Alexandre Douzet of Pumpkin Pet Insurance: “Take care of the people, then the product, and then the profit”

Take care of the people, then the product, and then the profit (in that order). If you take care of the people, they’ll be committed to you and care for your product that your customer will be delighted to use. As a result, it will create scale, and the profit will show up. Startups have such […]

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Take care of the people, then the product, and then the profit (in that order). If you take care of the people, they’ll be committed to you and care for your product that your customer will be delighted to use. As a result, it will create scale, and the profit will show up.


Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandre Douzet.

Alexandre Douzet is the CEO of Pumpkin Pet Insurance and has an MBA in general management, an MS in direct marketing and a BS in economics and business administration. Before Pumpkin, he was the 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! 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 got started?

My entrepreneurial journey started in college. During school, I built two different companies: an employment recruitment service that helped students find part-time 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 knew it was necessary to get a job working for someone else, but I found it frustrating, and that’s how my path to entrepreneurship set its course. My first venture was a career site called TheLadders.com which I exited in 2013, and my second venture was a human-grade dog food company called Ollie. In my role at Ollie, I learned a great deal about pet wellness and saw a lot of opportunity in the marketplace, which is how I ended up as the CEO of my current venture, Pumpkin Pet Insurance.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I initially entered the pet care space because one of my dogs became sick due to her diet, so I created a human-grade pet food product that I considered preventative medicine. Pumpkin is very much a continuation of that. Pumpkin’s mission is to provide pets with the best coverage because they’re part of the family and deserve better. This is what initially drove me and still does. Once I researched and saw a hole in the marketplace, I knew Pumpkin could be successful. There are over 100 million pets in the U.S., and unfortunately, only 2% of pets are insured; meanwhile, pet healthcare costs continue to rise.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

My father definitely influenced me. He was a self-made person born to a single mother in a difficult situation but ended up being a business success story. The stories he told me about his work were inspiring and helped to set me on my current path.

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 excellent customer service. It’s usually an issue, and you have to file a claim, and it’s going to be a fight. At Pumpkin, we focus on providing a fantastic claim experience. We reimburse customers for wellness claims within 24 hours. Another 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.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Pumpkin’s mission and vision are to enable pets to live their most extended and healthiest lives. This creates happier family time and puts a lot of good into the world, and therefore I am very proud of that. We are also always looking for ways to give back as a company. For example, we recently partnered with the Delaware Humane Association and raised over 200k dollars for homeless pets. We are always looking for opportunities like this to put some goodness into the world and better the lives of animals.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Passion for building — I genuinely enjoy the journey of building a company more than the destination. It’s great to set goals, but you have to enjoy the journey to the finish line because dreaming about being at the top is not enough. I certainly enjoy the success, but it is not what drives me.
  2. A “never give up” attitude — As a CEO or entrepreneur, you have to be the one that won’t accept limits. We were in situations that brought us dangerously close to running out of cash in both previous companies that I started. If I didn’t have that “never give up attitude,” that would have probably been the end.
  3. Ability to inspire others — To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be a good leader and encourage people to follow your vision. You can’t build a successful business on your own, so if you can’t inspire others to help you build, it doesn’t matter how good the idea is.
  4. Ability to be decisive and deal with ambiguity — Early on, there are little facts and data to go off of, and you have to make decisions based on imperfect information. Sometimes making the wrong decision is better than making no decision at all because you can at least learn from it.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

As an entrepreneur and CEO, you are always going to get a lot of input. It’s very easy for someone to give advice and tell you what they think when sitting on the sidelines. However, it’s so much more challenging when you are in the trenches and accountable for success and failure.

