Upstart Wysh Looks to Break Into the World of Life Insurance with a Focus on Flexibility and Usefulness
Founder Alex Matjanec hopes customers embrace the idea of life insurance tied to a changing set of obligations and life events rather than a set dollar amount.
- Terrence Dopp
- December 2021
- Company: Operating as Wyshbox, the independent subsidiary of Northwestern Mutual sells term life targeted to an audience that is younger and less tradition-minded than historical life insurance consumers.
- Flexibility: The new player allows its customers to more easily modify policies and offers more opportunity to do that without starting a new policy or incurring additional fees.
- Digital Age: Founder Alex Matjanec, who describes himself as a serial entrepreneur, envisions the insurer along the lines of financial trading apps such as Stash Invest, which integrate more into the lives of users.
Alex Matjanec, founder and head of Purpose & Vision at Wyshbox, is hoping a combination of flexibility and practical utility is what sets the newly launched life insurer apart from its more traditional peers.
As he sees it, the historical model works something like this: A customer buys a policy, then proceeds to make fixed monthly payments on a static contract for the full term of that policy. The agreement stays in force at that level.
But the approach taken by Matjanec's company, Wysh Life and Health Insurance Co., differs slightly: Customers compile a list of “wyshes”—think paying off a mortgage or replacing income—and the coverage is tailored to those costs. As items are added or subtracted throughout a person's life, wyshes can be added or taken away, adjusting the face value of that policy through a seamless process Matjanec hopes creates the vaunted “utility” aspect.
In that sense, he said he's hoping to make life insurance more like a credit card protection policy that gets adjusted as spending and debt limits move up and down. Customers of Wysh—the name was chosen for its hopeful tones and the spelling is a branding effort—will know they have the right level of coverage through the company's method of selling life insurance, Matjanec said.
“If I'm buying coverage for my mortgage and credit cards, the No. 1 thing people are covering when they're buying with us, and a month later I've paid off my mortgage—now I'm overinsured,” he said. “What am I doing with that coverage? Do I add new wyshes or do I easily lower my coverage and pay less?”
At 38, Matjanec describes himself as a serial entrepreneur.
He says he spent the past decade in the fintech world. His credits include being one of the founders of MyBankTracker.com, which he called the Expedia of banks. He also was a founder of AD:60, a mobile app and development firm that counted Stash Invest, which allows users to buy and sell fractional shares, and other products including a music service sold to Google and ACE Portal among the projects it worked on. Wysh, which grew from 27 to 55 employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, began selling policies in 10 U.S. states on Sept. 8. The company is an independently run subsidiary of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. Despite its status as a subsidiary, Matjanec said the two companies won't share employees and the prime interplay between them is a Northwestern presence on the Wysh board.
Matjanec said he identified that structure immediately as a way to break into the capital-intensive life insurance industry without the need to seek out constant rounds of funding.
Your life is changing, so you should only pay for what you need. That’s why we made it easy to adjust your coverage up or down. Nothing’s fixed in my life. Why should this product be that way?
Wysh Life and Health Insurance Co.
Another way in which the company differs from its more established peers is its use of “wysh granters.”
They function almost as “death concierges” that can help guide a beneficiary through the often complex maze of settling estates. That mortgage that was one of a policyholder's “wyshes?” The granter can help the beneficiary go about paying it off as well as any other items that need to be paid. Or of course a beneficiary can just take the lump sum.
While such a tailored service might prove impractical or costly in the higher frequency property/casualty market, he said it is much more realistic in life insurance and will be handled by the Wyshbox customer service team.
“We already have a high-touch service support team where you can get us on chat, get us on the phone or get us on email,” Matjanec said. “The team that is supporting this initiative was already there and the frequency of claims even over our five- and 10-year projections didn't cause any issues. If it does become a problem, that means we're being very successful.”
Either way, he said the flexibility and utility are front and center in both the ability to modify coverage and granters.
“What we really tried to focus on was how we make this utility and came across needs-based life insurance,” he said. “It's a concept that's been around forever. It's how agents today sell life insurance. But no one focused on digitizing it, and when we thought about building our brand that was where Wyshbox came to life.”
