There are worse things than your company going bankrupt – a truism that’s often buried in all the startup literature about overcoming your fear of failing. But Rosaline Koo, founder of healthcare startup CXA, knows it well.
“The fear of failure is so small relative to the fear of being disabled and disfigured,” she told audience members at Tech in Asia Singapore last week. “I grew up being bullied a lot and when my sisters finally arrived from China, it was in the middle of the Watts riots.”
“My father was outside, keeping the rioters away from our house with the police,” she added.
The only way we can win is if we have the heavy hitters and the rain makers.
Fast forward to today. Koo’s company is upending the corporate insurance industry by giving employees the ability to choose a mix of insurance and wellness benefits. The startup takes the one-size-fits-all insurance package and converts that into a wallet, so employees are free to decide how much insurance they need and what wellness products they want, like gym or even yoga studio memberships.
Thanks to its US$25 million series B round, CXA is now worth US$100 million. To get there, Koo and her whole family had to bet their entire life savings – her retired husband had to reenter the workforce, her daughter had to start working to cover college tuition.
Koo has her sights set on beating global incumbents in the insurance brokerage industry, such as Mercer Marsh Benefits, her ex-employer. To do that, she’ll not only have to out-compete in terms of product offering, but also talent.
“The only we can win is if we have the heavy hitters and the rain makers,” she said. “Every week we take one of them away from somebody.”
The art of poaching
It’s not easy to attract top talent from companies like Google and Facebook to a startup. In fact, some candidates wouldn’t join until CXA reached a certain scale, Koo says.
“They have so many opportunities they refuse to join a startup until I was worth US$100 million,” she said. “So I needed to get there in order to attract them.”
But Koo’s previous experience at Mercer, the largest employee benefits brokerage and HR benefits consultancy in Asia-Pacific, meant that she knew the best in the industry. She worked there for eight years, overseeing its operations in 14 countries.
I have no dignity or shame anymore.
“Now a lot of them are calling me, so we’ve reached that point,” she said. For instance, the startup’s CTO and machine learning expert, Ofir Shalev, worked for Koo during her tenure at Mercer. Still, it’s taken three years to convince some of her ex-staff to come on board CXA – as well as a “a combination of stalking and begging,” she joked.
“I have no dignity or shame anymore,” she emphasized.
However, CXA’s timing is working in its favor. Due to the Trump administration’s anti-immigration sentiment and the US president’s latest moves to restrict H1-B visas, the Singapore-based startup is seeing an influx of talent from Silicon Valley.
“We actually do get a lot of calls from experts in the US to come here,” she said. “It’s really, really good for us.”
And not only is politics having a positive effect on CXA’s hiring efforts, but industry trends in general. Koo says insurance brokerages have been consolidating and acquiring HR consulting firms, which are “imploding,” or buying acquisitions that are based on old technology.
“As the industry implodes, I become the place to be,” she said.
This is part of the coverage of TIA Singapore 2017, our conference that took place on May 17 and 18.
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