Building the Best Corporate Culture | Tim Metzner from Coterie

While Tim Metzner’s college classmates were landing work-study opportunities with fortune 500s, he found himself as one of five employees at a tech startup. When he experienced first hand the ambition, the drive, the scrappiness, the innovation, he was hooked.

This set him on an entrepreneurial journey that eventually led him to become the co-founder and CSO of Coterie Insurance, a company that uses data-driven automation to provide small businesses, contractors, and gig workers fast, simplified access to the best insurance plans.

On this edition of Founders Journey, Tim talks more about his life in the tech-startup world and how it taught him to appreciate the power of data.

More information:

Tim Metzner is co-founder of Coterie, an API-based commercial lines insurance startup. In addition to delivering business insurance via APIs through channel partners like Intuit Quickbooks, Coterie empowers agents and brokers to secure coverage for small businesses faster and easier than ever. 

Through tech-based business insurance solutions, Coterie delivers simpler coverage, more accurate pricing, and a streamlined experience. By enabling the instant quoting and issuing of policies as well as a 100% digital underwriting process, agents, brokers, and partners, are able to simplify and digitize their operations to better serve small businesses.

Previously, Tim was co-founder of Differential, a leading digital product studio, and of OCEAN, a faith-based non-profit organization that teaches, mentors, invests in, and gathers entrepreneurs around both business and biblical principles critical to their success. Tim is currently an active member of the Board of Directors for all three organizations.

Tim is very active in the Cincinnati entrepreneurial community which, among other efforts, has included organizing community events like Startup Weekend, regularly speaking at local universities on the topics of entrepreneurship, leadership, and innovation, and mentoring entrepreneurs and students in the region.

In addition to his volunteer and entrepreneurial endeavors, one of Tim’s greatest joys and challenges is co-leading his four young children (Nolan, Owen, Faith, and Emma) with his wife, Kristy.


DISCLAIMER: Below is an AI generated transcript. There could be a few typos but it should be at least 90% accurate. Watch video or listen to the podcast for the full experience!

Tim Metzner 0:00
It’s funny we joked about like one of our early we did okrs early on. So objectives and key results. One of our first okrs was seller policy without getting arrested. Sell policy in a way that actually was in line with the laws and regulations that govern how insurance is sold, right. So there’s some pretty serious implications when you’re when you’re working in a space that is regulated.

Alexander Ferguson 0:28
Welcome to UpTech Report. This is our Founders journey series UpTech Report is sponsored by TeraLeap. Learn how to leverage the power of Today, I’m excited to be joined again by my guest, Tim Metzner, who’s based in Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s the co founder and chief strategy officer at Coterie. Welcome, Tim, good to have you back on.

Tim Metzner 0:47
Thank you. I’m excited to be here, especially for the founders journey. That’s a That one’s even more near and dear to my heart than as much as I love technology. I have a big heart for founders and entrepreneurs. So it’s not an easy road.

Alexander Ferguson 0:57
And that not an easy or simple civil road. For those that want to learn more, though about quartering actual business days built, go back and listen to part one of our discussion. But this one, we’re really going to be hearing more about the story itself. It coteries is a commercial insurance platform that they’re focused on serving other software platforms, as well as agents and brokers. They started as a as a API first company, and they kind of built out from there. But take me back to like, even before, coterie, you’ve been in technology for a while. Right? Like, how did you even get it evolved? and technology? What led you to, to starting this company? And this isn’t your first company either that you built? Yeah.

