Deepinder Gulati is the CPO at Beam Benefits, simplifying and modernizing employee benefits for companies across the US. Deepinder was interviewed by Andrew Daniels, Founder and Managing Director at InsurTech Ohio.
Deepinder, your experience ranges from early stage startups to scale ups to very large corporations. How have you experienced innovation differently at each one?
“Startups? Think nimble and grassroots. Big corporations? Structured, top-down directives. The canonical wisdom is that startups are great at innovation while big companies struggle. But, it’s not black and white - it’s all about the culture.
At Beam, we champion grassroots innovation. Through our POPRAES program, anyone can pitch game-changing ideas, leading to customer-centric innovations. This allows us to be more nimble and fully benefit from the collective wisdom of our entire team.
Contrast this with my time at AmEx. There, when we were launching AmEx Offers (a smarter Groupon alternative), the innovation was driven top-down. We had a massive 500 person team working intensely, driven by a top-down mandate.
My takeaway is that innovation can happen in companies at different scale/maturity, but the approach and dynamics differ drastically.”
Since insurance is a newer industry for you, is there anything that immediately jumped out as a problem that still needs to be solved?
“When I was an employee at American Express, I had access to the type of benefits that Beam is trying to make available to small businesses. Things like legal services, mental health support and employee recognition. Larger companies can invest a lot more, and they have the power of buying at scale. What appealed to me about Beam's mission was how we can bring the same power to small businesses. That’s still very much an unsolved problem.
How do we enable small businesses to compete for talent with large companies? There are specific opportunities within that, which enable that to happen. For example, how can you help provide the most competitive rates to our small businesses? Beam has developed an ability to provide custom, underwritten quotes to small businesses in seconds. For groups that have great experience and a younger population, they can benefit from lower rates because we can take into account all of those factors.
Overall, making small businesses competitive with large corporations by leveling the playing field is a problem that we’re striving to fully solve at Beam.”
What core principles are vital to driving product innovation?
“My view is that innovation thrives on three things: empowerment, accountability and data-driven decision making.
First, it’s about fostering a culture of empowerment where teams can swiftly experiment, seek customer feedback and evolve their product idea and experience. This also helps you attract the right kind of talent to your company.
But, as Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben used to say, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ With empowerment should come clear accountability. It’s really about finding the sweet spot where teams feel both free to create and responsible for driving outcomes.
Lastly, innovation should be more science than guesswork. Grounding decisions in data and deep customer insights and using these insights is critical as is investing in a continuous feedback loop based on those insights. The amount of work that goes into setting this foundation up is often underestimated, but it’s why innovation happens.”
How do you create a tech structure necessary to innovate?
“It boils down to your decision stack, and that starts with your company vision. Is the company vision clearly defined and communicated? Have you taken the time to articulate your product strategy? How will your product and tech enable the company to achieve that strategy?
Your decision stack should clearly spell out what you will focus on now and in the future. From there, empower your team to take that on board and own their work. Follow your team, have Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), sprint-level prioritization and delivery. It should be a well-oiled machine that you build. Anytime there’s a gap in the stack, it starts to show in ways that you don't expect. Ultimately, it can result in inaccurate shipping or lack of business growth. If that happens, you find what part of the stack needs work, and you focus on that.
Another important factor is how tech is viewed within the context of the company. Is tech viewed as a call center, or is it viewed as a growth driver? Where tech can drive innovation is where it’s seen as a strategic asset for the company.
The final piece is how teams are set up. Ideally, your product managers are owning outcomes either for the customer or the business. They're working with a strong team of senior engineers and designer analysts who are collectively taking in the market and customer context and making decisions aligned with your overall strategy. Engineering is responsible for partnering with these other teams but also is empowered to call out management of the tech debt. There has to be an effective way to prioritize all of that.
Overall, the combination of a decision stack, view of tech and the organization of teams is what drives innovation and growth for a company.”
How do you create a consistent message to an audience that has varying levels of understanding of the industry?
“This is a topic near and dear to my heart. As a relative newcomer to the industry, it took me a while to really understand all the different terms that are used. It takes a while for a layperson to deeply understand the terms. It starts with caring about the words that you use. There are some people in the industry who do a good job of focusing on that and writing from the lens of a customer.
If I didn't know anything about anything, would I understand this? That's generally a good way to start, but then you have to invest in user testing. You may think this was clear, but as this person who didn't know anything about it was going through the experience, it made no sense to them. I can totally understand why, so one of my favorite things is to watch user videos as they're going through the products that we're building because I learn new things every time.
You have to instill that culture within the team, encourage user testing and make the tools available to do it.”