Anti-disruptor Bold Penguin supports insurance agents, it doesn’t replace them
We’re not all these big buzzwords. Even though we’re new, we’re on old-school business.
Founder Ilya Bodner says it up front: “We’re not all these big buzzwords. Even though we’re new, we’re on old-school business.” Not one to mince words, he came from Uzbekistan with nothing. Now some of the largest insurance companies in the United States are doing business with his company.
Few can say they were inspired by an insurance agent as a kid, but somehow it’s not surprising coming from Ilya Bodner. He tells a story about a man who came to his family’s east side apartment to sell coverage back in the days when families did things like meet with live, human insurance agents in their homes. Bodner respected the man’s singular control of his niche: Selling insurance to Russian-speaking families in Bexley and just outside it on Columbus’ east side, which for decades have been a haven for Russian Jews fleeing difficult lives in the countries of the former Soviet Union. This agent was the only one around with the language skills to make the connections, and he did well as a result.
Bodner and an equally enterprising childhood friend, Lev Barinskiy, wanted what that man had. As young men, they sold lamb and chicken gyros from a cart during Ohio State University football games, with a sign reading, “Our gyros are better then sex,” mixing up the spelling of ‘then’ and ‘than,’ Bodner says. (“English is not our first language,” he explains.) Later, they followed in the Russian insurance agent’s footsteps and became insurance agents themselves, selling commercial policies.
Coming from a family of refugees from Uzbekistan that arrived here in 1993 with one suitcase each and very little money, Bodner went on to found multiple technology companies (as did Barinskiy). He wanted to fix problems like the slow process of selling commercial insurance, but mainly he was fueled by a desire to do well in a country that had given him the chance at a good life. Bodner helped start digital marketing agency Shipyard LLC in Columbus in 2013, which brought together a founding team of executives from cutting-edge marketing and digital advertising firms including CEO Rick Milenthal, a titan in the field, and President Ben Clarke, whose technology skills and insight distinguished him as one of the top entrepreneurs in the nation under the age of 35.
Surrounded by a family culture that celebrated business, insurance was never far from Bodner’s mind. He was a founder before parting ways with Columbus-based Root Insurance, which has grown rapidly since its 2015 inception, attracting $177 million in venture capital and a $1 billion valuation in just a few years. But Root, with its model that cuts the human interaction from the buying and selling of insurance, is not Bodner’s story.
Bold Penguin is.
Sitting in the lobby coffee shop of the Athletic Club of Columbus, Bodner is casual in Converse-type sneakers and a hoodie. He looks every bit the startup founder, but with his steady, comfortable, mature demeanor, he comes across as much more “insurance,” much less “startup.”
This is not the presence of a typical basement-preneur. This is a person with a solid business model, 80 employees and a product some of the most established, careful companies in the United States are buying.
“We are talking to 17 of the top 25 insurance companies,” Bodner says later, in the Bold Penguin offices on the 15th floor of the Chase Tower. Already, household names such as Nationwide Insurance, Motorists and Liberty Mutual are using the company’s platform connecting carriers, brokers and people looking to buy commercial insurance. Lesser-known but important industry names including Heffernan Insurance Brokers, Lockton Group and Bizinsure, which are among the top brokers in the country as reported by Insurance Journal, also have signed on.
Bold Penguin’s premise is simple: Make it easier and faster to sell and buy commercial insurance. Cut paperwork in favor of automation. But keep people, keep agents, in the mix.
“We’re really a people company that happens to build technology that happens to build that technology in commercial insurance,” Bodner says. “We’re not disruptive. We’re not all these big buzzwords. We’re actually solving a fairly big problem for a lot of people that are just trying to find efficiency gain. We’re not trying to get too cute with it. And in a lot of ways, even though we’re new, we’re an old-school business: We provide a product, we charge a fee for service, and we hope our customers pay their bills on time. And that’s not exactly an everyday thing for a new startup.”
The value of that service is recognized by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., the Fortune 100 giant in Bold Penguin’s backyard. It has signed on to the company’s platform, says Mark Berven, president and COO of Nationwide Property & Casualty, which writes $18 billion in annual premiums through agents and directly to consumers.