Tim Metzner 1:39
Yeah, I tell people all the time, I caught the bug early on. And I’ve never had a real job, quote unquote. So literally going back to college, I was in an honors business program that required Co Op. So that meant like every other quarter, one quarter, you’d be in class, the next quarter, you have to go get a job. And in most cases, those jobs are with, you know, I’m in Cincinnati, Ohio, and we’ve got a bunch of Fortune 500. So that might be with Procter and Gamble or with Kroger or with, you know, Fifth Third Bank, or one of the amazing organizations we have around town that was this program was and was really kind of built to build the future leaders in all of our corporate kind of citizens, and sponsored by them. So most of my classmates were going and getting these amazing Co Op jobs, you know, very early on as early as a freshman in college with these awesome organizations, and instead, I got a job with a startup. So I forget these big businesses. That’s right. Yeah, I met a founder, who had built and sold his company that eBay. And this was in the, like, the year 2000. I met him. So just after craziness, but he had survived that and so he had built a company in the late 90s. And is a company called up for sale and ended up being eBay’s first ever acquisition. It was right before eBay IP owed. So he got pre IPO stock and eBay as part of this acquisition did really well if you know the eBay story, and use that as a springboard to go start this other company. And I met him as he was doing his earnout with eBay, and on the side, doing the side hustle to start this another this company called spark people. And I’m like, man, I just want to go learn from this guy, I don’t care what I do, I don’t even understand what this company does. I just want to go learn from them. So I was employee number five of the startup as a co op in college. And the combination of fast pace mission based organization small team doing an incredible amount of things you know, for the size we were like really you know kind of out punching our weight class so to speak. That I just fell in love with that it just Bardo. I never looked back sparked people. So s pa rk Yeah, PEO.

Alexander Ferguson 3:57
And that was your first job. Really,

Tim Metzner 3:59
I was my first it was my first job. First Co Op, I had some good old fashioned like, work in a garage, all that kind of, you know, some hard early stuff in high school. My first real job was was with spark people ever

Alexander Ferguson 4:10
so already from their external, being able to see that as an example someone who was able to exit their company, eBay, pre iPhone IPO, and then start their next one. You’re you’re in there you see that that energy, and they just have that desire, like, I want to do this.

Tim Metzner 4:24
Yes. And the two things I think that most like stood out that have left an impression on me are number one, the power of entrepreneurship to be a force for good, like the amount of good that building a company and building a good culture can provide to those around it like that stuck with me. And then the second part of that is like the power of technology. So being a technology first organization like, you know, for us, we were a small, scrappy team in Cincinnati, Ohio, and we ended up reaching You know, when I was there even over 30 million people across the world. And help them reach their health and fitness goals by building this online kind of platform and figuring out the power of online community before social media was even a thing. So just seeing the power of like digital and technology really just impressed me like holy cow. There’s an opportunity to change the world through technology. And I want to be a part of that throughout my career.

Alexander Ferguson 5:21
And you were actually with smart people for a while and you were in the marketing lead lead marketing for them. Yep,

Tim Metzner 5:28
that’s right. So I studied marketing in college. Although as, at the time, I’ll tell you marketing in college was more like brand marketing for p&g, it was not customer acquisition, growth, marketing, growth hacking, as they call it today, like, so I was learning all of that stuff in my job and on the side, like, how do you do SEO? What does SEO How do you do like paid search in the early days of the, you know, the web? So I was learning like self learning this, this stuff, kind of in the in the co op job. And I just fell in love with both user acquisition and retention. So the idea that like you want to acquire users, but also how do we actually keep them around and solve problems for them? And then, you know, get value out of that community around that user over time. So that’s kind of what I was doing.

Alexander Ferguson 6:14
And then how did it go go from spark people to what was in between from spark people and coterie then.

