Walter de Oude on the Insurtech opportunity and Singlife’s digital-first approach in making money work harder for customers.
In this Research NXT Interview, Walter de Oude, Founder of Singlife and Deputy Chairman of Aviva Singlife, discusses the market gaps that prompted him to start Singlife, which has since combined with Aviva Singapore, and his vision behind Singlife Grow, a mobile-first wealth management product. He also shares more on the edge Singlife had with its digital-first insurance tech platform throughout the pandemic and the top trends in Asia’s Insurtech industry.
Key takeaways from this Research NXT interview:
Here are some extracts from the insightful conversation we had with Walter.
Thanks, Walter, for joining us today for this conversation. I would like to start with your background and the journey in setting up Singlife and your aspirations with the business. Give us an overview of that.
Walter: I am an actuary by profession, originally from South Africa. I moved to Asia in 2000, with most of my years since then being living in Singapore. I also spent a couple of years living in Japan, about two and a half years in Mumbai, India, working for Swiss Re. Before Singlife, I was the Chief Executive of HSBC’s insurance businesses in Singapore.
Around 2014, I and several others decided that the world needs a better kind of life insurance company because insurance companies have just not kept pace with the technological evolution that we see in all the other industries. We saw a massive opportunity where insurance companies had been lagging, and hence, we took a bit of ownership of the technical evolution of financial services to position life insurance in that space. So we set out with an ambition to change the face of life insurance or financial services more broadly. Now we are unlocking the potential of money for everyone using a digital framework and a mobile-first capability.
We were also fortunate that many people believed in what we were trying to do. When others believe in your efforts, you can get great people to join your organization, those who feel that they want to be part of that journey. You also get great investors who want to put capital behind what you are trying to achieve. Ultimately, the business’ success is based on those two things — good supportive shareholders and capital, and fantastic people that can get together around that aspirational goal or dream, to collectively deliver something truly spectacular.
It took us three years to go from the idea to securing our license from the Monetary Authority of Singapore. In those three years, we had to raise capital and build the technical team, all before getting any revenue. However, once we launched in 2017, we grew astronomically, with this growth culminating in one of the biggest insurance deals in Southeast Asia — the acquisition of a 75% stake in Aviva Singapore and the merging of the similar capabilities of deep product knowledge, trusted advice, and one and a half million plus customers in the Aviva franchise. That’s been our journey so far.
You have launched Singlife Grow, positioned as an effortless digital Investment-Linked Policy (ILP). What is the vision behind it, and what are the key problems you are attempting to solve with Singlife Grow?
Walter: The original problem Singlife set out to tackle is that people needed digital access to life insurance. However, people don’t wake up in the morning and decide that today is the day they buy a life insurance policy. So, we had to expand the problem statement as we grew to incorporate a much bigger and more purposeful objective for us to pursue.
Where we landed was that people were looking for a better way to have returns on their money. We noticed in Singapore that around S$600 billion in savings is left sitting in bank accounts, earning no interest. We thought there must be a better solution to make our customers’ money work harder.
In 2020, we introduced the Singlife Account, an mobile insurance savings product that gives users better returns in terms of crediting rates, but with 100% liquidity. Customers have the option of withdrawals using a Visa debit card and FAST transfers without the lock-ins that insurance savings plans typically require.
This proved incredibly successful, and we were growing at an average of 400 to 500 new customers and assets under management (AUM) between S$5m to S$6m a day. The Singlife Account is designed to put power back into individuals’ hands and make their money work harder for them.
Since we had customers engaged on the liquidity front, the next phase was to offer them a solution for long-term savings and grow our relationship with them.
In a typical lifetime, most people are faced with a wide range of investment choices for long-term savings, and multiple companies, firms, advisors, and product offers are bombarding people all the time. This leads to a choice paralysis for customers and in that confusion they end up not doing anything with their money. Hence, what we decided to do with the Grow product was to give them the opportunity to place some money in a long term savings vehicle, with some exposure to the markets. This way, their money will have a longer-term return, with no penalty on the way in or way out of the portfolio.
What was crucial to this is the ease of experience. Customers can move their money in and out of Grow easily as they see fit. They can have all the portfolio dashboards accessible on their mobile phone to monitor daily performance. With the trust earned from customers on the Singlife Account, we could now make their money work even harder at the level of risk that suits the profile of each customer — conservative, balanced, dynamic. That’s the simple story behind Singlife Grow.
