Jerad Leigh: Going the Distance
The phrase “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” is typically used to mean “take it easy, there’s a long way to go,” but for Supercede Co-founder Jerad Leigh, it’s about negotiating all the highs and lows along the journey – before a thrilling finish.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that Jerad Leigh would ultimately transition from the traditional broking space to the InsurTech world.
The Co-founder and CEO of tech start-up Supercede – the reinsurance e-trading platform originally launched as Riskbook, before re-branding to Supercede earlier this year – has an eclectic taste in reading material, which unmistakably signals his business philosophy.
Memoirs and histories from the technology space dominate, whether it be Wall Street Journal journalist John Carreyrou’s history of discredited healthtech firm Theranos (“Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup”); Bob Iger’s autobiographical reflections on his 15 years as CEO of Disney (“The Ride of a Lifetime”); or Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull’s book about the latter’s experience of co-founding Pixar animation studios (“Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.”)
But it’s not all about tech or start-ups. Leigh’s other pick for the best books he’s read in the past year hints at one of the key elements in his approach to building his own successful start-up business.
“I just finished ‘The Culture Map’ by Erin Meyer, which is all about how various people from around the world communicate and disagree with each other and everything else,” he explains.
“Building an amazing culture is really easy on paper if everyone is in the UK or everyone is in the U.S. At Supercede, we have a team spread across a handful of countries, so navigating this and building a really great culture requires a lot more intention to do well.”
You’ll notice how that one idea informs the discussion throughout – being a successful entrepreneur and producing a truly disruptive tech platform is not just about having a great idea (arguably, that’s of lesser importance), it’s about having great people to challenge, develop and transform that great idea into a product that really works for the clients, and giving them the space they need to carry out that transformation.
Digitisation for digitisation’s sake
But let’s roll back a few years. Having joined Aon Benfield (since rebranded as Aon Reinsurance Solutions) as a business analyst in early 2011, Leigh progressed through a number of roles at the reinsurance broker – in Singapore, the U.S., Greece, and then London, where he was involved in Japanese Treaty placements – before he moved to the broker’s management consulting and advisory arm Aon Inpoint in late 2015.
“I’ve always been fascinated in how technology impacts and helps industries evolve,” he recalls. “When I landed in reinsurance with Aon Benfield, I got exposed to the industry’s early efforts at e-placement, working on ABConnect in APAC.”
Leigh says that very early on he recognised that any successful solution for reinsurance e-placement would need to be independent and not owned by industry incumbents.
“This is a tripartite relationship industry – you have the client and the broker and then the reinsurer and they’re all collectively involved with these deals, so a platform owned by any one party never really made sense to me.”
Following his move to London and the re-focus on Japanese treaty broking, he says it was the experience of working on some of the world’s biggest, most complex reinsurance deals that gave him exposure to both the major pain points for brokers but also some of the tools being developed to deal with those placement headaches.
“But they weren’t really making our lives easier – it was digitisation for digitisation’s sake,” he says.
It was when he moved to a strategy consulting role at Aon Inpoint that the seeds for Riskbook were sown. Not only did he meet Supercede Co-founder and President Ben Rose but, says Leigh, the two of them “got a perspective on how reinsurers thought of growth, which was, ‘Should we go into a new geography or a new product, is there enough business for us to go there, and what’s the return period for this upfront investment?’”.
“It was at that point that we started thinking about it from this elevated perspective: ‘What are all the pain points that exist here, and what do we think e-placement in reinsurance looks like.’ So the early genesis of Riskbook was looking at tackling that.”
Leigh subsequently moved to TigerRisk Partners in mid-2017 to become the firm’s UK head of innovation, before leaping into the unknown in the middle of 2019 to launch the start-up that would later become Supercede.
That Supercede was selected to be one of the 11 InsurTech start-ups to join the sixth cohort of Lloyd's Lab in April this year is one indication of the platform’s early success.
According to the marketing blurb for Supercede, the platform’s raison d’être is to automate the submission process for cedents, reducing it from up to four months to only two days. The company says this not only enables brokers to spend more time on deals and less on compiling and rekeying data, but also gives reinsurers access to a substantial new pool of quality business. The platform is also, notably, free to trade on.
“Our placement platform and our network are free because we believe that electronic placement will become table stakes for reinsurance globally, going forward,” explains Leigh.
“When you introduce barriers to entry – as to which firms can afford or can’t afford to do a thing, or which pocket markets will pool together to do something like PPL – those solutions don’t work for reinsurance, just because of the natural scope of it.”
He says the way Supercede has evolved as a solution also recognises, through the founders’ own experiences, how the reinsurance industry works.
