FSB alumni build relationships on road to billion-dollar company

Clint Jones and Brandon Cruz talk to students in FSB 0025

When 1999 Farmer School graduates Clint Jones and Brandon Cruz started working together, the idea that they would one day create a medical insurance marketplace with more than $1 billion in annual revenue wasn’t even on their radar.

Their first collaboration was creating in 1998 while still students. The business involved taking photos at bars and parties and selling prints of them. After graduation, the two worked in Chicago doing various jobs before collaborating on a website creation and management business. But the idea that would become GoHealth started when Cruz and Jones went looking for health insurance themselves.

“The broker walks in and drops stacks of paper on the desk and says, ‘Okay, you guys are going to buy American Medical Security because that's what I have right here’. And we say, ‘Well, can we go on your website and look at other options?’ He said, ‘Well, you can't do that right now. But my company is building a quote engine, and pretty soon you'd be able to go on there,” Jones recalled.

“We called the insurance company, we got ahold of the vice president of business and we said, ‘You know what? You should refer us to all your other agents, because all we do is build insurance agent websites.’ We had built zero at that point,” Jones said. “We got the gig for that company to refer us to all of their agents to build websites and that essentially put us in real business.”

Jones and Cruz worked through the early 2000s on the sites, learning search engine optimization, building tools to help the agents manage their leads. Agents who were used to having a couple of contacts a day began getting hundreds.

“We were generating more leads than insurance agents could take, so we had leads falling on the floor. That's our next issue. So what do we do? How do we solve that? So we said, ‘Why don't we set up an inside sales team, take any excess leads and try to sell insurance directly to the consumer?’” Cruz said.

When the Affordable Care Act took effect in 2014, Jones said, many of the insurance carriers that were their clients dropped out of the market, leaving them with a $30 million drop in revenue. “Our employees started leaving, everyone was panicking. Like, we're dead. What are we going to do? I'd say it's the most important inflection point we ever had in our business,” Cruz recalled.

“So we said, ‘We need to pivot the business. We need to go and find some additional revenue opportunities. That was our first movement into Medicare, which is now 90% of our business,” Jones remarked. “A lot of companies might have folded shop or given up or said, ‘Hey, we're done.’ We went out and said, ‘What can we do? We've got great people, we've got really, really smart people, great technology, and we're really good at internet marketing.’”

GoHealth now employs nearly 2,500 people and was recently named one of the best places to work in Chicago. Cruz said he attributes three things as being key to their success. “Number one, we built great relationships from the very beginning. We stood by what we said and we did what we said we were going to do for the insurance executives, for employees that we hired, for partners that we worked with.”

“Number two, be efficient with your capital. I remember back in the day, we'd have to pay with physical checks because we needed the float of three days for the money to come in from our customers. So we were very efficient with our capital.”

“Number three -- and most importantly, this is everything -- we hired amazing people out of the gate. We had this network of people from Miami that we had known for years and we knew their passion and their work ethic and their intelligence. “People say, ‘Don't hire your relatives and friends.’ I totally disagree with that. If you have a lifelong experience, years of experience with them, you know what they're going to be like when you hire them. We did that and it's worked out really well for us. Beyond that, we had the Miami network. Of our first 20 employees, probably 15 were from Miami.”

Jones and Cruz told students that if they’re starting a business of their own, they have to realize that they’re going to fail sometimes, they need to recognize that sometimes someone else can better do the role they’ve taken for themselves, that they should constantly seek to learn new things, and that if possible, they should have partners, “because it’s lonely at the top.”

And, they stressed the importance of being ready to take on whatever the business world throws at them. “You've got to listen to your customers, you got to look at the market and you’ve got to constantly innovate and evolve. And I think that some of the businesses that were doing amazing at some point in time that are now either out of business or smaller didn't evolve. Didn't understand their customer's needs were going to change. Didn’t understand some market regulation was going to occur and they reacted too slowly,” Cruz said. “I think the quote is, ‘Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.’ We were prepared for the opportunity to come along and here we are.”

More photos from GoHealth's visit to the Farmer School