CEO & Co-Founder
Community Life GmbH
With Community Life, Claudia Lang has established the first purely online life insurance provider. Her goal: to take the complexity out of insurance products and do without the tricks of the trade. David vs. Goliath – this is the story that always motivated her. Community Life‘s stellar track record and its customers‘ encouragement show that her idea works.
The tender, dark-haired woman with the open smile and the alert brown eyes is always happiest when something new has to be built from the ground up. When Claudia thinks about why she has always chosen new challenges and not the "straight", traditional career path, memories of her childhood in Canada come back. "I believe that childhood experiences and the way you grow up are very influential," says the Community Life Manager. Her parents had emigrated in 1955, but they stuck to the values of home. Claudia grew up in a rather unusual triad of cultures: The loving but strict German upbringing, in which fulfilling one's duty was the measure of all things, the rather bourgeois Toronto of the seventies, and last but not least a school that did not correspond to these two worlds at all. "The school was practically a start-up with highly committed French teachers who thought we were building a project here that corresponded to the ideals of ´68," says the 58-year-old German-Canadian.
In the first few years, there was no school building of its own, lessons were given in the changing rooms of hockey arenas or in the basements of synagogues, so Friday was always an early day because of the Sabbath preparations. "Our teachers had very progressive ideas. For example, we also learned Russian in school, since nobody knew who would win the Cold War," said Claudia. Instead of the then-contemporary standard reprimand and humiliation of the students, there was a different atmosphere. One teacher once said that copying was a sign of cooperation between pupils and was therefore not fundamentally bad. The exchange was lively, and often in the lively discussions, for example about Baudelaire's texts, even the ringing of the school bell was forgotten. She remained faithful to the school project until her Abitur and owes it a certain rebellious attitude. Today, the Toronto French School has become an elite school. But the students of these first years still meet regularly, Claudia Lang proudly reports and smiles, noting that none of them really went down the straightforward path. But it wasn't until she started university, where she first studied language and literature, then law by chance, that the contrast to her school days really became apparent: she didn't really know what it was like to learn superficially just by looking at good grades.
After graduating and a happy six months in Paris, Claudia began her career in a major law firm in Toronto, where she started with stock exchange law.
"I found the rather hectic IPO world particularly exciting. Startups wanted to secure financing strategies from new business models and the promoters came to us with their dreams and visions - even crazy things like a fuel-saving plastic engine," Claudia looks back. It was a time of hard work with well over 80 hours per week, during which the young lawyer had to assume responsibility far beyond her breadth of experience. At the same time, however, this time should shape her future professional life more than anything else and give her decisive insight. "Due to my inexperience, some mistakes have definitely been made. What was surprising was the realization that it was not bad to make these mistakes. Knowing that mistakes are human and that most are irrelevant is very liberating," says the founder. In addition, given the crazy working hours, all other jobs would have felt like a walk in the park by comparison.
Together with her first child, the German-Canadian then moved to England in 1993 in the name of love. A company foundation of her partner did not work out, which was a low point. "It often takes a catastrophe to be driven out of the comfort zone. The question is always how to deal with it: "Do I give up or do I go forward? The lawyer hired the future insurance „pope“ Clive Cowdery to build Scottish Amicable's international insurance business. With her native language, she was the perfect candidate to tackle the German market. After the company was taken over by Prudential, however, Claudia seized the opportunity to leave the legal department and concentrate fully on building up new business and entering the market under the Sali name: Finally back in the start-up environment, albeit with the backing of a large corporation!
But already after two years, Claudia felt the need for something new! When Canada Life – essentially the Allianz Versicherung of Canada, offered her to set up the life insurance business in Germany from Ireland, she took up the offer. As a board member of Canada Life Europe, she once again established the German business from scratch with a team of four people. The atmosphere of optimism once again had its effect. Two years later, when her old employer Prudential wanted to leave the German market, the insurance expert saw a huge opportunity and suggested buying the business with over 200,000 contracts in Germany. For Claudia, this almost felt like a reverse takeover - now she was working with her old colleagues again. When the transaction went through in 2003, she decided to move to Frankfurt, which she saw as a good chance for her now three children to speak German properly and get to know their grandparents' home country.
At Canada Life, she was responsible for Development and Legal. Everything was in order, interesting tasks were available, and it offered clearly defined career path until retirement. "When I ask myself why I didn't just stay there, I get a clear answer: It got a little boring. I'm not a governor," says Claudia Lang in retrospect. While she blossomed in the build-up phases, in the uncertainty, and in the team spirit of tackling things together, it always became somehow boring as soon as a certain size was reached and the business model was in place.
