15+ min read
One pizza craving — and a lack of motivation to search for Pizza Hut discount codes — led to the creation of Honey, an automated take on coupon clipping that has saved customers over $750 million to date. Frustration with the inefficiency of forms led one paralegal to start SeamlessDocs, which has raised $20 million so far in its quest to modernize and digitize the forms of hundreds of governments. And one founder’s own girl problems were the foundation for Relationship Hero, an instant relationship coaching service that’s yielded $1 million in one year.
As for what pizza, forms and girl problems have in common? Each served as the inspiration for a new company — one with the goal to overhaul an industry that, in the founders’ eyes, hadn’t yet been modernized.
Here’s an in-depth look at some companies aiming to reinvent their fields with new technology.
1. Relationship Hero
Aims to reinvent: Relationship Advice
How it started: Girl problems. That’s what led co-founders Liron Shapira and Lior Gotesman to launch Relationship Hero, a relationship coaching startup that’s yielded $1 million in just 12 months. Shapira describes himself as a “stereotypical nerd” in high school, viewing dating as an overarching mystery. He assumed he’d figure it out later and focused on his studies and computer programming. But after graduating from college, he didn’t find dating any less mysterious. Gotesman, on the other hand, was naturally good at relationships. He moonlighted as the go-to friend for relationship advice in college, but he couldn’t figure out computer programming. The two friends coached each other, and the results were better than they could have imagined: Gotesman learned to code, Shapira got married and together, they launched a service that combined their strengths.
How it works: Relationship Hero specializes in instant relationship coaching, which can be done via phone calls, emails, texting or Facebook Messenger. The company aims to help with any issue related to dating or relationships — from “How should I word my Tinder profile?” to “Why isn’t he or she texting me back?” to “I’m thinking about getting a divorce.” The service aims to identify problems in your dating life via an objective external lens, much like taking your car to the mechanic or visiting the doctor for an X-ray. The company offers both subscription plans and a la carte hours of coaching, and although prices differ, you can expect to pay about $100 for an hour of coaching.
How it scaled: Shapira and Gotesman knew success was possible due to the sheer number of people they saw firsthand who sought out relationship advice — and the fact that, in a time when attention is such a valuable resource, the service in its early stages held consumer focus. Plus, no one else had yet cornered the market. The two friends launched the company in July 2017 through the Y Combinator accelerator program, bringing in just $200 a week at first. As the company grew, they trained more coaches via books, example exercises and hands-on shadowing. Now, the company says it helps more than 100 people every day.
Aims to reinvent: Direct-to-consumer marketing
How it started: Before co-founding Hustle, Roddy Lindsay spent more than six years at Facebook as one of the company’s first data scientists, then left to start volunteering at FWD.us, a group focused on immigration reform. While there, Lindsay realized most of the group’s communication involved talking “at” people — like Facebook posts and blast emails — rather than with them. He wanted to fix that. Since many millennials don’t have landlines and feel their email inboxes are flooded, Lindsay viewed text messaging as the best channel for building real relationships, and the idea for Hustle was born. He tested the idea first at FWD.us and found that audience response rates increased from 10 percent or less to over 80 percent. That’s when Lindsay decided he had something special.
How it works: Hustle aims to “humanize” the way organizations communicate — moving away from direct mail campaigns, robocalls and social media posts and towards text message conversations to build relationships and community. The company facilitates texts from real people instead of bots making big asks on an organization’s behalf — usually for some action on the consumer’s part, like giving time or money — and pairs it with a system that can manage millions of individual conversations, says Lindsay. Their clients are public figures, companies or organizations that want to increase audience engagement — think Live Nation, Planned Parenthood, Michelle Obama’s Better Make Room Initiative and politician Bernie Sanders. One example: Last year when the Affordable Care Act repeal was on the table, Planned Parenthood used Hustle to kick off the “Defenders” program — recruiting people from across the country to do things like organize events in their home, host community gatherings, write letters, alert their networks and call their senators.
How it scaled: The company incorporated in December 2014, but over the last 18 months, it’s ballooned from 12 employees and less than $500,000 in annual revenue to a staff of 120 employees bringing in more than $12 million per year. Lindsay attributes the success in part to reaching people where they are — in today’s day and age, he says that means having “authentic dialogues” by way of text message. Another key point? He suggests making team diversity a priority from day one so that diverse voices help shape the long-term product and culture.
