How Ben turned his passion for technology into a successful business, making a difference in employee benefits and mental health support for startups.
In this episode, Ben Towers, the founder of Happl, an employee benefits and engagement platform for startups, shares his journey from starting a website building company in his bedroom to selling it at the age of 18 and then starting Happl. He discusses his passion for entrepreneurship and the drive to disrupt. Ben also shares the motivation behind starting Happl, which was to provide better access to support for mental health. Watch this episode to hear more about Ben's inspiring story and his vision for Happl.
The key moments in this episode are:
00:01:22 Disruption of entrepreneurship.
00:03:19 Employee benefits in startups.
00:07:01 Building a different style of business.
00:09:43 Legal challenges and contracts.
00:13:22 Reading contracts and legal advice.
00:15:55 Horrible contracts and business protections.
00:00 Charles Brecque Welcome to the Tech Story Podcast, the place where we interview founders and interesting people in tech. Today, I'm very excited to welcome Ben Towers on the show. Ben is the founder of Apple, an employee benefits and engagement platform for startups. Ben, thanks for taking the time. Thanks for having me. We'd like to share a bit about yourself and
00:19 Ben Towers Apple. Yes, so 24 years old now, I had a company that was really young building websites in my bedroom. And that got my excited for tech. I was always that guy who loved technology. And then grew that company from 11 when I was 18 years old, ended up exiting that and we were doing websites and marketing for a bunch of quite cool brands like Unilever and so on. Then had three really random roles I was doing in that time. I was working a lot of the role of family, UK government, and then also was the comms director at the Smith Client for a period. And then after that started Apple, we did Y Combinator last year. And then now we're growing the team
00:54 Charles Brecque out and doing employee benefits and engagement for a bunch of cool startups. So you've accomplished so much already by the age of 24. What made you go from selling
01:07 Ben Towers your business at 18 to starting another one barely three years later? I don't like welcoming someone. And I think that for me, I love the disruption of entrepreneurship. I love the fact that you just push it and it's at your own pace. I think for me, that's why I always knew that I'm going to be starting things over my whole life. It's going to be a big thing for me. So yeah, I knew I was going to start something. Why Apple? Because I actually had some really close friends go through some quite bad mental health challenges. And I was like, I want to do something to get people better access to support. I'm not a doctor, so I can't provide the support. But for an employee at a startup, actually their benefits is often that support. It's therapy, it's wellbeing budgets, it's the part of medical insure to get access to. And so that's how you got into this space, this
01:58 Charles Brecque idea of realising maybe we can't help directly, but we can help facilitate the access to. The platform, and then we use it internally. So you give budget to your employees and they get to choose how they spend it. And mental health is a big area. What are the other use cases for Apple?
02:18 Ben Towers Yeah, so traditionally, companies would get into these B2B benefit contracts and buy all these software and whatever. And we just found that that doesn't work because you end up paying for loads of software, which each get 5 or 10% uptake and so on. And so this idea that budgets is saying, look, take the money we would have spent on all these apps and services and whatever, and let the employee decide there's some amazing consumer products out there that they can now buy. We get discounts for it, so we can also pass that on. So yeah, well-being is a massive one. L&D budget is another really common one. And also work from home setup, which is quite a big trend. So we have that's like a day-to-day employees offering that. And then we also then overarching that have our private medical insurance proposition, where we basically help companies get set up and automates it and make it much easier
03:05 Charles Brecque to manage. That's great. And in terms of the platform, I know you mentioned insurance is a big area
03:12 Ben Towers of focus for you. What's sort of the plan for the next two, three years? Yeah, so we're going to our insurance peaks massively. This now we're now moving more and more into because we've realised that's often the first benefit startups are offering. And I say for you, that was the first thing you think, let's do that for. So that's the area we're growing more into and getting deeper at the weeds per se for that. So that's one part. The other thing is this international element, because now increasingly in startups where you've got employees in multiple countries. And so how can you offer benefits to those employees, which are compliant and also competitive in the local landscape? So that's the other big element we're really growing out quite a lot to support it. If it just a UK team up to a certain size, you probably could do it yourself and manage it a bit of admin, but you probably could. If you've got employees in five countries, that's now five times that workload and makes it a lot more stressful.
