The importance of baby steps and not taking no for an answer
Relentless innovation has been a philosophical pillar of the company since its inception, but Estateably founders Ari Brojde and Alexander Wulkan quickly learned that to succeed, you don't innovate for innovation's sake — you innovate for value.
At the STEP National Conference in June of 2019, when marketing the first version of their flagship product — a web-based platform that empowers trusts and estates professionals to digitize their practices and streamline their estate administration processes — the urge to lead with innovation in a space where it had been dormant was strong. The duo was elated at the number of the country's top practitioners who flocked to their exhibit booth in droves, curious to learn more about what they were building.
"But that's also when we encountered our first bit of pushback from industry veterans," recalls Brojde, CEO of Estateably, who shared the story of a conversation he had at the event with a Past Chair of the Canadian Bar Association's National Wills Estates and Trusts Section that ended rather abruptly when the latter posited the view that while the company's vision was indeed quite impressive, his hunch was that most people in the room would be long gone before it came to fruition.
The frank feedback served to strengthen the founders' resolve. "The relentless part is not taking no for an answer, continuing to push the boundaries of what's currently on the market and building something that supports a new way of doing things — even when people say it can't be done."
"That said, we soon realized that to truly innovate, we need to do a better job at actively listening to practitioners' problems and apply design thinking techniques to provide them with quick-win solutions that could provide immediate value and make their practices more efficient," says Wulkan, who graduated from Tufts University's Human Factors Engineering program before co-founding the company. "It's hard to lead with innovation before the industry is at a baseline that's stable enough to foster new developments."
One example of taking incremental steps to provide value involved providing the industry with its first cloud-based estate administration solution. The founders agree that this somewhat trivial innovation played an outsized role in the company's growth trajectory, as the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 forced firms and their staff to work remotely, seemingly overnight.
"Firms across the country shared their frustrations about the inability to access their estate-related client matters from home, as these were either stored in physical filing cabinets or systems installed on local machines at the office. And as governments continued to pass pandemic-spurred reforms to procedures and related court forms, our ability to push updates to the software quickly and seamlessly via the cloud would become a huge driver of rapid adoption," recalls Brojde.
Now with over 300 law firms across six provinces using Estateably, Brojde and Wulkan are well on their way to establishing that critical mass of users that will allow the ideas they have in the pipeline to come to fruition. With a user base already deriving value from the product, it's easier to propose more innovative solutions and, most importantly, have them gain traction. For a technology company born to innovate, the objective is to continuously apply advances in emerging technology to ease customer pain points in the space, Brojde notes, which is "a crucial aspect of the innovation train we're on."
To that end, the company has created an internal, cross-functional innovation team that meets monthly to explore how Natural Language Processing, Distributed Ledger Technology, and other technologies can be incorporated into the product to further improve efficiencies for its users. The culmination of the team's first project — developing a financial statement reader that automatically extracts and inputs financial transactions into an estate accounting table once bank or brokerage statements are uploaded into their system — is set to be part of the company's upcoming product release.
"Firms that have been beta testing this new feature have reported hours of time savings in the form of reduced data entry requirements. We're super excited to roll this out to our customer base," says Brojde.
Leveraging technological advances will move the industry forward, and that checks the box for one of the three categories Estateably is focusing on internally. Based on customer feedback, they'll extend their technology to launch a full suite of administration products in 2022, including Trust and Power of Attorney administration. They also have their sights on providing a solution that can be used across the country — they'll be Canada-wide by the end of 2021, Wulkan notes — which will spur on further adoption of the platform and greater innovation by establishing cross-jurisdictional collaboration.
"The natural extension of multi-jurisdictional Canadian estate administration is looking at the US market, and we plan on being pretty aggressive about how we get States on the platform," says Wulkan. "Many Canadian professionals have to deal with cross-border probate, so anything we can do to simplify that process plays into the value we bring to our customers."
Finally, they're also looking to collaborate with other leaders in the space. Their mindset is always creating the most efficient estate administration practice for lawyers, and to that end, "a big thing is having your tools and software speak to each other," Wulkan says.
"That's what we're emphasizing in the coming months — building out connections to other software providers professionals are using. Whether it's their practice management software or a specific planning tool, we want our software to speak to the tools they use to again double down on the value we offer in making this process as efficient as possible."
The flow of information about the deceased, their assets and the beneficiaries of the estate into the systems of other participants that must process it, is the essence of the estate settlement process, Brojde says. By building a data repository where all the critical information about an estate can be input, stored and shared, Estateably is creating the foundational blocks to achieve its long-term vision - to connect estate settlement participants (whether they be courts, government agencies, insurance carriers, asset custodians or others) to the information they require on a shared network.
In this regard, Estateably's ultimate goal is akin to the journey of sharing music. It used to be a manual and labour-intensive process to create a mixtape on a cassette and physically deliver it to someone. Today, you go onto iTunes or Spotify, press the share button, and anybody you want can access every song in your library.
"I see a similar analogy to estate administration — once information is digitized, it can flow to the people who need to consume it much, much quicker, and that's a tremendous value add for people working in the space. And from an innovation standpoint, that is truly groundbreaking."
This article was produced in partnership with Estateably.