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Product | People | Potential – our chat with Collective Benefits

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Here, our chat with Benjamin Hay, COO & Co-Founder of Collective Benefits.

Jake @ ADLIB: Hi Benjamin, great to meet you. Can you start us off with an introduction?

Benjamin: Hey Jake, great to meet you as well. I’m Benjamin Hay, one of the co-founders of Collective Benefits. We’re on a mission to build the world’s greatest benefits solution for the self-employed – finally giving them all of the benefits, perks and safety net they need and deserve.

Jake @ ADLIB: Where did the idea come about?

Benjamin: In many ways, the person behind the idea was our CEO Anthony, who was working for Aviva as their Global Head of Innovation, had a bad back & slipped disk in mid-2018 that required surgery and being off work for quite an extended period of time.

Because he worked in innovation, he worked with other entrepreneurs and self-employed people. When they’d come around to visit him at home, he would be lying on his back in agony, unable to get up and down the stairs. Some of them would say to him “you’re lucky” and, obviously, he asked, “how could I possibly be lucky”. What they meant by that was that he was receiving sick pay from his employer.

They said that if they were sick like he was they would not be able to pay their mortgage or rent, or childcare fees. And why was this? Because they are self-employed and don’t have sick pay or health insurance.

Our research revealed that whilst more and more people were choosing self-employment, they were also taking on greater financial risk and fundamentally lacked the safety net they needed. We thought it was about time to build a platform that would allow self-employed to work without the worry and finally build insurance and benefit products for the gig economy.

Jake @ ADLIB: How did you get into Collective Benefits from Virgin?

Benjamin: I was part of the leadership team at Virgin Unite, Sir Richard Branson’s entrepreneurial foundation, where we had done quite a lot of research, thinking and convening on the future of work. One issue that continually came up was how tough it could be for self-employed workers and how few protections there were.

This stood in stark contrast to corporate benefits and protections which serve to attract, engage and retain talented people. I knew from my own experience at Virgin how lucky I and my colleagues were – we had access to amazing perks and benefits – which provided us with a highly attractive safety net. We were in a fortunate position and I felt that those who were choosing self-employment should have a similar safety net given that often they were taking even greater risks and their financial security was more precarious. It was a problem that was likely to grow with the uptick in self-employment and it was a problem I wanted to solve.

Anthony and I were actually introduced by a mutual friend and just got to chatting – it wasn’t anything too serious and a bit like dating and before long we were spending a lot of time talking to each other! I wanted to embark on a new journey, we both had great ideas and we were both in the right position to do it. The idea was compelling, the need significant and the timing was right.

Jake @ ADLIB: Can you give us an overview of the platform and how it works?

Benjamin: Our mission here is simple. There are 6 million self-employed workers in the UK and we believe they deserve the same benefits and protections as employees.

We’re working to make that happen by building the first benefit and insurtech platform for the self-employed – providing for the first time ever a range of benefits like sick pay, family leave, 24/7 digital GP, mental health support, legal and tax support and a whole range of discounts that make life easier.

We’re partnering with the world’s leading gig economy and on-demand platforms to provide the benefits and protections their freelance, gig worker and self-employed communities so greatly need and deserve.

It’s not just the right thing to do – there is a clear business case. In providing benefits for their self-employed workforces, our partners have seen a decrease in recruitment costs, decrease in worker churn, and increase in overall worker engagement. It’s a clear Win:Win.

Jake @ ADLIB: How does it work for your partners?

Benjamin: We work with our partners to design customised packages that best suit their workers’ needs based on a range of coverage (we have bronze, silver, and gold levels) and a full and continually evolving suite of benefits and protections.

For instance, one of our partners is a courier company and it was important to them to provide 24/7 digital GP, mental health support, Time Off Work (sick pay, bereavement and family leave), fuel cards and roadside assistance.

We make it really easy – our partners can get started quickly with no tech integration, save time, money and resources with easy programme management, and their workers have access to an easy to use dashboard and 24/7 support fully designed for them.

Jake @ ADLIB: You’ve seen a fair bit of success leading up to your funding of £3.3 million a month ago. How has the journey been so far?

Benjamin: It’s been a continuous learning curve – we have constantly striving to improve what we do, working hard and having lots of fun along the way.

In our first 6 months, we made a lot of progress. What we are doing is something quite complicated because we’re working with regulated insurance products, underwriting and lots of rules and regulation that can slow things down but we continually strived to keep up momentum.