04:03 Charles Brecque So we've been trying to alleviate that. And the insurance is really important because when you're young and fit and healthy, you don't really understand the value of insurers. But when you're not, then as an employer, then you think, why can't my team work? And sometimes having private medical insurance helps the employee see the doctor faster and get better faster. So it's really, really important.
04:28 Ben Towers I think it's interesting about it as well is private medical insurance is the case of the whole workforce. But in tech startups, the average age is much, much younger. And so that's the other challenge we're trying to get now. And this is actually say the type of claims, the type of individual we're insuring here is so different than your textbook. No, typically was big FinTech companies doing PMI. Now we're getting these tech startups to do it. So that's the other big piece we're really trying to change because the type of support
04:59 Charles Brecque I need is so different. Yeah, no, absolutely. And what's been your favourite moment since starting Apple?
05:04 Ben Towers Yeah, I'd say, I mean, go through Y Combinator was amazing. We learned so much. And it was during sort of the tail end of COVID. So it was all in line, but we actually went out for the last month of it. And just being in San Francisco, being around, we had nearly 400 or so other companies in our batch. It's actually a really big batch. But going to the event, every night there was dinners, there was drinks, there was, but it wasn't just 10 people, it would be hundreds of people. And that's something networked in respect to from a founder's point of view, if you have a bad day, you always have to chat to other founders to get you back up. And so to have that constantly was amazing. And I'll never forget that sort of like experience of having that and still having those connections now. I think that's one big thing. I also say the other thing is actually for us, there's those lots of micro wins and so on, like literally yesterday, one part of the customer, the competitor, for me, it's like trying to celebrate those things a lot more of the team. Because yes, the YC thing's great, and it's a big thing, but they happen every now and then. So I'm also trying to get my head into the smaller wins. But I think as an entrepreneur, you also you say, all right, that's good. Now what's the next one? You have to spend time to reflect to know actually, that's really good we got that. But often you just think about the next thing too soon, which is good. But also you can miss out on some great wins.
06:25 Charles Brecque Yeah, no, I think sometimes because we're always looking onto the next thing, you sort of take the present win for granted. And if you don't celebrate the wins, then you end up only celebrating the losses and then just too much negativity can kill the momentum. So great. And what you should know before starting Apple.
06:44 Ben Towers I actually think that two ways of running a business says venture backed and there's not a real simple term. The reason why I say that is because for me, it was just the first venture backed business. So that's the answer. So for me, what I wish I knew is actually it's a very different style of business you're building and the sort of people you go to the table, the speed you build and so on is very different. And I had to learn over time, actually, in this business, spending time and money to grow quicker is actually what what your aim is to do as a company. So I think if I would start again, what I wish I knew was actually some of those nuances around actually, it's about a pace, it's about that growth numbers compared to traditional companies where it's about being profitable. Yes, that profitability, maybe we have to become that that's striving towards. But for me, venture back, you grow quickly and then profitable. And so I do as you say.
07:40 Charles Brecque Yeah, it's all about acquiring market share. And and then once you once you've got the monopoly or the entire market, then you can focus on your unit economics. And yeah, I guess it's something which I've also sort of struggled with is, you know, you can delegate or not. And you know, you can do yourself go quicker or delegate in scale and ultimately venture allows you to do that. Whereas in a traditional business setting, you wouldn't necessarily be able to do that.
08:06 Ben Towers Even delegations are because sometimes in my mind, I'm like, I could just do that in 20 minutes. And I used to be like, I'll just do it in one evening. And you get to put your bone yourself out because you're doing anything and even and then you never delegating. And so sometimes you go get 20 minutes for me to do very extreme to team members, 35, 40 minutes because you want to get them up to speed. What is in the context and that sort of thing. But that's an investment in the company's future of passing that knowledge. And that was a big thing that I've had to learn was typically if someone was like, oh, yeah, look at that, I've bought it, let's do it. I had to really get to terms of the idea that for the long term, it's a business you have to empower the individuals to say that to you, which is hard as a founder. Yeah, you just want to do it. I know it's like in your first start and out, it's just you.
