Innovation Destination Hartford spoke with Friendly Agent Bot Founder Avdhesh Saxena about why his startup is participating in the 2018 reSET Impact Accelerator and his outlook on the future of InsurTech.
INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: Give us a little background. Have you always known you wanted to start a company?
AVDHESH SAXENA: I have a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Engineering degree. I was employed by some large information technology firms where I worked with a lot of insurance companies using technology-based solutions to solve their business problems.
But starting a business was always in the back of my mind. Last year, I started blogging and I became interested in new technology—chatbots and artificial intelligence. I began to realize this is the next thing. The insurance industry has started adopting chatbots and they are gaining more usage.
IDH: When did you launch the startup and how did you come up with the business concept?
AVDHESH: I launched Friendly Agent Bot in September 2017.
I started learning how to create chatbots. It’s difficult to buy a chatbot and a lot of people don’t have the capabilities to build it themselves. So, now I’m at the right position—I know chatbots, I know technology, I know insurance. Combining all these things I’m able to provide insurance agencies a chatbot at a very reasonable price.
IDH: Who else is involved in the startup?
AVDHESH: We have a small team including three advisors with industry experience. For other things, like technical capabilities, I generally hire contractors.
IDH: What makes your services innovative?
AVDHESH: Think of it this way, 15 or 20 years ago, very few people were on websites. Today everyone has a website. Then, around eight or 10 years ago, mobile apps started and developed a large following.
Chatbots are the new apps. By 2020, 80% of businesses will be using them. They are software that enables messaging between your business and customer 24/7 hence you’re always connected. Once you connect with a chatbot, you can connect with a lot of different backend systems.
We have a lead generation workflow for insurance, which has become smart after interacting with hundreds of insurance customers. This helps insurers (including agencies) generate leads via organic traffic on their websites and via Facebook ads.
IDH: Let’s talk about the reSET accelerator. What are you hoping to gain from the experience?
AVDHESH: Two major things: First, we hope to connect with some of the insurance agents and carriers in the Hartford area. The problem is, those big insurance companies don’t want to talk directly to a startup. It’s better to be introduced through the accelerator. A lot of industry leaders are involved with the accelerator, so it can help us make connections.
The second thing is getting funding. Larger companies can get a lot of funding from Silicon Valley firms, but it’s more challenging for companies like ours that are just starting off. We’re hoping to connect with funding resources through the accelerator.
IDH: How are you building clientele? Has the accelerator helped you make connections?
AVDHESH: Yes. Initially we made connections that helped us talk to a lot of insurance agencies, so we now have a good amount of insurance agencies as clients. Then we started focusing on inbound marketing—publishing articles and using search engine optimization and social media.
As the understanding around chatbot increases, more insurance agencies are directly coming to us. Our clients pay a small amount of monthly fees and they can use the chatbot to get more customers and more leads.
IDH: In addition to participating in the accelerator, have you tapped into any other startup resources here in Connecticut?
AVDHESH: Last summer, I started to become interested in the InsurTech ventures happening in Greater Hartford. I attended one event organized by Insurtech Hartford on idea generation and connected with some really good people. I also participated in #HartfordHack17, a three-day Hackathon organized by Insurtech Hartford. We didn’t win, but we received a lot of good feedback and were able to refine our idea.
Through those events we came to know about reSET and applied to the accelerator. It was convenient for us and they also have a good track record. And we know some of their mentors. At one of the Hackathon events I connected with reSET Entrepreneur-in-Residence Eric Knight.
We also applied to the Startupbootcamp InsurTech Accelerator and were among some of the top companies. We didn’t make it into the top 20 but we’re hoping to reapply. So, we have been involved and we are getting to know a lot of people in the Greater Hartford InsurTech space.
IDH: Aside from funding, what would you say is your biggest challenge as a startup?
AVDHESH: What’s challenging is that, to completely automate quoting process we need insurance carriers to expose their application programming interfaces (APIs) to enable us to connect with their systems. A lot of companies are not open to doing that, but it’s a challenge we can address over time.
The wait is a challenge and part of the reason why we’re trying to help insurance agencies and incumbent insurance carriers. Because first, they don’t have the time or technology to create chatbots themselves and second, some InsurTech startups are directly becoming insurance companies and leveraging chatbots. They’re directly going to customers and kind of bypassing the insurance agencies and carriers. We are trying to level the playing fields by allowing insurance agencies and incumbent carriers to provide the best user experience to their customers.
IDH: Tell us something we don’t know about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur or launch a startup.
AVDHESH: That’s an interesting question. Sometimes it’s a very lonely business, because not many people understand what you’re trying to do. But otherwise I think it’s very interesting and it keeps you motivated.
IDH: Anything you wish you had known? Anything you would change?
AVDHESH: You have to keep backtracking. We did a lot of research and talked to a lot of insurance agencies.
Initially we thought the chatbot would be used in multiple ways: It can be used for leads, servicing clients, processing claims. But when we started talking to insurance agencies, it became clear that they want more leads. So, we started focusing on that.
Right now, our chatbot is available as a demo version. A lot of people find it on Facebook Messenger. They message us looking for insurance thinking we are an insurance company. But we’re not, we’re a software company.
Slowly, along with chatbots, we will also generate leads for these insurance agencies by doing digital marketing for them. That’s where we’re trying to pivot now.
IDH: Where would you like the company to be one year from now?
AVDHESH: Right now, our customers are mainly in Connecticut. One year from now we’d like to be serving insurance agencies across the United States.
We also want to crack into larger insurance companies. That’s the main goal.
IDH: Any advice for others who are launching startups?
AVDHESH: Come up with your minimal viable product. Work very closely with your customers to develop something they want.
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