By Russ Banham
Carrier Management magazine
When Julian Teicke was a teenager, the lavish events his insurance broker father attended with other successful agents struck him as out of proportion to their essential work helping people. “All that gold and glitter, agents receiving Rolex watches just felt wrong to me; it wasn’t an industry I connected to,” said Teicke.
At an age when one ponders what to do in life, he contemplated becoming an entrepreneur, leading an organization that provided technology to better the lives of others. He just wasn’t sure how.
“‘Why not join the business?’ my father suggested at one point, meaning the insurance industry,” Teicke recalled. “‘For sure, I’m not doing that,’ I told him.”
Like all circuitous paths in life, Teicke finds himself today leading one of Europe’s top InsurTechs, wefox. He serves the industry he scorned, but he’s endeavoring to change it, making it more efficient for buyers and brokers, his altruism undiminished.
In an August 2022 Zoom call, Teicke elaborated on his efforts to reimagine the business of personal lines insurance. When he developed the idea for what became wefox in 2014, a handful of InsurTechs were in their infancy in Europe. Since its launch in 2018, the startup has become a sensation, dubbed “Europe’s leading InsurTech” by the media for its $4.5 billion valuation in July 2022.
Wefox is a distributor of insurance (and more), an intermediary that resides between brokers and buyers. The company’s value proposition as a distributor is twofold: on the wefox platform, insurance brokers and agents can rapidly connect consumers to the insurers whose products they sell; once a transaction occurs, customers can store their insurance policy data all in one place, reviewing and revising the information when needed. They also can submit claims to the platform via the wefox app “and enjoy a fast payout,” the website touts.
In its capacity as a provider of a broker platform, wefox receives portions of the brokerage commission and bonification, as well as a license fee and entry fee paid by the broker.
Wefox also is an insurance company, licensed as wefox Insurance in 2018. The company retains its own agents to sell insurance, similar to a captive agency carrier in the U.S., receiving premiums from policyholders. Both traditional agents and brokers and the company’s captive agents sell four personal lines products: homeowners insurance, household contents, private liability and automobile insurance. Through a managing general agency, wefox also distributes life insurance, receiving the typical commission percentage.
Plans are at a nascent stage to add other products to the platform lineup. More immediate plans include entering the U.S. market. “We are on our way,” Teicke said.
Entrepreneur in Residence
Wefox is just one of several tech startups co-founded by Teicke over the last eight years, although it is the only company he leads as CEO. The businesses run a wide gamut, from a digital platform for doctors to an app offering swift COVID-19 tracking and tracing. He’s co-founded a company that helps people book home improvement services and another that sells HR software. The varied enterprises were nurtured and launched by a venture catalyst firm called The Delta that he founded as a startup incubator in 2015.
Teicke’s steady path toward serial entrepreneurship did not look to be the case in the late-aughts when he was an undergraduate student at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. “I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but everyone else wanted to become an investment banker or a management consultant,” he recalled. “I was lonely.”
At the university, Teicke attended a lecture taught by Peter Maas, a professor of management. In 2014, the former student reached out to Maas to discuss the formative ideas that would coalesce into wefox. “I didn’t remember him, but he said he liked my lecture and my way of teaching,” Maas recalled. “We discussed his idea, and he asked me to join the board. I told him no, as I was immersed in research.”
As Maas observed Teicke during the meeting, he was impressed by his ambition and drive. “I felt that this was someone who, if he wanted to do something, would get it done,” he explained. “I also felt that his concept of a tech company trying to change the boring, old insurance industry was a really good idea. In 2014, there were only a few InsurTechs in Europe.”
Although Maas did not join the wefox board, he accepted Teicke’s offer to be an advisor to the board of directors. “I like his ideas and his colleagues and enjoy the company’s open culture, where people can make mistakes so long as they learn from them,” he said. “We just had our summer party with over 1,000 people in Berlin. It was fantastic. In the video, you can see that everybody feels they belong to one big family.”
Aside from part-time work as an applied researcher at the University of St. Gallen, Teicke’s first job out of college was as an intern at a startup chocolate company located in Berlin named chocri. Consumers could design and order a customized chocolate bar online, choosing from 100 different toppings. Teicke’s time there was a baptism by fire, career-wise.
“On day 1, I was an intern; on day 2, a manager burned out and I was asked to take over his role since I had gone to a ‘good university,’ I was informed,” he said. “I had 20 salespeople reporting to me [generating] $20 million per month. I kept looking at my laptop for instructions that never came. So, I jumped into the cold water.”
The brash 21-year-old dashed off a series of emails to the sales team advising them to renegotiate deals to optimize the sales conversion rates. “The next day, the manager came to me and said I had created a mess; I had confused the sales force,” Teicke said. “He then looked me in the eye and said, ‘Continue exactly like that.’”
By the end of his one-year stint at chocri, Teicke’s title was Entrepreneur in Residence. “I’d done everything from production to marketing to customer service and was responsible for the launch of the product in the UK market,” he said. “It was a great education.”
