Welcome to another episode of the Digital Nomad Cafe Podcast.
Today’s guest is Sondre Rasch, co-founder, and CEO of SafetyWing. Sondre was previously the founder of SuperSlide (YC W16) and policy advisor for the Government of Norway. He spent his time in the government improving the social safety net there and now spends his time bringing the ideal social safety net to the rest of the world. SafetyWing offers travel, medical, and health insurance to nomads and remote companies around the world. Sondre and his team are innovators in the digital nomad space, offering global insurance to remote workers.
Topics we discuss:
- How Safetywing got started?
- What strategies did Sondre use to grow his business?
- How Sondre operates his business with fully remote and distributed teamwork.
- How Sondre kept his teamwork motivated and inspired by the vision of the business during covid.
- What is the meaning of “the global social safety net.”
- How Safetywing works on a global scale?
- We talk about his new product: Remote Health.
- What does a country on the internet mean?
- What does Sondre think is valuable information for somebody who wants to land a remote job?
Thank you for joining us in today’s episode. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast and give us a Review on iTunes & a Follow on Spotify. Digitalnomadcafe.com for more episodes.
Adam: Welcome to another episode of Digital Nomad Cafe podcast. Today, I’m joined by Sondre Rasch from SafetyWing. Hello, Sondre.
Sondre: Thank you, Adam. Great to be here.
Adam: Nice to meet you, too, my man. So SafetyWing is an insurance company. It offers travel insurance for people who are traveling around the world. From what I’ve seen, I’ve seen it become very popular in the last two, three years, mentioned in many blogs and getting lots of good reviews. So can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how SafetyWing came about?
Sondre: Yeah, I am currently sitting in Bergen, Norway, where I’m from, although I usually live in San Francisco, where SafetyWing is headquartered. I started SafetyWing together with Sarah and Hans who are also from Norway, a small town there. And we started with this idea that we would kind of build a Norwegian social safety net, but as a membership on the internet. That’s what the project is about. And the first product in a sense was for what we were at the time, which for digital nomads had been for two years, all of us. So we had that need of having a very flexible, easy, sort of travel medical thing that we could have indefinitely. And that was what became the first product.
Adam: It was like, ultimately, travel insurance for people who are out and about and traveling the world. I know from my days of backpack, which is probably around 2009 to 2015, the Word Nomads seem to be like the one, to be honest, that was the only one that I remember, when you googled that you could get insurance with. So did you see an opportunity for a business that catered to the people who were as you’re saying, traveling and working and wanted to cover their goods as well like their laptops and cameras and things like that?
Sondre: Yeah, we knew the needs for digital nomads, because we were in the segment. So we had a pretty good idea about what was needed. And we didn’t set out to make that. And that worked out really well, I would say. And certainly, the reception has been very positive and growing since day one, pretty quickly. So there was really just looking at our own problem and solving it for ourselves and knowing that many others share the same situation.
Adam: And then, you did grow really fast. Like, 2018 was when the company was founded. And you get up to 60,000 users pretty quickly in a short number of years. So can you talk about some of the strategies that you use for growth, to help grow your business and get it off the ground, really, and get it up and running?
