Our Founders Interview this month is with one of Eleos’ co-founders, Kiruba Shankar Eswaran.
Eleos works with popular brands to white-label & embed income protection and life insurance into their online journey and uses the data they already hold to raise awareness, provide quotes, and expedite the application. Eleos aims to put trust and transparency back into a vital resource that’s hard to access and offers policies that are tailored to the needs of individuals and families.
To start off, can you tell us about your professional background and the path that led you to Eleos?
Oh, definitely. I have a bachelor’s in engineering, so I was a software developer for about three and a half years. I worked for companies like Nike, VF Corp — which are known for their brands like The North Face, Nautica, Lee, Wrangler — and then I decided to do my MBA. I chose to do my MBA because I realized software development was not a path I wanted to have. I moved to Portugal to do the Lisbon MBA because I wanted to do it in a country that typically Indians don’t go to, so I narrowed it down to Portugal, Spain, and France. I did my MBA because I had a full scholarship, so there was a bit of an opening to do it. I joined TIMWE right after I finished my MBA, where we started building a mobile payments brand. Luís, who was then my manager there, and Nuno, who is currently my CTO, we left to start Zaask. So, we built Zaask, scaled it and there was a point we had to sell it, so we sold it.
I moved to the UK and started working for a project that was inside of AXA, where they were trying to build a price comparison website 2.0. Buying insurance online already existed here for certain verticals, so they wanted to build the next generation of it that was to provide independent advice. Rather than choosing on price, you would choose based on quality and price. It was incubated inside AXA, spun off as a business and then AXA decided that it wasn’t strategically important for them, so it got sold. Again, I moved out with all the learnings that we had at Anorak, so one of my co-founders he’s from Anorak, so him, myself and obviously again Nuno, we decided to build a business that basically builds on top of what Anorak tried doing in the market. Solving the same problem, but with a different solution.
How is your product different from others in the market? What makes it unique?
So, the problem we are solving is the same: we are helping people build financial resilience. Financial resilience is, in essence, when life goes sideways, how well prepared you are for it. You have a number of solutions for it right, so you can have savings, you can have smart investments, you can have a second job. All of this helps you build this resilience, whereas what we are looking at is we think insurance is the way to go, so life insurance and a suite of other products, aka insurance for long-term risks. So, anything for mortality and morbidity, and typically these policies are sold by brokers on the phone everywhere in the world. That leads to a few problems: access, awareness, and acceptance. So, first of all, awareness is: if you don’t go and speak with a broker, you don’t know about this product. Not everyone goes to speak with a broker. If you buy a mortgage, you might have that opportunity, but again, that’s the only touch point, since mortgage brokers are no financial advisors, per say. Then we come to the access gap. Think about buying plane tickets 30 years ago. In the 1990s you would go to a travel agency; they would print a book for you, and you would do it. You no longer do that. But still, you would buy insurance in a certain way in 1990 and you’re doing the same now as well. So, we felt we wanted to disrupt this by embedding the solution into journeys that already exist out there. There are n number of digital products, so we want to embed it and at the right touch point they talk about it. Doing it this way we are bringing innovation to the table by plugging it into existing journeys. That doesn’t just mean you take a product that’s already out there and you plug it in. You need to rebuild the product as well from the ground up. At the end of the day, it’s the same risk. So, life insurance is you die, you get paid. Income protection is you can’t work, you get an income — or you can get a lump sum, whatever it might be. In essence it’s the same, but the products have to be built from the ground up, because the underwriting has to happen digitally, the whole policy administration has to be digital and it needs to be embedded, so you need APIs, white label portals. Essentially what we have done is we have taken the risk, so basically the core of what these products are, and we rebuilt everything around it. We are the only ones doing this pretty much anywhere in the world at this point, at least for now.
As an experienced entrepreneur, do you have any tips or advice for someone who’s just getting started on their startup journey?
Well, I think it’s just doing it. It’s having the right team, getting it done and prioritizing what you need. Like for me, when I started, I knew the key was having a developer if you’re going to bring in technological innovation. Having a good developer is key and having a more reliable person is key. So step one is to take a plunge and when you decide to take that plunge, it’s building the right team. And for us, I could have gone with people who are extremely good at what they do, or I can basically hire people that work well together as a team. They might not be the greatest in what they do, but they’re really working as a team.
And people that abide by your mission.
Yeah, exactly. So, everyone in the company is underpaid. Everyone knows that they’re underpaid. They could be earning much more elsewhere, but they’re all doing it. So that is putting the team together and clearly setting the expectations from there. So, first take a plunge, then build the right team, and then bring in transparency. Transparency is not like telling people how much they’re going to earn, it’s basically the mission — where we are, what we can do, and where we are going. Everyone needs to have a voice, everything has to happen in a public forum, and I think after that, eventually everything falls in place. But by taking the first step, taking a plunge, you will always learn. I see that building companies is like directing movies. Just because you’re Christopher Nolan doesn’t mean every movie will make a billion. You will also have flops and you will always learn things because every company is different, every setup is different, every country you operate in is different, every team is different.