Tim Metzner 6:20
So there’s a company called differential that I helped start, which was today, I would describe it as a startup studio or a venture studio, because that’s sort of become a known thing. At the time, though, that wasn’t really an established model. So we were sort of trailblazing and the genesis for it was, you know, 13, right? Yes, this was 2013. And basically, it was like I had pretty decent startup experience at that point, had made some mistakes and learned a bunch. And I looked around at the kind of Midwest ecosystem, and I saw a bunch of like, people who wanted to be entrepreneurs who had ideas that evolved around technology, but had no technology experience. And there was just like this big disconnect between like really deep industry expertise, like think of the person who worked in r&d at p&g for 30 years and had like, really great domain expertise and saw an opportunity to build like a tech platform for r&d for for corporates, right, that wasn’t a real thing. But that’s a great example of like, he doesn’t know the first thing about how to build a tech platform, but he knows how it can be valuable to that industry, right? So we just saw this like, gap between really great, experienced sharp people who wanted to do something using technology, but didn’t know how to do it, and felt like I’d built a pretty good network of folks who actually didn’t know how to build technology products in software. We said, what would it look like to act like co founders to come around people with expertise and invest our time instead of our dollars to help help get them launched. So we launched differential and said, We would love to partner with entrepreneurs for equity, we’d love to build her own stuff. And we should do some services work to to help keep the lights on. But that was really like an afterthought initially. So that’s what we did. We launched we bootstrapped initially, and then raising capital round it and, you know, eventually launched a couple products, a couple which are still up and going and look really interesting kind of venture backed high growth companies that spun out of kind of the differential studio. So had a blast doing that in between coterie and spark people. And, you know, really the what ended up happening it differentials, we spun out a lot of those technology companies, and the fastest growing part of differential was our service company. So we built a team around scaling this, you know, really digital innovation service company where we would act as almost like a product team for hire. So you’re a large organization, and you say, we need to leverage technology to solve this problem, we would guide you through a sprint to help identify what that looks like rapidly test it, and then prototype it. And then if it got greenlit, we would actually build a product team around that and go act as product owners for you. So differential still doing that today, scaled up for a few years had a ton of fun, like, love building the culture, love building the team. But I couldn’t help but shake. And I told my partners, that’s when we shifted to this model. And like, at some point, I’m gonna want to build again, because I walk in every day, and I see our team, which is so dang talented, but they’re building other people’s products. Like, I want to get my hands on leveraging this resource, right? Yeah, so I wanted to get back to building something. Take sort of like bigger swing, quote, unquote. And that led me to insurance is kind of a category was like, this could be a really interesting place to do that.

Alexander Ferguson 9:41
It was like 2018 or probably like, 2017 you’re pondering this and then 2018 you decide to make the decision. Alright, let’s change things up.

Tim Metzner 9:49
Yeah, about midway through 2018. I had a conversation with my partners. I was like, Hey, we’re, we’ve got pretty good profit. Now. Things are going well, like we could keep reinvesting that profit and growing the service. As company or we could invest in building something like build a product company, and we, we honestly, we unanimously came to the same decision of that would probably be a bad idea based on the culture we’ve built. Because we didn’t build a product company, we built a service company. And the reality was a lot of our developers came out of like high tech venture backed companies, and we’re kind of just done grinding, like they needed a respite from that, like, they wanted to have a little bit different speed and pace of life. And we provided that for and they could still work on amazing high tech technology, build really cool stuff. But without that high growth, high tech pressure that comes with the kind of venture money so we unanimously agreed it didn’t make sense to try and do that within differential. So you know, I, I tell people, I basically fired myself by saying that like, Okay, then it’s probably time for me to go move on and do some glass, I spent the last part of, you know, the second half of 2018, kind of winding out wanting myself out of day to day making sure I landed the plane while there and starting to think about what might be next.

Alexander Ferguson 11:00
So you find yourself a while you get out of that. That company then say now it’s time to start a new one. For coterie? Did you get then funding as well to get that started? You bootstrap it beginning? How did it begin? Yeah. So

Tim Metzner 11:12
when I met my co founder, and our CEO, David and him, Kevin was the third co founder and our CEO, they had already started. So the concept was pretty well formed in David’s mind, he’s the actuary. He came from insurance he had this vision for, here’s how we can leverage technology to do it different.

Alexander Ferguson 11:31
How did you guys mean?

Tim Metzner 11:33
serendipitous. So he moved to Cincinnati to start a tech company. And Cincinnati is a decent ecosystem, but it’s not that big. So most people, you know, who come to Cincinnati get pointed in my direction pretty quickly, just because I’ve kind of been around the tech scene long enough that Okay, go talk to Tim help. He’ll help make some intros for you. And, you know, give me some feedback. And I just love doing that. So do like those kind of founder coffees all the time. That’s all it was, like, just got together over coffee to meet and he had no idea was thinking about what might be next. But I remember walking away from that coffee and texting my wife and going, you’re not gonna believe this. But I think I found my next thing. All right. So that was it. We got Yeah, mutual friend connected us over coffee. And I fell in love with this vision for it and felt like I could be an asset on on this founding team,

Alexander Ferguson 12:23
to see the three of you come together for him started with Diane, and you’re like, Alright, let’s let’s make this happen. And what were the kind of the stepping stones from there?

