Tampa Bay Business Journal, March 18th 2011 – Travel insurance field open for Squaremouth

Published by July 1, 2011

ST. PETE BEACH — News of earthquakes and tsunamis, political uprisings and volcanoes spewing ash remind the traveler that no vacation is guaranteed.

As unexpected world events have occurred, Squaremouth over the past decade has tapped into rising concerns about planning for travel.

Founder Chris Harvey worked in insurance systems in the United Kingdom before taking a job at a software house in the United States in 1998. Sensing opportunity in travel insurance, in 2001 Harvey launched Squaremouth from home offices with one employee. A third employee joined the company in late 2004.

Harvey’s starting costs were relatively low. Salaries were the greatest expense. He covered costs with a $250,000 line of credit against his house.

The staff spent two years writing the first website, which launched in 2003 as Quotetravelinsurance.com. While the website brought in a fair amount of traffic and positive feedback, it did not generate as many return visitors as Harvey would have liked.

“We quizzed a lot of people who would find us,” Harvey said. “They were finding us on Google but had no idea who we were.”

Judging the original name too generic, Harvey in 2005 changed the company’s name to Squaremouth. The new name, inspired by the way his baby son had a rectangle mouth when he cried, was meant to be splashy and memorable. Plus, the Internet domain names for the United States and countries across Europe were available.

“Squaremouth was wide open,” Harvey said. “Nobody even was remotely close to it, so we just jumped on it and grabbed it.”

The name change required a re-launch of the website, which set business back in 2006, although the company broke even in 2007.

“We were close to the edge,” Harvey said. “When we changed our name we literally threw away all our old Google search engine rankings and started again.”

Knowing online is right

Comparing insurance policies can be easier online than at a desk in front of an agent, Harvey said.

“Insurance is a wonderful thing to sell over the Web,” he said. “It’s one of the few things that’s better sold over the Web.”

While travel insurance is more common in the United Kingdom, its market is largely untapped in the United States. One reason, Harvey said, is Americans are more likely to travel domestically, and a smaller percentage of Americans have passports.

But Americans are becoming more aware of travel insurance.

The travel insurance industry is relatively new and still growing, said Linda Kundell, a spokeswoman for U.S. Travel Insurance Association, a travel insurance industry association based in Washington.

USTIA studies show people buy travel insurance to protect their investment against unforeseen circumstances, which could include illness, accident, delays, lack of budget due to job loss or the need for medical care overseas. In addition, news of world events can affect the purchase of travel insurance.

“It’s a dynamic industry, always changing to adapt to current conditions,” she said.

Physical space matters

Growing consistently since 2007, Squaremouth now has 11 full-time employees and currently is hiring.

The firm moved into its first office on Corey Avenue in St. Pete Beach in 2008. After quickly outgrowing the first office, the firm in 2009 moved to 2,000-square-feet offices in the Dolphin Village Shopping Center. The offices are conveniently located across the street from the beach and reasonably priced. Plus there is room to expand.

Harvey is in talks with his landlords to expand into nearby office space, roughly doubling his square footage.

Most of the firm’s IT functions occur in an office in Fort Wayne, Ind., where four employees are based. The firm’s chief information officer and Harvey’s business partner, Matt Outten, relocated to Indiana for personal reasons in 2004.

The St. Pete Beach office, meanwhile, handles content management, testing, quality assurance and customer service, among other functions.

The two offices meet regularly via videoconferencing.

The St. Pete Beach office has a pool table, a nap area and beer on tap. Harvey encourages employees to wear casual clothes.

Despite the laid-back approach to management, Harvey always has his eyes on detail and aims to have a highly trained, hardworking staff.

In the beginning, the company invested in pay per click advertising online, which brought in its first round of customers. Now the company sustains business through repeat customers, mentions in guidebooks and the press, and referrals.

“We want to build a customer for life,” he said.

Squaremouth is currently at work on a new version of the website, featuring real time sales information, transparent prices and a review section, slated to launch this month.

This article is reproduced from the Tampa Bay Business Journal. The original article can be found here: http://www.bizjournals.com/tampabay/print-edition/2011/03/18/travel-insurance-field-open.html?page=all