“You see quite a radical difference in solutions from companies that are built by outsiders and those from people that come up through the ranks, because there’s an appreciation of the existing model, and an understanding of what might evolve or shift in time.”
As such, he says, Lloyd’s has been a “great early partner” for the business to collaborate with.
“If you look at it as a corporation, it is huge as a reinsurer and huge as a cedent. Lloyd’s sends a little over $10bn inwards and outwards into the markets. So the syndicates looking to engage with us makes a lot of sense, because there is a huge amount of data flowing amongst themselves, into the Corporation for reporting and then out into the broader market.”
With its e-placing platform already recognised by Lloyd’s, Leigh says Supercede is working with the Corporation to align its vision with the Future at Lloyd’s blueprints.
“When we look at our Analytics solution – which is the primary engagement for our Lab entrance now – it’s all around helping improve how syndicates structure their data when they send it into the market, and then making that data available to the Corporation, the open market, and amongst the syndicates,” he says.
From Riskbook to Supercede
Because of the nature of the reinsurance sector, says Leigh, there was a need for any platform which connected all of the elements relevant to the reinsurance deal – risk, capacity, and people – to have a global remit and to be independent of any single party to the deal.
“Once Ben and I got up and running and started getting some early momentum, a chance meeting with Dr Paul Bassan helped us to recognise a third glaring omission from the vision – and that was digitising the underlying submission data,” he says.
“When you talk about electronic placements, the efforts have always been around ‘Here are the limits, here are the attachments, and here is the premium and reinstatements’, and it’s sort of like ‘Huzzah – we’ll have efficiency gains now.’
“But when Paul shared his own experiences as a reinsurance actuary, and pointed out this glaring issue between brokers and cedents around preparing the data that they take to the market – and how that gets presented to the reinsurers – we brought him on as our Chief Actuarial Officer to help us develop his prototype into Supercede Analytics, to tackle that.”
Leigh says it was at this point that the Riskbook founders realised that they were aiming for a different value proposition.
“This isn’t just electronic placement; this is digitising the entirety of the reinsurance transaction – from the underlying data all the way through, including the placement – and then connecting it via the network and via the placement platform to parties around the world.
“That was the evolution for us and the transformation and transition from Riskbook into Supercede as a brand.”
A significant amount of discussion in the broker space in recent years has focused on the spectre of disintermediation and has no doubt driven efforts by companies in the sector to pursue either in-house, partnered or external solutions to e-placement in order to not be left behind.
However, in Leigh’s view, the role of Supercede within the InsurTech space involves recognising how all of the various parties to a reinsurance transaction interact – “not trying to aggressively displace any one party, but rather to build this framework that elevates all parties equally”.
As he explains: “Very few people [in InsurTech] come from a broking background or have relationships with the broking community, and you see that in the early approach they take. It’s very dismissive of the role the broker plays – they think we should just pull them out of the value chain.”
However, he argues, the broker-client relationship is not only a deep one, but it is predicated on gaining a better understanding of the clients’ risks and using all the modelling tools at brokers’ disposal to quantify them.
“The idea that you would just pull [the broker] out and the client would take a deal direct shows a misunderstanding and a lack of recognition of how the industry actually operates,” he says.
“So, for us, it was always about the inefficiencies and frustrations in that broking process. There is a lot of work that brokers do that is really low value and takes away time from the really high value work that they do.
“What we want to do is build technology that allows brokers to spend much more of their time consulting, advising and structuring deals with their clients, with the placement piece then being much more efficient – building stronger broker-client relationships as a result.”
Of course, no successful start-up business, even a non-traditional company like a tech firm can exist for long without needing to bring on extra staff – both to handle the workload and to introduce additional skill sets and experience.
At Supercede that has meant a firm of two people has expanded to 18 in as many months, with the expectation that headcount will double over the next 12 months.
For Leigh, this has meant the pace at which his leadership style has had to evolve and adapt has accelerated.
“When I step back and think about my style and how I want to frame it, I try to be just incredibly authentic – because authenticity scales,” he says.
“If you try to say ‘This is the [leadership] model that I have’, that model will strain or break as this excessive growth happens. But authenticity remains, because it’s at the core of building trust.”
What sometimes gets lost in a corporate environment, but is perhaps more apparent in a start-up, is the need to recognise the essential humanity of individual employees.
“We run incredibly hard, but we will need to also manage our mental health. We’re very aware of burning people out because we are doing so much, so quickly,” says Leigh.
He stresses the need for a leader to not only have empathy, but also a fundamental respect for the people working for them.
“I don’t know where this came from, but I have always, from a very early age, believed that [having] people working for you is a privilege,” he says.
