Episode 184 – Sabir Samad – Affinity Partnerships and Alliances at Symbo – You Have to Believe in the Outcome


Michael Waitze worked in Global Finance for more than 20 years, employed by firms like Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, primarily in Tokyo.  Michael lived and worked in Tokyo from February 1990 until December 2011.  Michael always maintained a particular focus on how technology could be used to make businesses more efficient and to drive P/L growth. Michael is a leader in the digital media space, building one of the biggest and fastest-growing podcast listener bases in the region.  His AsiaTechPodcast.com show has listeners in more than 170 countries and his company, Michael Waitze Media produces some of Asia’s most popular podcasts.

Sabir Samad

Sabir is responsible to supervise and lead company's operations and employees. Performs a range of tasks to ensure company's productivity and efficiency including implementing business strategies, evaluating company performances, and supervising employees. With his analytical ability, he is responsible for P&L across vertical accountability for meeting growth targets. An IIM Ahmedabad graduate he is a leader, innovative, confident, driven, organized, and possesses strong delegation skills. In his previous role, Sabir Samad was Regional Head of PayTm

This episode is brought to you by:

The Asia InsurTech Podcast spoke with Sabir Samad, the Head of Sales and Partnerships at Symbo, about the difference of working for a startup compared to a corporate and why tier two and tier three cities in India are on the rise when it comes to embedded insurance. 

Listen to our other episodes with Symbo here

Here is the transcript of our conversation with Sabir. 

Michael Waitze  0:02  

Well now you know we’re on. Hi, this is Michael Waitze. And welcome back to the Asia InsurTech Podcast. Today we are joined by Sabir Kumar Samad, the head of sales and partnerships at Symbo insurance. Sabir, it’s great to have you on the show. As I said during our prep call, I love your background. Anyway, how are you doing today?

Sabir Samad  0:20  

I’m doing great. Thank you, Michael, thank you for having me here.

Michael Waitze  0:24  

It’s great to have you. Before we get into the main part of of this conversation, we like to ask our guests, what do you think is the biggest trend in insurance and InsurTech innovation in Asia? And maybe by extension globally? Like, what’s the biggest thing going on right now?

Sabir Samad  0:42  

So, very specifically, you asked me about India, I think a few things that we see around happening and also, right. So one is, you know, in India, with the consumerism, trying to get in people trying to, you know, buy a lot of stuff because the in disposable income sort of started to increase, right? So what we are seeing is, you know, there are a lot of things which people buy, and to protect them, people will go for insurance. So I think apart from the standard products, like life and health, asset insurance is on the rise, and it will, and there is a significant opportunity for players like us in the embedded insurance space who do personal insurance of your gadgets, right? So that’s one area, which is going to boom, as we grow in India. The second thing, which we noticed very clearly, is the trend shifting towards, you know, kind of adoption, shifting towards tier two tier three cities, you know, in India, I think, overall, maybe in Asia, the underserved, getting served currently.

Michael Waitze  2:06  

Yes, I love these two topics, I want to get back to both of them, I want to get back to embedded in the differences between these tier one cities that almost everybody in the world has heard of, we can talk about those two, and then the tier two and tier three cities because I think they’re different. And I want to know how but before we get to that, let’s get a little bit of your background for some context.

Sabir Samad  2:27  

So, I started my career as an engineer work at an automobile company in India, Tata Motors, right, and then completed my MBA from IIM, Ahmedabad joined PricewaterhouseCoopers as a management consultant. And around that time in there was reaching into, you know, startup led businesses and startups were mushrooming, so to say, right, so I jumped into the startup bandwagon, worked with two of the leading startups in India, OYO Rooms and Paytm. And then now within Symbo heading sales and partnerships.

