As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandre Douzet, CEO of Pumpkin Pet Insurance.
Alexandre has an MBA in general management, an MS in direct marketing and a BS in economics and business administration. Prior to Pumpkin, he was founder and CEO of Ollie, and before that TheLadders.com. He is also a competitive athlete and has completed several Ironman competitions.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Eastern France in a region near Germany. I was one of five kids and also the baby of the family. I think as the last kid, you tend to be a bit rebellious and want to shake up the status quo and I’d say I probably lived up to that. When I was 18, I applied to an internship program which led to a summer working at a restaurant in Raleigh, NC to learn better English which I ended up liking very much, so every summer I found a way to come back. The summer after, I went to New York for another internship, and the next thing I knew I was waking up in 2001, getting married, and living on the east coast. My whole family is still in France and I have a brother and sister who are both entrepreneurs as well.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I always had a passion for creating and building things. In high school, I was interested in computers and technology and learned the very early stages of coding back in the 1980s. When I went to college is when I truly started my path in entrepreneurship. I built two different companies during school: an employment recruitment service that helped students find part-time labor jobs; and the second venture was a sports marketing company. It was a lot of work, but also tremendous fun. When I moved to the U.S. after college, I found it pretty boring to work for someone else. I knew it was necessary to do, but it was frustrating, and that’s what mainly inspired me to set off on my path to entrepreneurship.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When you’re an entrepreneur, in a way you sort of need to be able to do everything, but you also realize pretty quickly that you shouldn’t be doing everything and you need to fire yourself from some jobs. When I was at TheLadders, I would write some basic code and queries, and one time I accidentally wrote an infinite loop and wound up crashing the database, which caused the entire website to crash. When we hired our first real CTO, one of the first things he did was remove password access from the founders so we would stop messing with it. The takeaway from this is to know your strengths and weaknesses and step away from tasks you shouldn’t be doing long term to give yourself time to focus on the things that you are good at.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I was working for a company called HotJobs out of college, which has since been acquired by Yahoo, and we happened to have the CEO of DoubleClick sitting on the Board who went on to be the founder of many media companies and is an incredibly successful entrepreneur. During my tenure at HotJobs, I was accepted to business school and I noticed it was the same business school that the board member went to, so I reached out to him and mentioned it and we ended up creating a strong relationship. Years later when I went on to co-found TheLadders, he was the first person I pitched for an investment and he ended up being my first investor. It wasn’t a handout, it was a great fit and he understood the model and what we were trying to do. But I think it speaks to the importance of nurturing relationships and creating meaningful connections with people. I didn’t pitch him the first time I met him, I got to know him over many years.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I was at TheLadders after the recession of 2008, business was being disrupted and we were forced to get really focused. At the time we were using this service that my partner felt was interfering with the NPS score and he made the case to shut it down on our site. I disagreed with his prognosis, seeing correlation but not cause, but we ended up shutting the service down anyway and I always felt like it was a mistake. Fast forward to a few years down the road and another competing company picked up the service and their business absolutely blew up, went global, and grew to become much bigger than our business. I now know we should have stuck with it as we were first to market and could have probably tripled what we did if we had stuck with it, but I ignored my instincts. Hindsight is 2020, but lesson learned.
Along those same lines, with the recession of 2008, we really had to pivot and make some very difficult business decisions. Between 2008–2010 I had the painful experience of taking a roughly 300 person company down to about 120 people.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The most successful people don’t quit when things get tough. It’s that “I’m not going to quit mentality” that has kept me going. I think that’s also what attracted me to compete in Ironman competitions, as that is very much the same mentality. You can’t let adversity and challenge stop you because that’s part of the journey and you have to embrace it. Plus, something I’ve learned over the years is that you grow most from failure and challenges, even more so than from your successes. Failure is the ultimate teacher.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
My experiences led me to believe that I didn’t just have to be a one time entrepreneur. I’ve been fortunate enough to have three acts and I think that’s something that makes me unique. Entrepreneurship is kind of like the music industry — there’s a lot of “one hit wonders”. Most new entrepreneurs fail, and the few ones that succeed, I think the struggle they face is asking themselves “was I good, or was I lucky?” There is a hurdle in wondering if you can be as successful the second time around. But once you do it twice, you start to recognize patterns and realize there is a playbook to success. Now that I’ve done it three times, I absolutely know there is a special skill set to it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
When most people hear the words “insurance company” they don’t think of great customer service. It’s usually that there’s an issue and you have to file a claim and it’s going to be a fight. At Pumpkin, we focus on providing a really awesome claim experience. We reimburse customers for wellness claims within 24 hours. Another good example of our customer service is that if we hear that your pet isn’t doing well, we might send you some flowers. Or a holiday card, or sometimes a birthday card. Also sadly, when we hear a pet dies, we send flowers to the pet parents to say we’re sorry for their loss. This is a very customer-centric technique to create superior experiences for our customers to let them know we care, and nobody else in the industry is doing this.