Alongside that, we built an end-to-end digital platform that provides a complete end-to-end journey that allows people to buy and manage all their benefits and protections. That involved not only designing a pixel perfect beautiful customer experienced but also building a complete back end insurance system and partner platform. What our self-employed customers see is a tiny fraction of what we need to deliver.

We built that out very quickly and with those strong foundations, we felt we were in a good place to go out and try and raise some money because we had a great product that we knew people wanted. From there, we started setting up conversations with venture capital companies that we thought would be interested in backing us.

To be honest, the funding isn’t a milestone for us – launching this quarter has been. We have our first partners on the platform and are completely focussed on them and our growing self-employed community.

Jake @ ADLIB: How was that experience and what tips can you share with other Founders?

Benjamin: It was a good experience and I think there are various lessons that I learned along the way.

I think one of the biggest lessons more than anything it’s a two-way conversation with investors. That came from my experience of being at Virgin where I sat on the social impact side of the business and made investments & grants into social enterprise and charities trying to make a positive social impact. 

There is a power dynamic, there are people who have the money and people who want the money but, of course, that’s not everything. What you’re really trying to do is to find a good fit between the two of you for whatever stage that company is at and if they are answers to certain questions. What are you trying to raise money for? Do they have the same aspirations? Do they have the same vision? And, above all, are they business partners for what you are trying to build?

All funds are different with different personalities and different backgrounds. Some are company builders, some are finance people and some bring a wide range of other skills. The focus for us was deciding who did we want to be as a company and, having made that decision, who did we want to raise money from.

We were fortunate that we had options on the table from various VCs, which I don’t think is necessarily the common situation! We were able to pick and choose, and we picked based on our aspirations for the company we want to be and who we believe would best accompany us on that journey.

Jake @ ADLIB: Can you tell us a little bit about who you chose to invest in the business and why?

Benjamin: Stride.VC is a real company building venture capital firm – their partners have invested in Zoopla, Deliveroo, and Cazoo. 

Delin Ventures, who have funded us in our pre-seed round and have been incredibly supportive all the way through. True trusted advisors.

Insurtech Gateway, who are insurance specialists who can help make introductions in the insurance industry and help build relationships that we otherwise might not have been able to do as easily. 

We also have a select group of founder angel investors to support and advise us – all of whom have experience building businesses in the gig economy like Uber or Urban.

We were very selective about our investors – it’s really about what additional value that people can bring.

Jake @ ADLIB: Has COVID-19 affected things with investors at all?

Benjamin: I think you learn a lot about your investors in a hard time, and as a global economy we are certainly in a hard time. Our board and investors have been unbelievable in the last few weeks with contact, advice, support and sharing information. I’ve been blown away by how much they want to ensure we are thinking about not just what we need to do now but how we build for the future.

More fundamentally, COVID 19 has highlighted the widening protection gap for the self-employed – 96% of whom have no income protection, translating to over 5.8 million people in the UK alone. Sobering statistics even before this crisis which has hit the self-employed community more than many others.

With 71% of self-employed saying they are not able to benefit from the government’s Self Employed Income Support Scheme and 88% of those eligible can’t wait until June for payment, we have been overwhelmed with enquiries from self-employed looking for protections and a safety net. They need financial support now!

In order to help, we accelerated the launch of our direct to consumer beta programme to give freelancers direct access to our benefits and protections like sick pay so they can get the support and cover they need right now. Additionally, we have also teamed up with the UK fintech and freelancer community to lobby for clearer and faster income support for the self-employed.

Our partners, consisting of leading on-demand platforms and marketplaces, are working to solve this not just in the short term to weather this crisis, but also sustainably over the long term to ultimately have a competitive advantage by ensuring worker demand.

Jake @ ADLIB: Scaling and creating a good company culture is key. What does good culture look like for you and what tips would you be able to give from your experiences so far?

Benjamin: There’s so much out there for this and lots of different opinions. If there’s one thing I learnt about the culture at Virgin is that it really cares about its people. It’s a genuine family atmosphere and they really take steps to achieve that, and that comes from the Branson family and it flows throughout all of their business.

One of the things we did was set up a network with ‘100% human at work’, which is how you make work a more human experience for people. The stats about work can be shocking; 85% of people in work are actively disengaged from their jobs, and few people find their work purposeful and meaningful and, in a start-up, it should be purposeful and meaningful.

At Collective Benefits we try to keep things simple – great culture is about treating people with dignity and respect. 

Jake @ ADLIB: Seems so simple!

