Soon after Clint Houck graduated from Penn State in 2008, he took a trip to Egypt. He trekked north to the Mediterranean Sea and stood before the dusted patina of the Saladin Citadel in Cairo. He sailed on the Nile River.
His guides were friends he had made through the international student program at school. When they first came to Penn State, Houck, who was involved with the program, helped welcome them in the weeks before classes started. Showing them around town and helping them adjust to living an ocean or two away from home were just a couple of Houck’s duties.
For a few who weren’t used to Pennsylvania winters, he took them to Wal-Mart to gear up for the season. Jackets, coats and beanies weren’t a part of their usual wardrobe. With Houck’s help, there were a few warm smiles between chattering teeth. The latter ceased, somewhat, after Houck and company suited up.
“Some of my favorite memories were helping welcome these students,” Houck said.
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Now Houck, 28, has continued to find innovative ways to help others. Born into the insurance business — mom, June, and dad, Terry, both work for State Farm — Houck followed in his parents’ footsteps and joined State Farm after graduation.
After working closely with digital marketing company Leadnomics, he began to see a divide between where leads came from and where they ended up. Houck and the team at Leadnomics sought to close that gap in the user experience, and thus, Margo was born.
“It was difficult to see the user experience on both sides of that,” Houck said. “Now to be able to see that user experience all the way from when they see one of our ad placements online to when they have to file their first claim with the insurance company, or when they have to renew their policy, or when they have to buy their next car — we can manage that experience all the way through so the consumer gets what they’re looking for.”
Houck, the company’s general manager, helped Zach Robbins, the CEO and founder of Leadnomics, found Margo last July. The Philadelphia company, which is a subsidiary of Leadnomics, seeks to streamline the insurance process for consumers and is licensed in over a dozen states. Margo is actively working in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, with Texas close in its sights.
The young company has grown almost in parallel with Houck’s daughter, who turned 1 this month.
“It’s a great area to build a family,” Houck said. “I took the opportunity to be able to build something much bigger and much more unique than just a traditional insurance agency, so that’s when I took the opportunity to make the jump.”
Q: For a young company, how did you develop bonds with providers?
A: I’m a second-generation insurance agent, so I kind of grew up in the industry. Insurance isn’t really one of those sexy things that you really want to go into out of college. But I was provided a great childhood and opportunities growing up because of the industry that my parents were in, so I kind of followed in their footsteps and went to work for State Farm, which provided me a lot of background knowledge and experience. So when I helped launch Margo, I could leverage that experience and I understood where the pain points were for consumers on shopping and understanding what they were purchasing and buying and what that experience was like. And I also understood the pain points for insurance carriers — to know that the internet and online shopping and the pace at which consumers want to do business kind of caught insurance companies by surprise and there weren’t many good systems out there for existing agents to meet this consumer demand and this new consumer experience. So between having those levels of history for myself, it gave me the ability to have the right types of conversations and show how we could provide value to the insurance carriers.
Q: How many carriers are you working with currently?
A: We currently work with 15-plus carriers with a couple of other agreements in the works. While there are a few big insurance companies that work in every state, there’s between 150 to 200-plus insurance carriers in the U.S., but you never hear about those and it’s not because they don’t have good financial ratings. It’s because they’re smaller carriers that don’t have the big, bloated marketing budgets to be able to really do advertising themselves, so they rely on the independent agents or channels like Margo to get their name and reputation out there.
Q: When a customer comes to you, what will they experience?
A: Our online website form is just a basic number of questions for the consumer to start the quote for them. Few people know what liability they have or exactly what their deductibles are or if they have emergency road service or rental car coverage or all these other pieces because even if they happened to have an agent that explained it to them, it was probably so long ago. It’s not something everyone is really an expert on and keeps up to date with.
Our goal is to immediately reach out to that consumer and give them a call. ... A lot of consumers come to us because they’re uninsured and no one else would help them out. The uninsured consumers usually know even less about how insurance works and what products are available, so we have about a 10- to 20-minute conversation with them depending on how much interest the consumer has and understand what they’re purchasing. We’ll be able to provide them up to 15 different comparison quotes and we’ll highlight on those carriers to say “hey, if they have a differentiating part of their product, whether it’s a vanishing deductible or accident forgiveness, this may make more sense paying a little more versus paying a little less,” or “hey, coverages are exactly the same and the claim satisfaction is very similar so you might as well go with the most affordable policy.” We’ll send out the quotes via email; we talk with our consumers via text or over the phone. We’ll even do a video chat with them if they’d like. So we try to meet them in the means they like to communicate in best. We send out electronic signature documents that go right to their email, so they get a copy of their insurance policy and insurance card as soon as we finish up our conversation. They get a hard copy in the mail from the insurance carriers and they can sign all their documents right through email and send it back to us, so they never have to basically leave the couch to be able to shop and get the right education.
