The Tech Entrepreneur Who Accidentally Built a Billion-Dollar Company
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there are many ways to build a great business.
By Steven Butler
For all of us unambitious folks, Steve Yi offers some inspiration. He never had that lightning-strike BIG IDEA. Never trolled the streets of Silicon Valley looking for venture capital money. Never planned to build a billion-dollar tech company, and, unlike everyone else in the business, actually disdains the idea of aiming for it. But none of that has stopped him from moving fast in that unanticipated direction with his 5-year-old company, MediaAlpha. “We don’t use the term ‘management,’” the 45-year-old says, skewering yet another trope in the lexicon of Silicon Valleyese.
Despite all of that, MediaAlpha, which Yi, the CEO, co-founded with two partners, keeps popping up on league rankings, like fastest-growing company in Seattle over the past three years, according to Inc. magazine, or 13th on Deloitte’s list of fastest-growing tech companies in the U.S. It’s in a business called lead generation, a niche in the online advertising industry that matches up consumers and sellers of complex services, explains Jeff Navach, VP of marketing.
If you’ve recently gone online to buy auto insurance, chances are you’ve run into MediaAlpha’s referral platform. Here’s how it works: When interested consumers fill in one of those online information forms to get an insurance quote, providers take a few nanoseconds to bid on the customer. For instance, who’d pay most to insure a 45-year-old woman with a Volvo station wagon in Laguna Beach, California? Or a 25-year-old with an old Honda CRV in Boston? The info is more specific, and therefore more valuable, than random clicks on display ads on websites.
MediaAlpha has hit a sweet spot in insurance trends, as the cost and complexity of new technology have driven insurance providers to go outside for help. Bryant Tutterow, insurance marketing consultant affiliated with DK Marketing, says MediaAlpha is the latest in a 15-year trend of insurance companies going digital — but that Yi’s company has pushed the bidding system further than any others.
It’s another example of how fast-evolving technology is upending old industries, using complex software to create simple choices for consumers, inching buyers and sellers closer together — take Uber and Lyft or the latest in fintech. For Esurance, the online insurance provider, adopting the MediaAlpha platform was simple dollars and cents. Jane Armstrong, marketing programs manager at Esurance, cites “sophisticated, real-time tools to optimize bidding strategies and improve performance” that weren’t available before MediaAlpha came along, beating what was produced in-house.
Revenues last year hit $101.5 million, up from $3.2 million in 2011; Yi says they were profitable since “the first couple of months.” Yi’s looking forward to expanding — he reels off a long list of potentials: rooftop solar, home security, cable and phone service, personal finance, mortgages, for-profit education, travel.
I talked to Yi over Skype. Though the company’s based in Seattle, he and a few other employees live and work in Los Angeles. He was dressed in sweats — ready to take off for a run — and counting down the time to a ski vacation with his wife and three kids. Yi and his wife, both born in Korea, were raised in the Midwest: he in Eden Prairie, Minnesota; his wife grew in Columbia, Missouri. He studied Korean history at Harvard, and, for a time helped set up programs in L.A. and later in D.C. to heal tensions between the Korean and Black communities after the L.A. riots. Law school, again Harvard, helped pave the way for a business career and a stint at Goldman Sachs, where he decided investment banking was not his thing.
The lessons he picked up tripping through technology companies in the last decade — “I learned what I wanted to avoid” — led to an iconoclastic outlook on how to run a business. For one: He’s skeptical of “growing too rapidly,” of turning to the easy solution of hiring someone new to solve a problem. Not a problem at MediaAlpha, with just 32 employees. He also dislikes hierarchy and believes in being “radically transparent and flat” — which might sound like a Valley principle but is rarely lived. He figures he’ll have to revisit the management (un)structure as the company grows, but he wants to keep it as is for as long as possible. Other lessons on starting a company: “Do it before you think you are ready,” because there’s no other way to learn the lessons. Work with people unlike you, so skills complement rather than overlap. And … “When you are in Google’s crosshairs, you are getting in the way of a hungry dog and its meal” — a hard lesson he learned after developing a browser toolbar in the first company he founded … and folded.
Oh, and skip the VCs, if you can. MediaAlpha is largely self-funded, though it sold a majority stake two years ago to White Mountains Insurance Group, so the founders could enjoy life a little more and not have all their net worth tied up in the company.
For MediaAlpha, he teamed up with a technologist (Eugene Nonko) and a marketer (Ambrose Wang). Yi says they started out knowing little about auto insurance — the single biggest key to their success was partly accidental, when Nonko built an unexpectedly robust software platform, flexible enough that the insurance companies wanted it on their own sites, partly so they could generate an additional stream of revenue. Maybe 10 to 15 percent of customer hits result in sales, and now insurance companies can generate fees referring consumers to others who want the business.
So what does Yi do? “I sign leases and take out the garbage.” (Plus manage finances, negotiate deals, review contracts, work on product development.) OK, here’s one way he’s just like his Valley peers: He doesn’t really lack ambition.