Twelve months of agile startup product development ⅓ – team and mission
I had the great pleasure of leading digital product management and design in 2021 at a Hong Kong startup called Bowtie. In this three-part story, I hope to convince ambitious builders to join Bowtie. I will share with you my understanding of Bowtie’s mission and opportunity, our core beliefs and principles about product design and development, and examples of how we work to implement these beliefs and satisfy our customers.
In my view, Bowtie is a unique company. It has an important mission tied to its customers' everyday wellbeing. It is situated in a huge competitive sector that desperately needs innovation. And it is well positioned to succeed given its team, capital and traction.
I have since moved on to a part-time advisory role. And as I make these final edits, our team is celebrating crossing the HKD100M annual revenue milestone. A huge feat for a home-grown insurance tech startup. Kudos to the team.
In part 1, we will cover Bowtie’s mission and desired culture. Then in parts 2 and 3, we will dive deeper into how we implement that culture, and what product development looks like.
Building insurance with a mission
Bowtie started out an insurance company. In the future, Bowtie will grow to become a health and wellness company.
Insurance is a crowded space. The incumbents are corporate behemoths. Customers are well-educated, and insurance agents and sales people serve them well. This means that most people have bought insurance already, and we don’t have to educate the market. Instead we must constantly emphasize howBowtie is different, and why customers should trust us.
In other words, we can work less on telling people why they need insurance, and work harder on telling them why they need Bowtie’s insurance.
Early on, Bowtie’s founders had a strong sense of mission. When they started Bowtie, the mission was simple and memorable - “Make insurance good again”. The company roadmap had one item - launching our first medical insurance product. This was the income tax deductible “Voluntary Health Insurance Scheme” promoted by the Hong Kong government.
By the time I joined Bowtie, we had achieved this goal and more. By then, our roadmap had evolved. We wanted to make a greater impact our customers’ health and wellness.
Here’s Bowie’s top secret health and wellness master plan:
- We make insurance more affordable.
- We make underwriting and claims less painful and confusing.
- We create health programs for customers to stay healthy and demand less care.
Affordable pure insurance
In Hong Kong, incumbents oftentimes sell insurance bundled with financial products, because that means greater revenue, and fatter commissions. So Bowtie would focus on pure insurance. We would surprise potential customers with how affordable comprehensive health insurance can be.
In this regard, Bowtie consistently builds price competitive products by omitting commissions, and including only product features and benefit coverage that we believe are tailored to customer needs.
Health insurance is important. Buy it when you’re young and healthy.
Ease and transparency build trust
Some insurers get a bad rap, but many of them actually provide decent products and customer experience. Since there are well known and loved household names in insurance, Bowtie would have to at least match, if not exceed the market in the quality of its digital experience.
In addition, we’d have to dramatically automate underwriting and claims operations with a skeleton crew. Software can’t solve every problem, but in this case Bowtie does have a leg up on our slower competitors. See Lemonade’s automation index.
In the early days, our differentiator was transparency. Every detail about our products and pricing is free and open for website visitors to access. No annoying lead generation forms that gate important information.
In the future, as we continue to invest in our in-house capabilities to underwrite applications, reimburse claims, and serve our customers, we think that we can deliver an experience that gets easier and more delightful.
Bowtie wants to do more than pay for customer healthcare. We want to help them stay healthy. Preventing chronic disease before it’s too late is obviously great for customers. The big bet that we’re making here is that this arrangement will also be good for Bowtie’s bottom line.
Healthier customers are happier, more loyal, and likely to make fewer claims. This type of offering is generally called preventative healthcare. It’s a tough business to crack, but we believe in it enough to bet on it.
We launched a proof of concept in partnership with Gleneagles Hospital on the south side of Hong Kong Island. Together we launched an award-winning medical insurance rider, and we learned much from the experience. We also doubled down by building in-house healthcare expertise by opening a clinic downtown, in close partnership with JP Partners Medical.
Our passion for improving our customers’ health and wellbeing, and paying for medical costs with easy and affordable health insurance; that’s what moves Bowtie forwards.
But how does our team put this direction into action?
Let the team take ownership
Bowtie’s ambitious mission, in a hyper competitive industry and market, stems from the experience and expertise of our founders and leadership team.
Our founders used to advise insurance incumbents on digital transformation. More than one executive has launched digital insurance products from within incumbents before. Key roles are filled by industry veterans who understand the inner workings of the industry.
With a clear direction set at the top, the team can build. Our leadership also had a strong opinion on the type of team we wanted to cultivate.
“How do we want to build our products?”
“On a spectrum from dictatorship to laissez faire, where would you place the team culture we desire?”
After I joined, these were the first questions I asked our founders and engineering lead.
I had prior experience on both ends of the spectrum. So I explained that no matter their answer, we’d be able figure out how to build and ship product to achieve Bowtie’s desired outcomes.
It was also important to them we gave motivated employees the opportunity and resources to materially influence decisions, and even direction.
I got a quick answer. We preferred to give staff a chance to develop a sense of ownership over decisions and actions at Bowtie. Guided by a clear direction, leadership had a strong opinion on where the company should go, and what the team should work on. But at the same time, it was also important to them we gave motivated employees the opportunity and resources to materially influence decisions, and even direction.
Why? Because we wanted to recruit builders and problem solvers to join Bowtie.
This isn’t a controversial point of view. Most companies these days, if not all, include some version of this message in their recruitment marketing. User-centric, design-led, engineering-driven, take ownership, influence stakeholders – these are some of the buzzwords that everyone uses.
So how did we execute this?
Contrary to the advice of internet gurus, I don’t believe there exists one best team setup and culture. Every organization is different. Every company has different complexity and a unique setup.
Instead, I believe that company leaders can design and implement a structure and system, where having plugged in all available resources, yields the desired behaviour from everyone. Just the right amount of influence from the right place. Just the right amount of ownership for the right people. Or close enough.
This in large part, is the product management function.
Here’s how we set it up at Bowtie:
- Small, nearly autonomous, cross-function teams; we just call them squads;
- A lightweight six-weeks agile development cycle;
- Goal-setting at the squad level, with a living Now-Next-Later roadmap.
If you want to go behind the scenes, and read the details of how we implemented our squads, continue to part 2 of this story.
Bowtie is hiring builders to engineering, design, and all roles. It is a hybrid remote company, with teammates distributed in several time-zones. It operates an excellent café and clinic in downtown Hong Kong. Reach out to Sara Choi or I.