucket, and that will apply in South Carolina when we launch, too.

We use technology to rate and underwrite on a very granular level, applying a very fine, large grid of points across the country, focused on the coasts. We want to know down to a few meters what the expected hurricane loss is for a given house so we can vary pricing accordingly. Location is a big piece of it, along with home characteristics, so we use aerial imagery-based tools like Arturo to look at roof shape, roof condition, material, and estimating the roof’s age. We also use data based on building records and real estate listing to get the best read we can about what the house is actually like. We base our underwriting on this. Some houses will require remote inspection capabilities if the model is insufficient, so we work with Flyreel, where customer uses a phone app to film parts of house. We can also use fly drones through Drone Base to get a closer look at a house. We use these inspections on 10-20% of homes to determine home value, estimate risk, and make recommendations to customers on how they can mitigate hurricane risk, even if it’s not required.

Although it’s still pretty early in the curve, we’re also evaluating the use of sensor-based data as more people start using it -- everything you can get from a home can be used as early warning indicator.

We also use policy contracts that are pretty luxurious in the market: guaranteed replacement of every home up to $5 million, high sublimits on types of contents, adjustable sublimits, transparent wind and hurricane coverage stated in dollars. This makes it easy for our agents and transparent to the customer.

Regarding claims, as a startup we’re well positioned to deal with big storms. We have an in-house team and work with a giant national TPA with claims capacity and a big contractor network, which gives us a lot of flex capacity. They have triaged levels of adjusting we can customize and an app that customers can use to film damage to house. We also have an Uber-like inspector program via WeGoLook. Finally, if a customer’s house is totaled and they need somewhere to live, we have traditional options with hotels and AirBnB-type short-term rentals.

Openly secured $40 million in funding last year, primarily to expand its footprint from 6 states to the entire country. Where in the process are you at this point, and how quickly are you headed toward this goal?

One thing we’re doing capability wise is expanding our own team. We were at 49 employees at year-end 2020, and are now up to almost 100. This is enabling us to build these features for research, underwriting, and data to meet our broader appetite in different areas. We hope to be in more than 20 states by year end including Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Georgia, and New Hampshire, and more Northeastern states by 2022. We’re also in the early days of designing more products, including auto.

We’ve also expanded the part of our team that works with our agencies, as we sell and market to them as well as our customers. We have relationship specialists that work with agencies to make sure they’re happy. We currently have about 2,000 agencies and over 5,000 agent users actually using Openly software to sell insurance. In 2021, our plan is to grow our agent footprint.

What, if any, impact has the COVID crisis had on Openly’s growth plans?

Because we focus on single-family homes, we were really fortunate, because the market was strong in 2020 and is still going strong. We designed all the processes that an incumbent insurer might do in person to address digital and remote work, so in a way, we grew up during COVID. We built an entirely remote workforce and process, including claims handling, call center, and inspections.

How is the insurance industry in general being more proactive about addressing climate change – and what is Openly’s messaging around the issue?

It’s a fine balance; you don’t want to have your head in the sand, writing insurance assuming weather will act the way it did 50 years ago. On the other hand, you don’t want to overreact, or regulators and consumers may see it as exploitation to charge them more. We try to pull the best information we can and write to what we think is a reasonable profit level to cover our costs.

Openly’s products are exclusively marketed through independent agents – who sometimes feel threatened by the growing use of direct-to-consumer digital products and services. How does your company make it easier for your agency network to market your products?

The main selling point for us at this point has been the ease and speed of use of our quoting and sales platform. When we do an agency demo, 90% of cases we end up signing up the agent assuming it’s a fit because that speed blows them away. There’s also a human aspect: when they have questions about underwriting, service and billing, we answer rapidly through a combination of technology like instant chat via our portal, or we’ll meet them on whatever tech terms they want. Agents do appreciate the human touch.

Over the next year, our priority is to enhance that core experience. We’re now working on reporting for agents. They want to see their own data in different ways, so one tool we have in beta is a new algorithm that scores quotes based on our model that indicates propensity of quote to sell with us. This lets agents know they did the quotes and reminds them to reach out again to the customer. There’s an appetite for other data like that because agents want to know what they’re doing right and wrong in the sales process.

We’ re one of the few personal lines insurtech players that are dedicated to the independent agent channel. They’re great partners, we’re having great success with it, and we plan to keep it that way.

 

 


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