Are we a sinking ship? That, in effect, was the prevalent employee sentiment Sanjib Jha had to address when he took over as an interim CEO of insurance-technology company Coverfox two years ago.
In the first quarter of 2020, before Covid-19 struck the world, Coverfox’s entire founding and leadership team, including the then CEO and CTO, walked out to join a competitor. The company had about 700 people at the time, and almost 100 left in hordes.
To add to the challenge, the company faced an enormous cash flow crisis. It was during such a challenging time that Jha stepped in. But he also had to first face a challenge of his own.
“I did not come from an insurance background. I was an investor representative and had to save the day with the entire founding team effectively walking out,” he says. “Remembering those times gives me goosebumps.”
Jha recalls that he received a lot of pushback from Coverfox’s employees when he took over as interim CEO. “There was a lot of doubt in their minds about the future of Coverfox. It took me exactly a month, from February 21 to March 20, to convince people that we were not going to shut the company down. But still, there was mayhem with respect to whether the salaries will be paid on time. And then there was attrition—employees resigning almost on a daily basis,” Jha says.
Needless to say, one of Jha’s first tasks was to rebuild the team. That’s exactly what he did in the initial few months, hiring senior executives such as CTO Piyush Ranjan and HR head Khevna Shah.
Over the past couple of months, the company has increased its revenue and slashed its burn rate by 90%. Most of that success comes from the company’s effective talent strategy, which is now incubating big ideas in its employees.
For instance, its newly launched insurance infrastructure-as-a-service product, CoverStack, was an idea borne out of a town hall meeting and is now its growth engine. All Things Talent caught up with Jha and Shah to know more about the company’s talent-first strategy. Edited excerpts:
How did you convince employees from abandoning the ship?
Jha: To meet the challenges head-on, I had to quickly get my leadership team in place. I had to find people from outside the company because almost no one from the senior leadership team was left.
Once the leadership team was in place, the next to-do item on the agenda was to communicate with the larger team, motivate them, and answer their queries and concerns. I held town hall meetings frequently to assure the employees that I would not abandon them and we would find solutions to our challenges.
How did things move from March 22, 2020, when the lockdown was announced?
Jha: When every company was laying off people or reducing salaries or forcing sabbaticals, I was busy ensuring three things—continuity of business, retaining key people and paying employee salaries. Our CTO, Piyush Ranjan, joined in April 2020 and, to ensure business continuity, he quickly shifted to the cloud. Our call centre was working virtually in no time!
I made an announcement unequivocally to the entire team that we won’t fire anyone on the pretext of the pandemic or stop their salaries. We might delay salaries but we will pay everyone. We also provided appraisals to the performers that year.
How did you recruit your CTO? How did you pitch the idea to him? Considering tech talent is getting expensive, what benefits were offered?
Shah: Our CTO, Piyush Rajan, joined during the crisis. In fact, most of our senior management team did. The crisis brought us all together, and we’ve stuck through thick and thin. Piyush was sold on the idea of the business and that we could turn it around.
Tech talent has joined us for the meaty roles than the hefty packages because frankly, we don’t offer hefty packages! We don’t believe that money can be the sole motivator, and if it is then you’ll lose talent sooner than you get them. Imagine people sticking around when salaries were delayed because they trusted that not only will they be paid but they will be valued.
We ensured appraisals and increments in the last two years. It is a way to show that we will take care of our employees and their financial well-being. We may not be the best paymasters but we will be instrumental in helping them create wealth, and build their professional trajectories stronger than ever.
Several Coverfox members from the core team joined Paytm. How do you control poaching? What about the war for talent in the industry?
Shah: War for talent is ongoing. It always has been so. You cannot stop talent from joining competitors or anyone by pieces of legalities alone. Yes, that restricts and restrains but that is about it.
It sounds cliched or probably theatrical but talent stays where it is valued, where it gets the opportunity to grow beyond boundaries and where it respects the leaders.
When your talent has the comfort of discussing possible offers with their leaders, you know you’ve arrived. Because then you have mentors and not managers. Motivations matter. Recognition matters. Our employees have the visibility and accessibility of the leadership – just the other day, one of the call centre executives blocked some time with Sanjib to talk about how our business can possibly benefit from certain partnerships. That is the power of being at Coverfox. You are heard!
Devendra Dariya, Product Head
“What kept me connected to the company was its vision and how each and every team member was determined to work towards it. The openness to rethink Insurtech with a user-centric approach and automation was something this organization supported. It’s the ‘open to ideas’ culture of the organization that kept me motivated even when times were tough.
After the key talent hires, how did you get a system in place for recruitment at other levels?
Jha: When all of this was happening, I interviewed Khevna (Shah) and was transparent to her about the challenges that we were facing at that time. Irrespective of that, she decided to join us and I am really grateful to her for her decision.
To ensure connectivity with the employees, we started having town halls almost every week where almost 300-500 employees would join and ask their queries. We outlined the company’s vision and constantly appraised them. Our objective was to be transparent, keep the morale intact, ensure that the team stayed aligned, and meet the challenges head-on.
