Bankers eager for glimpses of the financial services company of the future might do well to look to people like Steven Aldrich.
In a few short years, the 27-year-old entrepreneur and two associates have turned a business school brainstorm about on-line insurance sales into a viable company.
That company, Interactive Insurance Services, was acquired in May 1996 by Intuit Inc. Since then, Mr. Aldrich and his partners have been operating it with relative autonomy out of offices in Alexandria, Va.
Though Web-based insurance sales do not necessarily top bankers' lists of immediate concerns, Mr. Aldrich's experiences offer insight into the special personnel and business issues involved in delivering financial services over the Internet.
Some may find it strange, for instance, that Interactive Insurance Services operates so far from Intuit's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. But the location points to the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that tends to live in Internet-based companies of all sizes.
The Washington-area location was a compromise among Mr. Aldrich and his co-founders, Robert Freeland, a 28-year-old vice president responsible for technology, and Mark McCrery, a 29-year-old vice president of marketing.
They had briefly considered a Silicon Valley location but decided that employee poaching and other business pressures would make Northern California a poor choice.
Alexandria represented a place with a good pool of prospective workers, and it was close to where the executives had lived and worked in the past.
Mr. Aldrich and Mr. Freeland studied physics together at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating in 1991 and moving on to internships at International Business Machines Corp.
After their internships, the two parted company.
Mr. Aldrich worked briefly in the insurance industry before enrolling in business school at Stanford University. It was a group project at Stanford that generated the idea for his on-line insurance business. A professor eventually put Mr. Aldrich in touch with the investors that would help him launch the venture.
Mr. Freeland developed expertise in client/server computing at a pharmaceutical management company in St. Louis. He knew little about the World Wide Web when Mr. Aldrich reestablished contact in the fall of 1994. But once he heard Mr. Aldrich's proposal, he immersed himself in the Internet and began combing the Web for insurance-related sites.
At about the same time that banks had begun laying the groundwork services on the Internet, Mr. Aldrich was looking to build an insurance site that would appeal to the techno-savvy.
Working with a Stanford professor, Mr. Aldrich determined that an alliance-based model would work best.
At this point, Mr. McCrery entered the picture. As a marketing executive at U.S. Order (now part of Herndon, Va.-based Intelidata Technologies Corp.), Mr. McCrery had some experience in on-line financial services.
The trio made their pitch to venture capitalists in March 1995 and were given enough capital to develop a prototype. Over the next year, the company laid the groundwork for its site, signing up providers to sell term life insurance.
After the Intuit acquisition, however, the business really began to take off. The company's service operates under the name InsureMarket as a subdivision of Intuit's super-site, Quicken.com.
Several cross-listing arrangements orchestrated by Intuit-with the search engine Excite and with CNN's Web site, for instance-have boosted the number of visitors to InsureMarket by 40% from the previous year.
Last month Interactive Insurance Services announced a deal to sell term life insurance to bank customers through a subsidiary of CUC International Inc.
And this month InsureMarket will begin providing insurance quotes and auto insurance policies.
For now, InsureMarket is attracting what most businesses would consider prime customers. The site's visitors tend to earn around $69,000.
The average term life policy purchased through the site is worth about $400,000 and carries an average premium of $392. Before making a purchase, customers average three visits to the site.
The CUC agreement could pave the way for more interaction between Interactive Insurance Services and banks. CUC's Essex Corp. unit provides an on-line service called SureQuote that furnishes bank representatives with insurance quotes.
"While InsureMarket is designed for the customer going directly onto the Web, our system is designed to work through the bank," said Kevin Crowe, chairman of Essex. "The idea that we are working with is having the bank work through the licensed telemarketing representatives of CUC."
Such alliances appear to be the way of the future for on-line insurance sales.
Mr. Aldrich and his partners hope to use a combination of these relationships and their technology to grab a share of a market that could generate up to $2.4 billion in revenue by 2000, according to Datamonitor Inc.