About a year ago, two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Slice Labs laid off about a third of its staff due to the coronavirus-related economic environment. Like many other startups, the company needed to conserve cash and figure out a survival strategy in dramatically uncertain times. Slice adapted quickly, however, and now the InsurTech is adding employees again.
Executive SummaryCOVID-19 has been tough on individuals and businesses alike through 2020 and now into 2021. Here, Slice Labs CEO Tim Attia explains what the how COVID-19 restrictions forced the company to adapt, pivot and change its approaches, often for the better.
“We started hiring, just before the new year, because of the contracts that we signed in between,” Slice CEO Tim Attia told Carrier Management from a hotel room in Ottawa, Canada, in March, visiting to meet two colleagues he hadn’t seen in person for more than a year. Attia’s black hair was long and curly, left uncut for about four months, from before the last lockdown in Toronto, where he lives.
A return to hiring aside, the year has not been easy for Slice, which sells on-demand insurance and helps carriers offer the same via its Insurance Cloud Services Platform (whose function depends, in part, on machine learning and advanced big data technologies.) Nearly every company in the world had to adapt quickly to the pandemic and the quarantines, the work-at-home mandates and business-trip disruptions that followed. Slice was not immune.
“It’s definitely been a challenge,” Attia said. “I mean, last summer, we were getting a little tired of sitting at home in the laundry room and in our home offices and just listening to the echo chamber of what we thought was going on.”
A concerted effort to reach out to customers and peers began the company’s effort to pivot and adapt.
“We were able to make sure our customers can operate, make sure we can operate, make sure we’re still in business and we were able to get through that,” he said. “And then the next thing [to consider] was, ‘Well, what’s next?’ A lot of people were discussing coming out of this.”
Quarantines and Digital After-Effects
For Slice, the first big step was to identify what was happening with carriers’ digital investments, a query that focused in part on the effects of auto insurance rebates issued due to COVID-related driving declines. Attia noted, for example, the idea that the pandemic would push carriers to go digital quicker but said there were risks that digital investments could also falter.
“If revenues are decreasing because auto revenues are based on how much you drive or commercial revenues were based on how much revenues people are having – if premiums are going to go down – everybody’s going to lock the door and stop doing anything, stop doing all their digital initiatives or carriers are just going to keep going straight down the center like they have for hundreds of years,” Attia said. “We thought we would go out and, rather than try to guess, just go out and work with people and say, ‘OK, well, are there any things you want to try and solve or any things we can do virtually?'”
This approach generated some unexpected traction, Attia said. At the same time, however, continued pandemic restrictions on movement and interaction continue to create challenges.
“The second half of …we thought it was going to be very, very difficult, especially to do new stuff,” Attia said. “To our surprise, it really picked up. We went through six months of, surprisingly, things picking up and going well, but then now, eight months after, we’re still locked down, and we’re really finding it very difficult to do business in this environment.”
Business Without Face-to-Face Meetings
Attia explained that Slice has built its business with a lot of travel and in-person meetings. That approach has gone out the window with COVID-19. But relying on Zoom and online interactions has opened many new doors.
“One of the things that was surprising to us is I’m in Toronto and I would spend a lot of time in New York,” Attia said. “Now, New York is the same distance away from me as Australia or Sao Paulo – they’re all the same distance now [with digital communications]. So, one surprise is that we’re actually doing work in areas we wouldn’t have worked in before because it was – ‘Well, I’m not going to work with you unless you’re here.'”
That attitude has changed tremendously, Attia said, as customers seek to conduct their business in the pandemic-restrictive world everyone faces now.
“People have backed off and said, ‘Well, I’ll work with you, even remotely,’ but then, most of our business is in the U.S., and it’s just been difficult, especially in the B2B or B2B2B space, to not do business face-to-face,” Attia said.
He explained that Slice took a position of “plan for the worst and work for the best,” which helped the company minimize any pandemic-related loss of business.”
“There are some products that we were doing that were more travel-related. Those are still down,” Attia noted. “The flip side is we did pick up much more than we thought we did.”
Some of those unexpected opportunities for Slice include a new project in Australia, where previously Slice had not planned to focus there. Brazil has also presented itself as a new market, even though Slice hadn’t planned on expanding there, either. Additionally, Slice signed some contracts in Continental Europe as well.
The Ups and Downs of Working Remotely
While Slice and many other companies adapted to doing business remotely, it hasn’t been without its problems, Attia pointed out.
“There’s definitely a level of communication and collaboration and building relationships that are more difficult to do, especially when you’re doing something new, so I find that we find out things later, like we were about to go live and something is missed,” Attia said, stating that remote business has led to miscommunications or misunderstandings.
“There are limits…to Zoom meetings,” he said. He observed that forming partnerships and scaling up a book of business or revving up a technology installation can be difficult without at least some in-person interaction.
On the other hand, Attia said that Slice, for the first time, is focused more on executing business rather than just developing new things – thanks to a narrower pandemic-related focus. Still, he said his developers struggle without being in the same space while most Slice employees continue to work from home due to pandemic restrictions.
“Teams go in for shorter periods of time, and it’s just difficult and not everybody [is together]…Some people work well remotely, and some people are freaked out,” Attia said. “Some people are very social and they need to be in social [settings] and [environments]…It may be actually difficult to innovate when something can’t just happen organically” and in person.
While Slice is hiring again, and stronger than it was at the start of the pandemic, Attia acknowledged the company lost some employees because of the pandemic-driven working conditions.
“We have lost some people because of this environment and primarily because, I think, we lose touch with them,” Attia explained.
And yet, Slice was able to negotiate for a new development office in Ottawa at a better rate than the company would have gotten before the downturn, he said.
“We’re in a new office now, which I think we wouldn’t have gotten before because [the market] was so hot,” Attia explained. “We couldn’t find space and now, fortunately with the downturn, we’re able to get some space.”
Having gotten through a year of COVID-19, Attia said the company is moving out of startup mode and focusing on scaling up. Options on the table include raising money or looking at something such as M&A.
“Raising money is important for the growth of the company,” Attia said, explaining that M&A can help accomplish similar goals.
Exploring which path to take will play out through 2021, Attia added.
“This will be the year that we decide…which way we’re going to go,” he said. “It’s very much our [scale-up] year. You’ve already jumped out of a plane, and so you have to execute. It’s really about the partnerships that we have right now.”
Slice employs about 60 people now, Attia said. It has raised more than $30 million in venture capital to date, from investors including XL Innovate, Horizons, Munich Re/HSB Ventures, SOMPO and others.