A decade ago, Edgar De La Cruz, now 32, never thought he’d work at a startup, let alone one of the fastest-growing in Chicago.
At that time, De La Cruz was working for American Family, an insurance company, as a switchboard operator. One day, his manager asked if he wanted to start estimating the cost of repairs on cars that had been in accidents, and De La Cruz said yes. He spent a few years doing that for American Family, and then took a similar job at an auto body shop in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. De La Cruz would spend the next five years estimating the repairs to cars that came into the shop, which he describes as "just a regular body shop," surrounded by painters, technicians, and mechanics.
Little did De La Cruz know that he was developing skills that would soon become very valuable to a Chicago startup called Snapsheet, which is aiming to disrupt the obscure world of auto claims appraisal. If you’ve been in a scrape on the road before, you’re probably familiar with the traditional process of making an insurance claim. Typically, you either would drive to a local body shop or you would schedule an appointment with an appraiser. Both procedures take a fair amount of time.
But Shapsheet’s main insight is that in an era where just about everyone is packing a smartphone with a high-quality camera, you should be able to just take those photos yourself and get the damage appraised over the Internet. "All they do is look at a car from different angles," says Brad Weisberg, cofounder of Snapsheet, who got the idea after getting in an accident himself. "I thought, why can’t you do that with a 10-megapixel phone?" So Weisberg and co. created an app and has partnered with a number of major insurance companies. If you get in a wreck and are insured by one of these companies, once you call up your insurer, they’ll prompt you to download the app, take pictures of the damage to your car, and then send the photos in. (Snapsheet just released a major update to its app, making it more user-friendly and more functional in low- or no-network conditions.)
Those photos then go to Snapsheet, which employs around 50 of its own estimators—people like De La Cruz. "We call him the silent assassin," says Weisberg of De La Cruz. "He doesn’t ever say a word, he’s super quiet, but he’s the most accurate estimator we have."
For De La Cruz, moving from a body shop to a startup environment was a wild change. "In the body shop, you’ve got paint fumes and dust everywhere. It’s always loud, and people are grinding on metal." At Snapsheet, he works in a quiet office. "It’s amazing. No one’s yelling at you," he says. "You just write your estimate. It’s nice." Instead of the sounds of grinding and dismantling, there are the gentle clicks and pops emanating from that startup office staple, the ping-pong table.
"At the body shop, if you take lunch it’s for 10 minutes, at your desk," recalls De La Cruz. "No one’s playing around, and there’s nothing creative and fun happening. You just sit at your desk and you’re depressed and you work. When I first started here, it was just an amazing feeling. I actually wanted to go to work. I never said, 'I don’t want to go to work today.'"
One reason De La Cruz is happy, claims Weisberg, is that he’s now working in an environment that prizes what he’s good at—accuracy. At a body shop, say Weisberg and De La Cruz, there’s an incentive to write "a fat sheet," or an estimate with a lot of unnecessary add-ons to drive up the price. But by partnering directly with insurance companies, Snapsheet is "writing on behalf of insurance companies and the customer," says Snapsheet recruiter Sheree Bauer. "One thing I do, as I’m looking for talent, is weed out people who are programmed to write a fat sheet. Because we’re writing a fair sheet here. There’s no commission structure based on the value of an estimate."
How did De La Cruz get so good at his job, to the point where a recent in-house audit found his estimates to be borne out with almost 100% accuracy? De La Cruz is characteristically humble. "I had a lot of good teachers," he says. He’ll Google up an image of an on-the-lot version of the banged up car, then "see what you have to do to get to that point" from the damaged photos he’s looking at. "A lot of newer estimators are stuck on the panel, not the whole car."
By concentrating estimator talent, knowledge is arguably shared more readily, with De La Cruz able to help educate his fellow estimators. "It’s very collaborative here," says Bauer. "You’ll see three to four estimators gathered around the computer." De La Cruz says that earlier environments in which he’d worked had a competitive energy; he’d hear colleagues brag, "I made more money than you this month."
Should Snapsheet succeed in its aims in disrupting the industry, who will make more money, and who will make less? Bauer says that not all estimators who have taken the job at Snapsheet make as much as they did at body shops, but chose to accept the job anyway because they were eager to escape the body-shop environment. Yet Weisberg calls estimators "our bread and butter" and declares, "we treat them like rock stars." And by strengthening the position of insurance companies and consumers, one wonders about the long-term effect on the wages of body shop employees.
In the short term, a few things are certain. Investors smell opportunity, with Snapsheet recently drumming up $10 million in Series B funding. And many of the company’s estimators say they’re happy at the company, even if they might be making more elsewhere. "I’m happy when I come home, and I’m happy when I get to work," says De La Cruz (who prefers not to divulge his salary or whether he is one of the employees with stock options).
If body shops want to hang on to their estimators, it might be time to invest in some ping-pong tables.
[Auto Body Shop: Loraks via Shutterstock]