What’s the D word? Well when it comes to Phil Zeidler, it could be a number of things. A Dad? Yep. Disruptor? Absolutely! Death? … Well yes! Phil is the co-founder of insurtech firm DeadHappy, which aims to simply life (or death) insurance. In this episode we discuss how Phil went from being a door-to-door salesman to an entrepreneur. He tells us how his first business partner ran off with all of his money and his own near death experience.


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Phil Zeidler 0:00
We’ll talk about drugs or sex or racism or LGBT issues, etc, all openly now, which is fantastic. But death. Don’t talk to us about the D word. 100% guaranteed we are dying right now we’re all dying, different rates, you know, but we’re all gonna roll gonna end up the same way to know who you are, how rich you are, the middle call you are, what sex you are, you name it, we’re all gonna die. And yet, we can’t talk about this stuff. Death related products are sold either based on fear, or they’re just sold at a really more bitter than any sort of almost apologetic way. And we thought, well, this is crazy.

Manish Verma 1:06
In today’s episode, we’re in conversation with Phil zeidler. Originally from the west of London, who’s building his death startup, here in Leicester. We discuss how he caught the entrepreneurial bug. Why he hasn’t retired to the Bahamas yet. And of course, his inshore tech firm, dead happy. I’m Manish Verma, and welcome to the Leicester startups podcast.

Phil Zeidler 1:36
Through university, I was back in the days where we had granted and have to work through university but I did a few I always did work in the holidays, etc. And then I did a sales job aerial selling aerial photographs door to door, which is a fascinating experience to do as a student as a student programme. And definitely learned a lot about yourself and rejection and all sorts of stuff on that. Yeah, so they basically because of course this is all days before internet and everything like that. And so they used to go up in plain small planes and take aerial photographs of small sort of area, beautiful areas. Normally they’d have a lake in a church and you know, so picture village, etc. But there was really quality photos, so you could see the detail, you know, someone’s in the garden, you probably just about making them out to conceal your details, perhaps. And of course, the only way you could sell these is door to door because you can’t put them in a shop. You know, it’s because it’s so specific. So they got a holiday student to get around, knock on the doors and literally show the photograph and and ultimately sell these things. amazing experience I had a bit of money doing that and went travelling and and then came back and they helped them set up an operation in the US doing the same thing. So I was looking after a whole lot of students who we took out there became a divisional director of that business. But it was all very good, just having fun really doing it. And then I came back to the UK and just I don’t know, I just as people do I fell into insurance. My uncle would be very successful insurance. I had a mate from university who had a small insurance broking business, and sort of said he needed some a partner and helps Hi. I joined them. You know, knowing absolutely nothing about insurance. It was a classic example of the impetuousness of youth. You just think you have all the answers, you can do everything. So naively, yeah, I joined them. And and that was my first lesson in life because the partner who I saw the guy, this friend from university cleaner wasn’t that interested in insurance. In fact, he was more interested in stock broking. And we borrowed some money against a building. So we’re taking out a mortgage, some borrowing to fuel the business. So the business was on the hook for this money. And I came in about eight months, having sort of joined the business and started up to discover that he had disappeared off to Hong Kong. And not only has he disappeared, Hong Kong kid emptied the bank account. So so I’m sat there at a business I don’t know where the part that having disappeared and taking all the money. We had two employees at the time, I’ll always remember there was one time I in February. So there’s a few a few months into this. And it was it had been really hard. And it’s all touch and go. But a wet February evening, I walked out to a village called Ross It was about a four mile walk in the dark in the rain to get to win this bit of business that was worth a few hundred pounds of commission. And bear in mind this is 30 years ago. So that’s you know, it was a reasonable sum of money but and yeah, and I want the business walking back at it at that point. I just knew, I just knew that we were going to be on, I knew that would make it, you learn a lot about yourself. And I always say, and that was an amazing experience for me and something I would never ever change. I learned so much about me about the art of what was possible, about how to just, you know, in the art of a crisis in the middle of a crisis, just think clearly and think, well, what are the options?

Manish Verma 5:26
Well, did you hear from your partner, former partner?

