It takes real drive to start a successful business, but to repeat the trick and then do it again in a completely different field takes a very special set of skills.
Eddie Chang has done just that, and his latest venture, a financial start-up providing “insurtech” products and services on a mobile platform, looks set to take Hong Kong’s insurance sector into a whole new era.
“I saw great opportunities to simplify the way people buy insurance policies and make claims, believing it should keep pace with the needs of the digital generation,” says the founder and chief executive of Wesurance. “The sector is regulated, so you need core wisdom about where you can and can’t go. But I found insurance people were open to change, and saw the chance to innovate with AI, big data and cloud computing.”
What really got Chang thinking was breaking his camera while on holiday in Britain. The subsequent claim involved four forms, a visit to the service centre to photograph the damage, and no small amount of frustration. He realised there had to be a better way.
“It didn’t make sense,” he says. “If you look at other industries with online purchasing or multimedia downloads, users can buy anything from anyone on the same platform. But if you went to an insurance website, it didn’t tell you the cost, how to buy or how to file a claim. They expected you to go to an agent.”
So, Chang met the fintech division of the Insurance Authority, secured an agency licence, hired programmers to develop in-house systems and an app, teamed up with reputable partners - Allied World Assurance and TransUnion, who provide the actual policies – and forged ahead.
The first step was to offer travel insurance, with life cover and other products to follow. On the app, Amy, a “personal assistant” powered by AI, answers questions and guides users through a step-by-step process to buy insurance or make claims. Items like medical reports and photos can be scanned and uploaded. Most claims are processed in five to seven days. And payouts are made by cheque or – in future – by transfer to an e-wallet.
“Officially, our role is as an agency,” Chang says. “But basically customers do everything on the platform, and we want to invent more tools they can have at their fingertips.”
Chang grew up in Kwun Tong, where his mother was a housewife and his father was often away at sea. An interest in technology saw him make a walkie-talkie (an acknowledged failure) and a hi-fi system (a definite success) by his early teens, and that spurred further experimentation.
“I always liked these IT things and built my first single-board computer to play online games aged 17 or 18,” he says. “I used my wages from a summer job as a repairman at the nearby GE portable radio factory to buy the electronic kit from a magazine. It cost HK$1,900 and included a 6502 CPU. I did the soldering and learned to do the programming and how the video was displayed on the TV.”
Subsequently, he took a three-year higher diploma in marine electronics, graduating in 1984 from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and went straight into the PC industry as an engineer.
Working for a small firm, his main task was designing plug-in “hard cards”, but he also saw up close how the industry operated and what it would take to advance.
“I knew I needed commercial experience, so after four years I went to another company as marketing manager. At that time, PC displays were very simple; you needed cards to upgrade for Chinese characters and other languages. We did that, but after a while the job was just too boring. It seemed an endless cycle of orders, deliveries, solving problems, and then doing the same thing again the next day.”
So, in In 1991, aged 29, he took a leap in the dark and set up Zida Computer Technologies to make motherboards and peripherals. A factory in Shenzhen became the main centre of operations and, with exports to retailers in Europe and the Americas booming, the workforce grew to around 2,000.
“At times, it was a struggle, but I learned from everyday problems and from my mistakes,” Chang says.
The firm went public in 2000, but sensing a need for change, Chang took a three-week holiday in Australia, and returned to found GFI Group. He wanted a less sizeable business, with more “intelligence” and less day-to-day management, and focused on the technical development of IT products and apps for mobile devices and the internet of things (IoT).
“In a new start-up, you are riding a roller coaster,” Chang says. “Every day, you face new difficulties and must find solutions, which makes it quite unlike a ‘normal’ business, which runs on a loop.”
For Wesurance, that has so far meant challenging fixed thinking, improving the first version of the app based on user feedback, and broadening the initial target market from millennials to all types of customers.
“For a company to succeed, the most important things are environment, positioning and people,” he says. “You’ll always find opportunities, but you should be like an eagle looking for a fish under the water. That is part of my personality.”
When time allows, Chang boards his 65-foot motor cruiser at Clearwater Bay and heads to the islands off Sai Kung to relax and contemplate what the future holds.
“Jobs will change, and people won’t have more ‘knowledge’ than the search engine,” he says. “Therefore, we should tell youngsters the truth: in the years ahead, they will need wisdom, judgement and imagination, not knowledge in the traditional sense.”