How Mark Cuban's Advice Led to One Startup's Major Growth, and $21 Million in Funding



Adam Lyons has at least one thing in common with Mark Cuban.

Lyons is the co-founder and CEO of the Zebra, an auto-insurance aggregation site that connects users to real-time price quotes from as many as 200 different carriers. He dropped out of high school at the age of 15, before ultimately finding his way to insurance underwriting, and then to entrepreneurship. He was gutsy enough to pitch Cuban on his startup over email, who agreed to go in on the venture. 

On Tuesday, the Austin, Tex.-based startup announced it raised $17 million in Series A funding, bringing its total capital raised to $21 million since launching in 2012. Existing investors Cuban, Silverton Partners, and Mike Maples Jr. (an early investor in Twitter and Lyft) joined the round, along with a new partner, Ballast Point Ventures.

Ripe for disruption, the auto-insurance industry accounted for $220 billion in sales last year, according to data from IBIS World.

“Adam and his team have reimagined car insurance and built the technology and business model to support this vision. We’re fixing a very broken process,” said Cuban. Though the company wouldn’t disclose the size of Cuban’s individual investment, Lyons claims it’s among the “largest” that Cuban has put into a startup.

The Zebra, which bills itself as the “Kayak of car insurance,” aims to bring more transparency to a sector that has long baffled even the most proactive consumers. Pricing on car insurance can be unclear, and is often based on external factors, such as your credit history or television provider, as a September study from Consumer Reports discusses.

By integrating with a wide variety of providers, and becoming licensed in all fifty states, the Zebra helps consumers to make smarter, faster decisions; just enter your car model and zip code, and it tabulates the rest for you. 

Lyons wanderlust years led him to the United Kingdom, where he first got the idea for his company. There, he explains, auto-insurance aggregators are a popular destination to book plans, compared to individual insurance carriers, where U.S. consumers typically make their choices. Lyons was baffled by the discrepancy.

“It’s fascinating that people will spend hours researching TVs, or drive how many extra miles to save on gas, but when it comes to car insurance, there’s not a ton of interest,” he said. 

Of course, that lack of interest meant that it was exceptionally difficult to land users during the startup’s early stages, so Lyons focused his efforts on attracting carriers. The Zebra takes a 10-20 percent commission from those companies each time a user — who roams the web platform free of charge — pays to adopt a policy.

“It’s taken 3 or 4 years to gain their trust,” Lyons admits. 

For his part, Cuban gave the Zebra one salient piece of advice that has helped to fuel its overall growth: Focus on the digital, where insurance providers have feeble if any presence whatsoever.

“He really got the importance of growing the business online,” Lyons said. By promising to rein in more customers, while building out a robust web presence and platform, the Zebra is solving a major pain point for carriers, who may spend upwards of $81 billion on customer acquisition each year, according to Lyons.

Of course, with A-list investors including Cuban and Maples Jr., Zebra is feeling the pressure. “The expectations are certainly high for us,” Lyons laughs. 

With the fresh injection of venture capital, the startup hopes to attract more carriers, while continuing to build out its website and workforce. In future, Lyons says, he envisions expanding beyond auto-insurance, potentially aggregating quotes for home insurance, as well as insurance for renters, R.V. owners and boat owners.



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