Michael Waitze  3:11  

So this is really interesting to me, right? So you go to undergrad, you get a job at Tata Motors, which is one of the biggest I mean, Tata as a company, it’s one of the biggest and most well known companies in India, right with a motor division as well. So pretty interesting stuff. You go back, you get an MBA, and then you go work at PwC, which is like a regular company. Everybody in the world has heard about it. If you’re in Paris, if you’re in London, if you’re in New York, if you’re in Tokyo, people have heard of PwC what’s the impetus for you then to change your mind? And just say, I don’t want to work in this big corporate world anymore. There’s some fun going on over there. Oh, your rooms and Paytm I want to be involved.

Sabir Samad  3:48  

Yeah, so luckily, in I mean, I would use the word lucky because throughout my career, I think I got opportunities to work in few very interesting projects. And were sort of first of its kind, if I can put it that like one right like so, for example, in Tata Motors, I developed and in our team, we developed a six cross six army vehicle for the Indian Air Force, right. And then when I came to, you know, PwC, where, you know, the usual strategic consulting was going on, or rooms was expanding, and there was a, you know, a moment to lead an entirely new business and all right for one of the oil for one of the cities in India, like Mumbai itself. So, I was instrumental in developing the self operating business model for them, which is quite new. Nobody had done that, right. And then with Paytm, again, I got this opportunity to sell POS devices, which Paytm launched the first time. So, going devising all the strategy to go to market, handling a very large sales team, you know, close 2004 and you’re going to the same market, but pitching something new, getting some innovative products in place. You know, the QR code system was entirely new at that point in India. So I think so. And because of that, right, I would say, where my destiny has landed me in doing few innovative things I thought simple is an exciting opportunity to try something new. Yeah, absolutely.

Michael Waitze  5:29  

Can I go back to your time at Tata Motors? So you said you’re an engineer, I think today when most people think about, you know, my friends, as an engineer, they think about a computer programmer. But that’s not the kind of engineering and sounds like you were doing if you were building a six wheel vehicle for the military for Tata. So what kind of engineer are you actually?

Sabir Samad  5:49  

So I’m a mechanical engineer, that’s what I thought okay. While while I graduated from undergrad, I had two job offers at hand one with a software company and then one with Tata Motors. So because of being in the mechanical engineering degree, I chose to go to Tata Motors and do real engineering, right. But after four years, decided it was time to move on and do something new and crazily, then MBA was, was something they sought after, and it is still now. Then, you know, getting into business roles. You know, I always thought, you know, salespeople do really swanky pitches and everything. And they really do well in like, why not? 

Michael Waitze  6:41  

But can I ask you this too, like, there’s this, there’s this mythology around becoming an engineer in India, right? And it makes the family proud. This is very clear to me, at least from the feedback that I’ve gotten from a lot of the people that I’ve talked to from India, right. And particularly working for a big company, like there’s pride as well, like for my family. When I worked at Morgan Stanley, they could talk about it with pride, because everybody had heard of it. But when you then jump to a start up, it’s not just a personal decision. I feel like it’s a family decision as well. Is there stress inside? When you make that decision from like mom and dad, cousins, brothers and sisters that say, What are you doing, like you didn’t work your whole life to get to here just to then jump into the unknown kind of thing?

Sabir Samad  7:28  

Fortunately, for me, you know, and you’re right, absolutely right. When you say that, you know working for being an engineer in India is of course, you know, one of two choices that you get either in German engineer or and doctor in India, right?

Michael Waitze  7:43  

Well, actually, can I can I can I tell you what, because I have to interrupt you here. Like, can I tell you my favorite funny story. When I was in India for a startup event, a guy gets up on stage, this is an Indian gentleman, right? He gets up on stage and he says, You were the only three career choices in India? Three, not two, he said three, right. Have you heard this? And he says, You can be a doctor. So you’ve said that an engineer would you’ve mentioned and then he said a family disappointment? So so it’s pretty serious, right? Because everybody says it. Sorry. Go ahead.

Sabir Samad  8:12  

Yeah, it’s a serious business. So yeah, after again, you know, jumping into the startup world, and this a secret between me like, I didn’t tell my parents that I’ll be joining all your PTO. Right. Because, you know, they’ve always believed in a stable sort of family. And this thing was entirely new, for not only for me, for my friends, and even acquaintances, so you know, you have to believe in the outcome and second time and absolutely. So.