08:53 Charles Brecque So you used to do everything. I guess as a founder, you know, you're always guilty of not delegating enough for doing things that you shouldn't be doing. But that the way I also view it is, you know, as a founder, you also can work in the evening if you need to. And sometimes I rely on that too much. Yeah, because it. But anyway, as a busy, busy founder, what types of contracts or legal documents that sort of come in front of you and what patterns or feedback can you share?
09:25 Ben Towers Yeah, so we have our traditional HR fundraising ones and that sort of thing. The big thing we have a lot more contracts for is we have our marketplace full of discounts and rewards and so on and they often two year cycles with these suppliers. And so there were a lot of moving parts of that. We have three and a half thousand discounted jitters on the marketplace. So each of those you have regulatory things, you have contracts, you have how you can to come up with size and so on. So that's been a massive legal challenge we've had to go through is to go, well, they all have different renewal terms, different stipulations, differentness, different that. And then you have to try and bring it all together. So that's been an area where it's been hard to manage. But then it's also that's a massive part of business. When we're fundraising, there's a big thing to say, OK, watch your defensibility. And often it's down to the contracts and that hardcore, well, look, we have exclusivity
10:16 Charles Brecque for this for two years and that's why that's so good. Yeah, I think legal as a motors is something which some businesses or some founders have ever looked at. I was speaking to a founder who's sort of going through an acquisition and he's being acquired because they have an FCA license in a space where not many players do. And so I guess having contracts, having a good grip on those 3000 partnerships ultimately
10:43 Ben Towers is a capability. We also have the other challenge where each of our customers has their benefit contracts with different people and whatever and supply. And so part of our role is to be on top of that as well. And so that's when you have our own contracts to the human eye. Plus, once the customers we have to know, OK, when things renewing for them, how can we step in and negotiate better for them? So there's a lot of spinning plates actually leading you where getting into this never thought it would be. And it's one of those things where it is like legal finances, the backbone of a business about like, you know, about what you're forgetting how good your product is without all of two things.
11:19 Charles Brecque Yeah, and V that. And these are two things that your clients probably don't see.
11:24 Ben Towers And how do you sort of keep track of all the data or what's best practice can you show? Few things is like I have to make sure I file the contracts really well. So the second we sign it, setting is done, file it, put in your mind is in, we know it's going to happen. We know how it's going to be. And so otherwise, if I just go out another day, you know, always forget. So really on top of filing it seems like bookkeeping when you get an invoice forwarded to the accountant quickly and you know how to think about it again. Similar in this legal sentences, the second something's agreed, get it in right and get it done outside of mine. But you know, it's go ping back up many times. Right. I think that's been a big thing. The other thing actually, which has been I've learned is that's just how to read a contract. And that's another thing as a family, very few people have got this legal degree, but you're reading contracts every single day. So that's been a big learning curve for me. And I'd have to think now I'm good enough where I can read a contract, summarise it in my head, sort of my brain and go, okay, now I know what that's going to mean. And not to put you on the spot, but what sort of what do you look out for in a contract? What sort of tips can you share to respective founders? Yeah, I, I would say contracts funny. For me, I will stick about contracts, even if it's a W contract, you're just like before you agree or anything that the true sort of mentality they've got coming into this agreement. I love reading contracts, someone else has written, but as in like the other party in the other fight, then you really know them true mentality off it and what they're really expecting. So are they a true partner or how they're trying to match with the conversation? Yeah, they will say one thing to your face, the salesperson, but then when you get the actual words on paper and you realize actually it's a very different contract than what I was expecting. So for me, where I do it is if it's a big part in the way it's a big strategic thrust, I should do it on the tube because I'm in London, you're always in the tube. So like I get my highlights and I see print out, I'll just sit there and I'll highlight it and go down it. And it's similar to what you do at school when you're like reading books and I say, I go down and highlight one color that I don't know what it means, another color if that's the thing just to be aware of. Get to the end, we have an amazing lawyer that we use and just sort of say like, these are my purple things. I mean, they're just in like, what does this mean? And we'll go up to stuff or good. And then when you get to the end of it, that's when you then know what the true intentions behind this and do you want it. I get really wound up actually, if I'm able to just sign the contract and then some there are times I log so much now at all because I'm really on top of it. But previously, the time I signed the contract, I thought, yeah, it's fine. I'm not, but you don't know what you've just signed locked into that. To be specific, it could be anything. I think that's a big thing. I always go to the schedule first of all, at the bottom of the contract. The reason why I do that is because that's the nuts and the bolts of the commercial conversation to that point. You always go, if that's completely wrong, there's no point wasting the time and never 10 pages. Once that's done, I'm like, hey, this is what we agreed. Then I go back to read the real finance. You're looking at things like how they can and can't use your logo and liability risk. And there's always other things to just solve. In the dead end, I think people should be aware of because you need to know the best
14:44 Charles Brecque and worst case for your company. Yeah. You need to read the contract. If you don't understand, seek legal advice for something wrong with speaking to a lawyer. It's much better to do that than ultimately put your business at risk.