“You see these historical movie tropes where it is said in a kind of disparaging way – ‘Oh, you’ll work for me one day’ – and even as a child I remember seeing those kind of scenes and thinking it’s an incredible honour to have someone who wants to spend their working life doing something for part of your bigger vision.”
Part of that respect for your employees, he says, is giving them an environment they can thrive in and which encourages them to accompany you on the journey that your business is taking.
“Especially in start-ups, we no longer live in a world where people spend their entire careers with one company. The people who we’re privileged enough to have join our team, at some point will do something else – so how can we make it so that they love the part of the journey where we were involved?”
If this seems overly touchy-feely or like one of those bland generalisations that business leaders make about having a more diverse, equitable, inclusive, respectful working environment, Leigh has some pretty clear ideas on why having more engaged employees benefits the business.
“It’s very easy to say ‘This is a billion-dollar idea’ but what actually happens is, [through] seeking diverse ranges of advice and being relatively ruthless with your early ideas, the process results in a much more robust idea,” he says.
“When we think about how we build those things into a business, we do a lot of things to cultivate those additional ideas and we believe strongly that a lot of that innovation will come within the team.
Leigh places a lot of emphasis on personal development for the team – from educational allowances for things like language courses, to research days where, for example, the firm’s engineering team can work on side projects “and other things that they think could be transformative or impactful to what we do as a business”.
“Around the progression piece – if you want people to get the most out of their careers, and do the best work that they can, it’s about giving them a framework to excel and grow their career.”
Leigh argues that, as a consequence, what the business sees from its employees is “immense effort and quality of work.”
“We’d much rather spend the next couple of years giving them bigger pieces of work and more complex endeavours and challenges so that they are well-equipped to accelerate. And what we get in return is a huge amount of dedication, a huge amount of passion for what they’re working on.”
The alternative scenario at many companies, he suggests, is a sense of “Let’s not tell them they can move up, because then we’ll have to pay them more.”
“There was one company I was talking to a number of years back about ongoing training and education and they said, ‘But if we give additional training or continuing education to our team, they could leave and get a better job.’ That is the exact opposite way you should be thinking about how you train up and empower and build your team!”
On a personal basis, in common with many start-up founders, Leigh has had to make some profound re-assessments of both how he works and how he interacts with others.
“As an early-stage start-up you rarely have the luxury of data – you have a bunch of hypotheses and you’re doing a lot of discovery so we’re forced to make a lot of early decisions based on gut,” he says.
“By default, I’m a perfectionist – I’m always very nuanced about the little granular things that need to be perfect. So the biggest learning for me was ‘done is better than perfect’ – the need to make decisions quickly, because it gives us some additional data points, and then we can calibrate and adjust and refine as we go.”
“The knock-on benefit of that is that it is then easier to make any shifts in approach or strategy. If you wait until it’s the final, perfect, polished product, and then you’ve missed something along the way, unpacking and tearing that down so you can adjust it is really painful.”
While he says he is “constantly seeking advice and mentorship” from peers in the start-up and InsurTech sectors, Leigh says there are also standout pieces of advice that he has received along the way.
“From a business perspective, the one that most resonated with me early on was not being too precious of your idea. I think there are a lot of early stage founders who think ‘I have this great idea, but I’m terrified to tell anyone about it because the first thing they are going to do is steal my idea’,” he says.
“It was [through] talking to founders who had gone through the thinking process [that I] realised that the more you talk about the idea at early stages and the more you cultivate feedback and continue to refine and mould that idea, the stronger it becomes and the better-positioned it is to survive and thrive when it sees the light of day.”
As a typically ‘can do’ person, the Supercede founder is phlegmatic on the topic of both setbacks and achievements in his wider career and his role as small business owner. However, he lists running his first marathon as one “big personal success”.
“The reason I use that as an example is because the saying that ‘It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint’ is oftentimes interpreted as ‘It’s long, so just go slow.’ But in reality, for anyone who has done endurance sport, it’s more about managing the rollercoaster,” he says.
“Before the race, when you get to the starting line, you’re so, so excited – and there are all these peaks and troughs of how you are feeling and your emotions through the journey.
“But it’s all about persistence in knowing that 1) you can get there, but 2) managing how those things come and go. It’s not just about ‘a second wind’, or ‘hitting the wall’, but it’s going through and over all of those things, bit by bit by bit.”
The experience is analogous to running a start-up, he suggests. “You have these incredible highs at the start and end, and all these miniature highs and lows throughout the process, but you know that this is the journey you’ve signed up for.
“And I think why the story of the first marathon makes sense is because the first time you do it there is a huge amount of uncertainty. You’ve never gone past certain distances; you’ve never gone into this unknown world; and at the end you get this really proud moment and you’re really thrilled by it.”