He became a sales manager at another startup in 2009, Groupon. The global e-commerce marketplace was launched in Chicago in 2008 with a deal-of-the-day discount and had just begun offering digital coupons. The company’s growth was meteoric: In 2010, Groupon had 35 million registered users in the U.S. and generated $700 million gross billings. In 2011, it notched $4 billion in gross billings in 40 countries.
Teicke was influential in Groupon’s rapid international expansion. “Within six months, I was rolling in responsibilities; I went from being a sales manager to expanding the model all over Europe,” he said. “I realized I was good at motivating people, creating value and increasing revenue. I grew more confident that I can do this myself. I was around 24 years old and ready to start my own [version of] Groupon.”
With a co-founder, he launched a similar online discount shopping platform called DeinDeal that sold products, hotel accommodations and local services at a discount of 50 percent and more. Teicke was the company’s chief operating officer. Within a year, DeinDeal tallied more than a million customers.
“I hired 100 people, learned how to build and scale a business, turn it profitable, and then exit,” he said. “It was a great experience.”
At the end of 2011, the platform’s founders sold a majority stake in DeinDeal to Swiss media company Ringier for an undisclosed sum. “We were stronger and knew we could build bigger things,” he said.
Three years later, Dario Fazlic, one of DeinDeal’s co-founders, joined Teicke for lunch. “We were looking for our next startup, and Dario said, ‘I think we should look at insurance.’ He pointed out how the banking world had been disrupted by tech startups, but insurance really hadn’t, other than a couple InsurTechs. ‘It was an opportunity for the taking,’ he said. I liked the idea.”
Things progressed quickly from there. Fazlic said he knew someone who had made money backing other InsurTechs, and he had scheduled an appointment with the investor the coming Friday. Teicke decided to join the meeting.
“We had a quick chat, maybe 15 minutes, about technology and insurance,” he recalled. “The guy said, ‘I’m in,’ and then Dario says, ‘How about 10 percent?’ He nodded his head yes. We now had money but no real company idea or a team.”“I hired 100 people, learned how to build and scale a business, turn it profitable, and then exit. It was a great experience,” Teicke said, describing his prior experience at DeinDeal.
He’s laughing now, remembering his father’s career advice. “Honestly, I tried to escape insurance, but I couldn’t. It was more like destiny than a choice. I was forced into insurance.”
The weekend after the meeting with the investor, Teicke phoned his father, Hartmut. “I said, ‘Dad, I have money to start an insurance venture but no idea what it should be.’ He gave us some great advice. Instead of eliminating the human being like other InsurTechs were starting to do, he said we needed to empower humans with technology. We started with that.”
The idea blossomed into an insurance distribution platform along the lines of a business ecosystem, a place where brokers, agents and affinity partners could engage in the selling and buying of insurance with consumers. The platform was designed to be an exemplar of efficiency—”quick & uncomplicated [and] transparent and fair,” the website states.
With a single click, consumers can obtain information on different insurance products, forms and contracts, and easily update the policies they already have, such as posting a new address. Throughout the process, the broker or agent is involved, hewing to Hartmut Teicke’s advice. Brokers benefit from wefox’s lower customer acquisition costs and enhanced customer experience, guiding stickier business.
Armed with the business plan for wefox, Teicke went from one venture capital firm to another looking for investors. “I was thrown out of every VC office; I was just so bad at pitching,” he said. “Then, I was lucky I met Marc Benioff at a dinner. Afterward he came to me and said, ‘Are you looking for funding?’” Benioff, founder and co-CEO of Salesforce, is a revered Internet entrepreneur.
Salesforce Ventures led the first funding round for wefox in 2016, liberating other venture capital firms to invest, culminating in the company’s $4.5 billion valuation, reportedly the largest valuation for an InsurTech in Europe. “We started with 50 people here and within a few months had 800 people in the London office,” said Teicke. It presently employs 1,500 people. “We’re growing 100 percent on a year-over-year basis.”
A Father’s Advice
He has other novel ideas up his sleeve, including plans at some point for wefox to sell health insurance and commercial lines insurance, albeit these possibilities are a few years away. Closer is the use of advanced AI tools on the platform for brokers to identify which customers are profitable or risky in near-real time.
“We have a very clear path as to where we are going as a technology company,” Teicke said. “We started off building very simple and useful technology for agents and brokers to organize all their information in one place, giving them a 360-degree view of the customer. We grew from there and will continue to innovate.”
Asked what he thought of his former pupil’s success, Maas said it is just the beginning. “Julian is very ambitious. As he continues to learn about the insurance industry, he will adapt his business model and upgrade the platform. He’ll do everything he can to ensure the success of the company. If he makes the right decisions—and bear in mind, I was quite skeptical at the beginning—this will be a very successful company. He’s on a mission.”
Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated financial journalist and best-selling author.