With Sammy Rubin, Founder & CEO, and Josh Hart, Co-Founder & CPTO.
YuLife is the world’s first life insurance company that inspires life.
Sammy Rubin (SR): We’ve got five co-founders at YuLife; to frame our story I’ll start with my own journey and how it led me to meet these wonderful co-founders along the way. I built my first business when I was 21, with my late father, in the insurance industry. My late father came up with the idea to build a market, and traded life policies and trade life policies. Whilst studying at Imperial College, I created it’s digital platform. When I graduated from university we started the business from our dining room table; I’ve always felt gratitude and appreciation for my late father for starting that business and getting me into the world of insurance, as I would never have chosen to work in insurance.
We built up the business rapidly and we floated the company on the London Stock Exchange within about four and half to five years. I was running the business but I wasn’t happy and I didn’t feel satisfied. From a business perspective, I was fulfilled but it was at the expense of my own wellbeing; I wasn’t happy physically, mentally or emotionally, and I was burnt out. I decided I needed a break and took a six month sabbatical, spending time in America and in Israel, in Galilee. I used that time to really change my lifestyle, changed my diet and got into yoga, meditation, mindfulness and spirituality. It was the biggest change in my life, as I’d never really taken time out to focus on my wellbeing. I used this time to look after myself. I married my wife who was running a wellness centre in Arizona, lived in Israel and then came back to the UK. It was then that I really wanted to bring together my passions of financial services and wellness.
After moving back to the UK, I was offered the opportunity to become the founder and CEO of Vitality Life, the first insurance company in the UK to reward healthy behaviour. My task was to build a new type of life insurance company and it was a blank sheet of paper. My ambition was always to build a tech business and Vitality very much focuses on physical wellbeing. I was really passionate about holistics wellbeing, mental wellbeing and wanted to integrate tech into that, to build a new type of tech business - that was really the inspiration for YuLife. So about five years ago, I came up with the next thing I wanted to build which was a tech company that really puts the user at the centre with a mission to inspire people to live their best lives. This would mean really bringing together tech, wellbeing and insure; this was the vision for YuLife.
I set about doing that but quickly realised that I needed the right team around me and needed to attract the right people to work alongside me. I was very fortunate to be introduced to Sam Fromson. Originally we’d met at charity events and he’s a rabbi who went to Cambridge (who has a whole other journey of his own to share!). At the time, he was working at a fintech business. He was looking for his next venture and was passionate about wellness. We met and I told him what I was doing and he just felt that it was a really great match. So Sam came on as co-founder and COO.
We then had our first meeting with a potential funder; it was like a first scoping out. He met the two of us and said we needed a third co-founder to join, a ‘Techie’. Whilst we both were interested in tech we wouldn’t have described ourselves as a ‘Techie’; I would call a ‘Techie’ someone who can reimagine technology in the 21st century. This potential investor said we needed a CTO, someone who really understands tech. On that same day, Sam put it on facebook to see if there were any recommendations and within a few hours people had come back to him. A mutual friend of both Josh and Sam told Sam “you’ve got to meet Josh Hart”. We reached out to Josh and then met him for breakfast the next morning, which turned into lunch and ended up with the three of us hanging out for about six hours. Immediately we felt that we’d put a really powerful team together and on the strength of that team we were able to raise a substantial seed round for LocalGlobe.
Josh Hart (JH): I like to think that I’ve brought a lot of things to YuLife but the initial idea definitely wasn’t mine, it’s very Sammy. I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 17, I didn’t go to university, I’ve founded two companies before YuLife. When I was 20, I co-founded ‘Chelsea Apps Factory’ and it grew to 107 people. We were building apps for enterprises such as Ladbrokes and Marks and Spencer. We built “Innovation Labs” for Standard Life on their apps. I worked with Google on their ForWork Apps in New York and would go and do talks there about mobile technology in companies and how it was transforming the working world. So I’d built that company and then I sold my shares to my business partner in 2015.