Sondre: Yeah. The main growth strategy we use is to make something people love so much they tell their friends. That’s everything you need to know about our growth strategy in one sentence. I think this is a great strategy. I also think it’s a great marker for so-called product market fit. When you have a product that users want is when you observe your customers on their own initiative, telling a friend about it. So if you have a Why field somewhere, then they will, or Where did you find us? And the answer is a friend then, you know it’s working. This has been our primary growth strategy since the beginning. And we know that two thirds of our customers come through word of mouth to this day. We’ve never done any advertising or paid performance ads. So that’s something we’ve avoided. The great thing about that kind of growth strategy is that it grows exponentially. So it’s like it grows as a function of your users. So if you were to grow something where it requires effort, let’s say I was selling it myself, person to person. I could sell two a day, but that’s not going to scale. Two years from now, I’m still gonna sell maybe three a day if I get really good at it. But it’s not going to be 3000. But if you scale as your users, that means that when you have 60,000 users, there’s 60,000 people who can tell their friends about it, which makes the growth strategy grow as a function of a user, which means it grows exponentially in percentage terms every month. That’s pretty much it. We coupled it with something that is very accessible for any kind of startup, which is broadly in the beginning, we also worked with influencers and co marketing, to kind of get the name out there to start with. So influencers gave them a chance to try the product and they could write authentically what they thought. That’s based on Renae Girard’s Mimetic Desire. Like, why do people buy things? They copy what other people want to some degree. But that only works if someone who’s respected authentically recommends it. And we worked with some credible people in the beginning to get some of the first articles and then it kind of just went to word of mouth after that. And co marketing, that’s just talking to other startups who have the same customers and asking them, “Could you post about us and we post about you?” And we’d become friends like that?
Adam: That’s really good to hear. And I hear what you’re saying. Like what the influencer is. A real influencer is somebody who can actually influence a purchasing decision, not just somebody who has loads of followers. By partnering with people who had that influence, that sounds like it was really beneficial. With that sort of scale, you’ve grown so fast, so many new customers. In terms of running the business, I know that your assistant who you are speaking with beforehand, she’s in Mexico. Do you have a fully remote and distributed team? Is that how you operate as a business?
Sondre: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Fully remote distributed. My previous company was also fully remote distributed. So we’ve been believers in fully remote teams for a long time. It is the only way to start a company these days, I think. I can’t imagine starting a startup today and not having it remote. That would be strange.
Adam: Given the last two years, it would have definitely been beneficial to have that, not being office reliant. But it allows you to tap into the world’s pool of talent. really, as well. So you can bring in the best people in all of the different countries. With that in mind, what do you feel especially after the COVID situation that seems to be bloody ongoing? Let’s just be real. With regards to managing remote teams and their mental health and things like that? How have you found it keeping people motivated and inspired by the vision of the business?
Sondre: I would say we have that working amazingly well in SafetyWing. I think the first part is that you got to get the fundamentals right first. So for example, we have this rule that when we hire that, it’s much easier to hire someone who wants the same thing you want. It’s like this general rule for how to have peace in a relationship is that you want the same thing and you’re going in the same direction. That’s one of the top things we look for in hiring. Like, do you want this? Because if they do, then you don’t have to manage them. You’re actually allies. But if you start there, and then of course, in order to mix something people want, you have to have an inspiring vision. So I think that is genuinely useful. People will come in and maybe have made a little tool or something. But at an early stage, it would just always be limited to what you build. So people want to know what’s the first break to build? What are we building here? And that is relevant. So you want to have a worthwhile project. And in our case, I think we certainly do because it was started in this idealistic light. It wasn’t something we made up after. We set out to build a global social safety net and eventually the first country in the intranet. And many people will find that a great thing to work on, a worthwhile project, which makes the other part quite easy. So that’s like the fundamentals: have a worthwhile project, hire people who want to build that project. And we have a great philosophy, I think, in the company, where we essentially don’t tell people what to do, but we have this culture document taking people seriously where we take people seriously, take each other seriously and listen to each other’s ideas and tolerate mistakes. There are some of those basics you got to do to keep a culture from being annoying to be at, which many companies unfortunately fail at. And we’ve avoided that thus far, which has been a great boon to us. Then constantly do maintenance. We do that where we kind of, once a quarter clean up our common areas. We have creative sessions where everyone participates. And we kind of make remote meetings better than live meetings. So for example, planning and presentation is a great example where we come up with ideas. We list them. We rank them in sort of like a Google Sheet and it’s very fun. In a way, where we kind of like, we don’t try to do an offline meeting online, but we instead make a new much more engaging, interactive meeting by using online tools.