Phil Zeidler 5:29
Yes, it took a few lawyers and four years, but eventually, we got all that solved. He never came back to the UK. But ultimately, by effectively, I mean, I built the business up to start a small business, but it was all value, and then I basically took your shares. So, you know, I get value of it all. And it was a commercial insurance business was that commercial insurance? Yes, it started as a personalised, we actually started with motorhome insurance. And it was, this shows you how long ago in those days, people still used to get books out for every insurer and used to literally have to get a car insurance, you go through Norwich union or as it was then as now Aviva and work out based on their age, the type of vehicle, whether had a claim, you don’t work out the rate from a book, you do that for one, and you do that for as many companies as you have agencies, what we did with the very first early adopters of the technology to obviously computerise at all. So we had one of the early mindset systems that enabled us to do proper computer code. So that was that was a that was the start of my inshore tech career, way before inshore tech was even a thing.

Manish Verma 6:44
Yeah. And insuretech wasn’t the only sort of business discovery he made. After growing his commercial insurance company, he saw the rise of direct line looming. But what he realised was that they were spending massive amounts on advertising to get customers, Phil, though, had another approach.

Phil Zeidler 7:05
At the time you could only buy insurance through insurance brands. And I thought, well, the best way of winning business is with businesses that have customers already. So they’ve already built a trust. And they often call it affinity marketing or so I saw I thought to myself, why don’t we set up a business that has a that that can provide motor insurance to the customers of other existing businesses. And so I set up and I thought, well, what’s the strongest, most passionate group of customers that I can think of was actually all related to sport, and particularly football. So the fans are Premiership football clubs. So I then went to set up business good direct club, where we literally went to the football clubs. And we said, we would like to set up a business in your name, to sell car and home insurance to your car to your fans, because they have to have this it’s a legal requirement. So if they got to buy it, why would they buy it through spurs for the services, not forest insurance, etc. And then some of the profits come to you, which ultimately helps them as a club, you know, which is the one thing they love, because it was trying to get over the fact that insurance was a distressed purchase. No one likes it. Well, at least they get some sort of feeling good feeling out of it. So we set this business up and we went round. And sure enough, we signed up a lot of clubs, we had Aston Villa, Darby Nottingham, spurs also, I don’t know about 10 different clubs West Ham. So I actually i was growing so fast, I ended up selling that business, I still have this other business, but I sold that business to a big broking business called john Thompson. And they were going to make it as a centrepiece for all of their what they called affinity or brand marketing for insurance. Long story short, they didn’t invest in the big in the contact centre they promised and so forth. So I actually helped them set it on to commercial union.So so I was then free again, still have the other business and then what I did was set up my third business, which is a final business at that time, which is definitely most successful one. This is back in 2000. Which did exactly what we did for football clubs, but we did it for really, really big businesses. So we did it for the banks, the building societies post offer smarts and Spencers etc. So even today, if you buy motor insurance or home insurance, etc. through most of the banks or m&s or post office, what you’re actually doing is buying it from the company that I set up.

Manish Verma 9:56
This third business called junction became part of the bgl group best known for compare the market, which he became director of, he left in 2007, after it grew to a million customers. After that, Phil had some spare time, he became Chair of a hospital invested in a few businesses. Oh, and he kind of helped reinvent the music industry,

Phil Zeidler 10:20
you know, is pretty well known that record labels sort of fairly abused the relationship with with that find young bands that have great success. But the record label will take the majority of profit. So we set up a fund where we raised some money, and then we signed up some bands. And we started with some sort of established bands like madness, or libertines, or Charlotte church, one of ours. And what you do is all the revenue that we help them pay for and produce the records, etc. But then, rather than taking the vast majority of the revenue and the profit for the record, and leaving the artists, all these sort of touring merchandise publishing revenue, and that’s how it used to work, we said, No, everything goes into one pot. And then we share it out equally, it’s called a 360 model, which is definitely which is now being adopted by most of the most of the record labels that I’ve got. So I’ve got a gold disc on my wall for that little venture. So I had a hasten to add a small part, minor part to play. But I think the point is that what I enjoy and what I have come to enjoy is just any business model that’s generally disruptive. That’s just just making things better generally, for the customer. But consumer. There’s a lot basically lots and lots of stuff along the way, and I really wasn’t planning on doing another business,

Manish Verma 11:42
I would have thought that you Yeah, it sounds like you’ve come to a point where you become an investor yourself. I imagine, you know, a mansion out in the Bahamas, and that’s often retired.

