Val Yap, founder and CEO of PolicyPal stepped into our office last week carrying three different bags, all packed with equipment for her back-to-back virtual meetings.
The 32-year-old has every reason to be busy. PolicyPal, a platform for consolidating and making insurance payments, recently sold a majority stake to AMTD Digital, a Hong Kong-based fintech company.
The goal of the platform is to provide consumers with end-to-end service for their insurance needs, says Val, who is celebrating her fourth year at the helm of PolicyPal.
“A lot of my former colleagues were surprised that I continued building PolicyPal. A couple of them actually said that I’m so soft-spoken, they don’t think I can survive,” Val recounts with a laugh.
“(But) when you are faced with a situation where you have no choice but to learn to be independent and strong, you will put yourself out there.”
Grappling With Insurance Problems Amid Grief
PolicyPal was born from Val’s heartache.
In 2013, her mother contracted breast cancer so she moved home to support her family, leaving a blossoming finance career as a Risk Assurance Associate at PWC in the United Kingdom.
Despite the health scare, things were looking up as Val’s mother was steadily recuperating after a mastectomy.
But by a stroke of horrifically bad fortune, Val’s father passed away after a sudden heart attack at only 59 years old.
At the same time, Val discovered that her husband, who was her childhood sweetheart, was active on nearly every dating app in Singapore, which led to a divorce.
Nursing her heartbreak and grief, Val was left to grapple with the family’s affairs, of which there were plenty.
After handling the nightmare that was consolidating and sending insurance companies documentation, Val’s mother’s insurance claims were rejected.
The company had failed to inform Val’s mother that a secondary medical checkup was required to re-incept her insurance policy in 2008/2009.
Despite writing in to the Financial Industry Dispute Resolution Centre (FIDRec) to mediate the dispute, the board supported the insurer’s decision.
In the end, the family was refunded the five-figure insurance premium instead of their allotted six-figure payout. Managing her father’s affairs was equally draining.
Val and her sisters had to go down to insurance companies one by one to check if their father was covered under the Dependent’s Protection Scheme or had filed insurance with any of them.
My dad was young enough that he hadn’t even made a will nor all the necessary arrangements. Who would have thought to do so at that age?
(But) instead of hating something I didn’t have a good experience with, how I viewed it was: to solve this pain point, first of all, I need to help.– Val Yap, founder and CEO of PolicyPal
Zero Experience, Zero Hires
PolicyPal began as most things do: as an idea; the aim of it was to empower consumers.
I wanted to build a platform that acted as a central depository for all your insurance, so that your loved ones can access it in case of an emergency.
But when I first started out, I felt quite helpless because I come from a non-tech environment. I had zero friends in the startup ecosystem.– Val Yap, founder and CEO of PolicyPal
Val gamely signed up for entrepreneurship courses at the Founder’s Institute. It was there that she formed her first network of like-minded founders.
Then, inspired by a volunteer trip to an earthquake-devastated Nepal in 2015, Val quit her lucrative career as a management associate at OCBC and pursued PolicyPal full-time as a one-woman operation.
She later joined an accelerator programme called StartupBootcamp FinTech, which was geared at helping startups take their idea off the ground.
While Val had the business and finance side down-pat, she struggled to find the right technical team.
She flew to Vietnam and Myanmar to meet with software engineers, which turned out to be unproductive. Val even got cheated out of thousands of dollars by freelancers online.
The insurtech founder held interviews at a coffee shop in Raffles Place every weekend, and even resorted to showing a hire PolicyPal’s bank account as proof that they could afford a salary.
After enduring multiple rejections during the hiring process, Val founded a small team of engineers, one of whom was KC, the current co-founder of PolicyPal.
How A Fledgling Startup Earned Credibility
The road remained rough for some time.
PolicyPal was copied wholesale and imported to Hong Kong as “CoverGo” by an ex-colleague and friend of Val’s, prompting a scramble to defend the start-up’s intellectual property rights.
PolicyPal was even sued by an American insurer for sharing a similar logo, which they had to abandon. Bringing insurers onboard the platform also remained a challenge.
She recalled that they often described her as “this young lady.”
I went knocking on insurance company doors trying to approach them for partnerships. People couldn’t take me seriously.– Val Yap, founder and CEO of PolicyPal
PolicyPal’s breakthrough only came in 2016, when the startup was successfully accepted into Monetary Authority of Singapore’s (MAS) Sandbox, a government-sponsored incubator for high-potential fintech startups.
It was a great win for the company as it gave them the “credibility necessary to work with insurance companies,” says Val.
“Insurance companies work on a relationship basis (but) I had zero relationship with them…(Our growth during the MAS Sandbox) changed how the industry looked at us.”
Etiqa and Income Future Starter Accelerator, Singapore’s national insurance carrier, were PolicyPal’s first partners. The platform gradually expanded to include insurers like AXA, Liberty and Aviva, among others.
PolicyPal was also the first to graduate from the MAS Sandbox in 2017. In that same year, it acquired a digital brokerage license and became the first digitised direct insurance broker.
The company has since grown to a lean team of 20, and its app has acquired over 100,000 organic downloads.
The app taps on artificial intelligence (AI), big data and machine learning to identify risks in users’ insurance. The process is also supported by in-house financial advisors.
“We have access to data on what consumers are paying for, what they don’t have, and what they’re looking out for.”