Adam: There’s one app we started using, it’s called Mirror. It’s really fun. It’s kind of like sticky notes. I don’t know. It’s really good for that initial stage of a project where everything is in its sections and everybody gets engaged and it’s really fun. It’s kind of like that office thing. We used to do it on the big whiteboard. But in an engaged online way. So, I mean, it sounds like you have a really nice vision and a really good culture and with that, you will attract the right people to you, because they’re aligned with your vision and your culture. And then, as you say, you kind of get out of the way and let them blossom into the role and bring them in and keep them creative, make them feel heard. So all of these things are essential, really, if you want to keep and retain good people on your team and within your company. So you mentioned the global social safety net. Can you elaborate on what that means a little bit, please?
Sondre: Yeah. Imagine what a national social safety net is. And I don’t know what it is in Ireland, but in Norway, there is like, you have a membership in a national welfare system kind of here. And that includes things like health, retirement, the hospital system, income protection, like if you’re disabled or can’t work for some reason. And it’s kind of that set of things. And the unfortunate thing is that for many people, either, if they’re digital nomads, obviously they can’t, doesn’t qualify for like, I’m not when I live abroad, I can’t use my Norwegian social safety net because that only exists in Norway. But it is also true with most remote workers, because of the way you qualify for many things. And even in the Norwegian social safety net, which is one of the most universal, you qualify for many things, only by working for a local company.
Adam: Only if you pay PRSI In Ireland. So you have to pay a tax to an employer off your salary for it. Whereas if you’re a freelancer or a sole trader, that’s the big elephant in the room, or when you’re not hired by a company who provides usually as part of a benefit package, health insurance or something, then you’re kind of in this gray area, where if you don’t go and set it up yourself separately, like a pension, health insurance and income protection, then you’re not covered and you run into some trouble. So it sounds like it’s what you’re talking about here. Like for people when they’re traveling. So how does that work on a global scale? Like, if I’m in Ireland and I head to Bali or Mexico or wherever, how am I covered by an insurance?
Sondre: Yeah, that’s kind of what we have to solve. But the way we wanted to work, I mean, the way it already works with health insurance is of course that we have to figure it out legally in every country so we can offer the same services, because we what we want is for that social safety net to work the same no matter where you are in the world. So that if you’re in Ireland, then it works the same. So you can use the phone, you can just chat, you can go to a medical provider, it covers it. And it’s all very smooth and easy. But also, it’s similar if you have, in the future, a disability. we’re trying to make this much better than the national alternatives, of course. We’re trying to make this into futuristic, smooth working products that are easy to use. But the way you have to do that, the hardest is actually medical, which we’ve already done. Tension is coming up now, which is challenging in some ways, but the most challenging one is medical because there are several layers of infrastructure. But we find a way to do that. You kind of have to take it country by country and build out your network until you have the whole world and then you have to make customer service and a medical network to be able to access that. So in the end, the way it works is you can just go to a hospital anywhere in the world. And if you find it through us, then the hospital can bill us directly. And then in the future, every hospital can bill directly. But you can also go out of network and send a claim after. But the easiest is, of course, if you contact customer service first.
Adam: I imagine it’s a hard problem to solve. You know, there’s not too many competitors in the space. But it’s also, I feel like you’re definitely very innovative. And from what I could see, you were one of the first if not the only to offer insurance that covered people who were hospitalized for the Coronavirus and stuff. Is that correct?
Sondre: Yeah, that is correct. We were the first and only a few still does. That is of course being fast. And we were able to move fast. Well, a lot of the insurance industry stands basically still. And so they weren’t able to update that.
Adam: I noticed there’s kind of an evolution in the product happening where you’re you’re pivoting from, let’s say me, the individual was heading off being a solopreneur, or a freelancer who buys my own insurance to, let’s say, media employer who has six freelancers who work for me and trade different countries, being the person who provides them what an insurance option. So can you talk about this a little bit. I think Remote Health is the name of the product that you’re moving into?