After Chelsea Apps, I began spending time on the sofa playing Battlefield One, which was what I did for three months to keep myself occupied. My wife told me I needed to get dressed, it was getting embarrassing but I’d worked for six years straight after I left school and I just wanted to play this game (and I was living my best life in my opinion). But my wife disagreed. Then, I get a call from my friend who says “I know these rabbis who’ve got an idea for an app, do you want to help them?” I’d been doing things that weren’t that kosher, so I thought I could do with some brownie points with the guy upstairs. I decided to go, to have a chat, and then found out they were both called Sam the same name as my wife! Honestly, I went with no expectations. But, then I met Sam Fromson, who is not a rabbi in the conventional sense; he’s the same age as me, built like a muscle man, went to Cambridge and he was expecting his second kid at any minute. At the time we were still pretty young, about 27, and he’s been to Cambridge and Yeshiva University and he had all these achievements.
I was excited to then meet Sammy Rubin. Eventually, we all sat down together and we all just clicked. We got on from that day and we started raising capital, it was all just very easy between us. Sammy often uses these phrases (which I’ve now stolen) such as ‘the right path is the easy path’ - a lot of people choose the hard path because they think there’s going to be more fruitful rewards behind all the energy needed, but actually if you follow the natural flow of things, then the easy path can deliver the best outcome. We worked together effortlessly and it all felt very seamless.
SR: Absolutely, we just felt the chemistry from the beginning and each of us brought different things and different elements into the equation - it was one of those things that was just like a chemical reaction, we were able to work really well together. We continue to do so until this day and especially when two more people joined the founding team. Jonathan Roomer, an actuary working at KPMG, was advising tech startups in Camden Town. I went to him by myself for some advice and I realised almost straight away that I wanted him to join us. It took about six months of conversations but eventually Jonathan joined us as co-founder and he’s now running our Customer Success Division, which is great. Then we have Jaco Oosthuizen, who we actually pitched to as part of our seed round. When we were raising the seed round, we raised money from Anthemis Exponential and Jaco was actually one of the partners there. After we’d met him, he called us a few hours later to let us know he was on the way to South Africa to hand his notice in. He said he’d been waiting for a company like YuLife to come along because his previous experience in South Africa was running an insurance wellness company. So after our seed round, Jaco joined as our Chief Insurance Officer and we’re this merry band of five now.
JH: One thing worth noting is that, I’ve heard a lot of startup stories, and the level of intensity felt by some people and the lack of self care can be crazy. It’s almost like they’re angry at the world and believe that it needs fixing and they’re the ones to fix it. I think that’s something that we did very differently - we were very into practicing what we preach and believing in what we’re talking about. We want to live our best lives. We’re all very family orientated, so we would hang out as a group with our families in Regent’s Park, meaning our kids could play together. During this time, we would chat about things and ideas we were working on - we called it ‘jamming’, like people do with music, but we’d discuss how we could change the world.
We wanted a wellbeing tool on people’s devices, to inspire people to live healthier and happier lives, with the ultimate ambition of users living their best life. We didn’t necessarily come up with clear answers during those jamming sessions, but we discussed, debated and had intense conversations about adjacent topics. Gradually, as we worked together more and discussed more, we created a really good working relationship and working ethos, we were all very transparent and vulnerable with each other. Sammy really promoted this idea of ‘being you’ - don’t be who you think you’re supposed to be, be totally exposed and just be yourself. This mentality aligns with what we’re trying to achieve as a business and do for individuals. Working with the team at YuLife has taught me a new way to be an entrepreneur, not a version where I’m so critical about everything, but instead a positive version of myself. It’s a special thing that Sammy has introduced to all of us, this vulnerability that we have, and it’s really inspirational. It definitely drives the team forward in each phase of growth.
From when you started out, has the vision for YuLife changed at all?
SR: The underlying vision has stayed the same from the point when there were three of us, five of us and now a whole team. Every Monday morning I give a talk for everybody and reiterate the vision each week. The vision has not changed, we had a really clear vision from the get go. The way in which we implement our visions and put them into practice has definitely changed and evolved. Originally, we were looking to target consumers, but we’ve actually pivoted and are working with businesses. We’re constantly evolving and changing the proposition and asking ourselves, ‘how do we inspire people to live their best lives?’. Ultimately, the vision is inspiring people to live their best lives and helping them to be the best. It’s something we’ve really promoted, especially with our mascot, our giraffe. We chose Yugi (our giraffe) because giraffes have the largest heart of any land animal. Yugi has been an important part of our journey; bringing love into the world and using tech as a force for good . Yugi is like our master, and it’s been a helpful and dynamic tool with which to create consistency.