Phil Zeidler 12:00
Well, I think one thing you learned and I sort of, I suppose the biggest check that I got was when I sold my interest in the junction business back in 2007. Money in the Bank, and I didn’t intend to do anything particularly. But you learn pretty quickly that you’re an awful long time retired, you know, I was sat around for six months thought I go and play golf and do some sport and all the rest of it and just get bored really quickly. I mean, I enjoy I enjoy doing this stuff. It’s challenging. You need that sort of you need that challenge yourself. Towards the end of the the business with junction I became very seriously ill. So ill I was on intensive care for for a week, I don’t remember anything because the drugs you get some retrospective amnesia. So I know it was basically I had an infection that went septic so my body went into septic shock. Shut down and I very nearly didn’t make it So yeah, so that sort of, you know, I had children of four and two at the time you recover from that, and that does make you think about life differently. And I had insurance, you know, I was I had insurance, so that’s fine. The will wasn’t 100% up to date, but it was okay. But you sort of start. And I thought, well, actually, maybe I’ll probably, maybe I should just have a bit more insurance, because you just gonna think, wow, I want my children. You know, at that age, they’ve still got all their education ahead of them, and we want them to go to private education. So that’s quarter million pounds a pop, you got to replace the income that I was earning, you know, and I didn’t want my wife to suddenly be, you know, if I died, you think about it, that’s difficult to deal with. And then just to suddenly find that you’re in financial ruin, as well. So I just wanted to increase all the covers that we had. And I then really came to discover the life insurance, as a product is entirely inflexible. And it’s really a very long winded process to take it out. And then I’ll want to adjust the will. And that was another process that just took forever. And it just, you know, there’s always one thing that stuck in my head. So fast forward a while and I sort of tinkered around looking at life insurance and saying, well, Surely there’s a better way of doing that. For a few years, I just poked around, had a few meetings with people, you know, not not doing anything too serious. And then I met my co founder, and he had a similar experience in terms of challenges of getting life insurance and getting worse. And we got together and we said, Look, there’s got to be a better way, you know, you don’t sell any other products this way. Why would we? Why would we go around avoiding the D word death? You know, because they’ll know it’s called Life Insurance. No Life Insurance is death insurance. insuring against death, you know, but everyone avoids. So we thought that this doesn’t make any sense. So both the attitude around death is, and that’s our core vision for dead happy is changing attitudes to death. We want people just to be able to be more open to talk about it. plan for it. You know, think about it. And then when you really know and and this is possibly the biggest driver for me, there’s 12 billion people in the UK who have life insurance. There’s eight and a half million people who have dependents who have families mortgages who don’t. So there’s eight and a half million people who, if they were to die tomorrow, would not only would that be an absolute personal tragedy for that family, but their family would be in financial ruin. We come back to that question. You know what, it probably won’t be you. But it might be.

Manish Verma 17:40
So Phil and his business partner looked at the current life insurance model 25 year policies gone, long, tiresome forms, gone, even speaking someone in person or on the phone, gone. Instead, customers go online and search for simple questions. And instead of saying how much covered they need the answer a quite profound question. What do you want to happen when you die?

Phil Zeidler 18:07
And yes, you’ve got those sorts of responsible, maybe the more dull usual ones, like paying off the mortgage, and the bills and the funeral costs and things like that. But actually, we want people to reimagine what the life insurance thing could be. So if you if you think about, you know, after death, what happens? You know, and I’ve certainly done this myself, I, you know, there’s a part of me, that’s going to be delighted that actually, I’m going to send up, you know, a group of my really good mates off on a trip in my name, where they’ll always, you know, they’ll, in my memory playing goes to Las Vegas, and they will have an amazing time. And maybe it’s fantasy, I don’t know, probably is, but I know that that will be some joy out of what is a difficult, you know, maybe for me, I’m dead. But for my nearest and dearest is a difficult time. So you can create some in some rays of light in some of the darkest times through just reimagining lots of different stuff. And so we really got inspired to pick one, there’s not a better way of just getting laid, and getting the crowd getting customers to create own death wishes, and inspire different people. And along the death wishes you see a customer inspire death wishes. And it’s sharing those different thoughts, you know, sending your ashes into space. Brilliant. Fantastic, why not? You get the whole thing on video. And then when you look up the stars at night, you know that your loved ones look out your partner looks after you really are up there, you know, somewhere up there. So it’s just trying to that’s where it was inspired from is is saying that actually that amazing death products that don’t get to see the light of day? Well, let’s put them all on this Death Wish platform. Let’s give people the opportunity to see see these things and inspire them to think about, you know, actually what’s going to happen.