“If you summarized what the small business customer is looking for, it’s to get stuff done quickly. How can I be efficient,” Berven says. “At the end of the day, they’re more focused on payroll and their business operations [than buying insurance]. And I think what Bold Penguin is really doing is creating an interface that allows that process to get easier. [Nationwide is operating with] this whole design thinking concept that starts with the customer in mind. That way of thinking understands what their priorities are and what their problems are that they’re trying to solve.”
Columbus-based Motorists Insurance, with $1 billion in annual premiums, is finding ways to better support its network of agents, says Dave Kaufman, CEO. He says Bold Penguin’s software, as an “enhancer of the independent agency system,” has helped bolster investments Motorists has been making in technology for several years.
“We think that the customer’s needs are better met by professional agents [as opposed to direct sales]. So we’re committed [to a digital experience] if that’s how agents are better served,” Kaufman says. “That really aligns with our model, and we couldn’t have done that without this new digital platform that we’ve put in place.”
Bodner and Ben Clarke, the company’s co-founder and the intellect behind Bold Penguin’s technology, met through the Columbus startup scene and quickly realized they held complementary skillsets. Bodner has the strong sales and insurance background, where Clarke brings strategy and technological know-how.
“So between Ilya and Ben, there was a really yin and yang,” says Jeff Sopp, who has built multiple tech companies and now is CEO of Columbus business advisory firm Kensington Hill Partners and leads Bold Penguin’s advisory board. “They have been able to create a sustainable brand in central Ohio and in the country.”
Bodner’s ability to navigate multiple business worlds is rare, Berven says.
“Ilya is really interesting because he’s very creative, and he surrounds himself with people that are also creative, and yet he’s got a way of being pragmatic,” Berven says. “He’s an individual that can walk into Nationwide and go into a board room with the most formal, 100-year-old organization and he can resonate with a group of leaders here. And yet he could also go to our innovation lab that is full of folks that think very differently and wear shorts in the office, and he can morph and fit perfectly in that environment as well. You don’t see that in a lot of individuals.”
Bold Penguin expects to double its staff this year, and that will require more office space. Bodner says it’s still deciding whether to take an additional floor in the Chase Tower or move elsewhere in Columbus. Partnerships with big insurance companies likely will continue to multiply—it’s an industry of “fast followers,” in that once one company decides to do things a certain way by buying a piece of software or adopting a process, others follow in its steps quickly, he says.
Ultimately, Bodner and Clarke say the goal is for Bold Penguin to be synonymous with commercial insurance for all the players: carriers, brokers and agents. “We didn’t want to be another tool that’s on their shelf and nice to have, that the brokers and carriers reach for once a week,” says Clarke. “We want to be the mainstay. We want to be the thing they use day in and day out, 10 hours a day, five days a week, for everything they do online.”
There are challenges, to be sure. What Bold Penguin has built is specific to the market that exists today, Clarke says. The sands could shift quickly, forcing the company to react. On the other hand, it’s not great strategy to look too far into the future, he says, and risk building products for which demand never materializes. The key to indispensability, to relevance, is to stay just far enough ahead of the curves in the road.
And of course, some large insurance companies are inclined simply to use their substantial resources to create for themselves the very product Bold Penguin wants to sell them.
“Our idea is to build something that’s stable, solid, trustworthy, that eventually one of these big companies buys,” Bodner says. Jim Hackbarth, who has operated in the commercial insurance, venture capital and technology realms for decades and is a member of Bold Penguin’s advisory board, sees that outcome as a distinct possibility for the company.
“Sooner than Ilya probably thinks,” says the CEO of Columbus-based Assurex Global, which bills itself as the world’s largest privately held commercial insurance, risk management and employee benefits brokerage group. “It could be someone outside the industry that likes what they do (like Amazon, Hackbarth suggested). It could be Warren Buffett. Warren Buffett owns Berkshire Hathaway, a very profitable insurance company. It could be someone like that. There is such strong interest right now in the insurance industry and small business insurance. It’s very profitable.”
Katy Smith is the editor.