AM Best issued its inaugural rating of Wysh Life and Health Insurance Co. in July with a Financial Strength Rating of A- (Excellent), citing its “balance sheet strength, which AM Best assesses as very strong, as well as its adequate operating performance, limited business profile and appropriate enterprise risk management.”
The rating determination also reflected the company's plan to make a capital investment to keep an appropriate level of risk-adjusted capital.
“The company plans to grow through a direct-to-consumer business model for its term life business, without the need for broker or agent interactions as part of the closing process,” the ratings report said. “The business model is to focus on originating term life products to a marketplace that does not have the need or desire to purchase insurance through traditional channels.”
About 102 million people in the U.S. have a so-called protection gap, according to industry tracker LIMRA. That gap can range from the 73 million who need more insurance to the 29 million who lack it completely. The group, and life insurers as a whole, have made closing this gap both a societal function and a business model.
LIMRA also has found an increase in direct-to-consumer, digital sales of life insurance in the past year. The group has cited technological issues exposed by COVID-19, which it said include legacy systems, “siloed” operations and the need to modernize.
While facts like these can seem daunting, they also motivate people like Matjanec.
His company plans to target younger, middle-market consumers with policies that can balloon and contract as life and financial needs change. The initial target is people ages 18 to 45, and because the focus is on getting through to retirement, coverage can only go up to age 65 with terms that run from two to 45 years.
Another new facet will be the “Keep Rates Young” program, which he said will allow people to retain the rate they signed up at provided there are no emerging health threats. If a customer needs to increase their policy by $100,000 a decade after signing up, they can do so without being underwritten at a higher rate provided no mitigating health issues have cropped up.
“Your life is changing, so you should only pay for what you need. That's why we made it easy to adjust your coverage up or down,” he said. “Nothing's fixed in my life. Why should this product be that way?”
Wyshbox isn't alone in trying to crack into the life insurance market.
In the past year, Dayforward and Texas-based Bestow entered the space, betting that new companies with a technology-based approach to offering life insurance would prosper. All three may take different approaches and vary in nuance, but the common factor is a belief that the market has room for a company that is more responsive to changing economic patterns and is more closely integrated into the lives of its customer base.
Learning to keep the floor from falling out and how to operate amid the COVID-19 pandemic marked 2020 for the life insurance industry. This year has been about how to thrive and how to retain the momentum as the world starts to emerge from the darkest days of lockdowns and shuttered businesses.
And technology, from direct digital sales to new underwriting tools, has been a constant in both of those scenarios.
Prudential Financial Inc. increased its use of digital tools such as fluidless underwriting and expanded products such as its SimplyTerm life offering. MetLife Inc. hastened a pilot program with accelerated underwriting and migrated the application process for one of its life products in China onto social media platforms in two weeks as it doubled down on technology as the business model.
The typical model is for technology-focused startups to enter the insurance industry in lines like health and property/casualty rather than life and annuity because those policies typically reset every year so they can be more forgiving.
The rise of insurtechs in all markets can be seen in managing general agency and property/casualty carrier Hippo Enterprises, which recently acquired Spinnaker Insurance Co. to become both a standard MGA and a risk-assuming carrier. Think of Root Inc. or Lemonade Inc., two insurtechs with successful public offerings in other parts of the insurance world. In Root's case, the auto-focused carrier in December 2020 said it had more than $1.2 billion in new capital after completing an IPO and concurrent private placement in October 2020. Just last month, Lemonade agreed to acquire Metromile Inc. in a stock deal valued at $500 million.
Matjanec said Wysh currently is looking into expanding its offerings, but to date the heavy capitalization required for annuities has made that a heavy lift. The guiding principle of any business decision will be whether new tools and products create a connection with customers.
When first sizing up life insurance for its potential to accept new entrants, Matjanec said he noticed the industry—and insurance more broadly—was solely “transactional.” In response, he said the company will strive to become ingrained in peoples' lives on a deeper level to avoid the negative reactions that have spurred some to shy away from purchasing coverage.
“There's always a tangible piece to it,” he said.