Q: Margo seems to be analagous to Amazon, but instead of buying goods, consumers are buying insurance. But for those who prefer meeting someone versus procuring insurance through technological means, what separates Margo from just going to your local provider?
A: A lot of the local agencies out there have built a strong reputation in their community — they’ve got a significant amount of industry experience. But unfortunately a lot of these agencies aren’t on pace with the technology side and that comes through on the responsiveness side of things. So you mentioned Amazon — when we look at our competitors, we actually look and say our biggest competitors are outside our industry. It’s the consumer experience with the Amazons, the eBays, the Netflix of the world and how consumers have been trained to expect on-demand service and response time. We’re able to leverage technology to be more efficient that we can work with a large volume of consumers, and we have the right type of systems in place that knows all of our files, keeps track of who all of our consumers are and understand the last conversations we had. So even if you talk and start your conversation with Joe (Borowiec) in our office, you call back and happen to get Doug (Easlick), Doug will be able to pull up your file and see exactly where your conversation left off with Joe, so you don’t have to repeat yourself.
Q: You mentioned you were a second-generation insurance agent. What was it like growing up?
A: My mom was actually born and raised in State College, so I’ve got deep ties to Pennsylvania. Both of my parents went to Penn State and I still have family out in the Bellefonte and Milroy area. Now (my parents) are actually in the Morgantown-Reading area where they have a State Farm agency.
Q: Simplifying the user experience seems to be the crux of your company’s core values. What drove that motivation and how did it crystallize?
A: The challenge was that Leadnomics was great at creating that up-front user experience through their online web portals, but after they would sell a lead, they had no idea what the experience was for the consumer after the fact. So maybe that agent calls that person or maybe the carrier passes that lead to one of their producers or maybe they don’t, and that person never gets a call. So they took the time to do their homework online and fill out the form and then never got the experience or answers they were expecting. Or worse case scenario, the agent or insurance company starts badgering them nonstop and so they get 15, 20, 30 calls and they basically have to turn off their phones because they’re getting overwhelmed with this less-than-positive experience. On the insurance side of things, I didn’t have a good vision of where these leads were coming from and Leadnomics didn’t have a good vision of where these leads were going, which is why it made a lot of sense to build Margo.
Q: How do most clients hear about you?
A: All of it is basically through online ad placements. A majority of our clients come to us uninsured. So when you search “cheap auto insurance online” or “auto insurance quotes” at the top of the Google search results, you see the big companies out there, the State Farms, the Allstates, the Nationwides of the world that are spending all this money to be right there. Unfortunately they have very particular tastes on who they’re willing to insure and who they’re not, and if you’re a consumer that doesn’t have auto insurance or maybe had a lapse in coverage — you could be a great driver, you could have no speeding tickets, no accidents, but because you aren’t currently insured, all of a sudden companies are not willing to talk to you. And so these consumers end up having to look a little deeper to find help and that’s when they end up finding our advertisements. We’re able to help anyone find insurance they need based on the research we’ve done. Our goal is that we provide the right type of insurance for people regardless of what their driving history is, what their violations are or whether they’ve had or haven’t had auto insurance.
Q: What are your company’s goals in the near future?
A: A lot of our focus right now is really “how do we continue to leverage technology to sort of bring the insurance industry up to speed?” I’d like to say we’re creating these incredible, never-before-seen solutions, but a lot of it is taking what’s available in other industries that have gone through similar disruptions and evolutions and (applying) those to the insurance industry, especially in the online space. So that’s our big focus right now. Otherwise, it’s continuing to grow into additional states, and we’ll look in the future to expand outside of just auto, home and renters’ insurance. ... There’s a lot of opportunity in the insurance industry — it’s sort of going through that digital disruption and evolution, so we’re just looking to help that process and be a part of that.
Q: Coming back to your Penn State ties, what’s your favorite Creamery flavor?
A: (laughs) That’s probably the thing I miss the most from Penn State is that I can’t get Penn State ice cream outside of campus. So I’m a traditional guy: I love the chocolate milkshakes. Everybody talks about “the freshman 15” — well, living in East Halls and having the Creamery right down the block, I put on “the freshman 30” when I came to college. No small part of that was due to the Creamery.
Q: Favorite memory from Penn State?
A: I was very involved with the international student program. ... I made some great friendships there and got some great opportunities to travel after college and go to parts of the world I probably would have never gone to on my own without having built those connections.
Right after I graduated college, I actually took a two-week trip to Egypt and got to stay with some friends I had met at Penn State. While they were here in the U.S., I took them over the holidays to see my home and see Pennsylvania a little more outside of Penn State and the State College area. Then once I graduated, they returned the favor and I got to experience and explore the city and see much more than you would as a tourist.
Q: You were helping people at Penn State who were new to the environment and now you’re kind of doing the same with insurance, it sounds like.
A: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve always enjoyed being able to provide value and help to other people. One of the nice things about the insurance industry is that you can make a great living for your family while doing something that is ultimately helping other people, too. So for me, that’s a win-win.
Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy