If you’re still on the fence over the prospects for insurance sales on the Internet, consider the short, happy life of YouZoom.com.

This young Web purveyor of personal lines insurance zoomed out of the fertile minds of a few moving-and-shaking brainstormers in 1997 at the San Diego-based Arrowhead General Insurance Agency, the Web site’s bricks-and-mortar parent.

What evolved is something apparently still unique in the world of e-insurance: a site that drives consumers toward, not away from, forward-looking independent agents–in this case toward a network of Arrowhead’s Web-enabled agent customers who offer advice and counsel, along with company and product choices.

One of those brainstormers is now YouZoom Inc.’s president, who is also president of Arrowhead’s Underwriting Management Division. He’s Kieran Sweeney, a 34-year-old, banjo-strumming, rugby-playing biochemistry major out of the University of Galway who “fell into” insurance with Willis Faber in London 14 years ago and who speaks to you in an accent that seems to owe more to his British sojourn than to his Irish roots.

As Mr. Sweeney tells it, the YouZoom idea sprung from the shared conviction that the next big thing was about to happen in the way consumers buy personal lines of insurance.

He was at Lloyd’s in 1987 when the direct response wave hit Britain and caused a major shift in buying habits there. The next transitional wave, he and his Arrowhead colleagues agreed, would occur in three to five years (remember, this was 1997) and its instrument would be the Internet.

Over the next 18 to 20 months they developed the required technologies in-house and by December of 1999 they were ready to launch in California. Within days, they sold their first auto insurance policy without human intervention.

Today, YouZoom electronically sells personal auto (non-standard through preferred), homeowners, renters and condo, and term-life insurance in six states: Arizona, California, Georgia, Oregon, Texas and Washington. It makes money on every policy sold, it plans sure but steady expansion in product lines and venues, and it expects to be profitable overall in a year.

“I’m not so sure we truly realized we were building something so fundamentally different from what the rest of the industry was building,” says Mr. Sweeney. (In 1999, the “rest of the industry” was about five other companies that could bind a policy, but only their own policy, on the Internet.)

The model for this new-economy venture was the traditional Arrowhead operation itself, which has been an aggregator for multiple products and multiple companies for 16 years.

“All our rating engines and all our rules engines and back-end technologies had always been built to handle multiple carriers and seamless transactions on the front end,” he says.

This grounding in the traditional is also a constant reminder of lifelong career lessons about what’s fundamentally sound in selling insurance–like adequate pricing, no adverse price selection, settling claims properly, and maintaining profitable loss ratios.

It also dictates a prudent, conservative investment strategy uncommon to the world of e-commerce. “We didn’t rush out and say we’d be in 50 states in six months,” he says.

It dictates as well cautious forecasting. “If we get to the point where we are consistently, on a 30-day moving average basis, selling 50 policies a day on the Internet, which doesn’t sound like a lot, we’d be tremendously profitable,” he says. In fact, just the day before our interview, YouZoom sold 47 policies.

“We’ll be profitable by this time next year,” says Mr. Sweeney. “Meantime we’re not going to spend dollars like there’s an IPO waiting.”

This, then, was the model and the mindset they migrated to the Web and, that done, “we looked around and we were standing alone,” says Mr. Sweeney. “There was nobody out there, and even to this day there’s still nobody out there that we can identify, that can multiple-rate and bind via the Internet.”

What is the ultimate goal? “In a nutshell,” he says, “we want to drive more transactions on the Internet than anyone else and drive them to multiple carriers and multiple states for multiple lines of insurance.”

The idea is to be as ubiquitous as possible. “We want you to turn around and bump into us wherever you decide to access the Internet with a browser and seek out insurance,” he says.

Yes, buying insurance is the heart of the matter, isn’t it? So why is that key word so conspicuously absent from the site’s name? Why “YouZoom”?

“We didn’t want to limit ourselves,” Mr. Sweeney says, “and at the same time we didn’t want to become generic and disappear into a mass of millions of ‘insuresomething.coms.’ And we wanted something easily remembered, seven letters long.”

They didn’t want to disappear into the mass of personalized sites like MyYahoo and MyHomesite either, so they went with the more customer-centric “You.” And then, too, they wanted something that signified speed, that was easy to remember, and that fit their strategy.

Putting all that together, it came out YouZoom.

The future? Here he does throw caution to the winds. “One year into it,” he says “consumers are using the technology and buying insurance on the Internet and the numbers are increasing every day.”

Meanwhile, a larger and larger piece of the insurance business is moving onto the Internet. “Even if it’s only 10 percent, that’s a giant number,” he says.

“A giant number!”

And Kieran Sweeney is zooming toward it.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Property & Casualty/Risk & Benefits Management Edition, May 28, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.

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