As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Hodges.
Sam Hodges is co-founder and CEO of Vouch Insurance, a new kind of insurance provider for startups. At Vouch, Sam is focused on providing startups and growing technology companies with better business insurance tailored to their needs, helping them build risk-averse businesses that last.
Previously, Sam co-founded and led the U.S. arm of Funding Circle, the world’s leading marketplace for business loans. He has held numerous operating and investing roles in financial services and insurance technology. Sam received his MBA and MS from Stanford University and graduated magna cum laude from Brown University.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my career in strategy consulting and investing working in New York and Europe. I was working in venture capital when the 2008 recession hit, and shortly thereafter transitioned into an operating role with one of our portfolio companies, where I oversaw business development. This was an instant crash course in thriving during a crisis. After the fallout from 2008, I was drawn towards entrepreneurship, specifically around opportunities at the intersection of technology and financial services and insurance. Recessions tend to be big moments for innovation, and the conditions can be conducive for starting new companies. In 2011 I co-founded a commercial lending platform, Endurance Lending Network, which later became Funding Circle U.S. when we combined the two businesses in 2013. We grew Funding Circle to $10B in global originations and over 1000 amazing employees during my stint on the company’s leadership team, up until our IPO in 2018. My most recent business is Vouch Insurance, a digital insurance platform that caters to startups with fast, tech-fluent insurance packages. We graduated from Y Combinator last year and have been live and supporting clients since mid last year.
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?
We’ve been lucky to have made too many big mistakes as of yet (at least as far as we can tell — time will hopefully prove us right on that!) but one funny, smaller mistake we made was in choosing our first domain address: we knew we were going to call the company Vouch, but used “vouchinsure.com” as our URL — which led many people to think that was the name of the product. We still occasionally have people refer to us as “Vouchinsure” even though we stopped using that domain after just a few months! The big lesson for me is that every little thing you do ties into the brand you’re building in the market it’s crucial to be intentional about this.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I try to read broadly, and I would say my leadership style is very much informed from this. One book I read recently which I’d highly recommend is Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times. Written as a parallel biography of four U.S. Presidents (Lincoln, Roosevelt, Roosevelt and Johnson), the book explores how early struggles forged each of these leaders, and how their previous experiences prepared them for challenging moments in their careers. When the pandemic started, I actually put together a list of reading materials that I’ve found particularly helpful as a founder, including this tract.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our most important purpose at Vouch is to make it easier for founders to build strong, resilient companies. Insurance plays a vital role in this — by taking certain key risks off the table. I’ve seen again and again that securing essential business insurance coverage when you’re a disruptive, early-stage company can be a frustrating and highly confusing process. We wanted to fix the particular pain points that make insurance so difficult for startups to secure — and in doing so, help founders more broadly understand how to anticipate and mitigate potential risks. This pandemic has cemented the end of “move fast and break things,” and it’s everyone’s job now to find better, more sustainable ways to build startups that last.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I’d have to go with a lesson we’ve encoded as one of our core stated values at Vouch: “Listen, Challenge and Learn.” Building a start-up is simultaneously a process of invention, and of shaping (and reshaping) how a company and organization function. As a leader, it’s critical to synthesize across the different streams of information you’re receiving, challenge discrepancies, and help the business change course when it needs to. Doing this will help a start-up navigate the wide range of decisions you need to make as you plot a course toward achieving your longer-term vision.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
There’s no question that Covid-19 has led to meaningful changes in how all of us work. On the family front, both my wife and I have busy jobs, and we have a 4-year old daughter whose pre-school closed under the Shelter in Place order. As such, we had to readjust our schedules and get used to working in a household where we all were around all the time. In the scheme of things we’ve been fortunate to have the space and flexibility to do this, but I know not everyone has been so lucky. On the personal side, adjusting to the “Groundhog Day”-like monotony of the past few months has been a challenge as well: I’ve tried to be very disciplined about creating separation between “work” and “not work” at home, make sure I’m getting plenty of exercise, and also creating responsible ways to get out of the house even if it’s as simple as taking our dog on walk around the neighborhood while doing a call.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Overall I’ve been lucky in that my family and immediate friend group has been spared the brunt of Covid-19. That said, the past few months have been anxiety-inducing for everyone, and for me the biggest thing I’ve tried to do is to create a sense of community even during a period when it’s difficult to get together in person. For my parents and in-laws, this means regular face time calls with my daughter, as well as regular postcard and mail exchanges. With many of my friends we do a weekly “virtual happy hour”, to catch-up, trade thoughts and hang out. This has been helpful in creating a sense of community and normalcy in what are far from normal times.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The economic implications of Covid-19 have been devastating: millions of people out of work, and certain sectors decimated, and uncertainty clouding everyone’s planning and investment horizons. At the same time, I see many entrepreneurs taking to heart the proverb: “don’t let a good crisis go to waste.”