Michael Waitze  8:47  

So how long has it How long has it been since you left the sort of traditional business world and moved into the startup world? Six years, okay. So not that long, right. And can you talk, can you talk maybe about like, how the environment was different? Not at oh yo, in Paytm, specifically, but just in in working for a startup company or like a hyper growth company, as opposed to working at PwC you’re working at Tata. 

Sabir Samad  9:16  

So see, as as these at the point at which I joined, you know, new businesses of these startups were just taking up new businesses new initiatives every day or the other day would be new plans on the table right and you have to implement it. So, at that point in time, there was you know, in Tata and PwC are very, I would say routine process driven organizations, right. You have to sort of if you have to bend a rule or you have to do something, you have to approach you have to take permission from various layers of management, right? But in the startup world, you are on your On, and you make decisions on your own and face failures on your own. So and that, and that’s how you learn, right? So that that curve of failing and then rising up again, really gives you the confidence enough that, you know, I can you know, I can do these things I have that caliber, I have that potential that I can face those failures, and maybe I can bounce back from them as well.

Michael Waitze  10:26  

Do you feel like there’s an adjustment period for someone like you, right, who’s gone kind of through the traditional route, go get an MBA, you work at PWC? And then you move into the startup world, do you feel like it takes a little bit of an adjustment to adjust to like the new environment, but that if you do adjust it unlock something inside of you this, like, maybe this creativity or this? I don’t know, ability to take risks that you didn’t know, you had? Or might not have known? You had? You know what I mean?

Sabir Samad  10:53  

Absolutely. So there is an adjustment, period, you know, when you’re coming from, from a established firm, but I think, I mean, at my age, at the age that I went in, those lines were sort of blending. You know, because in a startup environment that is so much of freedom, the peers are relatively younger, and, you know, they resonate your views. So you don’t take much of a time, though, I mean, one may take that amount of time, but then you get used to it, and that very quickly, right? You get into the environment, you get into the mode of business, because you have peers of your age, things are looking bright, they’re, you know, new round of investments coming in, people are getting richer. Everything is exciting.

Michael Waitze  11:52  

everything’s exciting. You know, sometimes I feel like I haven’t had a corporate job since 2011. It’s been a while now. And I feel like, no matter what I know, no matter how much I learned, I feel like I’m almost done. hireable Do you know what I mean? That going back into that structured environment, where you really have to get approval for everything, and it is very structured, just like, I wouldn’t be able to survive there anyway, you’re probably better at that than I am. I want it because you, you brought up this trend about embedded insurance. We’ve been talking about this for a while now. But maybe you can talk to me about first maybe define, like, what that actually means. And then talk to me about where Simba sits there. And then what a great partnership looks like to you like, who are great partners, who should they be?

Sabir Samad  12:37  

So, so, embedded insurance, you know, is typically small budget slash insurance product, which gets embedded in the sales journey of the product. So for example, if you are booking flight, you know, at the end of it, there is an option to save that your journey by doing. So, right. And since the ticket size is so small, it is almost an impulse buy sort of decision, which a customer has to make the benefits, you know, in the same level, the sum insured or you know, may depend may vary. But yeah, so, it is ensuring your needs for that moment, we add symbol, we do all kinds of embedded insurance, from asset to health to travel, you name it, and we do it right. For example, we we are partnered with spectacle company, we partnered with shoe companies, we partnered with the sports booking companies, we partnered with cycle retailers, everyone. So for us, you know, every category, we can develop a product around it embedded in the sales journey of the product, and reach out to the customers and these products are relevant. These products are fairly intuitive to the customer.

Michael Waitze  14:08  

So if you’re looking around the market right now, right, and you’re thinking about growth, who would be your ideal partner in like, what what kind of company now if you’re looking to expand the market, where you can embed these products? What would that be today? Like if you had to go out and find a new partner who would it be or how would you characterize them?

