NAN: Have you always been entrepreneurial? Have you always wanted to launch your own business?
NICK KHAMARJI: I’ve got entrepreneurial roots on both sides of my family going back to my great-grandfather, who immigrated from Lebanon to Bridgeport in 1900. I think growing up in a big family also helped. You’re forced to learn a lot as the oldest of five. Everyone was expected to work hard and chip in, from selling Christmas Trees at the family farm to helping on political campaigns. I remember typing up leases for my dad when I was 11. So, I think I’ve always had that entrepreneurial drive because of my upbringing.
NAN: Is this your first startup?
NICK: No, I’ve launched or participated in a lot of other great projects and startups since I was in college.
NAN: Tell us about the business concept and how you came up with the idea.
NICK: In 2012, I started an independent insurance agency. Over five years of trying to build a 21st-century agency, I realized that the applications, tools, and software that were available weren’t what I needed to give clients the great experience I had envisioned. In 2017, I decided to restart and rebuild the concept.
NAN: Did you have mentors or guidance along the way?
NICK: Yes, absolutely. Right before I got my insurance license, I met Chris Paradiso, who is President of Paradiso Insurance and a Director at Rough Notes, which helps independent agents throughout the country. Chris has been an unbelievable friend and mentor.
InsurTech Hartford mentor Frank Sentner has also been key in pointing me in the right direction—even when I had no clue what I was doing. I’ve also connected with Bob Fitterman at SCORE NYC, members of Professional Insurance Agents (PIA) and the Connecticut Young Insurance Professionals (CTYIP), and many others.
NAN: You mentioned insurance technology. How did you become involved with InsurTech Hartford?
NICK: Chris and Frank connected me with InsurTech Hartford. There, I found a place where I could test and retool my ideas with startup-minded people challenging the status quo in our industry.
NAN: Let’s talk about ronoco and what makes it innovative.
NICK: For people and companies with many assets, dealing with their insurance is an incredibly complex experience—even with the best agents on your team. At ronoco, we’ve built an application around these clients. We can integrate with more than 16,000 financial institutions to enable our clients to actually add their assets and link them with their insurance policies.
When you have tens or even hundreds of assets and various types of coverage to protect them, this is paramount—making sure there is coverage for what you want covered. The best part is that clients can see everything in one place. No more shuffling through file cabinets and manila folders, calling insurance companies, or waiting for the most essential information about your coverage.
We’ve also teamed up with FICO to work with us on providing meaningful advice based on each client’s unique situation. For example, as a claim ages, we’ll alert our client on the exact day they qualify for better rates and coverage to ensure our client has the best rate at the right time and we don’t lose that policy to other agents competing for that business with a more accurate rate.
NAN: InsurTech and innovation are starting to flourish here in Greater Hartford. In what ways are you involved?
NICK: Even though InsurTech is a hot new term, Hartford has been the insurance capital of the world for a long time now, and rightfully so with the highest concentration of insurance jobs anywhere. And, innovation certainly isn’t foreign to Connecticut. Having lived in New Haven, which is dubbed “A City of Firsts,” I not only fell in love with the “Greatest Small City in America” #GSCIA, but I learned about our state’s long history of successful innovation.
As an agent, I serve as a director of the Connecticut PIA and past-President of the CTYIP. This has given me the privilege of being immersed in the insurance-related problems facing our state and nation, such as issues with crumbling home foundations and the National Flood Insurance Program.
NAN: Aside from funding, what do you need to move the company forward?
NICK: Three things make a startup, but you need four to build a company. Concept, capital, customers, and execution. We’re actively working on all of these, all the time.
NAN: In terms of thinking about your customer and trying to fit their needs, have you made any major iterations to your business plan?
NICK: It’s constant. The idea has definitely grown and been refined since the beginning. Having already known my customers from owning an agency, we hit the nail pretty well on the head from the start, but there’s always a refining process as you go through testing, user feedback, and input from the team and mentors. This is what we envision for the future. Having great mentors and an amazing team give me the building blocks to get there.
I think we’ve also kept the client-agent relationships as the forefront of what we’ve built. The future is very much based on the human-to-human relationship and we want to support that with the technology.
Steve Jobs said it best after coming back to Apple in 1997, “One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it.”
NAN: We talked about time, money, and customers. Any other startup challenges you’ve faced?
NICK: It’s tough because when you’re starting out, you can do anything. I think early on I got stuck because of that. I would say: I want to do everything. I want everything built into this. But you really have to get down to: Who is your customer? What is their problem? What value are you bringing?
Everything else is kind of fluff. If your customers aren’t going to come to you for that main set of reasons to solve their problem in a very compelling way, then it doesn’t matter what gizmos or gadgets you have attached to it, it’s all just extra.
Cutting through that is tough mentally, because you want to shoot for the stars, but you’ve got to get out of the atmosphere first. If you figure out how to get out of the atmosphere, after that, there’s no atmosphere to compete against to get you all the way to where you want to be.
NAN: Tell us something about what it’s really like to be an entrepreneur.
NICK: Nine days out of 10, it’s fantastic. You’re making your vision and your dream come alive and you know it will solve a problem. But one day out of 10 you wake up and think: I must be crazy! There’s no way someone else didn’t think about this.
When you’re “all in” you have to eat, sleep, and breathe around your startup.
NAN: How do you quell those fears?
NICK: You push forward. You break down the problem differently or you figure out a different way to accomplish your goals. And it’s not that simple, there’s a lot of mental back-and-forth. It’s worth it at the end of the day because it’s passion I have. That’s why I gave up everything to make this come alive.
NAN: Any advice for other entrepreneurs?
NICK: You are the sum average of the five people you spend the most time with. Be careful about who you surround yourself with.
Everybody says fail fast—but I think before you fail fast you need to understand the problem and know your customers. I did that on the front-end, spending five years really getting to know as many segments of the industry as possible.
Everybody’s on a different journey and everybody’s on a different path to success. Ultimately, if you persevere through the tough days, build good habits, and always ask yourself how you can work smarter, you’ll be able to shoot for the stars.
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