Tim Metzner 12:32
Yeah, so started, you know, immediately, he started kind of hacking on it on the side mostly on, like, kind of creating the vision for it. And then raise a little bit of angel capital, from some folks who believed in that early vision enough to really hire, you know, a couple contractors first, and then a full timer. And we were the first hire there. I think we had two devs that came on around the same time, and I can’t remember if it was like, it was a front and a back end, Dev and both came on around the same time both started as contractors, and eventually would become full time employees, but basically brought on the resources we need to build that early prototype, you know, to start building. Yeah,

Alexander Ferguson 13:17
how long did it take to build the first prototype?

Tim Metzner 13:23
actual working, like we’re able to sell insurance or sell Remember, we’re kind of this double headed product monster, like there’s the insurance product, you’d have to build, and file and wait for state approvals. And there’s the technology product. So, you know, it took more than a year for us to actually get to market with to sell like our first policy. Because you were, you know, you’re absolutely beholden by the regulator, state regulators. And you can’t even file with those guys until you have a pretty tight story. So there’s a ton of work to do, you have to get an insurance company to give you permission, you have to get a reinsurance company to say we’re going to take most of the risk on your, you know, on the on the products you’re writing, like on the book that you build. And then you have to build the technology to actually do all the stuff you say you’re going to do. So it was it required, you know, more capital than I would like to get the market, but you’re building an insurance company effectively, right? So, you know, we raised a decent chunk capital before we ever wrote our first, you know, our first policy, which it’s a moat in this space, to be honest with you, like, you can’t just throw two developers in a room and build an insurance company like it requires some pretty significant like, upfront infrastructure building table stakes. It’s funny, we joked about like one of our early we did okrs early on. So objectives and key results. One of our first okrs was sell a policy without getting arrested. So a way that actually was in line with the laws and regulations that govern how insurance is sold, right. So there’s, you know, some pretty serious implications when you’re when you’re working with us. That dysregulated quite okay.

Alexander Ferguson 15:04
Let’s sell our product and not get get arrested for it that

Tim Metzner 15:07
was fortunately we were able to check that box eventually.

Alexander Ferguson 15:11
As a good good one to check. So so from there your your whole role there as kind of strategy and growth officer, Has it always been the same? Is that always just been like the the messaging because coming from I guess a marketing background strictly is that where you’ve been playing the biggest role?