Sabir Samad  14:28  

For us at this moment, I think a great partner would be who would you know, you know, give us maximum number of policies or number of customers or sales that happen we will not be you know, much bothered about the ticket size or the premium the insurance at this point in time. So, for us, an ideal partner would be somebody, let’s say who has a lot of customers may be different Is it companies maybe, you know, large retailing cycle companies may be funding companies who have, you know, millions and millions of customers so that we can make relevant products for each of these and present these to the active users. And whenever they purchase, what they transact in the environment of these clients or partners, they can choose the relevant insurance.

Michael Waitze  15:26  

Is there a parametric angle to this as well? In other words, is there a way to take the information that you get real time data on, you know, weather or people participating in sport events or other places where you may, you know, even in flight insurance, right, where something triggers an event that then gets paid? This embedded insurance is the parametric available as well.

Sabir Samad  15:48  

So I mean, if we could, so if you’re saying that we have data available of the events happening, and hence we can ensure that. So definitely, you know, are all all our partnerships are more offline based? So to say, not more, but 60-70% of them? So what we sell them is in charge on the, on the asset itself, right. And for for travel companies, also. Right? We don’t, I mean, we don’t get the real time data of an event happening. So you know, if there is journey happening, or a travel that is going to take place, and the customer wants to do it, it is once we’ve integrated with the partner, it’s up to the customer to choose us. Right, we cannot influence them on a real time basis as such,

Michael Waitze  17:08  

I understand. So at the beginning of this, you talked about these two trends, right? Right. One was embedded and the other is the difference between operating in big cities in India that everyone has heard of, right. And then the tier two and tier three cities, maybe you can talk about some of the differences between what it’s like operating in these kind of big well known places, and some of the smaller tier two and tier three cities.

Sabir Samad  17:32  

So, it all actually boils down to the you know, demography of the of the cities, actually. So, for instance, in a in a metro or a tier one city, for example. There are, you know, everybody would be having better internet connection facilities, right. So the ability to pay at the instant is high, right. Whereas in a tier two, tier three city or maybe further, there would be stable internet connection, or a now with our internet in India, internet penetration is on the rise. Hence, there is an ability for those guys also, to sort of take this insurance. Now, most of these insurance are digital in nature, right? For example, there is no one new selling this but so we’ve done few innovative stuff around around this. So for example, say there’s a town called Jalandhar in India, right? Okay. And there, if there is a cycle store, we have put a QR code into that store, right? Anybody who’s buying cycle from that store can scan the QR code to the mobile app, it gets land, you know, diverted to similar home page and from there, you can fill out the information by the insurance product. Right? So for example, so initially, without this QR code, and without the mobile penetration being there, internet penetration, this was not possible. But now, it fairly, it’s fairly easy that way. Right? The difference that comes in, is in terms of awareness in in metro cities, maybe since, you know, most of the younger population who migrate from tier two tier three cities come in. So they are quite, you know, internet savvy, they know about products, they know about insurances, they know more about it, right? So they are the propensity to sell to them is quite large. And also they’re easily converted in tier two, tier three, maybe at this point in time, the awareness about this embedded products will not be that much you have to you know, this is the stage of evolution for both these cities as well as they grow as there are case studies and use cases coming up. And as the new spreads, they will also sort of jump into the embedded insurance bank back at some

Michael Waitze  20:07  

point in time. So in these cities, right, is there the necessity to do you know, a little bit of what’s the right word? Like help people with their financial and insurance literacy, right, there’s, there’s an educational aspect to this as well, and what a companies like simbo do to create that awareness. And when they’re doing that, then help them help people learn more about what these products are, and then what they can do, and how they can help them from a protection standpoint.