Of course, the struggles weren’t easy. In July, another set of 132 people from our company was poached by the competition. Overnight, Khevna, her team in tow, had to hire 180 people through video calls and telephonic interviews. They joined us virtually, were onboarded and inducted virtually but we ensured that we kept constant communication with the newly hired employees as well. All the credit to keep this company and HR intact goes to Khevna and her team.
The company branding had taken a beating. How did you manage to convince the employees to join you?
Jha and Shah: The pandemic did not allow for much hiring as the sentiment was absolutely low, but we hired for strategic and leadership positions where the talent came in because they saw the right intent of the leadership and the potential of the insurtech industry. Also, we were very upfront about the financial crisis we were going through, so there was no hide-and-seek there.
At the end of the day, no amount of hoopla you create can build trust in a candidate who has only read negative publicity for the company. But the conversations and possible conviction in the hiring managers (and we’re not saying HR here, any business that hired), clinched the deal.
We have hired over 200 employees in the past two years, and lost some to the “Great Resignation”. But we have been able to harness our talent and align them to our vision. A lot of talent had joined but never met each other. Even then the kind of focus and commitment levels were real. We hired across functions – business, analytics, technology, product, sales, and finance.
How was your initial period at Coverfox?
Shah: By the time I joined, a lot of challenges had already been anticipated and worked upon. I met about 15 people from the company when I was interviewing for the role. They had either newly joined or had been here since inception. However, one sentiment that resonated was that talent and leadership went hand in hand. This connected very strongly with my belief that talent is not HR’s job alone.
Everybody was talking the same language – not bluffing their way through, not overpromising, and yet inspiring. They were aware they didn’t have all the answers. Yet, they were optimistic. Everyone tried to hold on to the company values and understood that they were in this for the long haul. The concept, vision, and culture from the talent point of view were very clear in everybody’s mind. That helped in pulling everyone together.
Did remote working make it even more difficult?
Shah: I met the entire team five months after I joined. In such a situation where no one had the experience of working and collaborating remotely, ensuring everyone is aligned and is working seamlessly trying to achieve results, was phenomenal. We are grateful to people who have shown that confidence and stayed around.
From an HR angle, how did you save costs for the company?
Jha: People who have been working here for the past six-seven years have seen the opulence with which the office used to operate. Unfortunately, we had to cut down on extravagance to cover basic expenses. People understood this and the larger picture, and that they will get their talent’s worth and will grow at a rate which is not possible anywhere else.
In the last 20 months, we have used online platforms like Naukri, iimjobs, and LinkedIn to find candidates and we have been able to get quality talent. Employee referrals also helped us to reach a huge talent pool. People who joined us 18 months ago have grown exceptionally. For example, an employee who joined as a business analyst has moved on to the Chief of Staff role. In addition, in call centres there are several verticals where we have seen zero attrition rate.
How did you transition from a lead generation model to a tech and SaaS company? How did you train the talent for that?
Jha: First, we let the leadership walk the talk. We communicated clearly with our teams, inspired and motivated them, and assured them that we had a clear action plan and how we were going to achieve it.
Second, when we moved from our lead generation platform to tech-led business growth, we made sure that the communication kept flowing and that we were transparent with our employees.
Third and most important, we at Coverfox value talent. We are selling insurance through multiple channels and our product managers have a free hand to operate as mini-CEOs of their segments. We give them space to grow and make decisions on their own. The mantra is very simple—if an employee can replace his/her boss, metaphorically speaking, that employee carries value that cannot be replaced. We are trying to create a culture where we can inspire people to do more by being innovative and focusing on solving a real problem.
How did you communicate the company’s tough financial situation without overtly spooking the employees?
Shah: Transparency played a crucial role in creating clarity, trust, and accountability.
It would have been easy to say we have to let you go due to Covid. But telling employees we need to let them go due to our business model which does not allow us to have this number of people was not so easy.
I believe people are more accepting of fact and truth rather than us beating around the bush. They are much more intuitive and understanding than we give them credit for.
The Business of Talent
As part of the talent-focused strategy, were there any out-of-the-box solutions that were implemented?
Jha: One of our product managers, Shashank Ujjainwal, shared an idea in one of the town hall meetings to digitise used car insurance space. Fortunately, we knew the founders of Spinny.com and they were not able to solve this problem. So, we connected Shashank with them and he did his field research for three months.
Following the research, he had a product ready and required two engineers to get the final prototype ready. This was in July 2021. Within two months, we had a product that could digitise Spinny’s complete insurance selling. Today, we have a 95% contribution to their digital business. We are deploying this system on other platforms as well and scaling effectively.
One such town hall discussion gave birth to our newest platform, CoverStack. Today, CoverStack has a $7 million annual run rate and we were able to achieve this in just six months’ time.
How was CoverStack established as a separate product?
Jha: There are many so to speak as the last 20 months were all about turnaround and innovation. One such story is that of Devendra Dariya, our Product Head for CoverStack, who brought the idea that why not provide our tech stack to NBFCs, MFIs and other insurers that will enable them to provide their customers with a seamless insurance buying experience.