Sondre: Yeah, absolutely. We launched the motel March 3rd last year, which was actually quite funny because we launched it at a launch event in San Francisco. And there were like maybe 200 founders sort of at an event there. And I remember, we said, from the stage that we had made this product, because we thought in five to ten years, most companies will be remote. And the next weekend, all companies went remote. That prediction really came fast. And, of course, what a lot of companies who are now fully remote, or half remote are discovering that, one, they discover that when they’re hiring, they want to hire from anywhere because they want to hire the best applicant to take benefit of the fact that they are remote. The other thing is that their employees move 30%. I read that Spotify did this survey, and they all had the same result, over 30% of their employees had moved during COVID. And that’s why I Spotify went for the work from anywhere model where they said, not just that you can work from home, but you can work from anywhere. And then you have to have the benefits to support that. And of course, all these new workforce that is now gone remote, they’re available to work for a company. So their remote workforce have also been massively expanded. And another crazy stat I saw was that we did this survey with GitLab, where it was, again, about 30%, who said that they would quit their job if the company went back to not being remote. And these were our top companies. So there’s a lot of people who’s going to be available and great hires over the coming year, when you are remote. And of course, but these are people who are then, we’re not in the fringe kind of early innovator category anymore. These are like regular people to some degree and they expect to have benefits. If you want to attract that kind of talent, you will be asked, are there benefits? And you definitely want the answer to be, yes, we do have. We do have that kind of benefits even if you’re remote. And that’s what many are figuring out.
Adam: Because I think, traditionally, like you’re saying, you would get a package in the country where you’re a tax resident, usually. So let’s say you’re a tax resident of Ireland, then your health insurance covers Ireland. But if I want to go and spend four months in Spain, that policy doesn’t cover me when I’m in Spain, typically it wouldn’t. So this is where we’re having something like a remote help policy for virtual teams, or for staff who are remote and who like to travel would be very beneficial. That’s where it works. A lot of people like to move around a lot more. I know right now it’s kind of a weirdest time ever, because people like to move around, but it’s all dependent on whether you’ve been jabbed or whatever yet this country’s open, or that one makes a quarantine. I get that we’re in a bit of a, probably the most turbulent time ever, in this travel freedom situation. But I like what you’re saying, like it’s solving a problem in a unique use case that then allows companies to attract the best talent, but also offer the typical products that would be offered to an employee, like ultimately, so you get wages, and then you get benefits. And the benefits would be maybe a personal development, but also a health insurance option as well of some description. So yeah, that allows people to, like you’re saying, attract and retain the best people without an interest in one.
Sondre: Yeah. And it’s also having tried to buy from not us, I also know that it is very difficult. If you want to buy abroad, it’s like bordering on impossible. If you hire someone in Brazil, and you try to buy benefits for them locally. So with us, you have a dashboard for your company. And then it’s like a few clicks to kind of add another person to that line and it sort of charges your card monthly. It’s as simple as any sort of web product.
Adam: And I mean, I guess this extends because I know a lot of people who listen, hire virtual assistants and things like that. What a nice benefit to offer, let’s say, your virtual assistant, or even if you’re somebody who’s part time helping you with your blog and your business. That’s a really unique value that you could offer them, and then you’re more likely to retain them and keep them and they’ll feel like you have their best interests at heart really, isn’t it? That you’re looking out for them.
Sondre: That’s what we say in the service. And of course, because that’s a great thing to have as a company to be a serious company that you care about your employees and also their health.