Tim Metzner 15:28
It’s really been thinking about distribution. So you know, how do we sell insurance, we all sort of agreed early on going direct a small business didn’t make sense. We thought that it was, too It was cost prohibitive number one, like trying to acquire customers in this space, like the cost per acquisition is just super, super high. Again, it’s also just like a complicated process. So we believed we could create a better experience if we could leverage the data that other tools and services already had. Right. So that was again, you know, going back to our earlier conversation on API First, we believed there were products and companies and services that had most of the data we needed for underwriting, that if we could embed insurance, do a connected, you know, product, like we can pull that data in and make it a really seamless process where it’s like, as an entrepreneur, as a business owner, you can answer two questions that are pretty easy to answer. And we’ll get the rest from a platform that already exists. So that thinking about that, though, that kind of go to market strategy has been a lot of thought about is like, how do we get to market? What are those kind of channels and segments and that has evolved over time, right? Like we intentionally avoided agents and brokers initially, not because we didn’t think they were important, because we felt like if we solve this harder problem first, it would be much easier to run that channel today. Like, in hindsight, I would tell you that I think it was probably a mistake. And the difference. The reason for that is, you know, I when I get a chance to talk to entrepreneurs in classes and universities and things like that, I always use the painkiller versus vitamin analogy. So early on, I talked to people about like, if you want to build momentum in early stage startup, selling a painkiller is way easier than selling a vitamin. And I use this store, I say, Listen, if I leave the house in the morning on my way to work, and I realized I forget to take my vitamin, what do you think the chances are that I stopped to buy vitamin on the way to work? Zero, right? Yes. Other hand I feel a migraine coming on. And I realized I don’t have medicine on me, like, you better believe I’m going to stop and buy medicine, and I’m willing to spend more for it at the corner store, then I need to because I need it right now. And so that’s not to say you can’t build a great vitamin company. But when you’re solving a pain for someone, it’s way easier. So if you go to a platform like QuickBooks, and you tell them insurance would be a part of their ecosystem, that’s a nice to have. That’s a vitamin they go. Okay, sure I get it. What we do is accounting, like, insurance isn’t really super core to what we do, but I see how it can add value. So really cool. Let’s talk about that. If you go to an agent or broker who’s already selling a small business policy today, but they realized that the pain in their butt and they’re losing money on it, and it takes them more time than they need, and you go, Hey, we can simplify that for you. They get pretty darn excited. So in hindsight, maybe we ought to start with, maybe we should have started there and said, like, hey, you’ve got a problem. We’ve got a solution, we probably could have built quicker momentum. Had we started there in hindsight.

Alexander Ferguson 18:31
2020 hindsight is always a wonderful, but does it doesn’t really help you. And it’s almost that discovery, sometimes you just have to get into it. I was gonna ask you actually, what, what did you wish you knew three years ago that you knew now but it sounds like it might have been that? What would you say the kind of going forward is kind of the next biggest hurdle that you’re going to have to overcome to be able to keep growing and scaling.

Tim Metzner 18:56
I think it’s the scale portion of like, you know, because of the way we’re distributing insurance, we’re growing very rapidly. And so with that comes two really important customers we have to serve super well, our policyholders certainly, right. So the ability for a policyholder to file a claim to make a claim to change their policy to get new policy Doc’s like we have to service that policyholder, really, really well. Traditionally, the way insurance has done that is they throw more bodies at it, right? So we believe technology can enable humans to service people better. So we’ve got the technology layer. But a lot of that, frankly, is vision still like we’ve got to execute on a lot of that still. So there’s a lot of kind of infrastructure building on the servicing side. That still needs to happen. But we’ve also got to service our partners really well. So whether that be agents and brokers or our you know, our technology channel partners, like they have a high expectation of what a partnership should look like. And so you need a whole team around that to say how can we be Helping you sell coterie better. Like we always think about like, how do I turn you into a policy producing machine? A lot of that right now, again, that’s kind of high touch human stuff like, tell me about your business. Tell me about your customers. Tell me about how you interact. Tell me about your agency. And we build a relationship. And that works super well. Also not super scalable, right. So how can we start to automate at least some parts of that process in a way that helps us go faster? Without without losing sight of servicing those guys really well?

Alexander Ferguson 20:30
are building this team that you have up to three years, how big is the team today?

Tim Metzner 20:37
Close to 90. Today, which kind of crazy growth from an employee counts. I think we were 20 last summer. So it’s been pretty crazy growth. Yeah, from a headcount.

Alexander Ferguson 20:51
How do you manage that that growth and truly hire the right people for the right jobs to create the right results?

