- We had planned to 10X our revenue in 2020, but by the end of March, we were at about a 10th of where we’d hoped we would be, but we’ve bounced back fast.
- Employers have been so receptive to our offering, based on the importance of both employee and financial well being.
- The emphasis on wellbeing and preventative health care by employers is here to stay.
- We are experiencing some ‘survivor’s guilt’ as the business is doing so well, but we just have to be thankful.
In the final episode of our “Reimagining” podcast series, Sam Fromson, Co-Founder and COO at yulife, shares his COVID experiences, rescuing, recovering and ultimately reimagining his business and industry.
The impact of the COVID crisis affects people and companies in many different ways. Sam Fromson is the COO of yulife, a lifestyle insurance company that unifies life insurance, wellbeing and rewards, into one simple app. yulife’s mission is to enable people to live their best lives, by encouraging healthy daily behaviours. With the pandemic casting a spotlight onto company health and insurance policies, employers have further realised the importance of employee wellbeing, placing insurance companies like yulife, at the forefront.
Let’s jump straight in. When and how did you realise the significance of this pandemic crisis?
I know exactly when because I caught the virus before the lockdown had even started! It was the 13th of March, a week before my birthday, and I had met up with my parents for dinner. My dad was coughing, but we didn’t think much of it. The very next day, I felt like I couldn’t get out of bed, which was unusual for me, and for the rest of that week, I was completely laid out. I thought “Gosh, this is going to go away, isn’t it?”. My wife then caught it and she was laid out flat for two weeks. Once we’d both caught it, I could see that this was going to be something that would have a massive impact on my business here in the UK and also across the world.
I was quite worried about my dad because he’s 64 and asthmatic. If he’d have caught it in April 2020, I would have been terrified but, as it was early March, it was before the hype and the fear had really built up and before hospitals became overwhelmed. It took him six weeks to fully recover, and thank God that he did.
How did it feel when you started to realise that this was going to have an impact on your family and your business?
At first, it was quite scary, as of course I was worried about how my dad was going to fair so I started to look at some of the data coming out of other countries. From a data-driven perspective, it did not look good – that was quite unnerving and unsettling.
At the same time, our team had to make numerous business decisions. For instance, we decided to shut down the office the week before the official lockdown started. I remember having a conversation with Sammy, our CEO, and one of our other investors who said, “Look, this is happening guys, you’ve got to be proactive and on the front foot about it.” As a result, we sat down and we decided that everyone had to go home. That felt really emotional, seeing everyone walking out of the office holding their screens and laptops. It induced a feeling of homelessness, seeing people detaching themselves from this place we’d created together. Turning off the lights that Thursday evening was quite emotional. Also, I was quite fearful because I’d always been a little sceptical about the mass work from home notion, as I think many people have been. In fact I was terrified. I thought, “Is this going to be the death of our culture? Is this going to be the death of our productivity?” A lot of those feelings were really overwhelming for me at the time, combined with the thought of dealing with my own three kids whilst working from home!
How did you come to terms with the changes that you needed to make?
We had a bunch of contracts that we were supposed to be closing at the end of March. To provide some context, we launched our product at the end of 2018 and since then we’ve been building our sales team, marketing partnerships and affiliate partnerships, building up a lot of momentum towards the end of 2019. Our goal was to launch 2020 with a bang and have a massive Q1 with the aim of making 2020 the year we would 10X our revenue. We got to the end of March, and we were about a 10th of where we’d hoped we would be. The big, meaningful contracts that were supposed to be closing simply just got sidelined, and I just had this sinking feeling of whether this year would be a disaster. We had a board meeting in the very first week of April and my heart was in my mouth thinking about how our performance would be received and what narrative we could use to explain. It was a really tough time. As a result of the meeting, as well as everything else going on in March and April, we made the hard decision to put seven people on furlough and let go of another seven completely. This obviously wasn’t an easy decision and it led to some really difficult conversations. Overall it was a very draining time.
So what’s changed now in the business? What are you doing differently?
We were really fortunate, as our story had a much quicker turnaround than I had expected because, by the middle of April, all of the aforementioned big contracts had landed. And then by the end of April, through to May, we had our strongest quarter on record. It was a really strange feeling to see so much happening in the economy, alongside the suffering and the hardship, whilst at the same time our business proposition was doing well and was really resonating with people. We were helping business leaders care for the things that were most important for their employees, alongside providing digital wellbeing tools, doctor at-home services, walking activities, meditation sessions and more. These products and the narrative were resonating more than ever with our HR director community, as well as with the intermediaries who we distribute via. Previously, employers were under the impression that employees prefered pizza and perks over innovative life insurance policies, but we’ve seen this conversation being turned on its head completely, with very strong demand. Ergo, a question we’ve asked ourselves has been: “How can we make sure that we’re doing the right things vs ensuring that we sustain strong growth and avoid having to downsize, whilst positioning ourselves to possibly hire back people we’ve let go?”
It’s been a much faster process than expected, filled with emotional turmoil for a few weeks. Since then we’ve been on the journey of trying to figure out how to ramp up and ensure that we can fulfil the services and the dream that we promised our customers.