Sabir Samad  20:35  

Okay, so what we do, and you know, to reach out to our customer base, we do a couple of things. So we market a lot, but our market is more digital, it’s all it’s all LinkedIn, it’s all Facebook, it’s all incident, where we, you know, we have our followers, who are, you know, typically people who have bought insurance from us, or maybe, you know, by word of mouth thing, you know, they have come to know about us, and they liked it. So on, on those use cases, or on those platforms is what we essentially tell people about the products that we have launched, for example, if I were to launch another product, which would give, let’s say, health insurance of Bite Size, health insurance symptom of vector borne diseases, right, we would read, you know, awareness about that product, and about, you know, how affordable the product is how, you know, they shouldn’t say so simple, or the claims can be, you know, filed easily. So, on all these aspects, we tend to educate the customer, but as I said, mostly digital as of now.

Michael Waitze  21:50  

So, what is it? Is this a problem? Is this a challenge in the tier two and tier three cities? Right? In other words, is there enough connectivity there, so that the stuff you do on Facebook, the things you do on Instagram, the marketing you do on LinkedIn actually is effective enough for them? Or do you have to do the marketing and offline channels as well, with the partners that you have, so that the customers there that maybe aren’t digitally savvy or digitally native can then be impacted?

Sabir Samad  22:17  

So, you’re right, you’re right, when you say that, you know, you know, our communication may not be as effective in the tier two tier three cities, because there may not be too much, you know, followers there about how we do you know, how do we sell our products that is mostly through the offline stores are the partnerships that we have gotten into right. So, what we do is, you know, we whenever we tie up with say, we have tied up with a shoe company in India and which has close to 200 outlets across the country, right. So, the remotest of the stores that they have there is this program running. So, we rely so, we train the store managers well, right and we tell them about the product and about the potential benefits which the customer is going to get, so, they become sort of sales partner or sales manager in certain sense and through that, we try to acquire customers or you know, manage you know, try to sell this product better, right. So, for example, if so, as these companies grow, we will also grow as fast as them right because they will bring in more DSAT for cities and our product will be taken across across the country in that sense.

Michael Waitze  23:43  

So, in the place where you do use Facebook, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and stuff like that, right. Do you use tick tock as well?

Sabir Samad  23:50  

No, not picked up because I think tick tock is sort of banned in India. Okay. Many people actively use Tik Tok but our primary modes would be Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, also.

Michael Waitze  24:05  

And do you see so that’s an interesting information about tick tock. I didn’t know that but there is a lot of noise around them around tick tock anyway. First Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. Do you see like a marked difference between the impact? Do you know what I mean? Because LinkedIn is really for me just like a business place. There’s not a lot of noise there. You know, sometimes people do post about their dog kind of wish they’d stopped doing that. But on Facebook and Instagram, it’s like a mixture of everything. So where do you think the most impact is?

Sabir Samad  24:33  

I think I see. On LinkedIn if you were to ask me really in LinkedIn, we generally reach out to potential partners. It’s not much of a you know, advertisement channel for the customers got, but mostly the action is seen around Facebook and Instagram. And all right, we trying to make our webpage as a You know, as soon as possible, if I may put it that way, so that, you know, the millennial get, you know, the company website, look at the products and maybe explore and purchase. Right? So,

Michael Waitze  25:13  

yeah, I’m curious, so like, what kind of innovative things do you do on Facebook and Instagram to get a bigger audience? Or is it just like using the advertising platform that they have there to do the targeting? You don’t? I mean?

Sabir Samad  25:29  

Yeah, I think you know, there are many, many innovative things that we are doing on that front, also. So we, you know, we take the help of influencers, or we will be taking that point in time, we started making video ads. Right. And we, you know, we’ve tried to, we’ve launched few ads are using, you know, not influencers, but, you know, people even around him, the company is well, to come up as our brand ambassadors act on these videos and get real, you know, boy next door for a company next door kind of fee. Right? So that’s one so I think, are we content creation is, is one area where we are actively focused upon where we are interested in trying, you’re trying to create content around products, try to you know, create content around the benefit for our partners, new launches, etc, etc. And then again, there are you know, in in the pipeline, influencer marketing is is there, which we will jump upon in some time from

Michael Waitze  26:52  

now. Got it and as you continue to grow, like, what is the biggest? What do you think the biggest challenges or opportunities are these see in this embedded insurance market?

