Roberto CoelhoBy Roberto Coelho|January 26, 2021|9 Minutes|In Entrepreneur

Entrepreneur

A risk that could leave you as food for the vultures.

The cut-throat world of insurance is no place for the faint-hearted, but it could favour the brave. That is what Johannesburg-born-and-bred actuarial scientist Matthew Elan Smith is hoping as he strives to avoid becoming a vulture’s dinner.

To say this 28-year-old is a determined man is probably a bit of an understatement. The curly-hair and rocky beard hides a man mature beyond his years who understands how to get things done. He is ready for anything as the co-founder of Pineapple, a disruptor in the lucrative and competitive South African insurance market.

He says his business is as simple as slicing a pineapple: anyone can sign up to the app; take a picture of what they hope to insure, and get an AI-generated quote in return.

Pineapple? More on that later.

On this summer day, Elan Smith is bouncing from one Zoom chat to the next virtual meeting. As with any disrupter, Pineapple has many irons in the fire and more than a few fires to put out.

“We want to remove the pain points of insurance and create a system of trust, community-based insurance!”

Elan Smith cut his teeth working briefly as an actuarial analyst at Credit Guarantee and decided the insurance industry was outdated. He met his co-founders at a re-insurance innovation seminar which ran across four cities, Boston, Johannesburg, Dublin, and Berlin.

The Pineapple team saw a gap in the market overcoming these so-called pain points namely:  people don’t trust insurers; people don’t understand insurance and people dislike paying for it. In short, it is a grudge purchase to be avoided.

“Pineapple is based on fair, easy, and accessible or community-based insurance! Insurance isn’t just a savings account, it’s a group of people coming together to help each other!”

However, a new way of insuring does not come without cost. The old dogs are watching as Pineapple disrupts. To compete, Pineapple cut costs in automating the process by cutting out call centres and brokers. Pineapple uses AI, allowing the possibility for high growth into the future.

“Our process allows for someone to entirely self-service their own needs – everything from quoting, insuring, cancelling, claiming, and changing their policy can be done on our App,” This is revolutionary.

Elan Smith comes from a home where both parents work in the medical field. His father is a pharmacist, his mother a doctor. He wanted to be a scientist.

“I always like the idea of solving problems and investigating new things,”

The seed was planted in fertile soil; the young Elan Smith blossomed when he discovered the world of finance and technology on the way to founding Pineapple. He studied computer science and actuarial science at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Yet, little could prepare him for the trials and tribulations of disrupting an industry.

The world is facing the worst times since World War Two. A global pandemic, mass unemployment, mass government debt, and more lockdowns and people confined to their own homes – if they are lucky.

Navigating these tough times is difficult; succeeding, near impossible. Elan Smith’s approach to COVID-19, as with all problems, is team debate. In these, egos and emotions are not spared in the search for solutions.

“You need to make a call, a lot of the times you don’t have all the information, but you need to decide,” says the co-founder of South Africa’s First Insurtech to be accepted in Google’s accelerator program.

How to deal with competition is usually top of the agenda from Sanlam to OUTsurance.

The question of how tough competition does not surprise Elan Smith, his answer is well calculated. “Insurers are among the largest advertisers in the world. Insurance advertising is incredibly common and prolific and accounts for a huge amount of airtime on TV, billboards, radio, and now digital media,”says Elan Smith.

“Competition is certainly tough and the industry in South Africa is renowned for innovation, but we have to trust ourselves to stay ahead of the curve, create an advantage for ourselves, find the gaps, and optimize the places where we have an advantage. You cannot lead if you’re watching what’s coming next.”

This industry is cutthroat and there are no room for mistakes. As an actuarial scientist, Elan Smith is always weighing up the options and probabilities.

“I’ve learned more at Pineapple in two years than I would’ve learned in five years in the corporate world,” he says.

“Trust your ability to make decisions and add value is irreplaceable. You don’t always need to be an expert, trust yourself.”

Pineapple has registered 50 000 customers in just over two years. It has won awards for the first Insurtech to be accepted in Google’s accelerator program and mobile outfit MTN’s consumer app of the year shine on the walls of the Pineapple offices on the fringe of Africa’s richest square mile.

These achievements did not come without toil.

“It took us almost a year to secure seed investment to allow us to build out our platform” Elan Smith explains.

He says before their Sandton offices were set up: “the team squatted in the offices of various partners allowing us to work together.”

Possibly the most difficult aspect was gaining trust from partners and investors.

“We were the first people to offer standalone item cover without any other pre-existing contracts required – this took a lot of ingenuity and trust from partners for us to figure out how to assess and account for risk correctly.”

The team’s goal for 2021 is to reach 100 000 customers and the launch of motor insurance in a growing business backed by R30 million in venture capital and also the backing of 180 years of experience Old Mutual, South Africa’s oldest insurer is the underwriter of Pineapple.

New ideas?

“We have a wall full of sticky notes, each one with a business idea that may succeed. The idea is the easy part, taking on the idea, and creating a sustainable business is the challenge.”

And the name Pineapple?

“A pineapple is believed to be one fruit, but it isn’t. It is many berries which have come together and created a tough edge as not to be eaten by the vultures flying around.”

A suitable analogy for a business challenging the status quo if ever there was one.