In the meantime, the insurance expert had started working regularly as a lobbyist in Brussels. The German insurers were not enthusiastic when other competitors suddenly also wanted to get involved in their market. They launched "subtle attacks at the regulatory level", as Claudia puts it. She became chairman of the Association of International Life Offices (AILO), which advocates fair competition. The lawyer and insurance expert increasingly spent a lot of time in Brussels talking to MEPs and consumer protectors. Then came the financial crisis in 2008, and Claudia experienced for herself how bad not only the image of the financial industry was, but also that of its own sector. "I always thought I was a nice girl," says the insurance expert jokingly, but when a member of parliament accused her with "you're all criminals," she began to ponder. Instead of dismissing the accusation, she began to deal with it. "Something happened in this trial," she says. Criminal is the wrong word, but the industry has added more and more complexity to its products to the detriment of its customers in order to show costs less clearly. As a result, neither the company's own office staff and field staff nor the customers could really understand the products in this way.
"Try explaining to a person how profit-sharing works for them. It was clear to me that the critics were right, we have to do things differently. That's when I got the idea for Community Life," recalls Claudia. In the meantime, it was 2012, although not everyone was talking about disruption and the digital revolution yet, e-commerce and online self services had already taken root in other industries and changed Claudia's buying behaviour noticeably. That's why she wanted to offer the first online life insurance. "At the time, the general opinion in the insurance industry was that the customer always wanted representatives sitting on the couch or going to an office for advice. This may be the right approach for complex pension issues. But for less complex products, the reason for being of this concept changes significantly. Even the insurance brokers themselves often wanted a simple online process for their customers," she says. Their basic concern was therefore: the insurance must be understandable for people and not surprise them with small print. No sentence should be longer than 15 words for the contract description, keyword "simple language".
In addition, customers should be able to use the insurance offer online immediately and remain in the driver's seat, even after the contract has been signed. A log book shows all transactions, the policyholder has full transparency over all documents which are present to the insurance, and even physician reports. "We share a digital file with the customer," explains Claudia. Her company is called Community Life because she wants policyholders to really see themselves as a community that stands together. This is underpinned by the discussion forums, but above all by the hardship fund for policyholders set up by Community Life. Social projects are also supported. "When I read in the comments: 'the lived feeling of we' or 'nothing is forced upon me', that makes me happy," says Claudia. People should feel that they are being taken care of, that's what‘s important to them.
Probably the most massive difference is that Community Life has broken with some of the cornerstones of traditional insurance providers. The company discloses its remuneration on its website, which is not an obligation in Germany. In addition, no one expects, like with other offerers, that potential prospective customers disclose extensive personal information under their name, only to be rejected then possibly still. The risk assessment therefore usually runs anonymously until it is clear that a contract can be made and signed. "This is not Rocket Science, this is the will to do what is good for the customer," she says. Because the gross net price strategy is usually not transparent for customers and comes up with nasty surprises afterwards - for example, because the insurer's surpluses are lower and they therefore increase the price - Claudia does without it completely. Instead, there are fixed-price products. After entering the market, the headwind was not long in arriving. Other providers initially accused the model of being more susceptible to fraud because customers can change their contracts themselves using passwords and PINs. Naturally, everything had been completely examined from a legal point of view. "I find it fascinating how topics that we took up at the time are hotly debated today, such as gross net and the handling of customer data," says Claudia.
But once again back to the jump into the ice-cold water. At some point, the decision had matured to really give up the job with a company car, and to reimagine the new idea together with her husband without backing. She had spent many bad nights plagued by existential fears. "Sometimes I really asked myself: Am I crazy? What am I doing", admits Claudia in retrospect. But during the day she says to herself: "After all, there is no guillotine for entrepreneurs who fail: so what risk are we really talking about? When the step had finally been taken, the doubts had vanished. "Especially in the first year, when financing and business model development were on the agenda, I experienced so many positive things from other people. Everyone who was able to help in any way helped - from the former boss, who went through the business plan, to the neighbour who once looked after my youngest son," says Claudia. To experience this support and intensive cooperation in the face of a common idea was something very special. Some of the future employees initially even worked without pay. She was able to win Swiss Re, one of the world's largest reinsurers, as a sponsor for the launch.
Living the right thing in the wrong didn't work for the entrepreneur when the software platform developed by a service provider proved inadequate as early as 2015. "It was clear to me that what we had built was not sustainable. It was extremely important to say that we made a mistake and then proceed to fix it. Once we make a decision, we have to stick to it," says Claudia Lang. The system was replaced in 2016 and the value of the company increased at the same time. The visionary IT team built an architecture on a greenfield site that is ahead of its time. Community Life also offers this technology platform to other companies. The company manages its processes much more cheaply than traditional insurance companies thanks to a high degree of process automation. The fact that their concept has worked for customers is proven by the top marks awarded by Ökotest, n-tv, Capital and Wirtschaftswoche, among others. Their 14 employee strong company comes up with a Net Promoter Score of 58; the next best score in the life insurance industry is around 30. And the next topic, driven by customer feedback, is already in the works. Since traditional disability insurance has inherent weaknesses, Community Life is now thinking about insurances that can help you in difficult situations, such as when the house needs to be rebuilt, after an accident or serious illness.
Author: Daniela Hoffmann
Originally published in German in 2018 in the Rulebreaker Magazine
Click here to find out more about Claudia and her work at Community Life
Date of publication: July 2019