Adam: You mentioned the country on the internet. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
Sondre: The way we see the future unfold is that the internet has changed the world we live in. Our prediction is that that’s a bit deeper than many people realize. And that this remote work thing is a secondary effect that is enormous. And what it does is essentially turns the world into a global labor market, which changes the function that countries can use. So if we just stick with the two use cases we mentioned, like companies that hire internationally and people who live abroad, digital nomads, as a larger and larger share of the economy is in that segment, the regular country’s infrastructure isn’t that useful anymore. And this kind of thing is happening for more services than just the social safety net. It is actually necessary to rebuild almost the entire infrastructure that supports citizens in the labor market full blown on the internet. And we think that that will open up the need for something like countries on the internet, which means that you will have another layer of community or social organization that is membership based, and global, and on the internet, which will probably coexist with regular countries. But those two will shift responsibilities between them. Kind of similar to how we went from the city states to nation states in the 1600s where estates technically kept existing, but it was more practical now due to the late technology to make a nation state. So those nation states will solve shared problems for its citizens. And we are pretty confident that this future is happening. But we can definitely see that it’s possible for a dystopian version to be made here. So we were thinking, what if we just made like a really good guy one, kind of like, first. So that’s our secret mission, although it’s not secret at all, because we talk about it publicly. But our immediate mission is that we are building a global social safety net. But beyond that horizon, we also want to contribute to the creation of the first country on the internet that ultimately provides freedom and equal opportunity for everyone.
Adam: I mean, that is a North Star vision if ever I head one. That’s big and bold and noble. And I imagine it’s full of challenges, and turbulence and everything else. But like you’re saying, this is where it’s gone. People thought that all in 10 years, 20 years. No, it happened pretty quick. And a lot of people had to rescale and retrain. And like you’re saying, the labor market is now largely online. And as more countries, too, get better, electricity and internet, you kinda need both. It’s no good having one or the other. You need the electricity first, the infrastructure, and with that will come a whole world of new opportunities. Like an extra couple of billion people will come online and offer services. Those payments and those all sorts of things as well that will come with that. So that’s impressive. It sounds like a real noble goal to have and to be the good guy in the good country on the internet today. It’s exciting stuff, man. It’s exciting.
Sondre: Yeah. I know, there are kind of extremely interesting elements that I don’t think we will provide that this opens up for is the sort of new villages and communities that will be built. So we’re already seeing some elements of this and I love this so much. Because it really is, a lot of people live where they are now because it’s close to their job. And as you take that constraint away, people will move and of course, that is the digital nomad. But it also opens up the possibility to create new towns and villages that are more intentional, like remote villages like Umaya, Will Mercer’s project in Belize. But I think we can see many more of that. This is the time, I think, to start a village.
Adam: That’s a very interesting topic to talk about, because this is something that, like you’re saying, where I live now isn’t full of people, let’s say, who I would like to interact and converse with who are like digital nomads. Look, it’s not really that popular. Most people have normal jobs. But I want to go to places like Las Palmas, Lisbon. There’s loads of different cities. There’s a couple of spots in Portugal. I know they tried to promote some island as a digital nomad hotspot, but it’s out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s not exactly very accessible. I mean, Madeira Island or something. But I hear what you’re saying. Like Bansko, which is this ski village in Bulgaria. I think these places seem to pop up. And then you had your classics, which were Hanoi, Chiang Mai, Bali, all those places. It’s funny. Some people love them. Some people hate them. I didn’t love them. I love Chiang Mai. I didn’t like Bali. But now that more and more people can work online. And also more and more companies are okay with people. Just going away for a couple of months. You know what I mean? Maybe you want to live in the UK, Ireland, Norway, America, but you want to spend five to six months a year in Mexico or one of these European Mediterranean countries because the winters are long and brutal in Ireland. But I always end up coming back for this bloody tax residency thing, because it’s very top of mind for me, because I’ve had to deal with it, let’s say. So you have to be careful about your own tax residency. But to work for companies that allow you to work from wherever, that they trust you. There’s a high level of trust. And then to be in a community around people who are also interested in the things you’re interested in, and kind of by osmosis, you have that creativity and that hanging out and you’re talking about big ideas with people who are interested in similar topics, that helps you to grow, I think. It’s really fun, too. I’m not gonna lie, I love it. I love being around people who are into e-commerce blogs, and building businesses, selling stuff online. I love it. No, and it’s the greatest thing too, when you can meet and hang around with people who have similar interests, and you can learn from them. One of the best things we did with SafetyWing was we did this program Y Combinator, which has this great thing that you all meet. It’s like, you will start a company with a cohort. And that just gets to learn from all other entrepreneurs that are in the similar stage. And that was a really great thing that I wholeheartedly recommend. But I definitely share that because we can move so you can spend summer, six months in Ireland and the other six in Lisbon, or wherever, is a great thing. And it’s wonderful that it’s becoming available to anybody, not just to the rich few, but to anyone.