Aims to reinvent: Coupon clipping
How it started: It all began with a pizza craving. One October night in 2012, Ryan Hudson sat at his kitchen table, ordering online from Pizza Hut. He noticed the coupon code box at checkout, but he didn’t like the idea of wasting time searching for a discount code that may not even work. Later that night, the self-taught computer programmer decided to try to automate the coupon-searching process. By the end of the night, he had a prototype for Honey. After Hudson showed it to his co-founder the following morning, they decided it was worth the gamble, and a mad dash ensued to get the product launch-ready before Black Friday. Almost six years later, the company says it’s saved customers $750 million and counting.
How it works: Honey’s goal is to make it easy for mass-market consumers to save money with discounts. Some coupon websites list anywhere between 20 and 50 discount codes for consumers to try, but there’s no real way to guarantee one will work. Honey automatically tests codes for you on the checkout page, then applies the best one or alerts you that the current price is the best available deal. And the company’s newer feature, DropList, allows consumers to set price alerts when a lower price is listed for products on sites like Amazon, Target, Walmart, Macy’s and more.
How it scaled: The night Hudson built Honey’s prototype, he figured the service would be worth the effort even if he were the only one to make use of it. Close to six years later, Honey has about 10 million users. Hudson attributes the success to removing friction from people’s lives — and the strength of word of mouth.
Aims to reinvent: Insurance
How it started: Johnny Bridges’s first job out of college was at an insurance company in Lloyd’s of London, an insurance market offering specialty insurance — think Bruce Springsteen’s voice, which is reportedly insured there for $6 million — in over 200 countries and territories. It’s a physical building where insurance brokers approach underwriters and try to negotiate risk, which can take many hours. “The whole thing couldn’t be more inefficient if it tried,” says Bridges.
He and his co-founder decided to do something about it by starting Artificial. But besides just specialty insurance, they wanted to transform the insurance industry as a whole. Their inspiration? Customers’ distrust of insurance companies. People pay premiums, usually only have contact with insurance companies after a negative event and then, in terms of claim payout, “It’s like trying to get blood out of a stone,” says Bridges. Insurance companies’ antiquated backend systems don’t help, either. Bridges says it takes nine to 12 months on average to take a new insurance product to market, and those long innovation lead times can mean big losses in potential revenue.
How it works: “Think of us like Stripe, but for insurance,” says Bridges. Stripe provides infrastructure for individuals and businesses to receive payments over the internet, and Artificial allows insurance companies to sell, manage and price their insurance in a streamlined way. It cuts down on paper and on middlemen — plus, through the company’s software, Bridges says insurance companies can bring new products to market in a matter of weeks. As for how the company affects consumers directly? Artificial’s software allows insurance to be purchased outside of regular business hours, and its algorithms can lead to better risk estimates for insurance companies — thereby leading to more accurate or lower premiums for consumers. For example, when it comes to car insurance, Artificial’s machine learning algorithm can track driving practices like average speed through a telematic sensor customers place in their cars.
How it scaled: “Many of the strategies we used to get to our current position I wouldn’t recommend to anyone,” says Bridges. “We’ve learned huge amounts in the past five years and made plenty of mistakes along the way.” He and his co-founder started out fearful of paying large salaries for certain engineering positions, so they gravitated towards junior-level hires that had less experience and needed more training, resulting in stunted growth for the company. They switched gears and started hiring at a senior level, which translated to no training, better quality and a better return on investment. In software engineering, Bridges learned the “KISS” principle — “Keep it simple, stupid” — which he applies to everything he does in both business and life.
Aims to reinvent: Wedding registries
How it started: As the old adage states, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” And in 2013, Shan-Lyn Ma needed a better wedding registry service. That year, it seemed like all her friends were getting married, and she felt she was constantly buying wedding gifts. “It was the worst e-commerce shopping experience I had ever seen,” says Ma. She says that at the time, many registries were dominated by traditional department stores. Sure, they had online product lists and checkout, but Ma says the checkout process was difficult — and her friends’ registries wouldn’t even load properly on a mobile phone. “I was frustrated,” says Ma. “If my closest friend is getting married, I [want] to do something meaningful and beautiful, and it felt the exact opposite.” Brides told Ma that one of the worst parts of wedding planning was creating their registries, and they wished they could register for products, experiences and cash funds in one place — and personalize it somehow. That sparked the idea for Zola.
How it works: Zola acts as a one-stop shop for wedding registries and planning, offering 60,000 gift options like products, experiences and cash funds. Couples can create personalized registry pages with photos and notes about why they’re registering for certain products (e.g., “We love to make smoothies together. That’s why we’ve got our eye on this blender”). They’re notified when a product on their list is purchased, and to avoid “box overload,” they can decide whether it’s shipped right away or held for a later date. If they changed their minds about a product before its ship date, they can exchange it virtually. To help with thank-you notes, Zola offers an exportable list of who sent which gift when, plus their addresses.
