First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Lev Barinskiy: I am extremely grateful for all of our customers and our team that have continued to propel our business forward during these challenging times. The SmartFinancial family has continued to grow and is doing really well, despite the fact that we are all working from home, and the team is completely distributed now. We try to keep the team engaged and feel as connected as possible by utilizing technology and having clear communication lines.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded SmartFinancial.
Lev Barinskiy: I immigrated to the United States at the age of 13 from Uzbekistan. As most refugees, my family came to this country with just a few suitcases and a couple of hundred dollars seeking more opportunities and freedom. Not only was I thrust into a whole new world with an entirely new language, while my classmates were having fun and being children, I was focusing on learning the language and trying to figure out a way to provide for my family. Coming from a family of doctors and teachers, my family always steered me towards academia but also supported all of my entrepreneurial endeavors.
I was in high school when I started my first business buying and selling used electronics and other merchandise in the early days of Ebay. It was a very successful operation with multiple employees, packaging, and shipping merchandise after school. My mother drove me to the post office late at night to ship these boxes.
I had my first office job as a senior in high school, at a very successful third-generation insurance agency in Columbus, Ohio. But everything was done manually. I was shocked by how low-tech it was, with files up to the ceiling. This agency gave me an opportunity to learn the insurance industry, get licensed, and ultimately led to me opening my own agency.
I started my first insurance agency when I was 20. As I learned more about insurance, I was always intrigued by technology and automation and was looking for a better way to do things and run things more efficiently. To fund the high-tech insurance business of my dreams, I set up a concession stand with my friend selling hot dogs and gyros at Ohio State, which boasts the biggest stadium in the country. I invested in developing and growing the insurance business with the money we made feeding inebriated football fans. In 2004, I met Seth Kravitz, who became my partner, and we launched a website development company in my parent’s basement with a focus on building websites and marketing for insurance agents across the country, which ultimately grew to become InsuranceAgents.com.
We learned a lot about growing a technology company and had our fair share of ups and downs. My current co-founder and COO, Nate Kropp, joined the team as we scaled InsuranceAgents.com and helped us build our tech and operations teams. Ultimately, the company grew to become a leading insurance comparison sites and was acquired in 2012. Nate and I decided to launch another company together, and SmartFinancial.com was born shortly after the acquisition. We continued working in the insurance space and started to solve more complex problems in the acquisition and distribution part of the supply chain. We saw a big opportunity to solve critical problems in how insurance was being bought and sold online. We saw a major shift in how consumers shop for insurance and began to build what is now one of the leading insurance marketplaces. In 2017 the company ranked in the Top 10 for Broker Management Solution Providers by Insurance CIO Outlook magazine. In 2018 and 2019, SmartFinancial was recognized as one of the fastest-growing technology companies in North America by Deloitte’s Fast 500™.
How does SmartFinancial innovate?
Lev Barinskiy: We always come up with ways to meet the needs of the customer. For consumers, we’ve built an easy to use tool that helps compare multiple carrier rates. Our algorithms best-match consumers with the right insurer for the best value and ultimately help find savings on all of the major insurance products. For insurance companies, our platform allows them to acquire customers in a very cost-effective and efficient way. Our technology enables insurance agents to be able to streamline their operations and be able to compete in today’s digital world.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
Lev Barinskiy: We’ve transitioned our entire team to work remotely, but we do envision us returning to our offices when it’s safe to do so. We’re very adaptable because we do everything digitally. Our team has done an amazing job transitioning to the new environment and trying to stay as connected as we can during these times. More insurance shoppers are buying online since the pandemic started. Even people who were not shopping online are giving us a try.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Lev Barinskiy: Deciding to send people to work from home was difficult because we didn’t know what to expect. We’ve learned that people are much more adaptable and open to change than we first thought. They will meet the challenge if they know what the goals are.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and SmartFinancial in the future?
Lev Barinskiy: Stress and anxiety are often rooted in the unknown. We keep communication lines open as a group, using Zoom meetings and conference calls to stay on the same page. Having a common vision helps us stay unified. It’s easier to overcome challenges when you all see the road going forward together. And we just keep forging ahead by continuing to help consumers find the best insurance options most efficiently.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Lev Barinskiy: We compete with insurance marketing companies and customer acquisition channels. We keep our competitive edge by being at the forefront of technology and ensuring that we’re meeting the consumers’ needs better than anyone else. We are in the people business, and we are building a strong team to help us tackle some serious problems we see in the space.
Your final thoughts?
Lev Barinskiy: We are excited about our industry and see the marketplace continuing to evolve and grow. We are very well positioned to continue to innovate and build out our marketplace to help more consumers. We are working with most of the top national insurance carriers and look forward to deepening our clients’ relationships for many more years to come.