How the up-and-coming Columbus startup combines smart business with a noble mission
Insurance is insurance, right? When shopping around for home or car insurance, it can be challenging to spot the differences. Sure, quotes may be separated by a few dollars a month and coverage may be slightly different, but for the most part it all seems the same. For Branch Insurance, the new kids on the block in the Columbus insurance provider scene, the goal is to change that. Branch was founded in 2017 and launched publicly in 2019 by Steve Lekas and Joe Emison, veterans of the industry who wanted to see it evolve in a way that was more beneficial to the customer and harkened back to what insurance was meant to be.
“At Branch, we’re on a mission to restore insurance to its original intent — being a communal force for good,” Lekas said. “Insurance can’t exist without many people, but the way insurance works is that we pool small bits of our resources so that when something bad happens to one of us, none of us fall off of our positive trajectory. That allows people to grow and take risks knowing that insurance can be a safety net. Our mission, within that, is to make insurance less expensive so that more people can be insured.”
Branch approaches this simultaneous disruption and simplification in several ways, largely with the intent of making insurance easier and more beneficial. They’ve created partnerships with companies like Rocket Mortgage, which makes their home insurance part of the built-in process. In states where it’s been approved, their price decreases when you invite friends to join. Rather than answering dozens of questions before you get a quote — an “archaic concept” to Lekas — Branch offers a simple price when given only a name and address. Branch sees itself as a “facilitator of a community” and makes profit on flat, fixed fees rather than depending on paying out as few claims as possible.
“The price is always the price,” Lekas said. “All of us, as consumers, would like to pay less for the things we have to pay for. We provide home and car insurance, and they’re both largely compulsory — you have to have car insurance if you drive and you have to have home insurance with a mortgage — so most people don’t have a choice. We’re built on technology and a business model that allows lower prices to be possible. Insurance should be very efficient; it should be each of us looking out for each other instead of this massive overhead that we all pay into.”
That concept doesn’t just apply to those insured by Branch. The company has set up a philanthropic arm called SafetyNest, aimed at allowing more access to insurance and lowering what Lekas calls the financial exclusion barrier. A small percentage of Branch customers’ payments go toward funding SafetyNest, which allows people in need to apply for assistance through the program.
“There’s a huge financial exclusion problem in this country,” Lekas said. “Just in Ohio, more than 500,000 people drive uninsured. You pay premiums to your insurance company to cover the possibility of an accident with an uninsured driver. People who are excluded have no margin for error and are typically living close to or underneath the poverty line. These are good people who have to make hard choices and insurance is the thing they don’t buy. But if they get in an accident or even get a ticket, they can’t get out of a hole they’ve dug themselves into. For us, it was really important that we were doing something good for the world. The beautiful part about the impact that we’ll make is that as you drive the cost down, the exclusion barrier lowers naturally. Doing the thing that makes you a profit naturally creates a societal benefit.”
Branch was founded by a group of leaders from all around the country, and settled on launching in Columbus after a nationwide search. They started exploring more than 200 markets, eventually narrowing the list down to places like Nashville, Raleigh-Durham and Austin in addition to Columbus. The combination of culture, cost and access to a great workforce swung the decision toward Ohio, and Lekas said it’s been an ideal home for the growing company.
“One of the characteristics we were looking for was a diverse community that was tolerant,” he said. “We visited Columbus and looked at what became our office and saw a mural of the underground railroad nearby, it was the feel we were looking for. We wanted to get in somewhere on the upswing, and that’s Columbus. We have a lot of transplants from all over the country, and Columbus has been this delightful place that we’ve loved so far. People have found a really positive home here. The cost of living, commute distance, job happiness and recruiting have all been great.”
Like its Columbus home, Branch is trending upward. The company has increased its size by 15 since the beginning of 2020 and closed a $24 million Series A funding round in July. The company is certainly on an upward trajectory, and Lekas said Branch’s business model means that the sky’s the limit for the up-and-comers.
“We’re growing very rapidly and we have a pretty unique distribution model that’s going to give us continued growth,” he said. “We’re also growing with a stable business model, which is so important in insurance. We’re building with really strong insurance and data science. We have all of the foundational assets to eventually be one of the biggest companies in this space. Our first and foremost need for our clients is to get to scale and continue to make insurance more efficient and allow our clients to pay less for it.”