How it scaled: The company attributes most of its growth to focus — and waiting until the wedding registry was up to high standards before expanding into other areas (wedding websites, thank-you note managers and more). They believe the best way to scale is in a sustainable way — in other words, slow and capital-efficient wins the race.
Aims to reinvent: Government forms
How it started: Filling out forms can be a headache, and when he worked in paralegal outsourcing, Jonathon Ende experienced that every day. He couldn’t believe that people were shelling out thousands of dollars to figure out how to interact with the U.S. government, and he resolved to build a “turbohack” to make forms simpler and more efficient. He created the initial version of SeamlessDocs using Excel — taking screenshots of forms and manually setting them as the backgrounds of each spreadsheet so users could input data digitally and would show up in the right sections. After taking the company through an accelerator program, he resolved to focus solely on bringing government forms online. But soon, he says, his mission evolved into making interacting with government a “beautiful experience.” SeamlessDocs has raised close to $20 million to date, and clients include hundreds of governments in 40 states — making the service available to about 50 million constituents total, says Ende.
How it works: SeamlessDocs aims to save both government workers and constituents time and money on forms — everything from noise complaints to information requests to pet permits. Ende expanded his original view from bringing forms online to simplifying the way constituents find those forms online — plus adding features to forms like the ability to add attachments, submit payments, create a virtual signature and set up form status alerts. The company also helps governments cut down on the number of questions on forms by creating “conditionals.” For example, if you answer “no” on one question and the next 20 questions are related follow-ups, they could disappear from the form since they’re not relevant. On the government side, SeamlessDocs offers tools to manage the incoming forms. Ende says the company saves governments about 1.8 hours of time per form, while it’s about 20 to 30 minutes per form for constituents.
How it scaled: Ende says many governments used to think modernizing the form process would be too expensive and time-consuming, so they stuck with Microsoft Outlook and Excel. To reframe his business, he billed it as a “comprehensive form and processing solution.” As for the most important scaling lesson he learned? Don’t try to be everything to everyone; you’re ready to scale once you narrow your focus. “As soon as we set the conviction that we were not going to be the best at forms — we were going to be the best at government forms — we were then ready to scale,” says Ende.
Aims to reinvent: Life insurance
How it started: There’s no shortage of business ideas born in college dorm rooms, but at Stanford University’s business school, Peter Colis and his engineer roommate were working on something a little different: overhauling the life insurance industry. Colis’s roommate, Lingke Wang, had fallen for a classic consumer pitfall: buying unnecessary insurance. In Wang’s case, he was 20 years old and single with no dependents — but a life insurance agent on commission managed to sell him a pricey permanent life insurance policy. Wang realized his mistake too late, and he ended up losing most of what he paid. He and Colis formulated their idea for Ethos, a life insurance company that would cater to consumers instead of commissions. Now, company investors include the likes of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, Robert Downey Jr.’s Downey Ventures, Kevin Durant’s Durant Company and Will Smith’s Smith Family Circle.
How it works: Colis bills Ethos as a life insurance company for “people who don’t have time for fine print or extra doctor appointments or hidden fees.” That’s a tall order, but the company seems to deliver on the efficiency front: Its software and predictive analytics boil a typically 10- to 15-week underwriting process down to about 10 minutes. How? Consumers fill out an online life insurance application, answering questions about behavior (e.g. “Do you rock climb?”) and health (e.g. “When was the last time you stayed overnight in the hospital?”). Ethos then makes a life-expectancy prediction using big data. Some aspects of the process are relatively run-of-the-mill (application information, pharmaceutical records, credit-related financial modeling), while others are more counterintuitive (for example, someone’s history of speeding tickets could correlate to their likelihood of contracting a serious illness). Policies are either approved on the spot or within a few days. As for commissions? There aren’t any. “No one makes money when a policy is sold,” says Colis.
How it scaled: The roommates’ first business decision was hiring the “smartest guy from [their] class” at Stanford Business School, who also happened to be the head of Instagram’s advertising product, says Colis. From there, they hired friends of friends, then told them to bring in the smartest people they knew. When the co-founders sought out funding, they walked into Sequoia Capital — and were lucky enough to snag a meeting with a partner who was also a trained insurance actuary. He understood the business model via firsthand experience and helped them raise $11.5 million in funding. Another key scaling strategy? The average life insurance agent is a 60-year-old man, says Colis, so they usually end up selling to older men — but in the hopes of cornering a relatively untapped market, Ethos partnered with “mommy bloggers” to create promotional content.