Blog: Diary of an insurtech start-up, episode 2: Silicon Valley

Golden Gate bridge

  • San Francisco start-ups tend to raise between five and 10 times more cash than their counterparts in the UK and Europe
  • We all work crazy hours and we are all trying to build something big, beautiful and edifying using modest resources and against formidable odds
  • London remains the insurtech capital of the world

James Stuart Clarke, head of sales and partnerships at Digital Fineprint, compares the start-up scenes of San Francisco and London in the second instalment of his behind-the-scenes look at insurtech disruption.

We recently spent a week in the rarefied atmosphere of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley talking to insurers, venture capitalists, gung-ho start-ups and plenty of Uber drivers. Here is our eye-opening snapshot of how they do things in [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg’s ‘hood.

Monday

In America everything is bigger and start-up fundraising is no exception. In a meeting with renowned Y Combinator accelerator alumni (which include Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit), we learn that SF start-ups tend to raise between five and 10 times more cash than their counterparts in the UK and Europe. When quizzed on the pervasiveness of inflated valuations, one particular founder responds with bombastic clarity: “You gotta go big, man! Building a company is ****ing hard, so why do it if you can’t make it HUUUUGE?”.The tech world is not immune, it appears, from Trumpian rhetoric, but it is an admirable sentiment, nonetheless, and one not lost on us.

Tuesday

Today we take an Uber to the legendary Sand Hill Road, home of the world’s largest VC firms, to meet potential investors. Naturally we are a bit nervous, but our driver lightens the mood with this gem of an aside: “Pitching for investment, guys? Good luck, that’s where I received my first funding from in 2014; three million dollars! Yeah, we burned through it in 14 months and now I’m driving full-time. Profit is sanity, I guess.” Well, quite.

Something that SF and London do have in common: taxi-drivers with colourful (if dubitable) stories.

Wednesday

On the way to an informal chat with an insurtech mentor, we stroll through Golden Gate Park, and are accosted by numerous gentlemen offering us weed, which we politely declined. Later we ask our guest mentor if this type of solicitation is commonplace. He laughs indulgently and pulls out a vape device straight out of an episode of Star Trek. “I can smoke hash oil straight out of this gadget! And the best part is: nobody ever notices! I smoke right in the car on the way to work and no one cares!”

Could there be a positive correlation between commuters’ hash oil consumption and creativity in the Bay Area? And if so, how will car insurers respond? Is there an insurtech solution to this gripping hypothetical issue? You never quite know ahead of time what you can learn from a mentor.

Thursday

In meetings with our US counterparts, it becomes clear that for every difference between start-up life in the US and the UK, there are another three similarities. We have all read the same How to build a lean start-up books, enjoyed the same TV shows (anyone for HBO’s Silicon Valley?), we all work crazy hours and we are all trying to build something big, beautiful and edifying using modest resources and against formidable odds. Even our political climates are converging, tragically, but we manage to reach a happy truce with the good people of San Francisco: please don’t mention Brexit and we won’t mention President Donald Trump.

Friday

Back in London, we are trying to plan which events to attend. Fintech/insurtech events are mushrooming like whiplash claims in a recession. As a rule, we attend if a) it’s free and b) we get to speak, and c) there’s plenty of free tea and biscuits. This week we attend the International Fintech Conference 2017 at which there are many familiar friends and faces.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and the governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney are keynote speakers, plus we are lucky enough to be interviewed by the BBC’s chief technology correspondent for a show on the World Service. Not only that, but the biscuits are fabulous. So it’s a five-star event all round. Hats off to the Department for International Trade for keeping the hungry fintech community entertained, informed and well fed.

For all the cash, flash and headlines generated in Silicon Valley, we all know that London remains the insurtech capital of the world. The Bay Area has breathtaking investment opportunity and eye-popping start-up valuations, but London has the skill, the diversity and the infrastructure (not to mention the insurers) and that’s why we love it here. Amen.


Also read the first episode of the Diary of an insurtech start-up

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