Have there been any inflection points since starting with YuLife?
SR: In the beginning, as we’ve touched upon, we were planning to go straight to consumers. But it was actually during our seed round, and during one of our early conversations with investors, that the real opportunity was to go for businesses who were crying out for a wellbeing proposition. This is where investors have been so invaluable and also why we’re really pleased to have Notion as investors because, when you choose the right investor, it’s about more than just money - they become real partners too. That was a real change for us.
JH: The first one for me is a phrase I got from Maddy Cross at Notion, and that is ‘to hire game changers’. Hiring game changers has been massive for us; we look for the crazies and the geniuses. Along the way, we’ve found these geniuses who’ve changed the game and the shape of our business. The founding team is nothing now compared to the team of 55+ that we’ve assembled. It has always been about finding the right talent to help us grow at each stage. We’ve been very lucky at hiring the right game changers; people who’ve totally transformed our understanding of how to sell our product, how to build our product and how to market our product. It’s been an ongoing adventure finding these magicians and we’ve been very lucky.
The other inflection point, for me, is more on the tech and product side. One pivotal moment was when Sammy and I came up with this idea to build a game and we were discussing game mechanics and game experiences, with the aim/prospect to facilitate the highest engagement rate we could possibly achieve. This was a huge thing for us as, typically, insurance is often something that’s put in a drawer, but we wanted to build meaningful relationships with people that would last forever. Therefore, the only way you can help someone in the way that we want to, is to be in their pocket. I went away with a small team and we built version one. I felt that the game mechanics were good and that it was something that people could enjoy, but it felt slightly soulless. It’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve learnt from a text perspective; when people create solutions for a problem by using technology, they often go about it in a very functional way. They don’t necessarily understand the virtue of design, escapism and the importance of building a beautiful brand and identity. You want it to be like a piece of art you release to the world. We pivoted the product about three years ago, which was monumental , when we transformed our design to incorporate something called the ‘Yuniverse’. This ‘Yuniverse’ became a single point of truth across the whole business; marketing collateral, product collateral etc, would always tie back to the ‘Yuniverse’ experience. It taught me something invaluable and it was also a pivot for the business. I think the brand, the energy and the ‘Yuniverse’, has played a big part in allowing us to become successful and differentiates us from other providers. But,it’s up for debate whether you’d really call it a pivot, or whether it’s just a natural part of the journey. However, it certainly pivoted my understanding of building good products and how you can incorporate your brand into everything. Sammy and I talked for hours about how everything needs a soul.
SR: We were spending a lot of time on money and artistry, which you probably wouldn’t be expecting of most insurance companies, and we had some really great suppliers. We knew that this was what the industry needed, to have great art and great soul. It’s all about engagement and we want to engage millions of people with YuLife, so it has to be more than just a functional app. It needs to have a soul, a story and it needs to be able to transport people to a different place in their mind.
What have been some of your biggest challenges as a founder and how do you cope with the stress that comes along with that?
SR: We’re a wellbeing company and therefore, as co-founders, we all want to build a culture of wellbeing - it’s imperative for us that we walk the walk, as well as talk the talk. It wouldn’t be good if we were selling a wellbeing solution and then our company culture is really stressful. We want to build a business where everything about wellbeing is in our DNA. I therefore think that as co-founders, and as a company, we’re very good at supporting one another, whilst also creating a space for people to do their thing, their way. Obviously there’s pressure on us all, but it’s all about mindset and self-love. What would Yugi say to us if we were under pressure? Well, he would say take a deep breath, practice mindfulness and do the things that make sense.
We’re also building and ensuring we’re in it for the long term, so it’s not about the pressures in the short term. Therefore, I would like to hope that where there is stress, which there will always be in some cases, that we support one another and we’ve got preventative tools in place to make sure no one gets to the place of real burnout. Through the preventative aspect, we can create a culture of really looking after ourselves.
