Last month, startup Marshmallow secured the funding that made it a unicorn.
In a bold move away from insurers’ typical-of-yore corporate aesthetics, the car insurer boasts a soft squishy name, white and pink branding, and cartoony black and white designs across its website.
With its direct antithesis of everything people are used to in motor insurers, the writing was always on the wall that it would disrupt the industry. And it is doing just that: the company is currently valued at $1.25 billion and is set to grow by more than 100% YoY in 2021.
It is reported that Marshmallow is also only the second Black-founded unicorn in Britain.
The car insurer’s Co-founder and CEO Oliver Kent-Braham spoke to The Org about what it takes to expand and why culture-first team building is vital to success.
Kent-Braham, alongside his twin brother Alexander and their CTO David Goaté, launched Marshmallow in 2017. The trio had previously worked together for a digital identity startup named Yoti.
Their aim with Marshmallow was to create an insurance company in a space that was “truly unique in an archaic industry that was ripe for disruption.”
“We wanted to build a business that served consumers better; one that was fairer and faster, providing much-needed reassurance to drivers both in their hour of need and in their day-to-day lives,” Kent-Braham.
He added that there was no formula or secret sauce to making your company successful or to becoming a unicorn. Simply put, the offering and the people you work with have to be good.
“There definitely isn’t a formula,” he said. “But it’s a mixture of having an innovative idea, a product that truly serves the people it is aimed at and a team of exceptional people working towards the same goal.
“Only by getting the best out of talented people is it possible for us to scale the business as quickly as we have done.”
Kent-Braham said that one of the most important learnings for him and the other founders has been that “whilst the company is outwardly scaling, we need to focus internally on scaling processes, structure and benefits”.
It is through this that the company culture is sustained through growth.
“We believe that a company’s culture is fluid and should be iterated frequently - so hiring people that are able to lead that culture forward is really important to us.”
For the Marshmallow team, making your employees feel that the work they are doing day-to-day has a meaningful impact is at the core of sustainable expansion. In the past 12 months alone, the company has grown by over 200% and in the next two years the team is looking to increase its headcount to around 400 people.
“We cultivate a working environment in which colleagues are empowered to carry out impactful work on a daily basis,” Kent-Braham said.
“At the same time, we’re passionate about sustaining a high-performance environment, empowering our people to drive the change they want to see and attracting only the very best talent.”
“Retaining the culture of our business and ensuring this isn’t diluted as we scale is really important to us.”
He added that retaining the culture of the business and ensuring it wasn’t diluted by growth was paramount. Integral to that was nurturing the development of our people, and making sure they felt valued and able to make a difference, both internally and for customers, he said.
The brothers and Goaté originally wanted to build an insurtech business because their expat friends told them about their extortionate car insurance quotes, which were way above the market average.
They then realised that their providers weren’t looking at their full driving history and were only assessing the period for which they had been in the U.K., “the result was a grossly unfair premium.”
“We spotted an opportunity to provide fairer rates for underserved customers such as these -- in fact, our very first customer, a Canadian immigrant, saved around £1,500 when he came to Marshmallow,” Kent-Braham said.
“Our offering is now targeted at a broader range of consumers, but taking the time to understand our customers to provide them with better outcomes remains at the very core of what we do.”
The company’s success also comes from the fact that the founders built up a tech-literate team, setting themselves up as a key disruptor in the market. Kent-Braham said Marshmallow was a tech-first company in a sector that has been surprisingly slow to tune in to the benefits of technology.
“Because of the way our systems and internal teams are built, we are able to quickly flex and adapt to our customer’s needs, building new products and continually improving our service.”
One of Marshamllow’s biggest advantages is its in-house engineers and products teams, which Kent-Braham said allowed the company to make changes rapidly compared to traditional providers who outsourced those services, and ensured agility, responsiveness and a consumer-first mindset.
“Crucially, we consider ourselves as a world-class technology business rather than an insurance provider with technology capabilities – and this mentality has been integral to our success.
“But being a world-class tech business wouldn’t be possible without the people in it, so they are undeniably the most important element.”