This led to the birth of CoverStack. Today, we have more than 15 partners using the CoverStack platform. To name a few, we have partnered with Google Pay, ICICI Securities and Spinny.
How did you rationalise the business costs? What various steps did you take to bring the burn rate down?
Jha: There is no point in calling someone over 70 times for the renewal of his/her insurance. We are aiming to make the entire process agile and faster. For example, if you want to do car insurance, you simply need to download the Coverfox app and upload a photograph of your car’s number plate on it, or go to coverfox.com and do the same. Within 30 seconds, you will receive 23 car insurance quotations and you can pick one as per your liking. So, the theory of change was:
- We don’t have to call customers; they will buy on their own. Therefore, we need to ensure a digital flow that is giving the customer the convenience to buy insurance.
- We don’t have to sell to everybody. There are so many digital platforms that are selling everything. I have to just enable them with exactly the same features that I’m giving to my customers on other platforms like Spinny and ICICI Direct.
- The entire business model of insurance is based on variable revenue and variable costs. We can’t build a business and scale with agility if the business is about fixed costs. So, we constantly and cautiously reduced our fixed costs and made the business more variable. At present, the burn rate is approximately Rs 1 crore a month.
Call centres are cost centres. How did you bring efficiency here?
Jha: We hired Simran Kaur, an IIT Kharagpur graduate, who had prior experience working with OYO. Her first major task was to optimize the call centre efficiency at grassroots levels. This was achieved by doing a deep dive into call level analytics.
After her analysis, she realised that most calls were ineffective. She led the design and execution of an algorithm aimed at increasing our leads to sales ratio. This changed the game as we now have a leads to sale ratio of 20%, which is the highest in the industry. For the insurance industry in general, it is somewhere around 5% to 7%.
The point is that young and creative people can lead to phenomenal results and innovation if given the opportunity.
Shashank Ujjainwal, Senior Product Manager
“The two-way belief of leadership in me and vice versa was the principal cause that made me stick in this organization. There is always an open floor for anyone to pitch their ideas to the senior management and the support we receive is highly valued by us. Even when the times were tough, the management was responsive and open to questions, that says a lot about the transparent environment offered by the organization.”
Can you give an overview of the workforce and who constitutes core talent?
Jha: The team at Coverfox is made up of three segments:
Engineering/Marketing/Product: This segment forms the largest share of the workforce, i.e. 40% of the total 225 people, or about 70-80 people.
Field sales and call centre workforce with operations support: There are about 60 people in the call centre, 50-60 in field sales (tier 3 and 4) and 10-15 in business development. The rest are in support functions such as finance and HR.
Core management: This comprises ten people. I am a part of the core team along with HR, product managers, business heads, the tech team, and the CFO.
My objective over the next year is to make my team completely self-reliant. I have already made myself redundant so that I am able to think about the next phase of growth for Coverfox and pass the baton to my team. Not just me, but I also need to make other people in leadership positions redundant.
How do you encourage the business ideas from your workforce to continue?
Jha: Our strategy is to ensure that the CXOs are able to hand over their daily operations to the team so that they can focus on forward and backward integration, which is crucial to achieving control over the value chain of the industry.
If the CFO is busy with financial operations, controllership woes, compliance aspects, reporting roles and due diligence projects, then he wouldn’t be available to ideate and identify opportunities to raise funds, connect with the collaborators and think about possible acquisitions. So, we want the next-in-line to be young, energetic talent that can take over the work we are doing.
You also mentioned how degrees aren’t that important at Coverfox. Is that a way to expand your talent pool and curb the talent shortage?
Jha: Let me rephrase that. Degrees are important but not a must. If a candidate applies and we find his/her work experience relevant or his/her learning agility high, we are happy to take a punt on him/her and not hold out because of a degree.
We have employees in our call centre, our analytics team, and several others who are undergraduates or who’ve not been able to complete their graduation but are doing brilliant work. In tech teams, we encourage interns to take up work for three to six months and then often onboard them even before they’ve finished their courses if they prove themselves.
Degrees don’t determine whether an employee should be promoted, given a raise or even hired. It does help expand the talent pool. But it also taps into talent which otherwise may forever be lost simply because of a lost opportunity at education.
Any timeline for becoming profitable?
Jha: We have achieved gross profitability in January 2021 and have maintained the same ever since. We are expecting net profitability in the next three to six months.
– with Moumita Bhattacharjee
Year of Incorporation: 2013
Number of Employees: 251
Key Executives: Sanjib Jha, CEO; Piyush Ranjan, CTO; Manish Sultania, CFO; Executive directors: John Mayne, Abhishek Tiwari
Business Line: Buy insurance in 90 seconds!
Hiring Pipeline: We are hiring across levels to strengthen sales as well as the tech stack. Also hiring allied talent like product managers, analysts, financial executives who can model business plans, talent spotters and business developers. We will continue to hire for a couple of quarters.
Key HR Factor: Pay for performance, disproportionate growth for potential/talent, non-hierarchical and zero red tape.