“Why I’m excited about InsurTech!” Ant Barker from Aviva Ventures

Technology is changing the centuries-old insurance industry. Capturing the imagination of businesses, big and small, who are adopting technology to do things differently. With Ant Barker, from Aviva Ventures, we explore what InsurTech means for the insurance industry and people across the UK.

Cocoon is a small business making big changes. They’re offering innovative ways for insurance companies to look after their customers through their smart home technology. Cocoon is already working with the likes of Policy Castle, a digital insurance broker, and Aviva, the UK’s biggest home insurer.

Aviva Ventures, the venture capital arm of the UK’s leading insurer, made their first investment in Cocoon shortly after launching. They are investing in a range of digital and new technology businesses, and working with entrepreneurs to change insurance for the better.

Ant Barker is part of the Aviva Ventures family. He tells us a little about what they do, and why he’s excited about InsurTech.

What’s special about Aviva Ventures?

Aviva Ventures was set up to deliver a long-term financial return alongside strategic benefits. We are focused on making investments in early-stage, high growth potential businesses. With the aim of bringing new opportunities, ideas and insight into Aviva. My role really focusses on deal execution, portfolio management, and ensuring that the insight and opportunities from investments are capitalised on in the Aviva business units.

What needs to change in the insurance industry?

Given the size and relevance of the insurance industry, it still has a relatively low degree of digitalisation. A lot of the start-ups we have seen in InsurTech to date are focusing on distribution. I think where we will see real impact going forward is in the propositions. For example, home insurance premiums aligned with smart home prevention, and moving from being simply insured to protected.

The other key area is in operations and the ability for technology to transform processes for claims, customer service, and underwriting.

What’s most exciting in InsurTech right now?

There are a number of things on the horizon. The move to open finance, and tech giants like Google and Amazon, entering the market. In addition to data and AI chatbots which improve the ability to respond to customers quickly, and the potential for machine learning to increase automated processes and customer interactions. These are all great opportunities for insurers.

I think the use of AI & data in streamlining the customer journeys will be a game changer in insurance. It’s certainly an area Aviva is focussed on. We are looking at advanced analytics, deep data and customer value to make smarter decisions whilst asking fewer questions (or none!).

IoT and the connected home is also an exciting area which has huge potential, but it is not yet mass-market.

How do you think smart home technology is impacting insurance?

The connected world will change the way we do business. Whether it is your car, home, business or health – Internet of Things technology will fundamentally impact the way we look at risk.

For example, the move to real-time data and a greater ability to prevent claims rather than simply paying out to fix things after the event. These things will all work to change the traditional insurance business model.

How is Aviva working with new technology businesses to innovate?

Clearly, we are in a period of significant technological change and our customers’ wants and needs are changing in this increasingly digital world. With this in mind, our approach to innovation has to place ourselves in the heart of the start-up ecosystem. That’s why we have the Digital Garage located here in Hoxton. From here we have a number of options from co-creating and piloting with start-ups, to buying in services from them or making investments in them.

What appeals to you about changing an industry that’s 300+ years old?

I had been working in a couple of start-ups (including a building technology company and a wine company!). The roles I had were always in finance, and eventually, I took a job with Aviva down in Norwich.

Life is very uncertain and has a way of throwing surprises at you when you least expect it. The core of any insurance plan is to offer you with protection. Aviva’s purpose has developed beyond this to really helping people to defy uncertainty. That’s something that resonates with me and why I am still here today.

Why is it important that the big insurers work with small companies like Cocoon?

As part of the Aviva Ventures team we are here to do two things – accelerate our strategy and challenge thinking within Aviva. Working with small companies, like Cocoon, enables us to get much closer to emerging customer trends, technology trends, and to be on the ground as things are happening.

As a large corporate we have found that it is very difficult to innovate on our own. We believe that real innovation starts with being able to collaborate, to co-create, and to partner beyond our own internal environment.

To find out more, visit digital.aviva.com

6 books every startup founder needs to read

Reading the right business books can be a gamechanger. They can help you improve and succeed but, with new books published every day, how do you choose the best? Most of us are short of time so reading is a commitment. Two of Cocoon’s co-founders, Sanjay (CEO) and Colin (Head of Marketing), share their pick of the best business books out there.

Sanjay and Colin have both found reading is essential for business success, but have always taken the books as guidance rather than gospel. Every company and team is different, so be sure to apply critical thinking rather than taking everything at face value.

