Most insurance agents and marketers I know did not start in that career. But for me, it was my childhood dream.
Kids in my kindergarten class laughed when I said I wanted to be an insurance agent when I grew up. But I knew being an insurance agent was the key to the candy store — a candy warehouse, in fact.
That was one of the things I learned from my dad, who was an insurance agent just like his father. I loved tagging along with my dad as he visited clients. I would watch him as he drew out their concerns and then offered solutions. How many other kids got to see their father help solve the most difficult problems families and businesses face?
But sometimes tagging along meant I had to wait outside in the car with nothing to do but listen to the radio. (How many parents would dare do that today?) One time after what seemed like forever, my dad stepped out of the huge building he was visiting and waved me inside.
Once in, his client led us into what turned out to be a warehouse of candy. He turned and invited me to pick out whatever I wanted. Other kids might have seen the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but I got to live it.
And I have a confession to make: I feel like I have never left.
When The Web Was Young
Don’t get me wrong. Life and business haven’t all been candy canes and lollipops. I have lost my company and gained it back two times. And I have weathered all the economic storms everyone else has in the past couple of decades.
Twenty years ago, I logged on to my computer in my bedroom and started a website: InsuranceNewsNet.com. I saw that insurance companies and agents were fumbling around online, and I thought I could come up with something better.
It was 1999, when the World Wide Web was still just a place for fun that the business world did not take seriously. Insurance online? Nobody thought that was going to happen.
I was working for my dad at the time at his insurance agency. I had built a website by designing a structure and filling it with items such as press releases and contributed material to create a place just for insurance.
It was an opportunity for our agency to advertise. So I designed those ads, which brought us business and attention.
I went on my own soon after. I won’t lie — it was a rough start. All I had was this little website — and a wife wondering how I was going to provide for her and the kids we were planning to have.
As I said, it was not all sweetness and light along the way.
I built up the website and its ads, but I also learned a lot about another new world, email marketing.
Insurance executives and marketers thought my ambition was ridiculous — just like the kids in my kindergarten class. But, once again, I had the candy warehouse to myself.
Well-established, esteemed insurance news organizations paid scant attention to delivering information digitally. The serious, staid people of the insurance industry saw the internet as a dark alley where no responsible corporate citizen would do business.
That is how disruptors become successful. While the powerful ignore them, usurpers grow stronger and smarter. It takes a while for those established and comfortable folks to look down and realize somebody has taken their lunch — and candy.
It Was The Worst Time …
Because I believed in the possibilities of the internet, I went where the action and opportunities were. Insurance execs said online business was just a glorified brochure. The only adequate answer I had was just to show them how it could be done.
But it was a long road to get to that point. First, I had learned the power of advertising because we were attracting new agents to our brokerage through ads we ran in an insurance magazine at my urging.
I was already immersed in content. Besides doing our ad copy, I also wrote the agency’s monthly newsletter — an actual, pre-email newsletter that I laboriously assembled, stuffed and mailed.
Around that time, I would visit news sites such as MSN (my favorite at the time!) which I wished had a version for insurance. So, I dreamt it, drew it and had a web developer make it.
Sounds easy, right? Don’t tell that to the guy sitting in his car on the side of a highway, having just dodged disaster. The danger was not from traffic, but from the recession of early 2000s. I had just gotten InsuranceNewsNet.com established when the dot.com boom went bust.
It was the worst time to have started a dot.com.
I was within weeks of having to close my business when I got a call as I was driving on a highway. It was from a rare insurance marketer who saw the promise of the internet — and wanted to invest in my company.
After the call, I had to pull over and just sit. I hadn’t realized how tense I was until I unclenched the steering wheel.
That call saved my company, but it was difficult to be a nimble start-up with partners. I ended up selling and buying back the company twice.
InsuranceNewsNet grew while legacy insurance news companies eased onto the internet, far too late to make up for their print losses.
Then, in 2008, I started thinking about a bigger step — a print magazine. Reactions were as expected. Why would somebody start a magazine as others are folding?
Well, why not? I had a hard time reading trade journals when I was starting out because, frankly, they were boring and uninteresting.
Those magazines were written and designed like academic journals. Sure, they taught me the mechanics of insurance, but what about the soul of selling? We clearly needed a magazine featuring that. We launched in early 2008, just in time for the most devastating recession since World War II.
It was the worst time to have started a magazine.
The Start-Up That Doesn’t Stop
Obviously, it worked out well. Legacy publications and news organizations (that used to laugh at me) have since folded or were absorbed into something else. Meanwhile, this magazine and business boomed.
Two decades after starting a website everybody thought was a waste of time, new challenges emerge. Back then, email marketing was the new thing. Now, who reads email? Of course, people still do, but not the same way they always have.
No business can be complacent for a moment. And, really, who would want to be?
We are discovering new opportunities coming from many directions, such as data and content marketing. These are not just the latest things, but the newest tools. The exciting part is inventing ways they work together.
New ways of reaching people are constantly arising. But what do you do when you reach your audience? Do you just say what everybody else has already said — dozens of times that day?
Besides exploring new methods in marketing, we are also looking at new venues for news — and in a new space. As the insurance industry grows into the greater financial world, so are we. We have started the title AdvisorNews, which is venturing into the vast financial space. But we are also bringing along InsuranceNewsNet. Insurance will always be relevant, no matter how much politicians and pundits try to demean the industry.
Once again, we are a smaller fish in a big pond — and loving it.
Although it is true that I did not get the career I had dreamed of, I’ve had far more adventure than I possibly could have hoped for since starting InsuranceNewsNet 20 years ago.
Buckle up — we’re blasting to 2039.