essex business school

Chris and Ben's story 

''Ethical operating has always been in the forefront of our minds. It’s helped us plot the business and where it was going.''

Essex Business School finance graduate Chris Frogner met his business partner Ben Smyth at Essex during their undergraduate degrees. Now back at Essex they are based in the brand new Innovation Centre, which is adjacent to Essex Business School.  We caught up with them as they settle into life as business owners.

What inspired you to set up your company Arma Karma

Ben: My working life since graduating from the University of Essex in 2013 has been very much around the insurance sector, setting up insurance vehicles for others and really being in that corporate space. My brother went down the charity road; he became digital marketing manager for a large charity, so a very different kind of space. 
We spent a lot of time discussing the differences between these two sectors, generally over a Sunday roast dinner! Insurance has a reputation for being an industry that is very good at driving profit but not always so concerned with its ethical value. On the other hand, the charity sector has a high moral code but isn’t always as good at generating income. We wondered whether it was possible for an insurance vehicle to ever be truly ethical – and that’s how it all began.

So the ethical side of things is obviously really important to you?

Ben: We've always been massively keen on fundraising stuff so we've both done charity runs. We've always tried to do one fundraising event a year. It’s always been a big focus of what we've been doing. So charities and ethical operating has always been in the forefront of our minds. It’s helped us plot the business and where it was going. 

Chris: It's not exactly something insurance is particularly good at so hopefully we can change that a little bit. We want to be sustainable and we want to give back to the community.

If you talk about sustainability we're obviously carbon offsetting, carbon neutral, that kind of stuff.  I suppose that stuff is easy nowadays and everyone should be doing it, specifically I think if you are a services company, because it's quite easy to do. In terms of bringing on staff we make sure we pay well above living wage, just to make sure that we are actually practising ethically.

Ben: I think what's really unique from an ethical and sustainable perspective is that with our first product, and with future products to come as well, we are giving a quarter of our commission revenue to a charity of our customer's choosing. So we are going to have a selection of six charities. During the customer journey, the customer gets to pick the charity which they feel represents them the best or they feel is the best suited to them and a quarter of our revenue from that sale goes to that charity, with the strategic goal of raising £1m for charities over three years.

Chris: I'm pleased we've got to a point where we've managed to do that.  A lot of companies pretend to give out their profits, but we are actually giving before we pay any bills, before we pay ourselves any expenses.

Ben: We believe in authentic giving, rather than just giving for the sake of giving.  We actually want to make a difference so this is how we can do that.

Chris: We will be bringing people on very shortly and we hope to be expanding quite rapidly throughout the year and the years following.

How did this collaboration come about? 

Ben: I already had a good friendship with Chris from our time at Essex where we met. Chris was in the financial space, wealth management, Bloomberg and Barclays. We had said we would work together in the future. That time came and I knocked on his door and we started formulating more of a plan, and really brought it forward a bit more. That's where we found ourselves earlier in 2019 and since then we've both obviously given the old jobs the push and we've taken the jump and gone out there on our own. 

Did you draw on any of the support offered here for new businesses and how did they help you get things off the ground?

Chris: In terms of what this building specifically and Oxford Innovation who run the building offer, it's a great place for us to be, for several reasons. I think the main thing they do is they help us to connect with the local support that is available in all the different forms. But also it's great to be here because we can connect with the other businesses that are here.  A lot of it is tech businesses and there's a broad spectrum really of what everyone does and it is predominantly tech and innovative companies, but they are all young, they are all start-ups and just being in that space. 

Ben: Collaborative work-space really. It's really helpful to have people like Neil and Dan who run the Innovation Centre here, they've been incredibly helpful on a personal level, connecting us with the right people and really helping guide us through kind of the start-up journey.  It's obviously new to us as recent founders and start up kind of people, so any kind of help and support is much appreciated.

How different is your day-to-day life from the corporate world that you left?

Both: Dramatically different! 

Ben: The thing about starting a business and going out on your own is the highs are much, much higher and the lows are much, much lower. While the days are dramatically different, they are a joy most of the time because you are really working for something that you are passionate about and something you're really keen to push, so it's a much easier environment to work in.  You’ll happily put the hours in. 

Do you feel more productive now? 

Chris: This will be different for everyone, but for me I think I actually might thrive in a smaller organisation. I've really enjoyed working for larger organisations as well but you can get a little bit bogged down in the bureaucracy of it.

Ben:  I think different personalities are definitely suited to bigger organisations or smaller organisations. I'm definitely grateful I have experienced both. But being in your own start up and really controlling your own destiny is just so much better really.

Have you got any advice for other recent graduates? 

Chris: Do it sooner. Just, if you have a dream, that dream is not going to happen if you don't go out and try.

Ben: Yeah, grab the opportunity with both hands and go for it.

"The thing about starting a business and going out on your own is the highs are much, much higher and the lows are much, much lower." 
Chris Frogner and Ben Smyth  founders Arma karma insure