Tim Metzner 20:59
Yeah, this is, one of the reasons I keep starting companies is because I love this, like, I love seeing people come alive in their career. It’s one of my favorite parts about being an entrepreneur is like when you put someone in their lane, in an environment where they feel empowered and supported. Like, it’s so cool to watch someone, not just do really good work, but become better mothers better, like husbands and wives and like better parts of their community. Like it’s just really they get more into their hobbies. Like, I don’t know, there’s something really special about when people love their job, and they enjoy what they’re doing. And they feel like they’re doing good work. This is really cool to see people come live. So we think an awful lot about culture. One of the terms I’ve used across my companies I’ve been a part of is I asked a question regularly, how can we over invest in culture right now? Like, how do we how can we spend more time or resources on building a great place to work then, like, in a way that others would look at and go, you’re stupid, like, you’re an early stage startup, why the heck are even thinking about this stuff? And I go, because you can’t back into good culture, like you can’t, in two years realize like we’ve we’ve got this amazing company. Now let’s build a good culture. Like, it doesn’t work that way. You can’t attract and retain talent if you do it that way. So we think an awful lot about like, certainly getting hiring, right, which to us looks like, do they align with our four core values? Do we think they actually are going to uniquely add value? So we try and avoid like culture fit? And we look for culture add? So like, how are you going to stretch us in some way to make us a better place where other people who are already here? And then the third thing is hiring based on superpowers? Because again, we want to give you a chance to win. So does your do your superpowers align with the need that we have right now with that hole we’re trying to fill? And when all those things are true, like magic happens, right? So we take a lot of time and care to sort of that in, in pull the thread on on all those things early on,

Alexander Ferguson 22:52
over investing in culture now not backing into it later. What a powerful perspective, because that is still Yeah, we’ll get to that we’ll get to that. But that it does show up in different ways that the issues there. I, it’s this is almost like this journey over both. Probably being around that initial startup founder who just used were able probably to see that that leadership experience. And then throughout also sounds like helping other startups grow and learn. There’s like all these little lessons learned over the years. If for you, obviously, your role has changed over the years. I’m just curious, how do you what is your normal day look like? How do you manage your time because there’s only so much of you and time that you have. So what’s a typical day look like for you?

Tim Metzner 23:33
You know what, it’s it evolves all the time. And it’s evolving again, for you, it feels like every three months, three to six months in a startup, like you have to kind of reinvent yourself, right? Like, here’s the thing I was doing before, is that still the right way to spend my time today. So a great example is like we recently just bought brought on the chief go to market officer, he is significantly more experienced and senior than me at building growth teams. And I will tell you just candidly, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my career. Because I basically hired my replacement, I was looking for someone who could come and help build like processes and systems on the sales side that can because I’m not a process systems guy. So that’s I was trying to fill that box, like check that box and bring someone in to help level us up. And I came across this guy, Philips, his name, and he’s you know, kind of serial entrepreneur with exits. He’s led global teams that you know, Microsoft and these massive organizations. And he’s got the battle ones that that I don’t have. And I looked at him I go like, Oh crap, if I hire this guy, he’s uh, he’s not reporting to me. He’s taking over growth. And by the way, if I look at our team, and I really care about investing in this team and investing in coterie, like I cannot make this hire we can’t not talk to this guy. If we can get him we should get him because our team will grow faster like we will avoid pitfalls. But for me, that means like, Okay, I have to reinvent myself again like great how, what’s the highest and best use of my time at coterie you Now, right? So right now I’m starting to think a lot about, you know, kind of future state and like beyond these three products we have today like what I do well as launch, right, so, what’s the next horizon? What’s the next what’s the ground we should be telling today so that we’re not sort of resting on our laurels. So thinking about stuff like that, and, and really getting out there and talking about Korea kind of more publicly now that we’re launched. So really, honestly, I’m kind of fresh in right now thinking about like, what’s the best way to use my talents at coterie today, now that we’ve evolved again,

Alexander Ferguson 25:30
that that takes some incredible self confidence to reinvent yourself continually even hiring your your replacement, some of those not gonna report he really is that they’re just gonna take it and run with it. And then you have to change. That’s, yeah, that is powerful. Well, I really appreciate the sharing this journey that in many ways is just beginning. For for on you and for coterie and excited to see where you go next. For those again that want to learn more about coterie go back and listen to part one of our discussion and get dig into that. And thanks again for your time, Tim, it’s great to have

Tim Metzner 26:05
you on my pleasure. Thanks very much, Alexander.

Alexander Ferguson 26:08
Absolutely. We’ll see you guys on the next episode of UpTech Report. Have you seen a company using AI machine learning or other technology to transform the way we live work and do business? Go to UpTech and let us know



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