Ruth Haller: Forget the cookie cutter
From a corporate insurance background to running the business end of a bakery startup to heading up a professional lines and cyber insurtech firm, Ruth Haller has rejected the conventional route to self-determination
If the future of small business insurance is set to be something other than a land grab by tech firms such as Google and Tencent, e-commerce giants like Amazon and Alibaba, and maybe manufacturers of tech-enabled devices, then it may start to look a lot like insurtech startups such as Anapi.
The reputation of SME insurance business has taken a battering recently. The public wrangles over business interruption cover which erupted after businesses were forced to close during successive pandemic lockdowns highlighted a number of issues around how those risks were underwritten by some carriers and interpreted by their clients - putting a heavy strain on the relationship between insurers and insureds.
Anapi doesn’t write BI or contingency covers, but it does address risks which can present a huge financial challenge to fledgling businesses if they are not properly covered, namely: directors’ and officers’ (D&O) liability, professional indemnity and cyber insurance.
The company is a corporate agent in Singapore. What sets it apart from other insurtech firms and intermediaries offering specialty lines covers is its tight focus on the startup and young business market. Having discovered the difficulties such firms face in even sourcing cover for the kind of legal challenges that can sink a business before it can really set sail - let alone at a price that is properly risk-adjusted and tailored to individual clients – the firm has focused on simply making it easier for such clients to get the cover they need.
This might not sound like a huge differentiation, but even in a relatively small market like Singapore the choice of insurance provider can be a little bewildering to the uninitiated and, for a typical startup, where the small number of owner-employees may be wearing multiple hats until they can expand and hire more people, nobody has much time to shop around for esoteric insurance covers.
From corporate risk to cookies
For Anapi’s CEO Ruth Haller, the journey began about 15 years ago when, fresh out of education in Australia with a business degree, plus a year’s study of Mandarin at a Beijing university, she began searching for a graduate programme to join.
“Like most people, I fell into the insurance industry,” she recalls. “After university, I didn’t really know what industry or business discipline I wanted to work in, [only] that I wanted to get a job in a large corporation to get work experience in different functions. My mother had worked in the insurance industry and suggested I apply for graduate jobs, and I ended up at Zurich Insurance.”
Having joined the firm’s graduate programme in Sydney, she then moved to Switzerland for a few years with the company, and from there to Hong Kong, before ultimately joining Anapi in Singapore.
However, Haller’s route from corporate insurance to insurtech startup was not as direct as it appeared. Having risen to a senior role within the Asia-Pacific enterprise risk management division of Zurich, she was keen to get her hands dirty.
“I felt that I had learnt and contributed as much as I could in my last job with Zurich Insurance, and most importantly I felt far too removed from the frontline business. After completing my MBA I decided that the best way to learn about business is to actually venture out and start one myself.”
Haller was working in Hong Kong at the time, and that first venture was Sugar Sisters – a business that baked and delivered American-style cookies. As she admits, she hadn’t intended to get involved in the food and beverage (F&B) industry, but after ten years at Zurich, she was eager to try to run her own business.
“F&B came up because one of my really good friends in Hong Kong was [into] baking. At that time there weren’t that many American-style cookies in Hong Kong and my group of friends there were encouraging her to sell her cookies.
“She was like, ‘I don’t know how to start a business’, because she comes from a creative background, in photography. I had just finished my Masters, and I understand business, so I said, ‘Why don’t we partner up together - you do all the baking, I’ll put a business plan together and run it in the background for you’.”
After a year of working part time on Sugar Sisters while still holding down a job at Zurich, Haller decided to go all in.
“I was learning way more running Sugar Sisters - learning about marketing, business development and business relationships and all that. At Zurich, I was in a back office function for such a long time and I was trying to be more customer focused, but there were just no opportunities. So I was like, I guess I can learn it for myself – it doesn’t have to be insurance-related.”
When a job opportunity came up for her husband in Singapore, Haller decided that it was time for another change.
