As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Chini Krishnan.
Chini Krishnan is Co-Founder and CEO of GetInsured. With more than 27 years of experience in the high technology industry, his passion for helping Americans navigate the health insurance system is the driving force behind what he does every day. When GetInsured was founded, Chini wanted to leverage his experience with software and the Internet to design a site that allowed Americans to find and purchase health insurance with the same ease as buying a plane ticket or booking a hotel room online. After the passage of the Affordable Care Act, GetInsured pivoted its mission to help states build such easy-to-use marketplaces through a SaaS platform.
Today, GetInsured serves 2.6 million Americans and is constantly finding innovative ways to simplify the complexities of buying health insurance. The company operates the technology for five state health exchanges, including Nevada, California, Idaho, Minnesota, and Washington State, and will be launching exchanges in Pennsylvania and New Jersey later this year.
Prior to GetInsured, Chini most recently founded and served as Chairman and Chief Technology Officer at Valicert Inc., a leader in establishing public-key infrastructure (PKI) on the Internet. At Valicert, Chini served multiple roles including running the technology and services arms. Prior to founding Valicert, Chini was Product Marketing Manager at Enterprise Integration Technologies (EIT), where he was involved in releasing the world’s first secure browser. Chini holds an MS in Computer Science from Duke University and a BS, also in Computer Science, from the Indian Institute of Technology.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thank you! I am so excited to share our story with your readers. In some ways, I have been an entrepreneur for most of my career. My first venture was back in the dot com days when I founded a company focused on the validation of digital credentials necessary for secure commerce on the web. The company was called Valicert. We founded the company in 1997, took it public in 2000, and sold it in 2004.
Shortly after that, our son was born and I remember trying to buy health insurance for my family. We had the means to purchase health insurance, but the enrollment process was convoluted at best. There were unfamiliar terms, unclear prices, and it was really difficult to figure out how plans compared to each other, and what each of them would cover — and importantly, not cover.
It was then that I started to think, “there must be a better way.” I knew I could take what I knew about technology and the Internet, and build something that the market hadn’t seen yet. As we thought about it some more, we decided that our mission would be to help Americans across the country navigate the health insurance system and find a plan that actually fits their unique needs. And so, the seed was planted for GetInsured.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Well, this isn’t a “haha” funny story, but certainly ironic and makes me always wonder, “what if?” Early in our evolution, we invested in creating an online drug pricing capability that would allow consumers to search for the best price on their prescriptions. As our focus changed, we stopped pursuing the idea. Today, there are companies built on that core concept that are worth several billion dollars. I ask myself, where would I be if we had pursued that route? I don’t regret any business decisions that I’ve made, as we wouldn’t be where we are today. But it does go to show that when you have a good idea that fills an important need, or void in the marketplace, it’s important that you stick with it.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Most books that I find interesting and stay with me are books on science, history, and culture. Reading is actually one of my favorite pastimes — and a book that stands out to me is The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It talks about the greatest story on earth — the evolution of life and the central role that the gene has to play in this story. Having said that, this is a book that is personally interesting, not necessarily one that has directly helped my career.
Each entrepreneur is a bit different — I like to approach business with a spirit of adventure and focus on our mission. The business of business is the business of life, and many of life’s lessons can be brought back to business.
Because of our team’s love of reading, we do have a tradition around the office in which we leave books around that employees can read, if they are interested in them. And, each year during the holiday season, we curate four to five books that we give to our friends and partners and leave them around the office library. Some recent examples are The Pirates of Somalia, The Mosquito, and It’s Better Than It looks.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
GetInsured was founded out of my own difficulties navigating the purchase of health insurance. That awareness drives my passion for helping Americans navigate our (rather complex) health insurance system every day. When we were founded, I wanted to leverage my experience with software and the Internet to design a site that allowed Americans to find and purchase health insurance with the same ease as buying a plane ticket. After the passage of the Affordable Care Act, we pivoted our mission to help states build easy-to-use marketplaces through a SaaS platform.
I truly believe that purpose-driven businesses are more fun and more successful, but I think the point is bigger for many of us who spend much of our waking hours working — having a purpose in your business is about more than having success in business . . . it’s about having a purpose in your life.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
With every new decision, we first ask ourselves if it will help the millions of people that need health insurance. We take on opportunities that may be technically challenging, time-intensive, and may never have been done before, always because we believe that these decisions will enable more people to access affordable health insurance. Having a central “North Star” principle is fundamentally useful in providing clarity to complex decision-making.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My immediate family, fortunately, has not been impacted beyond having to quarantine. Both my wife and I have extended family in India, and not being able to visit them has been a source of stress. However, being separated by thousands of miles is not new to us, and we have found ways to bridge the gap by doing video calls where we do get to see and talk to each other.
Speaking a little more broadly, many of our employees rallied around the needs of the peninsula and came together to come up with ways to support our local communities during the pandemic. They suggested activities such as volunteering and donating. You’ll find members of our team scattered about working with different organizations in the San Francisco area. Our company is also looking at how to best incorporate all of our team members’ suggestions, and to take corporate action as well. I’m very proud of them and their compassion.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
This has certainly been an interesting time. Just like almost every other business, our company had to adjust from going from brick-and-mortar to remote, and nowhere has this been more apparent than with our call center operations in Georgia. This is the first pandemic we’ve all been through, and the first time we had to transition an entire call center staff to a remote workforce — quickly — while continuing to provide uninterrupted service to callers, at a time when call center volume has, no doubt, been exceptionally high. In fact, the team was handling multi-state special enrollment periods, due to the corona virus, when we immediately needed to transition internally.
