The Human Future of Commercial Distribution: Q&A with Ilya Bodner, Bold Penguin

The startup’s agent portal provides a place for all the parties to a commercial insurance transaction to work in a single place.

(Photo credit: Ben Tubby.)

The future may be digital—but it is also human. That’s the slogan that appears on the home page of startup agent portal Bold Penguin (Columbus, Ohio). It goes on to say, “We’re here to help agents write more commercial business with fewer touches, mistakes or headaches.” The commercial insurance buying process remains very clunky and “old-school,” according to Bold Penguin founder and CEO Ilya Bodner, with customers enjoying little transparency and much difficulty in navigating between options. It remains a labor-intensive endeavor, wasting highly experienced professionals’ energy on time-consuming research and inefficient communications. The picture isn’t much better on the carrier side, where legacy systems impede information exchange with distribution partners. We’ve run into Bodner a couple of times and thought we’d share our conversation with IIR’s Readers.

Insurance Innovation Reporter: A successful startup needs a compelling proposition. How would you characterize what Bold Penguin is doing that needs being done?

Ilya Bodner, CEO, Bold Penguin: Bold Penguin makes it easy for all three parties involved in the commercial insurance transaction. Our flagship product is our agent portal that allows the agent—anyone interested in selling insurance/representing a carrier, MGA, etc.—to work in one place. On the front end we have a marketplace—a way to get and send quotes—some people call it an exchange. On the back end we have a recommendation engine that digitized the info gathering, submitting, and deciding which carrier to place the business with.

Ilya Bodner, Chairman, Bold Penguin.

Ilya Bodner, Chairman, Bold Penguin.

IIR: What’s Bold Penguin’s business model. And why “Bold Penguin”?

IB: Agents pay a monthly fee to access the agent portal and percentage of transactions that flow through the portal. Carriers pay an annual fee to be in the recommendation engine, as well as a percentage of volume or profit-sharing on the risk placed. As to the second question: Ever see those videos of penguins huddled at the edge of an ice floe? One jumps in order to check for fish, and despite the threat of predators. That one bold penguin is us—jumping in, leaving the comfort and taking the risk.

IIR: How do come to be leading an insurance startup focused on commercial distribution?

IB: When I immigrated here from Uzbekistan one of my first ventures was opening up an Allstate agency. As a principal agent I got to see the hand-to-hand combat. We figured out how to leverage technology to grow faster than others. Years later I co-founded a technology driven digital marketing company servicing thousands of agents and many carriers. We got to experience insurance from a lot of sides. One thing became clear is that commercial is still too complex for the person to go away. Business owners are like boat owners. They Love talking about their baby, and that being the case, you can’t take the human out of it just yet. Tech can help us make the process faster, easier, smoother.

IIR: But it’s more than just the vanity of business owners that led you to make a bet on the agent channel, surely. Tell us a little bit of the substance of that bet you’re making in terms of your offering.

IB: Commercial insurance is complex. There are just too many moving pieces. It’s all very fragmented and behind in technology. If you’re a customer, you don’t even realize it but there are things in the background like access to markets and good agents versus bad agents. You don’t even know where to start and feel intimidated by prospect of switching carriers. Whatever kind of agent you may be, you’re constantly trying to find your niche, to justify cost-per-acquisition, and to work on ways to reduce operational cost of quoting/requoting. If you’re a carrier you are always hungry for profitable growth, a way to stand out, to reach distribution. As we see it, there’s no central place to align the three parties, and we created Bold Penguin to do that.

IIR: How would you describe the advantages of Bold Penguin relative to other solutions, other platforms, etc.?

IB: For commercial insurance we’re the single screen any producer can go and spend their entire day in. We’ve built our solution in full collaboration in mind. We integrate with agency management systems, lead providers, carriers, admin systems, salesforce, custom solutions, you name it we push the data to you get the data from you or share with whom you need.

IIR: Share with us some business metrics as to how business is going.

IB: Last month we had over 7400 quotes match with agents. To do that we’ve had to produce features like one-button salesforce integration, guidewire integrations, and sync data with 3rd party providers. We have multiple carrier partners and we’re just crossing the threshold of 3,000 agents.

IIR: What are your short- and long-term objectives? What are you looking forward to happening next, and further down the line to fulfill the promise of Bold Penguin?

IB: We’re great at matching consumers with the best agent/carrier combo. We don’t have much of a consumer brand presence, and we’re looking forward to changing that short term. Over the long term, we want to get speed to quote and accuracy down to as close to real time as possible.

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Anthony R. O’Donnell // Anthony O'Donnell is Executive Editor of Insurance Innovation Reporter. For over a decade he has been an observer and commentator on the use of information technology in the insurance industry, following industry trends and writing about the use of IT across all sectors of the insurance industry. He can be reached at AnthODonnell@IIReporter.com or (503) 936-2803.

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