Interview: Richard Theo, tech entrepreneur

We speak to Richard Theo, the serial tech entrepreneur behind companies like ActiveQuote, SoftSwift and Wealthify. He talks to us about his businesses and entrepreneurial journey.

TD: Can you tell us more about yourself and what you do, please?

RT: I’m an entrepreneur with a passion and enthusiasm for technology that has been the driving force and inspiration behind all of my business ventures. I’ve established and a string of technology-based start-up companies, including ActiveQuote, SoftSwift and Avantis Systems Ltd. I also founded Zushi, Wales’s first conveyor belt-based sushi restaurant.

My businesses are all founded on a common belief in innovation through software and technology. I always aim to use software in ways that differentiate, innovate and derive competitive advantage. The ultimate aim is always to become innovation leader within a market.

Born and educated in Surrey, I studied for a B.Sc. Hons in Computer Systems and then a Ph.D. in Computer Networks at Cardiff University, before making Wales my permanent home, settling in the Roath Park area of Cardiff with my wife and two children.

I feel that life outside of work is also tremendously important and I try to spend as much time doing things with the family, like cycling, skiing, tending to our allotment and generally spending time together. I’m a football coach for my son’s Lisvane Panthers football team. As you can imagine my passion for technology means I’m also a gadget man – I am a keen photographer and my newest toy is a high-tech self-stabilising GPS-guided drone complete with 4K camera.

TD: What things have you been working on over the last few years?

RT: I started my first venture in 1989 straight after leaving university and I’ve never looked back. My first enterprise was LightData Communications, whose main achievement was a product called DataChain which was an innovative device enabling small businesses to share peripherals and data. We sold more than 35,000 of these devices worldwide.

In 1997, I founded Avantis, which pioneered products called CDserve and OpenCD offering new ways to share CD-ROM and DVD information on school computer networks. We supplied over 8,000 UK schools. Avantis also developed a pioneering Web Caching Server, ContentCache, which accelerated schools access to online eLearning content. And latterly, LearnPad, a tablet computer designed for the academic market. In 2002, Avantis turned over £3.5m, employed 35 staff and distributed its products throughout Europe and USA.

In 2004, I launched Zushi, Wales’ first conveyor belt Sushi restaurant. This was a whole new challenge and a departure from what had come before, whilst staying true to my core principle of innovation through technology. Zushi was one of the coolest restaurants in Cardiff with sophisticated technology running the conveyor belt systems and digital menus.

ActiveQuote, arguably my most successful venture, was conceived in 2008 when I realised that there was a market for an online health insurance comparison platform, emulating was already being done successfully in the car and home insurance markets by the major UK price comparison sites. At the time there was no complete online comparison service for health insurance, despite the fact it was the fifth largest consumer insurance product in the UK.

The main challenge was the complexity of health insurance which requires an after-sales telephone advice service in order to complete sales. With help from a then recent computer science graduate, I spent a year developing software to overcome all the challenges the Health insurance market presented and in doing so, launched the world’s first benefit-led comparison platform and the first to allow policies to be tailored live on screen.

We’ve since enjoyed rapid success, introducing income protection and life insurance comparison services and growing to an estimated annual turnover in 2016 of more than £9m with 120 staff. This has lead to ActiveQuote being named Fastest-Growing Firm in Cardiff in the 2015 Fast Growth 50 Awards and Most Promising Growth Business award at the South Wales Chamber of Commerce Welsh Business Awards in 2015.

TD: What are you working on now?

RT: I’ve recently co-founded Wealthify, an online investment service that allows anyone to become an investor and expect more from their money, even if they have no experience at all, and regardless of whether they have £250 or £2 million to invest.

Like all my other businesses, Wealthify is founded on the principle of using technology to simplify and democratise services and make them accessible and affordable for everyone. In the same way that ActiveQuote made health insurance accessible to everyone by increasing knowledge and bringing down premiums through greater competition and ease of access, we’ve launched Wealthify to make investing affordable and accessible to UK savers, giving them the opportunity to benefit from stock market returns, as opposed to having to accept high street savings rates of around 1%.  