Sabir Samad  27:02  

I think I would put it, as you know, the challenges are the biggest opportunity in certain sense. It was so, good last week, so, say there is. So, on the product side, we’ve been developing quite a bit, I can also be before coming to SEMA, I never thought you could, you know, insure your shoe, but then we developed a product for auto insurance, right. So, on the product side, we have a lot of a lot of comfort, we work with multiple insurance, and get curate a lot of innovative products, I think distribution is the place where there is a lot of challenge, which which comes in right, for example, say for example, you have tied up with a retail player, which has 2000 stores in the country.

Michael Waitze  27:58  

Right? Right?

Sabir Samad  28:00  

How do you because you don’t own the sales channel? How do you effectively, you know, on a day to day basis, tell the sales manager that hey, pitch our product, along with your product, right? Because that is not there, at the end of the day, to sell insurances,

Michael Waitze  28:20  

But how does it work for them? So like, if I go into if I go into one of your shoe store partners? Is it already included in the price of the shoes? Or is it something where I have to opt in at the point of sale? Like how does that work? Exactly right? Because when I think of embedded, I just think it’s just part of the product, if I paying 999 It’s just the insurance is included in it. But it seems to me that it’s not right, how does that work?

Sabir Samad  28:40  

Yeah. So, we I mean, we have developed products of both the model as you spoke, but we are currently operating in the in the model where there is an additional money, which is taken for through insurance. So for example, you go to our partner store, right, you purchase a shoe and the end of your purchase, you go to the counter and the sales manager or the clerk they would ask you do you need us to insurance, that shoe insurance is inbuilt as an SKU in there also integrated with the POS system. Then the once the you know, the shoe insurances and SKU is get added to the bill, the customer pays there at the counter and then nothing works. But that is only issuance, but for the claims, the customer comes back to our app. So we have a very savvy claims process specially for the shoe bait, you know, you don’t have to do anything you just have to click pics of the shoe, upload a video and you know the claims get intimated within are the either the claim is approved or rejected that answer also you get it. And then what we also do is while we settle the claim, we send it through our voucher system just So so for example, whatever X amount is the claim amount for the right. So we will give you a voucher of that amount, you have to go back to the store and purchase another shoe. Right? So that voucher will be used in. So in purchasing another suitor, we are giving an opportunity to the client partner to upsell and cross sell other products or the same product to this customer was coming. So we’re not letting that. So if we give cash directly to this customer, he might go away, right? He might spend it in any other form. But through a voucher, he will, he has to kind of spend it into the brand itself and will help the brand in increasing, as I mentioned, cross selling other products to the customer.

Michael Waitze  30:50  

Right. So that you see symbol doesn’t do any online business. In other words, there are massive online retailers that could benefit from this type of embedded insurance as well. Is that a target for for yours, too?

Sabir Samad  31:04  

Yep, so we are there in the online space as well. So for example, the, as I mentioned, the third aggregator sports turf aggregator that I mentioned, right, so they’re the bookings, all happen online on their app. So every time you know a customer or player, you select a turf to play, he is given an option to purchase a fitness insurance, and he can protect himself against any engineer injuries that happens during the duration of play. So we are there also in the online space in these journeys, and we are trying to build more into the online space because you know, while we do strongly in the offline area as such, but you know, on this online frame, there is less you know, sales bandwidth is slashed intervention, which is required, right? It is everything runs on App these days is very easy to integrate on the apps to the customer journey becomes very flawless there. So we are trying to get into more and more of these partnerships into the into the online format. Also, the current format that we have in the offline space, we are also trying to get into the online journey of those partners. So for example, a person whose partner was selling shoes offline in offline store, so they also have their online portal through which people might buy shoes. Right. So we are getting integrated there as well.

Michael Waitze  32:43  

Thank you so much to Sabir Kumar Samad, the head of sales and partnerships at Symbo insurance. It was great to talk to you today. I really appreciate your time.

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