It’s all about the vision we have for Pumpkin. Insurance isn’t an exciting topic for most, but the angle we take is bringing joy to pets and pet parents. For example, very recently we put on an “IndogurationTM” event to benefit a local humane society that ended up raising over $200,000 with over 12,000 donors. It was amazing and we wound up having a number of publications reach out to us to cover the event that would have never typically wanted to talk about pet insurance before. The focus of our event was bringing happiness to people and that was the key to our success. It was the kind of event people needed during dark times.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Live a balanced lifestyle. If you look at life as a whole: you need time to work, time for your family, time for friends — but you only have 24 hours in a day. It’s not expandable. So how do you go about prioritizing knowing sometimes there will be a conflict? I like to use an analogy I got from a cycling coach: “You give what it takes, and you take when it gives”. This means, if work is super challenging, give more of your time to solve those problems. But when things are going well, it gives you some more time so then go feed something else that you’ve neglected.
The best entrepreneurs and CEOs aren’t the ones with the best strategy, it’s the ones that don’t quit. You can’t have a “don’t quit” mentality if you’re burnt out so you must live a balanced life so you can overcome when you face adversity.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The Indoguration event that I previously mentioned is a great example of this. During COVID, many animal shelters have been faced with financial hardship and budget gaps. The Delaware Humane Society was going through hardship because they weren’t able to raise as much money in 2020 as they had in the past. If it weren’t for Pumpkin’s success, we wouldn’t have been able to do that event which raised over $200,000 for a wonderful organization in need to help close their financial gap.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- The best entrepreneurs and CEOs are the ones that don’t quit. When you start your company you never dream it’s going to be as hard as it is. Know that it’s going to be hard and that you’ll face adversity. For example, when we started Pumpkin, we launched during the pandemic in April 2020 — nobody was covering anything except for COVID-19 and that was an incredibly tough period for us as a new company — but we didn’t quit.
- Hire seasoned professionals that are bought into your mission. You want people who understand the vision of your company and aren’t just signing up for a job. Back in the early days of my career in my marketing role at HotJobs, we were actually Google’s biggest customer — this was back before they were the Google we know today and before they were a Fortune 500 company — and I would interact with the leaders at Google often. I vividly remember the founders of the company telling me when they hired their CEO, Eric Schmidt, and their reasoning was because he was a seasoned CEO. Sometimes you’re not the best fit for the job, even if you’re the founder of Google!
- If you are founder and CEO in your 20’s you need adult supervision. A lot of new entrepreneurs are on the younger side and they haven’t had the benefit of years of experience navigating choppy business water, and their lack of experience puts them at a disservice. This is something somewhat unique about Pumpkin in that we are a startup, but we are fortunate to have a staff of experienced, tenured professionals.
- Prioritize people over profit. I remember reading a quote from Jim Barksdale, “We take care of the people, the product, and the profit, in that order.” When I was starting out as an entrepreneur and I was selling an intangible product like a piece of software, that seemed counterintuitive, but it actually makes a lot of sense. You have to take care of your people first, because they are the ones that take care of the product. If you do those things, the profits will come.
- Founders and CEOs must be transparent about problems and how to solve them. You have to build trust. Going back to when we launched Pumpkin and we all started working from home, there was a lot of anxiety about knowing whether or not things were temporary or permanent. Almost on a weekly basis, I was holding town halls with our staff communicating and navigating the situation together. I think this goes back to emotional intelligence and being in a freeze or flee situation.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Using my experience, I’m able to grow and scale my business the right way and avoid the growing pains that other startup companies usually face like culture, product market fit, hiring great people, etc. At Pumpkin, we pretty much had those key tenets down from the get-go which has been nice. This is a testament to the people and culture that we have, when we do have to pivot, it’s not a huge upheaval and we have people that are able to stepup and respond to the challenge.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I think that’s accurate. Of course someone can absorb something, but until you go through it, there’s no way to fully understand. After you go through something, you usually don’t want to go back and re-open those wounds. That’s why I say failure is the greatest teacher.
You are a person of great influence. If you cou start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Climate change and initiatives to preserve what we have to make things more sustainable. We’ve turned into such a consumer society and we’re poisoning ourselves very quickly, and I don’t think any of this is a priority for leaders around the world. I would love to accelerate the adoption of protecting the environment and recycling as I think it’s something that would help most people. The first thing Biden said when he became inaugurated is that we are rejoining the Paris Agreement, which I was personally thrilled to see because this is an area I am very passionate about.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The best way to follow what I’m up to is to connect and follow me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexandredouzet/, you can also keep up with what I’m up to at the company on the Pumpkin blog.