If you could go back in time, is there anything you would have done differently?
Not really, I think everything is a learning, but I guess now I would do one thing differently, which is pitching to investors. I’ve learned this the hard way. You know, typically, I look at it in a very pragmatic sense. I would focus on the problem that we want to solve, and I never communicated the vision or mission of the company, which is much bigger than the problem we are solving today. I always felt that we had to be pragmatic, selling ‘how we do it’, rather than the big vision and, of course, the mission statement and how we are solving something bigger. So that’s something we failed to communicate, burned through a lot of external parties, not just investors, but now we are changing that. I think it’s like thinking really big and then showing the steps you would take to get there, and for me, like Elon Musk’s work is a good example. He said when he set the mission for SpaceX it was getting people to Mars, and anything he does until that point is a step towards that. Starlink is a way to generate money for SpaceX so that they can then send people to Mars. Then onto gradually building rockets, like first step was to make them reusable. You need to be able to reuse the rocket to put people on Mars. So, you see, every step leads to the ultimate mission, and that is exactly what we are doing now as well. In the company we all know what the mission is and anything we think is a distraction we don’t do it. Anything we think contributes to it, independently everyone can make their own decision. I think that’s what I would do from earlier on, instilling in people, communicating with all the shareholders, the broader industry, what is our vision and mission.
What can we expect from Elios now that you’ve raised the $750k pre-seed round?
For us it’s just a step. There are two ways to build business, as you’re well aware. One is you can bootstrap and do it slow. What tends to happen with that is that someone learns your ways, there is more money, and they make it happen. The other one is like you do a bit on steroids, which is raising more money and making all the mistakes you possibly can. We want to be somewhere in between. So, we want to do it really fast with less money. For us, the 750K will be building product that will help us scale. So essentially, before we go and raise money and waste the money, we want to have all the foundations in place. When we then go to raise money, we clearly know it’s to just accelerate growth. So currently it’s to basically build the platform that would allow us to add new products, new partners much more easily, having a team that is essentially the core team, that could then communicate the values, how we work, how we do things to others, and just go from there. So, for us, it’s product and people. Product and the initial set of people.
Lastly, what’s been the most challenging part of growing a startup and, on the other hand, what’s been the most fun part?
The challenging part is doing things with less money, especially in the early days. At the end of the day, you’re always short on money, so you need to find innovative ways to get things done. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors. You can’t always let everyone know the details, so there is a lot of smoke and mirrors to get things going and that’s essentially a huge challenge. Now it’s less so, for instance, we are doing a regulated startup, when we go to an insurance company, since they are taking risk on your behalf, they want to be sure you won’t go bust tomorrow. You could be costly to them because they need to build a structure for it. So, they need to believe you can raise money. The investors want to be sure you can strike a deal with an insurance partner to build products for you. The regulators need to be sure you’re all trustworthy. So, there is a lot of smoke and mirrors in the early days and then as you raise money, as you start getting traction, it gets much easier. And again, when we go to contact a business, we can’t do like LinkedIn campaigns because it costs a lot of money, so it’s one on one we have to reach out to everyone. So doing more with less money is always a challenge in the early days.
Another one is motivating people. We can’t give high salaries to people, so what we do is we find people with the right motivations, and that’s a chapter I can do in itself. Like every person, we’ve given them an opportunity with some questions marks, and everyone has excelled. Had we had to find people who have done it, it would have cost us three times more. So, even from hiring for instance. For copywriting we got 300 CVs. Design we got 400, and we had to filter through that to find that one person who fits the budget, who is promising, has not had the opportunity and would deliver it. Everything is manual. Everything is manual. We sit in all the interviews and do it. So, it’s like doing more with less. Obviously, it’s not scalable, but that’s the way we need to do it.
The part I enjoy is building digital product because you have a vision, you can execute it. There is no one stopping you. If you’ve made a mistake, you’ve made it, and when you have a team, when you start on a clean slate and everyone is aligned, it’s so much more fun doing it. There is no friction. It’s not like in a large corporation, you go with an idea, someone says “Oh, it’s stupid”, and you don’t have even room to try. For us here, anyone can throw any idea, everything gets tested. However stupid, it just gets tested, and the testing says if it’s stupid or not. And we all love the process because we have all fallen in love with it. Nothing that we say is bad. Everything gets tested. It’s just prioritizing things and doing them, so everyone feels involved, everyone feels like their voice was heard, everyone knows why we didn’t or did work on something, and that is the part I like. So, building the product and without any friction.