I once had a business investor advise me to only focus on growth and not worry about having a product that wasn’t super differentiated from a competitor. That was terrible advice which ended up hurting my company deeply. When it came time to raise money, every other investor remarked, “I don’t know the difference between Company Y and Company X.” It proved to be a significant hurdle.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

A year ago, when we were about to launch Pumpkin, it was April/May 2020, which of course, was peak time in the pandemic, and we saw a lot of disruption and businesses about to go under. Every media outlet was redirected to focus on COVID, but we decided to continue and forge ahead instead of changing our launch timeline, which proved extremely difficult. We were in the eye of the storm in the middle of the hurricane and couldn’t get anyone’s attention about our launch. Looking back: I would do it again because it just so happened that because of COVID, pet adoptions went through the roof, shelters were empty, and people needed insurance for their pets so we got fortunate in that particular situation, but it was rough. With entrepreneurship, sometimes you just need a little bit of luck.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?

The best analogy I can think of is the training I received from being an Ironman triathlete because it’s such a challenging sport that requires a lot of discipline. Ironman taught me that challenges are just for a period of time and not forever. It’s like when you’re riding a bike in a headwind, at some point, you’ll reach a tailwind — I might not know when, but it will come. Building a company is the same thing.

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills, and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

As a founder, but more as a leader, you have to balance things out for your team. When you’re experiencing a high, you have to get people fired up and let them feel that excitement; and with the lows, you have to be the voice of comfort and hope. Failure is a great teacher, so create a culture to celebrate those failures. Don’t penalize people for failing because that will teach them not to take risks and be afraid to try. Instead, you have to celebrate the wins even harder. For example, I’ve created milestone parties around the number of policies we receive at Pumpkin to celebrate big successes as a team.

Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?

The best way to think about fundraising is to think about VC money as jet fuel. Do you have a jet engine? If you don’t — taking fuel is not the right decision. Early-stage venture investors are looking for a company that can deliver a 10X+ return in five to eight years. That is a high bar for most startups, therefore, most companies should never take VC money and should be bootstrapped. You need the right amount of capital for your idea based upon how big the addressable market is.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Solve a big problem. There is nothing worse than a solution without a problem. We tend to be solution-driven without taking a step back and asking about what problem we are solving.
  2. Once you can identify your problem statement, make sure the space you’re addressing is ample. Many entrepreneurs try to solve problems for a relatively small space which makes it hard to raise capital.
  3. Define a mission and vision where you can inspire people. You can’t build a business without people behind your vision.
  4. Hire top talent. Culture will eat your business strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You must create the right culture to attract the right talent because they’re going to get fired up about your mission and vision.
  5. Take care of the people, then the product, and then the profit (in that order). If you take care of the people, they’ll be committed to you and care for your product that your customer will be delighted to use. As a result, it will create scale, and the profit will show up.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I’ve never seen a startup short on great ideas — but I often see startups short on great execution. Many people attracted to entrepreneurship tend to have ADD and get distracted by the next shiny idea. You can’t leave an idea half-baked with poor performance. Saying no is extremely difficult, but saying no is also what can make you highly successful.

Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?

Live a balanced life. Take care of your environment both physically and mentally because these two things are very much connected. This means it’s essential to go out and see friends and family because that gives you the endorphins to power your mental wellness. If you’re isolated and working 24/7, you won’t last more than a year or two because building a company takes years. You can’t operate at maximum capacity for ten years.

You are a person of great influence. If you could 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. 🙂

Looking back on the past few months and finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with COVID, it still feels like sustainability is a significant issue. There are close to seven billion people on the planet, and the majority of the world lives in poverty. It would take the resources of five planets for everyone to live a middle-class life in the western world. So how do we go about dealing with that challenge? It’s enormous. I don’t have the answer to this, but I try to do my part. For example, at Ollie: we tackled the issue by evaluating a more sustainable food supply source and food packaging that is recyclable and compostable.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Two people come to mind: 1) Bill Gates because what he’s been able to do post-Microsoft with the Gates Foundation is impressive. I think he’s one of the greatest minds and a genuinely fascinating guy. 2) Elon Musk because of what he’s done with SpaceX and Tesla. I would just love to have breakfast with him and hear about how he’s done those two things so well.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

The best way to follow what I’m up to is to connect on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexandredouzet/ and follow me on Twitter: @adouzet.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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