Out of this, I see at least three major themes for potential entrepreneurs: first is around the digitization of many services that historically we’ve consumed in-person. Virtual learning, telemedicine, and digital pharmacies and delivery services for staples are well-positioned. Some of the obvious categories already have large, well-funded players. I expect we’ll see an additional wave of innovation, both in consumer facing businesses and B2B infrastructure that will support these businesses. Second, Covid-19 has many companies re-thinking how to design, support and manage its workforce. Tools and services that support this evolution will also be in high demand, and I expect to see more on this, as there are still many frictions associated with leading a WFH, distributed workforce. Third, Covid-19 has put a spotlight on how interconnected we are as a global society we are, and also how vulnerable we are to pandemic-related disruption. Tools and companies that help businesses and consumers manage these exposures will also be an important theme in our recovery.
Beyond these, I truly believe that a silver lining of this whole crisis is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to rethink how their business functions no matter how well-established or scaled. I recently caught up with a friend who describes how his family-run business has become a “90-year old start-up”. I think that mindset is inspiring, and gives example to how any entrepreneurial leader can use this moment to reshape their company.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
There’s definitely going to be a digital acceleration, across both personal and business life. That was already happening, but the pandemic will spread the adoption of digital solutions to categories and sectors that have been lagging.
Beyond changing digital life, the pandemic will also change how companies in many sectors are geographically structured. By being forced into prolonged remote working, businesses of all sizes have seen that employees — at least ones in certain roles — can be productive without being in an office every day. If you’re starting a company today or in the future, you probably won’t try to build a large “headquarters” with the expectation that every employee is in a single office every day.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Our plan for growth is to continue listening to our customers, refining our product, and building our team. We’ve built an insurance product that we really believe in and founders are more aware than ever that they need to plan today for major risk events in the future. All we can do is continue listening to founders’ evolving needs, and nurturing the best talent we can find to help deliver on those needs.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
You can probably guess it by now: take an honest view of your company, plan for the possibility of future big risk events, and find a balance between your company’s short-term needs and the longer-term view.
In the short-term, that means taking a hard look at any operational inefficiencies, and cutting as many costs as possible for the tough months that are likely ahead. It’s important to be honest with your employees and stakeholders when doing so about both the bad and the good. As the situation continues to change rapidly, I’d also encourage leaders to keep a close eye on regulatory or legal changes, from the city or county level to any national changes. In unprecedented moments like these, it’s not unusual for the government to step in and make some pretty significant changes.
In the longer-term, I would encourage others to rebuild with risk mitigation in mind. Structure your business in a capital-light manner where you can, with the goal of making it self-sustaining sooner rather than later. Prioritize resources that last, like great talent, and invest in basics like good insurance now, so that you’re built on a strong foundation in the future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The great Joe Louis said and Mike Tyson later paraphrased “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit.” Planning is critical, but you need to be adaptable and resilient in the fact of change.
How can our readers further follow your work?