Lingke Wang and the Ethos team have recently raised over $46 million in order to simplify and modernize the archaic life insurance industry.
What’s your background, and what are you working on?
I’m the CTO and co-founder of Ethos, a life insurance company that my co-founder Peter Colis and I created to combat all of the things that typically deter people from purchasing life insurance; such as pushy agents, doctors appointments, hidden fees, and complex paperwork. All of these combined equate to a grueling 10–15 week process to get a policy that in some cases may not even be right for the customer.
We’ve made the process for getting a life insurance policy fast, easy and inexpensive, turning a process that was once like going to the DMV to shopping online. Our online model replaces the traditional route and uses technology and predictive analytics to help families get the policies they want and need — 99% of our applicants and policyholders had no medical exam, blood test or lengthy underwriting process.
Before Ethos, I was at Stanford Business School and rooming with Peter. We started Ovid in the summer of 2015, a company also in life insurance space that helps people sell permanent life insurance policies that they can no longer afford to institutional investors. At a high level, we helped people who couldn’t afford to keep their policies, because their financial needs changed after retirement. Ovid’s goal was to help connect folks to buyers in a transparent manner and eliminate the need to work through life settlement brokers who often took large fees.
Ovid was our foot in the door to the life insurance space, and we built a lot of infrastructure around it to get it up and running. It remains a successful business, but we realized in order for us to have a real, meaningful impact, we needed to get to the root of the problem in the life insurance space: offer a product that ensures families are appropriately protected considering their financial means.
What motivated you to get started with your company?
When I was 20 and in college, I was persuaded into buying a permanent life insurance policy that I didn’t need. The agent who convinced me it would be a good investment vehicle, even though I had no spouse or children. As time went on and the costs quickly mounted, I realized the financial mistake I had made and lost most of what I paid into it. This unfortunate situation is all too common.
Fast forward to studying with Peter at Stanford Business School, we revisited my experience and realized life insurance was broken. Traditional life insurance has existed for centuries and is reliant on commission-driven agents and misaligned incentives. As previously mentioned, we became set on fixing the industry — starting with Ovid and then Ethos.
What went into building the initial product?
Peter and I conceptualized Ethos in June 2016. Over the next year, we built technology and partnered with forward-thinking insurance companies to create the Ethos product. We launched quietly in select markets in late 2017 and worked to better refine our product. In the following months, we worked to gather user insights and automate workflow processes with our 100-year-old carrier partner.
We iterated rapidly during the soft launch, translating our learnings into product enhancements and releasing new code multiple times a day. In late January 2018, we launched nationwide, maintaining our growth mindset, optimizing for speed of learning, and evolving the product in pursuit of delivering an excellent end-to-end customer experience.
Ultimately, our vision — to protect the life you are building and the people you love — resonated deeply with our partners and afforded us opportunities to innovate.
As we continue to follow this mission, we intend to find ways of increasing coverage and use data to inform new products that allow us to protect those who traditional insurance companies have deemed “uninsurable,” often because of antiquated risk assessment models and methodologies.
How have you attracted users and grown your company?
Overall, we’re a product that is bought, not sold. We take pride in having no commissioned sales agents because that’d go against what we set out to change. We’ve designed a product that puts the customer first and condensed a 15-week process to a 10-minute online application. We also focus heavily on educating customers to help them easily navigate the process of getting life insurance.
With a combination of ongoing efforts from our engineering, product, marketing, and customer support teams, we continue to attract customers and equip them with life insurance that’s affordable, transparent and simple. For that reason, our word of mouth continues to increase — nearly a third of our customers were referred by another customer. On top of that, our customers are saving money on their monthly life insurance premium. For example, our customer Adrian Limon saved $80/month by switching to Ethos.
What are your goals for the future?
We want to become a market leader in the life insurance industry. There are multiple paths to get there, but what’s most important is continuing to provide our customers with a high-quality experience and delivering on our promise of being a trusted partner in protecting their families.
One of the biggest challenges that we face is the general lack of education around life insurance, and that’s due to the traditional nature of the industry. Many people assume it’s too expensive, have fears of being upsold or just don’t want to deal with a 12-week process that involves getting medical exams — but we’ve eliminated those things to provide a simple and cost-effective way to protect your family. Our goal is to continue to demonstrate that and help people realize we’ve made life insurance accessible.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and the obstacles you’ve overcome?
Stepping into the life insurance industry, one that hadn’t changed in over 50 years, was an obstacle in and of itself. We knew it was going to be tough to build partnerships and products in an industry that we were essentially up-ending. As a way to overcome that, we remained mission-driven and gained a lot of trust through being focused on the customer experience and pushing the industry forward. Our goal is to help as many people as possible protect their family, so I ask myself every day “is this thing that I’m doing, going to help me achieve that goal?” Making deliberate incremental advances is key.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous in or outside of work?
Deciding on how to use my time was and remains critical. When you start a company it’s like your baby and you want to be everywhere at once. It took me a long time to learn what’s really going to move the dial and what’s not. There are only so many hours in the day, so I figure out where my hours are going to make the most impact. Today the things I primarily focus on are bettering the product and understanding our customer’s needs.
In terms of what I do outside of work to overcome work hurdles and stay focused, I make sure to get at least 7 hours of sleep. When you’re running a company it’s hard to put up boundaries for your own well-being. But at the same time, I know I make better decisions when I’m well rested. When I was younger I was all about burning the midnight oil, but with more experience under my belt, I’ve seen the diminishing returns when you’re not taking care of yourself. We actually recently wrote a blog post that offers 10 tips for getting better sleep, check it out!
8) What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
Don’t let perfection prevent done. Putting all your energy into building a “perfect” product without shipping it and getting real customer feedback will hinder your ability to grow. You’re going to learn more from doing things and testing in production. You’ll make mistakes along the way, but you’ll make better products because of it.
9) Where can we go to learn more?
Additionally, we’re building our engineering team! Check out our careers page for a list of openings.