Grow is designed as a wealth management product, a longer-term solution for people on-the-go, or those who want to do something with their money rather than just put it away in the bank. Through Grow we were able to capture all this cash flow of people looking for just short-term cash returns with the Singlife Account, and then encourage them to have longer-term savings with Grow. As we evolve, we’ll grow our relationship with the customers to offer them better reasons not to leave their money sitting in a bank savings account.
What changes did you observe when the pandemic emerged? How did the digital-first insurance tech platform help you address the challenges a typical conventional insurance company faces? Also, what were the challenges you observed in the industry as such?
Walter: The insurance industry shared a universal challenge in that wherever there was a need for a face-to-face advice or interaction with customers, it had to take place with more difficulty. People were not willing to speak with too many others, and did not go out as much as they used to.
However, we were fortunate in that everything about our service was digital and mobile-first. We found that people had more time to pause and sort out their finances. We also found that people were more responsive to interacting with financial services in a digital way.
Because of this, the Singlife Account’s business model did incredibly well during the pandemic. We weren’t reliant on face-to-face interactions with customers and people saw value in the products and services we were offering. When people see that a product is good, you don’t have to do much marketing because its value speaks for itself. People then also advocate for it to others positively. That’s when a business does fantastically well. We were a net recipient of business during the lockdowns and throughout this pandemic, but we see this behaviour and response continuing beyond this new normal as well.
What are your thoughts on the state of the Insurtech market in Asia? What would be the top three trends that you foresee in the future of this industry?
Walter: Technology changes all the time and trends can change in as brief a time as a quarter of a year, right? As a business, we need to be at the forefront of this change for our customers, and identify what they need over time, then bring a solution to the table.
What has been resonating is how we unlock the potential of money. That is what we’ve been focusing on and has up until this point, determined our direction. If we look more holistically at the Fintech community, trends have evolved in a particular way. Four or five years ago, fintech revolved around payments and payments technology. Then came the digital banks or neo-banks which presented alternative ways to better customer experience around delayed cash payments and liquidity. Now, we think the evolution is in training people on the longer-term financial futures that are technologically enabled, which benefits them in the long term. That is where Singlife is positioning itself.
These trends will continue to evolve and expand. People will look for more ways to manage and grow their finances, whether that is through pure savings, short-term savings, or longer-term savings, like Singlife Grow, or life insurance when you need to pass on your legacy to your family. That all becomes part of an ecosystem. The evolution happens when you bring all of these things together in the slickest, neatest, and most engaging experience for the customer. If you can do that, well, you will win.
As a follow up to the same question, what kind of innovations have you observed in this space in recent times, and how is Singlife positioned to adapt to these innovations? What do you see ahead going forward in your business strategy in 2021?
Walter: We see customers looking for better ways to manage their wealth, finances, and reputation over time. We see people moving away from long-term policies to short-term policies to give customers more options. People are afraid of the idea of locking their money away for many years, and do not want to park their money in those types of policies. So the best that a fintech can do now is to allow customers to move their money somewhere else without penalty. This trend will permeate more throughout the industry.
Companies that can deliver on an excellent promise of giving the customers the liberty of moving money in and out of products will engage better with clients, The trick is to focus on what customers want. While Singlife has been focusing on its traditional direct customers and managing growth, the other pieces of our business look at ways to help customers a bit more holistically. For example, in providing advisory capabilities on the back of these engagement tools to ensure that customers have access to quality advice as they build up their portfolios for the longer-term.
We will need to engage with customers, understand what they truly need, and then provide products, services, advice, and other offerings to improve their financial futures. If you focus on that outcome, then good things will come.
From a technology standpoint, how do you see businesses adopting AI and ML, considering the changing times and deeper customer focus? Do you see a strong place for AI and ML in your space and overall business strategy?
Walter: AI is dependent on data and data is dependent on customer interaction. The more you interact with your customers, the more quality data you will get that will let you figure out what kinds of things are good for customers, based on what they perceive. The reality is, to effectively use AI, you will need huge amounts of data.
I do not see AI giving us a future where machines will understand every part of a human’s needs. Even if AI works with the data and reveals customer needs, we will require sound and quality advisory-based products and services to fulfill those needs. Rather than just trying to solve everything, using artificial intelligence algorithmically is a distant reality. But as the data becomes rich, we can mine the data better and get better insights from the data. Then from there, provide this insight to our advisors to help them advise their customers in a better way.