“It was a great two years with Sugar Sisters, but I was happy to finish that story and move on to something else in Singapore. I knew I didn’t want to do F&B, that wasn’t my passion. It was a great learning experience but I wanted to work for another startup and help someone run their business.”
The startup insurtech for startups
It was following the move to Singapore that Haller came across Anapi which, after it was founded in 2018, was headed by then-CEO (and now non-executive chairman) George Kesselman.
She started working with the startup in a customer success role. Haller recalls, “I was interested in the company because it was insurtech, so I joined as a team member and then put in some money and became a co-founder.”
Alongside co-founders Kesselman, Nicole Tan and Goh Jing Rong, Haller became COO and, before long took up the CEO role at Anapi.
The firm has been through a significant transition from its early days when the team initially focused on the personal lines market. Haller describes Anapi as “a tech-enabled intermediary”, providing clients with a sales channel coupled with a software solution called the Anapi Hub for managing insurance policies digitally. Not only does the company source quotes for business insurance, but its platform also provides a straight-through process to quote and bind management liability/D&O policies in a matter of minutes, which Haller describes as “a first in the market”.
She says the company’s partnership with underwriting agency Dual Asia, which is backed by MSIG Insurance in Singapore, has enabled them to “strip down the requirements for D&O insurance to make it easy for small businesses and startups”.
In particular, following feedback from startups in the fintech and healthtech/medtech sector, who Haller says “traditionally have trouble getting quotes for this type of insurance”, the firm zeroed in on this under-served group to make it simpler for them to access insurance covers that are typically a pre-requisite of carrying out their business.
“They said to us ‘Our VC has invested and now taken a seat on our board and we need to buy a D&O policy’ - and that’s how we began with the startup angle, because it is part of the due diligence and it’s not like the VCs know where to buy the insurance.”
“That’s when we realised it’s actually not that simple. Nobody knows much about D&O insurance. Even with 10 years of experience at Zurich, the whole financial lines book seemed so complicated and I thought it was probably for listed companies who get class actions. Then it occurred to me that it’s actually a risk for small businesses – especially when you’re regulated.”
The pros and cons of freedom
So how does Haller herself find the startup world, after a decade of working in the corporate insurance space?
“It’s definitely quite freeing, because it’s small. It’s so different from a corporate environment where you’ve got all that hierarchy,” she says. “But there are pros and cons. I know how to use that hierarchy to my advantage when I need something to get done. And being in a company for so long, with their network, you can really use that influence.”
What is liberating, however, is that from a leadership perspective “you don’t have to get a million approvals – regional, global etc”, she says.
“And I really like the fact that we can test ideas. I learnt about getting ideas from the team - I don’t have all the answers, so I love that it’s so flexible and agile.”
Having sought a more client-facing role outside the insurance industry and latterly, in a non-conventional insurance role, Haller now finds she is right up against the customer experience.
“Because we’re targeting small businesses and startups, and that’s exactly what we are, I’m in the same boat as a lot of my clients,” she says. “We’re all trying to get product/market fit, we’re all worried about our runway, fundraising, execution – with a startup there’s less resources and there’s more pressure. They are so focused on all these business goals that they don’t understand what their risks are.”
As a consequence, she says, for the last 5-6 months her role has involved “a lot of education for the startup market – as founder-to-founder conversations”. “I understand them better than a traditional broker or agent might as we have the same battles and issues,” she says.
Of course, insurtech platforms offering specialty lines aren’t a new idea, but Haller suggests that Anapi has cornered a market that big global, regional or national brokers are unlikely to have – or are unable – to tap into.
“All the smaller guys, if they need insurance, who are they going to call? Some broker that their auntie or uncle recommended, who is not really going to understand what they do? It’s not that I understand every one of my clients businesses, but we’re on the same sort of journey, and there’s a connection there for sure – which definitely helps.”