14:56 Ben Towers What's it cost to have a lawyer that asks a couple of questions? Maybe it's £50 or £100. I'm not talking a lot. I'm not saying to have them read the whole thing just to go, what does this sentence mean? So cheap compared to fighting something too inculcate. Yeah. Or losing your business. Oh yeah. And I know the ruler had it. Got itself into an agreement that's just destroyed them. Yeah. We find that even in the space of moving into doing more kind of medical insurance, contract even more critical because we're signing two or three year agreements with insurance providers to get better rates, better pricing, better access and whatever. We're signing these contracts, it'd be bigger providers. So to sign on this, that's a three year deal.
15:37 Charles Brecque You need to make sure that it's correct because it's in a sense the length of your startup. That's a bit more. Yeah. I think especially with the big companies, even if they've got the best intentions, they'll have a whole bunch of provisions to protect themselves.
15:51 Ben Towers And sometimes those protections can hurt your business. I forget when we did the marketing stuff, there was one massive consumer business, massive consumer business. And they sent us over their contract. It must have been hundreds of pages. It's not a few hundred pages. It's the same contract they use for anything they buy from toilet roll to marketing services, all in one. And they said, be long story short, do what they want when they want and you can't touch them. And it's a horrible contract. And Royals actually some of them know of this contract this company had because it's so awful. And I thought that I'm not going to read that on the tube. This is the list of this.
16:29 Charles Brecque But I do think, yes, just pray to God, be careful and people don't pay enough attention to it. Great. And you're on the Tech Story podcast. What's your favourite tech product?
16:41 Ben Towers For me, I love Superhuman. That's just an email. The reason I love it is because I love the speeding going and the email ad man ban you. The thing about emails, the more you send, the more you think to get back. So for me, it's a product I've properly got myself into. I've tried the calendar ones and these other productivity things. Never really fell in love with them. But Superhuman is something that without it, I don't know what I'd do. I can literally send an email, remind me in a week, roll clip the button. And then before I know it, I'm chasing people, which as a founder, I never have to worry about has this person done bits or has this happened? But I know I'm ringing a mindless when the time is right. Yeah, I'm chasing.
17:19 Charles Brecque Now, I think Superhuman is also one of my favourites. And although I don't find it as fast as it could be, You mean it was shortcuts going? Well, not that. Well, obviously, yeah, I could be doing more with the shortcuts, but more. I've got Gmail on my phone and the email hits Gmail 10 seconds before it hits Superhuman on my computer. So that's like intense optimisation. That's like you want that split 10 seconds more. Well, nobody means I'm waiting for it to come on my Mac. So I've got my phone next to my laptop on the desk, hits the phone, I see it. And then I go to Superhuman and it's still loading. I did complain to them about it and I'm waiting for an OR response, but it's a great app. So what I want to do, I wait 10 seconds more for the invite. Yeah, exactly. But, well, thanks a lot, Ben, for coming on the show. And best of luck growing apples. No, thank you. Cool.