Benjamin: You would think so! The person that I think really embodies this philosophy is Patty McCord from Netflix, who I was fortunate to meet and do some work with. One thing that she said that really stuck with me was that people can take almost anything, as long as you are honest with them.

Treat people with honesty, with dignity and treat them like adults. You need to hire people who are humble, who want to be part of the team, and who can act maturely no matter what age they are. If you achieve that, you are naturally creating a culture of freedom and responsibility where you are not telling everybody what to do all of the time.

A lot of people talk about important company values, but what’s not important is having your company value up on the wall in your office but it’s about how you treat people which, I believe, is the best way to create culture.

Jake @ ADLIB: Obviously, we are in tough times right now, but how are you planning on scaling the team in the near future?

Benjamin: Our number one priority is to look after our existing people. In time, when it makes sense, we will be looking to grow that team.

What we’re looking for at the moment, which I think any company will look for when going through that initial period of scaling, is predominantly very smart generalists who, in time, can grow into being specialists and you need people in a start-up who can flex across different areas.

For example, when I started this a year ago, I knew very little about insurance and now, I’m currently leading all of our relationships with all of our insurance partners. You need people who you can learn on the journey. We’ve got some really brilliant, bright talented people who are generalists who will learn with us on the journey and who we will also learn from.

Jake @ ADLIB: It does make sense, it’s the classic ‘wearing many hats’ in a start-up, as cheesy as that is….

Benjamin: True! And sometimes the hat that they thought they were going to wear isn’t the one that they end up wearing or they’ll grow into a slightly different role. That’s why you need people who are adaptable and hungry.  But above all that, they’ve got to believe in your mission.

Jake @ ADLIB: You have a pretty clear product-market fit and target audience. Can you talk us through some of the challenges that you’ve faced while establishing it?

Benjamin: I would say it’s a clear product-market fit but we are always learning.

What are we trying to do? We’re trying to reimagine a 300-year-old industry to finally address the needs of the self-employed – the fastest-growing workforce globally.

How do we go about it? Firstly, we have our insurance partners who we work with to build products from scratch and reinvent their existing products to make them fit for the gig economy. 

Secondly, we partner with gig platforms to help them solve their most fundamental needs in looking after their worker communities -we are thinking about and iterating to achieve what we call “customer-market fit” all of the time!

Thirdly, is the end-user, the self-employed individual and the questions that we asked were what do they need and what would they want? We did a piece of customer research where we did things like group interviews, surveys and what we found was that self-employed people didn’t buy insurance because the products

  1. Weren’t appropriate
  2. Inaccessible
  3. Too expensive. We immediately started working with our insurance partners to fix this.

Jake @ ADLIB: How did you go about picking this as your route to market and what have you learnt about the sales cycle?

Benjamin: You really learn about problem-solving and think about what is it that you can solve for them, how do you go about working with them, and how do decisions get made in those organisations?

Customer and partner market fit is something that we think about a lot, how do we build something which really works for them? I think what we can do as a start-up really, really well is get to those points very quickly and in a way that big, incumbent organisations can’t do so.

We think about sales but also beyond that, we think about who our great partners are who we’re going to learn from and can learn from us, and that’s really important to us. We want to work with partners who are looking to attract & retain their best workers by providing them with meaningful benefits and, in doing so, built insight into what really matters for self-employed people.

Jake @ ADLIB: Talking of Potential, what’s the ultimate ambition for Collective Benefits, what challenges do you expect to face?

Benjamin: We have a clear mission and the ambition to reimagine the insurance market to finally address the needs of the gig economy and finally give the benefits and protections that self-employed workers so greatly need.

All of our partners that we are currently working with are right on the front line of the coronavirus crisis. They provide staff to the NHS, they are helping with logistics, and they are helping with food delivery. Our focus is to really help them through this difficult time and provide them with the best level of protection and support that we can.

What this crisis has highlighted is that self-employed individuals need to have a much better financial safety net. Whether it’s insurance products like us or products like Wollit.

What is very clear is that something needs to change, and the self-employed need access to support, products and services that really support their needs.

I often get asked “why doesn’t the government do this?” I think if you start regulating in this way, you’re going to get to a point where self-employed people are not self-employed anymore. Self-employed people are proud and want to be self-employed. We need solutions which enables that freedom and not ones which take it away.

And we want to empower them further by giving them a safety net they so greatly need and deserve – think of Collective Benefits like an all-in-one place, flexibly utility belt for all of insurance and protections for self-employed benefits. That we’re I would like to get to.

Thanks for the chat, Benjamin!