Top 6 business books

  1. Lean Startup by Eric Ries
    Sanjay and Colin agree this should be the first book you read (if you haven’t already!). Eric Reiss’ writing is a good foundation for anyone starting out, it’s often considered the bible of the modern entrepreneur. This video shows Eric Ries discussing the book and its principles with a room full of entrepreneurs.
  2. Growing Business by Paul Hawken
    “This is the best book on entrepreneurship I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of business books!” says Sanjay. “It’s packed with timeless wisdom. Growing Business came out of the author starting a mail order garden tool business in Palo Alto. Despite being written before the internet, you’ll find it to be uncannily relevant to modern business.”
  3. The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

    Colin’s recommendation to give you a “good dose of realism”. He suggests that it will be more valuable and easier to absorb “once you hit your first wall”.
  4. Zero To One by Peter Thiel

    “This is a masterpiece,” says Sanjay, “especially if you want VC backing, the book is peppered with gems. If your goal is to build a monopoly, the largest market you can own, this book sets you up to do just that.”
  5. Positioning by Al Riess
    While this is a good read on marketing basics for everyone, it’s also an incredibly valuable read for experienced marketers. “Every business person needs to know how to position their personal and professional brand, this book helps you do just that,” says Colin.
  6. Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff

    “The only book you need to read on sales and pitching,” agree both Colin and Sanjay. “You can forget the hype and gimmicks so many other books focus on, this is real. With concise explanations, principles and practices to help you close deals.

An MBA without the price tag

There are thousands of books out there that can give you advice on life and business, and Sanjay and Colin have read quite a few of them! These are their top picks, but there was one more that they both mentioned: The Personal MBA  by Josh Kaufman.

Kaufman’s book aims to give you the same level of knowledge that a Masters degree in business would. Packed with practical information, and further reading, it helps demystify business concepts. An affordable alternative to investing time and money into getting a business degree.

Why it’s important to read

According to Brian D. Evans, in an article for Inc, “most CEOs and executives read 4-5 books per month. These are the leaders, the gamechangers, the ones that end up shaking the ground, rebuilding industries, providing jobs, and inventing some of our most beloved everyday products. If they’re reading that much, then clearly there is still some value in picking up a book.”

Sanjay and Colin agree. In today’s such a fast-changing digital world it’s vital you are as informed as you can be. With a little critical thinking, you can learn to improve yourself and your business through other peoples’ stories.

If you’ve got books you’d recommend, let us know on twitter.

Boost your online security with two-factor authentication

Passwords are just one part of your security; alone they are not enough to keep your online accounts safe. Using multi-factor authentication adds extra steps to your login process. Every extra step is another layer of security and chance to confirm your identity. Helping ensure that you are who you say you are and reducing the risk of someone else gaining access to your account.

Nick Gregory, our Head of Hardware and a data security expert, recommends the “online security trinity” for the best security currently possible.

This is a combination of something you…

  1. know (a token, password or passphrase)
  2. have (a key fob, bracelet or mobile phone)
  3. are (your fingerprint, iris, or voice)

Using all three is called multi-factor authentication. While ideal, it isn’t always easy to do. With passwords still dominant and mobile phones something we all have, the compromise we tend to make is on biometrics. Ditching “something you are” to have just two-factor authentication is a far more realistic way of securing your accounts.

Two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication (2FA) adds an extra layer of security. Making sure that someone trying to gain access to an online account is who they say they are. Eliminating the problem that humans are predictable when choosing passwords and have bad memories so tend to write things down. 2FA strengthens your identity without relying on your memory or the name of your first pet.

Usually combining your password or passphrase with a time-sensitive code generated by something you have (eg. an app on your phone), two-factor authentication is recommended for all your accounts. “Not all online services offer it, but where possible it is something you should do,” says Nick.

Google Authenticator is the most common way of setting up 2FA, but Nick recommends these two alternatives:

  • Authy
    Authy works on any platform that offers use of Google Authenticator. Simply follow the same process as you would for Google, scanning the QR code to get started. Authy’s a safer bet than Google because it works on multiple devices and offers encrypted cloud backups. This is vital if your phone is lost or stolen.
  • YubiKey
    A tiny gadget that’s sturdy and small enough to live on your keyring, the YubiKey is a physical version of Authy. Costing just £17.50 on Amazon, it’s a simple way to add two-factor authentication to your accounts. To log in, enter the username and password for your account, then slot your YubiKey into the USB port on your computer and touch the button. For something mobile compatible you can get slightly pricier YubiKeys with built-in NFC or that fit into your phone’s charging port.