Manish Verma 19:58
Dead happy is a Different kind of insurance company, not only in the way they operate, but also in their presence search their Facebook page. And posts are often have funny animations, quirky graphics, many with 10s if not hundreds of likes and shares. Then you go to their trustpilot and read their reviews an average score of 4.9 out of five stars. But for some real entertainment go to the very very very few bad ones. Someone called Zelda complained about dead happy so naturally did happy social media team had fun replying to her with references to the video game. Someone anonymous posted that they were pretty terrible. Did happy replied with the transcript from Liam Neeson and taken I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you’re looking for life insurance, I can tell you, I don’t have the perfect policy for you. But I do have a very particular set of skills. But does this online brand persona ever get them in trouble?

Phil Zeidler 21:00
Absolutely. We have definitely we have certainly, you know, we were advertising. So we obviously we continue to advertise in the pandemic, particularly. And we use we had an advert which we sent out with a child wrapped up in toilet paper, right. And, of course, all the toilet roll thing going all the time. And you know, and the line of the advert was saying there are better ways of protecting your family. Life Insurance, you know, and some people thought that was all insensitive. We had an ASA a complaint for an advert. But it was one complaint out of 400,000 people viewing there was only so you know what you’re gonna go through life, you’re not going to please everyone all the time. And we understand that. What I think is important and why we can sleep at night is we know that what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to do for the right reasons. And it’s a really important thing. Ultimately, we’re just trying to make sure as many families as possible have protection, so that if the worst happens, you know what, they’re their family, they can slightly ease the pain of the most difficult time. So, you know, yes, we won’t get it right all the time, of course. But that’s just you know, if you try to break an egg, or break an omelette, you gotta break a few eggs, we are doing something very different,

Manish Verma 22:25
Dead Happy seems to be very different in every aspect, whether it’s them scrapping traditional life insurance practices, being an extrovert brand personality online, or even in their image, I mean, the logo is a laughing skull. But they’ve instilled a different ethos for their 25, strong team based in less than two, for example, they have something called Monday morning leap, which is making sure each of them are motivated to want to get to work at the start of the week.

Phil Zeidler 22:55
One thing is really clear to me that people do their best work when they’re happy. And for people to be happy, they have to be valued, their opinion has to be heard. And it doesn’t matter whether they are, you know, paid, you know, 10,000 pounds, or 100,000 pounds, their opinion is of value. So I don’t believe that hierarchy is generally helpful. And it does this, because I think it prevents people sharing their views and opinions. So we’ve created this culture, where hopefully first number one, everyone’s opinion, everyone feels valued. And everyone’s opinion matters. And our role in my role as a suppose a co founder of business is to enable people to do their best work. So we get rid of everything that superfluous. So all the sort of traditional rules, we don’t have dress codes, we don’t have hours of work, we don’t even have holidays. We just say you do what you want, when you want, we you know, it’s our job to make really clear, this is the vision of the business. This is your role within it in terms of the contribution, the main function, but you can contribute to any part of the business. And they do we set up these things with projects or missions where we have a broad range of people involved in that. And, and our focus is in is just stripping back all the constraints for them to be, you know, to ensure that they can deliver to the best of their ability. It’s a culture that’s drawn from a load of other a load of different sort of recent management, cultural thinking. But it’s just strictly that we hadn’t actually we, we say we have no rules. Now, we have to have some rules. We’re a regulated business, we act in the financial sector, but outside of those rules that we have to comply with, you know, we just say that the only thing that we have to do is get behind a common name. We want to encourage debate because that’s how you get better outcomes. So it doesn’t mean that you know anyone’s got the monopoly on the right answer. We want people to really contribute in every element. And it doesn’t matter if they happen to be what we call a honcho, that someone who’s one of our customer service agents, they may well have a really valid opinion on the product, or the marketing on a tech development. So let them if they want to get involved, get them involved.

Manish Verma 25:20
And finally, the last question is really just about Leicester. How is it been important to you? How has it been? How have you found it? And how do you see the scene here in the city,

Phil Zeidler 25:31
The geography was the root rationale for setting up in Leicester. But genuinely it has been, it has been a fantastic place for us to set up our business, I had no idea of the sort of some of the talent that definitely you know, we have come across, we built a really top Cass Tech team, as a brilliant pool of tech talent around which we’ve been able to draw on which I suppose historically, you know, most of the particularly VC backed businesses end up in London, but you didn’t, you just don’t need to be blessed has been a really amazing place for for talent perspective, there are lots of great businesses that I’ve come across. So lots of support, that you can go out and, and seek. So it has been in that sense, a delight. And a decision that we haven’t for a moment regretted setting up a master, you know, it’s we rather hide our light under a bushel in Leicester. I think there’s loads of brilliant businesses being developing here. And the more that we talk about them, the more that we get them out there in the public eye, the better for the city and the better for everyone.