Adam: It is, my man. I know people who are chefs and who trained and worked as chefs, and they see what I do and they’re like, “How do I get into that?” Because they’re like, “I work 60 hours a week in a kitchen and I don’t like it anymore. Can I do some more of what you’re doing?” I’m like, “Yeah, absolutely.” You just need to figure out which it is. Is it offering a service, is it to get a remote job? There’s lots of different routes to become a digital nomad or freelancer, your own thing, or else working for a good company. Because it’s not all about starting your own business, too. I think a lot of people have that misconception that the only way it can happen is if you start your own business. No. So many good companies are now hiring remote staff. And if you have the skills and character and the charisma that company is looking for, that you can get hired, and you can live that lifestyle, and you can have that freedom, but it’s not like it used to be. It’s not just everybody’s in one street in Dublin and the only place you can get hired by these tech companies is if you go in and out one street in Dublin. So thankfully, times have changed.
Sondre: Yeah, there are so many jobs out now, remote jobs in places like Remote OK. But when I first started out, my plan was to start freelancing as well, which is also really hard to start. I mean, I’m not kind of putting that lightly. But several people we’ve hired started out as freelancers as well, so that’s also like a way to kind of show your lower threshold way into companies. So that’s the great thing about the internet. The internet labor market is much more accessible and fluid than the regular one in the city.
Adam: Yeah, for sure. So look, final thing, I guess. Have you any tips for somebody who was looking to get hired by a remote company? Based on what you’ve seen, and all the people you’ve encountered, company and people you speak to, what do you think is useful information for somebody to have who wants to land a remote job?
Sondre: Well, step one is to apply. A lot of the best, most happy people who have joined SafetyWing have chosen the company first. So we’ve gotten some great people into open applications, who just have a particular affinity with what we’re doing at SafetyWing. And I think that’s true for many, many companies, and especially if they’re maybe also willing to start out freelancing, that’s the first I would say. Choose a company that matches you well, because then you will be motivated, and that will shine through. And that’s actually one of the things we look for, and I think most companies look for is, are they actually motivated to work here, specifically. In terms of being hired at SafetyWing, the top thing we look for is authenticity. So be yourself. You would be surprised how much that puts you apart. Because a lot of people are, they practice a persona when they’re in an application process. And I never realized I can work somewhere. And what we’re looking for is who you are, in a sense. So I think being real and being yourself means you still have to practice but you have to prove yourself instead of just this role you’re playing.
Adam: I hear you. The mask you put on for work, the role. It’s interesting, I guess, when I was hiring for Shopify, what they do is they ask me, literally like, “Tell me your life story.” That’s the question. “Tell me your life story.” And at the end of it, there’s no hard questions. It’s like, “Okay, thanks.” And then you’re like, “What the hell? That was the interview? I’m confused. Right now.” And you never know how it went, I guess, until after. But that’s what they were looking for. Did you try and pretend you’re this perfect individual? Or are you going to be honest and tell us about some good stories and bad stories? Sometimes you screw up. I always found the interview process for Shopify, who are also probably half or more typically, but fully remote at the moment, authenticity is a big part of it, too. So, that’s a really interesting one.
So look, Sondre, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. Any final words for people to find you or connect if they’re looking for SafetyWing or remote help?
Sondre: So yeah, if you’re going out, nomadding, living abroad, definitely get Nomad insurance at safetywing.com. And if you have a remote team and you’re considering starting to offer health insurance and other benefits, you can also go to safetywing.com and go to the company section there on the top right corner to see if remote health might be right.
Adam: I’ll make sure to link to everything in the show notes wherever it will be everywhere on the internet. So thank you, Sondra, and thanks for all the listeners for tuning in.
Sondre: Thanks, Adam. It’s been great.