If given a choice during setup, Nick suggests you select to run your two-factor authentication using TOTP (that’s “Time-based One-time Passwords” to you and me) rather than SMS. It’s simply more secure.

Having a backup

If you use one of these services it’s important you keep your backup codes somewhere safe, just in case you get locked out.

A great place to do this is in your password manager, something we recommend as a simple way to manage all your passwords. For example, LastPass has a Secure Notes section just for this sort of thing.

Password managers and two-factor authentication services require you to put a high level of trust in them. But to enjoy the benefit of keeping your online data safe and secure, you have to trust someone!

Most password managers generate secure passwords for you but you’ll inevitably end up having to create a few yourself – to log in to the password manager, for example. If you’d like some advice on creating secure and memorable passwords, read our blog “How secure are your passwords?”.

Coping with ADHD for 27 years before diagnosis

Innes is a brilliant part of the Cocoon team, a mathematician and software engineer, he’s also a doting dad and husband. A the age of 27 he discovered he had ADHD, a neurological disorder where the frontal cortex of the brain is wired a little differently. It’s common worldwide, with estimates of 5% of children having the condition.

He hopes that sharing his story can help those also living with ADHD, which Innes has found to be, in some ways, a blessing in disguise.

Misdiagnosed with stress, anxiety and autism

I only found out that I had ADHD two years ago, in my late twenties. I was a teacher, I’d just become a dad and was very stressed. Everyone is envious of teachers’ long holidays but for me, they were essential. It was when I had time to be a human again, catch up on work and maybe spend some time with family too.

As my stress levels and anxiety increased I was lucky to have supportive friends and family – but there was a recurring comment; “this seems like more than work stress”. Eventually, I visited my GP to discuss it. He wasn’t great, declaring:

“You’re like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, clearly Autistic”

I was a teacher at a school with a unit that helped kids with Autism and had lots of experience with the condition. Knowing a key aspect of Autism was trouble communicating and struggling in social interactions made me doubt this. I was a teacher, communicating and engaging with people was something I knew I was good at. With only one option from my GP as to what was “wrong” with me, I felt I had no choice but to explore it. Under his recommendation, I visited a mental health specialist.

How forums helped

I was diagnosed with Anxiety at first, but the specialist knew that this wasn’t quite right for all of my symptoms. We both tried to find an alternative explanation for my stress levels and eventually my wife Katie noticed something. As a new mum, she was regularly researching and talking to other mothers online. One day she read a post from a mother describing how their child talked about their thought process. She read it and thought “Wow! This is describing Innes!” The child in question had ADHD.

Katie spoke to her mum who was headmistress of a school with lots of experience in ADHD. She admitted that she had thought that I might have ADHD for a while. I started to look into it as well, doing self-diagnosis tests online. As I did these tests Katie would be laughing at me. Watching how easily distracted I was by every flashing advert, despite trying to focus on the tests. We concluded what the likely cause of all this anxiety was and it felt like a revelation.

Then began the formal diagnosis.

Being diagnosed with ADHD as an adult

We found a better GP who referred me to a specialist unit in York to be formally assessed. I sat a bunch of tests which, as a teacher, scared me. I was familiar with the simple comprehension and reasoning tests, they were often given to the kids in my class who were struggling with maths. Though they seemed simple, the time restrictions made them tough.

Tasks like “cross out only red triangles and blue circles from this page of coloured shapes: you have one minute” – it sounds simple but proved surprisingly difficult!

I was a maths teacher, so when the mental arithmetic section started the specialist joked that I could relax. It should have been easy but I struggled: I’m terrible at mental arithmetic, I always have been! I was in the habit of writing everything down, using hundreds of post-it notes even for the simplest calculations. The kids from the school I taught at used to tease me for it, but in hindsight, it was something I did to cope with the ADHD I didn’t know I had.

I now know that a key part of ADHD is a poor working memory, so I was replacing my working memory with paper.

It was an enormous relief when, after all these tests, I was formally diagnosed with ADHD.

The doctor was amazed that I’d managed to get a degree and then be an effective maths teacher. It felt simple to me, having never been diagnosed I had always found ways to achieve the best I could. This mainly meant writing everything down. While I was coping at university, and as a teacher with undiagnosed ADHD, the stress they induced in me was much more than for my peers. The silver lining is that this stress led to my diagnosis.