We are good with challenges, and our team was designed to meet them. When the level of intensity began to ramp up and we knew we were approaching unchartered territory, in terms of a global pandemic, the leadership team met and put together an emergency plan to anticipate what might be coming down the road, and how to continue providing service. Then suddenly, the “what might be” became orders to shelter-in-place in four Georgia counties, which both activated and accelerated our emergency response. Our team didn’t miss a beat and had each agent set up to work from home — while meeting all compliance regulations — in time for the lockdown deadlines.
But exceptional circumstances aren’t things we just navigate — it’s the underlying need for the service we provide. The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first exceptional circumstance our call center has been through. When natural disasters strike — fires, hurricanes, or tornadoes — it’s not unusual to have a special enrollment period, so on some level for our call center staff, this is “business as usual.” Our strong team took it all in stride and has done a wonderful job helping consumers figure out their health insurance options during an extraordinary public health crisis.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
We had a wide array of feelings come up from within the GetInsured family during this time and implemented several ways for employees to connect with management, as well as their peers. For example, we set up a weekly call-in which I answer any questions or concerns employees have. We have internal chat groups on various topics so that employees could connect with one another. We also implemented a very flexible work schedule so employees could work around their family’s needs (caring for children, distance learning, etc.), and held webinars and video calls about dealing with stress and providing tips on working from home. There is undoubtedly more to do here.
Personally, I’ve found that if I take my morning calls outside during a walk, it sets a positive tone for the rest of the day. I get in some fresh air, sun, and a bit of exercise. GetInsured’s COO and my partner Shankar Srinivasan does a similar routine but in the evenings. We’ve suggested to employees that they do the same — get outside when you can, get up from your desk, and keep moving.
This certainly has been a time of fear and uncertainty. We’ve been doing whatever we can within our work family to keep the communication flowing, and to assuage any fears or concerns where possible by discussing them openly.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The largest change that has begun, and will continue in the post-COVID economy, is that the work-from-home evolution has firmly begun — and the implications are staggering. Banks on Wall Street are saying they don’t need all the office space they currently occupy, and technology companies are saying they could have their workforce distributed across the country. This new landscape will result in a major reinvention of business operations, the real estate market, as well as how and where employees work.
We’ve all already seen how video chats and video conferences have tremendously increased in the past few months. Sales leads will become video sales leads, meetings have become video meetings — the revolution has only begun. Basically, we will take any activity and ask how video will make it better and recreate as much of the human connection as possible.
Social media was the first to figure this out. Take, for example, the app Houseparty. The app had 50 million new users around the world in just one month as shelter-in-place orders ended in-person hangouts. People want to connect. We are social beings so in an environment where we are kept apart from each other, whether by quarantine or work-from-home scenarios, video will further democratize the world.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think we will all value human connection that much more. Personally, I miss the simple act of shaking hands or hugging someone. It is human nature to want to touch, to connect. You know, I think this crisis has taught many people to be aware of their mental health needs, and the essence of mental health is awareness. If you’re angry, it helps to be aware that you are angry. If you’re sad, it helps to be aware that you are sad. If you are lonely, the awareness that you are lonely is positive. How so? In each of those examples, even if you are struggling through this time, which many are, it has given us the gift of awareness, so when we all come out on the other side, we will appreciate the things, the people, that we missed.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Fortunately, we are in a business and in a position where we were less impacted. We were one of the very few companies that did not suffer layoffs. But as I said, the stay-at-home order has impacted our team in different ways. So, in the post-COVID economy, we need to figure out what our team structure looks like, what our work arrangements look like, and how we interact with each other.
I can say that for many people, company events, work lunches, in-person meetings, etc., were all taken for granted. It’s only when we stop doing these things that we realize people truly appreciate the connections an office environment brings. In the post-COVID economy, we will revisit, reshape, and rebuild the basic social rhythms of who we are as a team.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to check in with employees, first and foremost. How is everyone doing? What does everyone need? How can management be helpful? Secondly, I’d say foster opportunities in which employees can rebuild connections coming back together after months apart. Take a look at how the business and employees have all been impacted. What positives have come out of it? Can we build on them? Essentially, take stock of where everyone is and plan how to move forward into this new environment.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Although I am not religious, there is a verse in the Bhagavad Gita (2.47) that I find very inspiring. Roughly translated it says, “You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.”
This text speaks to an enlightened way to think about work, and lays out a few precepts: 1) Focus on the mission at hand and your efforts, but do not get hyper-focused on the results of those efforts. 2) The fruits of your actions may not (always) be for your enjoyment — they form part of the larger mission of your company, and the good it does to the world. 3) Don’t be overly attached to the pride of authorship around your work (more often than not, it includes the efforts of many others), and 4) Do not be attached to inaction.
In some ways, it’s very similar to the serenity prayer, which many are familiar with. It’s been a guiding principle for me. Do good work, know what I can control, and more importantly, know what I cannot.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Feel free to visit our website to learn more about the work we do at company.getinsured.com. You can follow us on Twitter @GetInsuredTweet and Linkedin at linkedin.com/company/getinsured. I am on LinkedIn as well, so you can follow me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/chinikrishnan/.