“With this data, we have an edge compared to other players in the market where most information relies on pen and paper.”
Scaling Up Despite The COVID-19 Crisis
Val has been busy trying to resolve “insurance protection gaps” in the market.
65 per cent of Singaporeans don’t have critical illness coverage and tend to put retirement plans aside in favour of satisfying short-term desires such as going on vacations or splurging on lifestyle goods.
COVID-19 has been a timely wake-up call. One out of three SMEs reported losses in income due to business disruption and third-party liabilities during the first half of 2020, Val explains.
She adds that PolicyPal’s premiums grew 11 times from 2019 to 2020.
Because of this pandemic, people see (insurance) as essential. During the circuit breaker, PolicyPal is an essential service that remains in operation.
Some people cannot continue to afford paying for their premiums…We’re the first and only company that allows you to pay for your insurance premiums on instalment. That provides consumers with accessibility.– Val Yap, founder and CEO of PolicyPal
PolicyPal is also making big plays despite the economic slowdown with AMTD Digital’s acquisition of the company.
The goal is to tap into AMTD’s SpiderNet ecosystem, which will expand PolicyPal’s user base. PolicyPal will act as the “insurance vertical’s champion,” says Val.
By engaging in bancassurance (insurance obtained through banks), PolicyPal can edge in on the close to 40 per cent worth of insurance sales distributed through banks.
AMTD already has digital bank networks in Hong Kong and is close to securing a digital bank license with MAS under Singabank.
“Scaling up from 100,000 to the next million with AMTD is what we’re looking at, (coupled with) the retention rate of our policyholders.”
“When we have five new digital banks in Singapore, the key driver will be through digital banks,” Val explains.
“Imagine being an SME owner who opens an account with Singabank. Upon account opening, once we know your details, we’re able to prompt the protection gap and risks you’re facing.
“We can immediately provide insurance recommendations in-app; you can switch your app on and get covered instantly.”
Connect The Dots To Create A Big Picture
Val’s goals for PolicyPal doesn’t end with AMTD. Market expansion may still be a work in progress, but PolicyPal plans to expand its product capabilities.
The plan is to provide end-to-end insurance support for consumers. This includes “moving up the value chain” from policy management to product creation.
“You can’t digitalise something that is built for face-to-face advisory,” Val says bluntly. “So the next step is product creation. How do we change the mindset of how people think about insurance?”
“(You want them to think of digital insurance as) convenient, as investing in peace of mind instead of feeling like they are being sold to.”
Fintech needs to be thought of as an ecosystem, she stresses. As things are now moving towards digital, the big market opportunity lies in connecting the dots with other fintech players.
Instead of thinking in silos, think: how do you connect the dots? We have insurance companies, telcos, banks, e-wallets — how do we work together?
Looking at companies that have been operating for hundreds of years…(they) not only own the bank, (but also the) insurance company and brokers. When you have the whole ecosystem you can tap into data, and service the customer end-to-end.– Val Yap, founder and CEO of PolicyPal
Val speaks with a conviction in her voice, and it’s clear to see that she’s more than passionate about her work.
She approaches the topic of PolicyPal with an intense focus of a devotee, but she can afford to laugh at her own failures. Her own book, Balls Inc, was written with the intent of helping new entrepreneurs avoid the mistakes she made.
It was also written for other women navigating an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. In her memoir, Val recounts instances of sexual harassment and repeated expressions of scepticism over women’s ability to lead male team, among other cases of sexism.
‘Has being a woman affected her ability to grow PolicyPal?’ I ask.
Val navigates the topic tactfully. “As a female founder, you’re starting from scratch: they can’t put you next to another successful female leader they’ve seen.”
“If you ask other female founders they’ll probably agree, male founders sell the dream while female founders sell what they’ve done…we must always prove ourselves first, before we can ask for more.”
What Keeps Her Going?
Val has endured personal tragedy on a grand scale and forged ahead despite setbacks that would have put a damper on others.
PolicyPal was created to help others who experienced the same pain she felt, but what kept Val going for so long?
Val thinks for a moment. “My late father came from Malaysia to Singapore with nothing. He has a very strong fighting spirit to do what it takes to survive,” she shares candidly.
“Then he built a family here. That kept me going because I feel that—” here, Val’s eyes tear up a little and she laughs. “Sorry, sometimes I get emotional.”
“So, I think it keeps me going thinking that if my dad can go through such hardship there’s nothing that’s really hard,” she finishes quietly. The emotion is clear in her voice.
“I also have to give credit to my mom and two sisters. My mom has been so supportive throughout this journey. She always wants to lend a hand, but I don’t really want her to sacrifice too much as well.”
“But as we live together, she can see the amount of time and commitment I put in to build this. She really hopes that what I will do will eventually make an impact.”
I ask Val if she has any last words to say. She looks up thoughtfully, then surmises the sum of her experiences with two simple sentences.
To those who are looking to build a company, it’s going to be a long but fulfilling journey. So find the right purpose, and stick with it.– Val Yap, founder and CEO of PolicyPal
Entrepreneur Of The Month is a monthly Vulcan Post series that identifies the ‘unsung heroes’ of the business world, where we zoom in on successful entrepreneurs who stand out. From pioneers to disruptive startups, this series gives us an exclusive insight into their business journey and what it takes to be a game-changer.