Initially, says Haller, Anapi intended to reach out to a client base across Southeast Asia, leveraging the advantages of having a tech platform that wasn’t bound by geography. However, she adds, the firm soon realised that clients wanted advice as well as insurance, so they decided to throw in their lot with Singapore and get licensed as an insurance intermediary in the jurisdiction.
“Singapore is a great starting point. A lot of people incorporate here, so if you’re the parent company you can buy a D&O policy out of Singapore and it covers you across all your other entities around the world.”
With Singapore-based clients also needing cover for operations in places like Malaysia, Thailand, and Hong Kong Haller is also looking to a partner with brokers in some of these other jurisdictions so that they can assist on renewals further afield.
As Haller alluded to earlier in this article, launching and growing a startup can have some significant pitfalls, especially when you are relying on a small number of products and clients to generate revenue and growth.
Having struggled to make the initial personal lines travel business work, Anapi then pivoted towards the burgeoning logistics business to help clients self-insure their lower-value parcels for loss and damage.
However, despite a promising beginning, Haller says the product ultimately proved to be a hard sell, with clients reluctant to take on their own risk when they could simply pay an insurer to take it on instead – even if the price wasn’t right.
Ultimately, what they arrived at instead was the Anapi Hub. “We get businesses to upload their insurance policies for us to digitise for them – so we know what they’re insuring themselves for and eventually, when we get enough [data], we can go back to them and say ‘You’re paying this much for your premium, but if you restructured it you could save a ton’.”
“For the last five years at Zurich I was with the enterprise risk management function and, in hindsight, that was really good grounding for what I do now when I’m talking to startups and business owners about how they look at risks.”
Haller says an early and costly mistake with Anapi was taking too long to evaluate the success - or otherwise - of the product and pivot to a new one.
“Sometimes you come up with a grand idea, but no matter how hard you want it to work out, it just doesn’t. So instead of pushing a square peg into a round hole, you need to accept it, find a tweak to the solution, get it out there in a relatively cheap way to test, and then iterate from there.”
Haller – and Anapi’s – lesson from these early setbacks was essentially “don’t be too sophisticated; just start with the easiest thing, build scale on the easy stuff and then from there you can be more sophisticated”.
The next generation
Haller is inevitably feeling lockdown fatigue along with the rest of the world, especially as she is an avid tennis player in her free time, and a lover of travel and outdoor activities as a way to switch off and recharge.
“Scuba diving and ski holidays are my favourite because I’m active all day long in nature. I’ve often thought, ‘Would I quit my job and be a dive instructor and live on an island?’ but I think I would get really bored. I like variety in my life.”
However, she has something else at the forefront of her mind, to add to the challenges of being part of a startup.
“I am also having a baby in two months, so I know that even if Covid was gone my life wouldn’t be the same - I definitely won’t be travelling for a long time.”
As she prepares to face this new chapter, Haller says she is “extremely proud” of the team at Anapi.
“Whilst we may be lean, we have been able to achieve so much together, and it comes down to three main things; drive, willingness to learn and leaving your ego at the door,” she says.
“Working in a startup requires wearing multiple hats and being okay with stretching yourself outside your comfort zone. We can really achieve anything together when we approach challenges with the right attitude.”
Ruth Haller - biography
• Anapi: Co-founder, CEO - Sep 2020 – Present
• Anapi: Co-founder, COO - May 2018 - Sep 2020
• Sugar Sisters: Co-owner and managing director - Mar 2015 - Sep 2017
• Zurich: Senior regional risk manager, Asia Pacific - Apr 2014 - Sep 2016
• Zurich: Regional internal controls manager, Asia Pacific - Jan 2013 - Apr 2014
• Zurich: Senior risk and control expert - Jul 2011 - Dec 2012
• Zurich: Project manager, group risk management - Sep 2009 - Jun 2011
• Zurich: Project manager, global corporate in Europe - Aug 2007 - Sep 2009
• Zurich Financial Services Australia: Global associate of the global associate program - Sep 2006 - Jul 2007