JH: The scariest moments I’ve had probably aren’t the usual ones founders might have (such as fears over cash flow or funding) but rather those moments where we’ve jumped on the cliff edge. I’m the product guy so when we’ve launched things, such as the app, I’ve felt really nervous. I’ve always believed we’ve created the right thing but I’d also told literally everyone about it. As a co-founder your job is to communicate your beliefs to an audience so all the time you have to have 100% conviction, otherwise how’s anyone going to believe in the product? But you’ve also got to be right in that belief. When we pushed the big red button and launched the product, started selling it and people started buying it, I thought ‘I really hope people use it!’. I had told everyone, savvy investors included, ‘we’ve got this, no stress’, but then I had to wait for the stats to come in. It was like being in a boyband and thinking ‘thank God this is a hit’. People loved it and people were using it! You get one shot with consumers and if you mess it up, it can be over just like that. So, in those moments before the launch, gosh I was stressed!
The data now shows that the way people interact with the app has changed as a result of COVID-19, people are doing all sorts of weird and wonderful activities at different times of the day. I’m hoping after lockdown we’ll get an even bigger boost because a lot of the development we’ve done in recent months has been around how do we maintain more community and activity outside of work?
SR: A desire for tools such as YuLife has accelerated massively after COVID-19. I believe this is because a lot of companies have realised that wellbeing is a real need for most businesses, whereas before it was more of a want. Businesses need a wellbeing solution, especially now and moving forward.
What surprised you the most about your journeys?
SR: The idea that you can have so much fun whilst building something meaningful and being able to find a group of people who can work together so authentically and are very much aligned with each other. As a team, we show our vulnerabilities together and aim to impact many peoples’ lives. I’d always dreamt that this way of working could be possible, but I’d just never experienced it before in my other ventures. We all jam in our own way and bring all of our own personalities together. There’s a lot of fun, laughter and camaraderie - it’s really been a blessing.
JH: You can be successful through both pessimism and optimism, in my previous ventures I focused more on the pessimistic side and was a bit of a dick. I regret some of the actions and energy that I was putting into the world. I then learnt through building this business that you can create a business for good and you can be driven by the light. There are things that, on an individual level, I’ve only learnt through YuLife and I wish I’d learnt them earlier, such as really understanding optimism and how to leverage it. I’m an entrepreneur so, whilst I always believe in everything I do, a lot of my decision making used to be based on pessimism and when I got stressed I struggled to be optimistic . But, I’ve found that if you’re more optimistic in those moments, there can genuinely be a better, happier path to walk along. It’s harder than I thought , to be optimistic in the really dire moments, but if you get over that hurdle then you end up actually with more innovation and a nicer way of working, especially alongside other people. It also means that I don’t want to do business with people that make proposals or start a conversation full of pessimism anymore.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur considering taking VC funding and what has your experience been of working with Notion?
My advice for any entrepreneur is to really find out why you're doing what you're doing. I think that there's a lot of people who wake up thinking about what they should do, but I would really encourage people to think about why they are doing it. The life of an entrepreneur can be quite lonely and there can be a lot of pressure - it’s a bit of rollercoaster ride. But I believe that knowing why you’re doing it, can carry you through anything. In terms of working with Notion, you’ve been a true partner to YuLife. From the very beginning Stephen Millard, Maddy Cross and Itxaso del Palacio came in, even before the investment, and they said ‘you’re part of the Notion Family now and we’re going to come in and work with you every month, every six weeks, whatever it takes’. They helped us with our metrics and what metrics were really required. They helped us with coaching, mentoring and have provided support as a real value-add investor, which we love. Also, Itxaso’s passion and enthusiasm for all things wellness (as demonstrated by her topping the YuLife leaderboard!) is a testament to the passion we’ve felt by Notion towards our proposition. We look forward to working on great things together with Notion in the future.
JH: Itxaso really takes the time to consume whatever we give her and then adds to it, not just adding for the sake of adding to it, but adding value. She has a perspective that’s incredibly valuable and a unique point of view, this has been invaluable in some of our decision making. I’m so grateful we get to work alongside her; she’s a really powerful woman with immense credibility and competence. I feel really lucky that she believed in us. We also love the events, Sam Fromson and I got a lot of value out of the annual founders’ retreat in 2019 and we’re gutted it wasn’t able to happen in 2020!
SR: I attended some of the virtual events too this year and they were also good, particularly getting time to break out and speak to other founders and also partners at Notion that we’ve not spent much time with. It was nice to have that level of intimacy and sharing, but within a virtual environment. So we’ve had a great experience working together.