Traditional wealth management and financial advice services, are normally only available to those with upwards of £100k liquid assets and have complicated fee structures, often costing more than 2.5% a year. Wealthify has a simple flat fee of 0.7% reducing the more you invest, making it more affordable to the smaller investor and empowering anyone to try investing.

It’s an exciting proposition and business, as there’s massive potential in the UK to open up investing to the masses. When you consider there’s £250bn locked up in cash ISAs in the UK earning around just 1%. Meanwhile average stock market returns can be 7% or more.  

TD: What’s been your biggest success and your biggest obstacle?

RT: Being named in 2015 as Cardiff Entrepreneur of the Year and Wales Technology Entrepreneur of the year, within 6 weeks of each other, was my proudest moment. It’s great to be ratified independently by your peers and the industry.

Of all my businesses ActiveQuote is the one that means the most to me in terms of success. It’s by far my largest business so far, and like all the others it started with a simple idea. Initially it was just me and a graduate, writing software from a rented office behind a physiotherapy suite on Bute Street.

To see it become an award-winning business with a workforce of over 120 (and growing) staff, and partnered with the UK’s most recognised insurers and price comparison websites, is a thrill. It’s like watching a child grow up.

Getting to this point with ActiveQuote has also been my greatest challenge to date. At the beginning it was about getting the business model to work, particularly with the complexities of health and protection insurance, where it’s real people and their infinitely complicated personal medical histories you’re dealing with. Now the challenges are more about dealing with the growing pains of employing 120 people and dealing with the excessive regulation of the UK financial services sector.

TD: What was it like being named Welsh tech entrepreneur of the year in the Entrepreneur Wales Awards? 

RT: It’s a thrill and an honour to be recognized in this way alongside such admirable and inspirational Welsh businesses and people. I’m extremely proud of everything I’ve achieved, particularly the success of ActiveQuote over the past 6 years.

I attribute both awards to both the support of the fantastic team of people I’m surrounded by, as well as to the supportive and creative environment the Welsh Government has made for local businesses. And of course the support of my family.

TD: What do you think of the Welsh tech scene?

RT: Wales is a great place to start a business. The decision to locate ActiveQuote in Cardiff was strategic. Cardiff has definitely become a centre of excellence for financial services and it helps a business like ActiveQuote stand alongside national brands like Admiral Insurance Group and Lloyds Banking Group, as well having two of our major partners, GoCompare and Confused.com as regional neighbours.  

Wales provides a rich pool of talent, in both financial services and customer service disciplines. It always impresses me how dedicated and hardworking the Welsh workforce are – there’s a real, inate passion for providing good service.

Paired with lower operating costs compared to other major UK cities it’s an obvious choice for a new business. Cardiff is the fastest-growing city in Europe and there’s a great excitement about the city these days, in terms of amenities, lifestyle and a superb infrastructure connecting us with London – the UK’s financial hub – in under 2 hours

The supportive and creative environment the Welsh Government has created for small businesses in the area has been of enormous benefit to us. Wealthify will create 35 jobs over the next four year. At Wealthify, we feel excited and proud to also be supporting Welsh Government’s aim for Cardiff to become one of the largest FinTech hubs outside of London

TD: Where do you see yourself in five and ten years?

RT: In five years, we’re aiming for Wealthify to have attracted 250,000 customers and to be growing explosively. We want to have become a well-recognised and trusted national financial services brand. Our ambition within ten years is to convert 1 million savers into investors and to have delivered around £10bn more earnings from their money as a result.

ActiveQuote will be going from strength to strength building partnerships with every major UK insurer and price comparison website. We expect to employ over 250 people in 5 years. We are also currently launching our own insurance brand, Fortify, and aim to have 5 significant new disruptive insurance products within 5 years.