Alex Timm: Making auto insurance fair
Alex Timm will never forget the day in 2016 when Root Insurance began offering auto policies online with the promise of revolutionizing a staid business in which the youngest top-10 company has been around for 83 years.
“Nothing happened,” he recalls. “You’re watching your dash boards, and you’re like, ‘OK it’s live!’ And no one bought anything. It was a really slow start.”
It took a few iterations to work out the bugs and offer a product customers liked, the cofounder and CEO of Columbus’ most innovative insurer says. “It took about a year of engineering after launching that first product to get people to use it. Then we started to see a lot of the growth.”
In 2020, Root hit more milestones. Timm and cofounder Dan Manges, the company’s chief technology officer, rang the Nasdaq opening bell in late October for Root’s initial public offering. Root sold 2 million more shares than projected, raising $724.4 million and making history as Ohio’s biggest-ever IPO, with a company valuation surpassing $7 billion. It also was the biggest IPO of the year for technology-driven insurers in a growing field dubbed “insurtech.”
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“There’s no way I could have predicted it would become this big this quickly,” marvels Timm, whose father introduced him to the business by having him call bar owners whose policies were about to be canceled. “I always thought we’d be a big company, but I thought it was going to take years and years and years. The sheer speed at which it’s happened, that has surprised me quite a bit.”
It’s been part of Timm’s plans for a long time, though. As that 14-year-old self-described “math nerd” whose dad had him call late-paying policyholders, Timm “fell in love” with actuarial work and started dreaming of starting his own insurance company. He earned his bachelor’s degree in actuarial science, accounting and mathematics with a 4.0 average at Drake University and worked as a corporate-strategy consultant at Nationwide for about 3½ years before striking off on his own.
“I remember waking up the next day after quitting my job and having money in the bank and saying, ‘Oh, my God, we have to build a company.’ I remember sitting down with a spreadsheet and some product-management tools, talking with some engineers and saying, ‘How are we going to build this?’ That was terrifying. One Line Coffee in the Short North and Fox and Snow were really our office.”
For all the buzz out there now about Root Insurance, very little of it is self-generated. Its logo doesn’t flutter when the endzone nets go up in NFL stadiums. Agency-created characters don’t sing its praises. You don’t have a Root jingle stuck in your head.
The company, instead, has latched on to easy-to-understand differentiators, operating solely online and basing rates primarily on drivers’ behavior instead of factors such as their age, address and credit score.
It’s a message that resonates with consumers, particularly those 22- to 35-year-olds who make up the bulk of Root’s customers. In August, the company pledged to eliminate credit scores, which tend to increase rates for Black and immigrant drivers, as a pricing factor by 2025. In October, Root cut an ad featuring African-American NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, who pushed the racing circuit to ban Confederate flags at its events earlier this year.
“A big part of it is fairness,” Timm says of Root’s appeal to consumers. “I think there were a lot of people who felt insurance was a rip-off and were a little angry at the industry. They didn’t feel that the industry and big insurance companies were really on the consumers’ side.”
Despite this year’s foray into celebrity advertising—the Bubba Wallace ad still was less of an insurance pitch than an appeal to consumers who want corporations to take a stand on social issues—Timm says Root still values substance over style.
“I’m a math nerd, and my cofounder is an engineering nerd. So we weren’t very good at hype,” he says. “We just stuck to what we were good at, and that was math and engineering. Our competitors, they’re advertising machines. We decided to take a very different approach. What we’re good at is building new products.”
Bob Vitale is a freelance writer.
Co-founder and CEO, Root Insurance
In position since: 2015
Previous: Roles with Nationwide Mutual Insurance, Century Insurance and State Auto Financial
Education: Bachelor’s degrees in actuarial science, accounting and mathematics, Drake University
Revenue/Loss: $245.4 m/$144.5 m (through Q2 2020)