There has been some survivor’s guilt, as we’ve grown 5X this year so far. But as with all survivor’s guilt, one simply has to be thankful. Luckily for me my wife’s a psychologist, so she helps keep me on the straight and narrow and constantly reminds me that all I can do is my best and that the mission that I’m on with yulife is an important one. Whilst it’s heartbreaking that many people are in challenging situations, she reminds me that I simply have to knuckle down and think about the lives I can potentially improve, and focus on that goal and bloody well get on with it.
Everybody’s currently still working from home, but we have opened up the office for those who’d like to use it. As you can imagine, we’ve seen very few people taking us up on that. And then when it comes to product, our core product remains the same i.e. we sell life insurance to businesses with well-being tools and a well-being app that rewards you for building positive daily habits. However, the narrative around that has definitely changed and the ease of building that initial relationship has been drastically simplified, because people are so receptive to the importance of employee and financial well being. We’ve found that knocking on doors has become a lot easier. Conversely, many businesses are deeply struggling and have budget cuts, so have said, “we love it but not right now.” We are able to cut to the chase a lot quicker, and our core narrative is now one that people are deeply receptive to. This has been very gratifying for us, after we’ve spent the last three years banging on about it and preaching about the importance of life insurance as a benefit, with employees well being alongside it.
You mentioned earlier that you were quite sceptical about working from home, and the impact on your culture. Are you still a sceptic?
No, not in the slightest, and I’m very happy to admit that I was completely wrong about it. Personally, I’ve loved it, and whilst we shouldn’t be swayed by our own subjective experiences in life, so often we are. I’ve had such a great experience of working from home. I can be there with my kids in the morning. I can take them out to the park and have breakfast together. My meetings are efficient, as I can now go from one to the other without the faffing. It’s been a really productive time for me personally. We did a survey where 87% of people said on a scale of 0 to 10, that they were extremely happy working from home. I reflect that in my own experiences of it as well – I’m no longer a sceptic about it at all. However, one of the reasons it’s worked so well is because everyone is working from home. I’m yet to bottom out how it’s going to work when there’s a blend. We want to avoid losing these benefits of having that clear communication and efficiency, so we’re currently trying to figure out what our strategy is in terms of adopting a hybrid approach of going back to the office. But I’m not a sceptic at all, and I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about how well it’s worked for my own work-life balance, my productivity and my own ability to be effective in daily life. I also know from the quantitative and qualitative evidence that we’ve collected from our team that many people feel the same.
With employers suddenly realising the fundamental importance of wellness and tying that in with life insurance, do you think this is a wholesale shift or a temporal one? Also, how do you reimagine the future for your industry and business?
We’re pretty convinced that this shift is here to stay as the beginnings of it were already happening. We’ve seen across the industry for a number of years, more engagements about well-being, holistic and preventative health care as well as digital health as a whole. We’ve seen companies getting more involved in that aspect of their employees’ lives. If it was a completely new idea that was burning for a second and then going to fade away, I might have a different feeling – but I’m convinced it’s here to stay and we’re committed to supporting and ensuring that this remains entrenched in communal consciousness. The benefits that employers offer is such an important aspect of working life. How do you truly care for your employees? How do you truly ensure that they’re able to bring their best self to work and improve their lives on a daily basis? We’re deeply passionate about this as a business, and I can see from the trends in the industry, that the major national insurers are asking – “What should we do to improve this? It’s a trend that’s here to stay, and we’re really pleased about that, but we know that it’s still at the beginning of a long journey and that’s a huge way to go.
So how do you feel about the business now?
There’s a lot of things going on and, honestly, I’m feeling quite overwhelmed this week. One aspect that I haven’t really touched on is my communal rabbinic life. This has recently picked up, as people are allowed back into community spaces. We’re trying to support members of our community and reopen communal spaces in a way that’s safe for elderly people, as well as those who’ve experienced the bereavement. From a work perspective, there are some huge deals going on, that’s lovely to be a part of but the level of work that they necessitate is massive. We now have a smaller but super high performing team and that’s an absolute blessing, whilst at the same time pushing people to be their best and to improve. Overall, it’s been a wonderful feeling, and at the same time, it’s been a very intense last 6 to 7 months. I know that I’m not special in any shape or form. I’m sure lots of people have experienced this – it’s been one of the most intense professional and personal periods in my life, and I must say, I’m feeling a bit exhausted from it all. But we’ve been very fortunate and the stars have aligned and we’ve come out of this in a stronger place, but my gosh, I’m ready for a short break at least before we carry on.
I don’t want to sound ungrateful because that is not the case at all. We’re very blessed as a company and there are so many people in much more challenging situations then than we are right now, and me feeling overwhelmed is peanuts compared to people with deep existential anxiety caused by the current crisis. I’m so aware of that and so sensitive to that as well. If anyone is in that situation who wants to reach out or thinks that we might have a job available that they’d like to apply for – whatever it might be, my virtual door is open via email: firstname.lastname@example.org and LinkedIn.