What ADHD means for me

The best way I have found to explain what having ADHD is like to other people is that it is more like Intention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It’s not so much that you can’t focus on things – people with ADHD often focus intensely on things – rather that you can’t direct you focus efficiently. I lose hours to interesting puzzles or Wikipedia spirals, hopping from one topic to the next. The part of my brain that regulates things like emotion and willpower is less developed than it should be, so the key difficulty is applying what I know to what is in front of me.

Interestingly, someone with ADHD actually has less activity in their brain than a neurotypical person, but the region of the brain that is less active is responsible for self-regulation. The sensation is one of constant stimulation: as my students used to joke, I find pretty much everything interesting! The net effect is that I bounce around between topics and activities until I land on something that can keep my attention.

That’s why programming at Cocoon works well for me, I find the variety of my work incredibly interesting. My ability to get completely absorbed in something, courtesy of ADHD, is how I got my job at Cocoon in the first place. I had taught myself to program much faster than most people could. This is because when I’m engaged in something I make extremely quick progress.

This feeling of getting lost in something is called Hyperfocus. It’s a lot like “the zone” that athletes experience, but hyperfocus isn’t something I can control. This means the overall effect can be a bit hit or miss. Strangely enough, coffee helps! Working in a similar way to some of the prescription drugs given to those with ADHD, which are also stimulants. They work by levelling out the speeds at which various sections of your brain work, giving you time to think about what you are doing.

Some simple ways I cope with my ADHD:

  • Post-it notes, writing everything down in a way that visually pops!
    I never learnt through practice, things either clicked or they didn’t. It turns out this is because ADHD impacts your working memory. Practice helps cement things in working memory for neurotypical people, but with ADHD I have less capacity for that. After diagnosis, I realised that using notebooks and post-it notes was my substitute for working memory.
  • Setting smartphone reminders
  • More post-it notes
  • Always having a pen and notebooks with me because unless I write it down I won’t remember it. (I didn’t realise this was unusual until family described it as “my weird thing”!)
  • A few more post-it notes
  • Sticking to regular routines at work. We have daily stand-up meetings summarising what we worked on yesterday and what we plan to work on today. They help keep me more focused that I’d otherwise be.
  • Doodling. I found this especially useful at university. In lectures, I’d always have two notepads, one for lecture notes and another for doodles and braindumps. This helped me to concentrate on the lecture and meant I didn’t clutter my lecture notes with brilliant drawings.

The reality of ADHD

Almost everyone has some ADHD symptoms, but that’s not the same as living undiagnosed for 27 years. I had always wondered why certain things were easy for my friends but seemed impossible for me. And why things, like maths problems, didn’t just click for everyone else, as they did for me. Things I struggle with can be as simple as sticking to my class timetable, making sure there’s food in the house or remembering to get my kids out of pyjamas and dressed on a weekend.

The every day can be tough, you rely on routines to know what you should do and daily life often doesn’t fall into a routine. The silver lining is an ability to really focus on something I find interesting and for things to sometimes click into place without practice. I learnt to program in just six months, while teaching full-time and a doting dad. This seemed an impossible feat for many of my friends but a straightforward and enjoyable hobby for me.

Others ADHD stories

I’ll follow up soon with a post about how programming has really helped my ADHD, and what I’ve learnt through it. In the meantime, there are two websites I’ve discovered since diagnosis that have proven immensely valuable, so might be for you too:

  • Reddit’s amazing ADHD community. A lively group of people who regularly post useful tips and articles, it’s really worth checking out.
  • How To ADHD – Jessica McCabe started a YouTube channel as a personal way to keep track of her ADHD toolbox, the various strategies learned and insights gained from having and living with ADHD. Her fun videos and useful tips have gained a following, a supportive and interesting community has grown around her content. It’s well worth watching her videos and joining the conversations.

Having ADHD isn’t all doom and gloom, but it isn’t a superpower either. It all depends on the task at hand. There are some really great things about the way my brain works and some incredibly frustrating ones too. My diagnosis has helped me understand what comes naturally to me and what will need more work. To be more accepting of my differences. Lots of my quirks make sense, they were how I learnt to cope with feeling like my experiences were different to those around me.

I hope sharing my story might help others discovering what ADHD means for them.