As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenny Pan. Jenny is the founder & CEO or CarePod, an innovative tech startup transforming pet air travel. A global nomad shuttling between the U.S., Asia and Australia, Pan has gained international industry recognition for her ground-breaking pet travel solution, including the People’s Choice Award at Web in Travel 2018, She Loves Tech Singapore 2018 Startup Competition, as well as the Future Travel Experience & JetBlue Startup Competition in 2018. Her background is in product development, marketing, and communications across a variety of industries. Pan’s expertise in the pet technology, startup sectors, and female leadership has seen her invited to join global leaders at the 2018 and 2019 World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting to discuss the evolution of society and technology. She was the only female judge on the Amadeus Customer Experience Hackathon 2019 judging panel, an active participant at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) on aviation best practices for pets and has given keynote presentations at the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association (IPATA) conferences to discuss the future of technology in pet travel on an industry level.
Thank you so much for joining us Jenny! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up, I have always been obsessed with pets. The trouble was that my family moved around frequently, and we’ve always faced the problem of how to move or fly with our pets. I remember sneaking around as a kid, researching and writing out notecards to understand the complex process of flying with pets while pretending to be doing my homework. It was extremely difficult to find pet travel information in the pre-internet era. My parents were furious to discover the expensive phone bills and my attempts to call out of state or internationally to speak with the different government agencies and airlines. Fast forward twenty years later when as an adult I was relocating with my dog. I was shocked to find that the process and equipment for flying my pets was still unchanged. With all the advances in travel and technology, the part for pet air travel seemed to have been overlooked. That was the ‘lightbulb moment’ and all I could think of was that I can’t be the only pet owner with this problem. Surely there are many others who would love to travel and fly with their pets.
The main issue is that as pet lovers and owners, we find it hard to trust the existing process and equipment for flying our pets. It is embarrassing to admit but I am constantly worried about my pets when they are out of my care. I desperately wanted to have a world class solution leveraging technology and science that puts our pets’ safety and well-being first. After scoping out the market, it was obvious there was significant demand in people wanting to fly with their pets. I’ve been searching for over thirty years to find a better way to fly my pets and I was not willing to wait another thirty years for something to change. People have become increasingly mobile, living in different cities and travelling more frequently have become more common. It would be impossible for me to move without my pets and it would be just as impossible for me to stay in the same city for thirty years. Given those choices, I left my job in luxury retail and scraped together whatever I could to start the company. I ended up putting all my Louboutins and Mahnolo’s for sale to fund the early days of CarePod. It took over five years from research and development to launch because of our unwavering focus on safety and quality for our pets.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
When CarePod first started, people tried to be helpful and were eager to provide plenty of advice. Everyone had a different opinion on what we should be doing but not all advice is equal in terms of immediate relevance or substance. It’s a challenge to know what to focus on as there are numerous potential directions to grow the business and many more steps to get there. Find people with the relevant skills and experience to talk to and learn to ask better questions. Talk to industry players to understand more about the industry. Talk to leaders who have built companies in similar phases to learn how to scale your business. Digest all the advice and map out a plan to action. There is no right answer or perfect plan. The best way forward is to build, test, learn and repeat.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
As a dedicated pet owner, my biggest priorities are always the health and wellness of my pets. These are the core drivers behind every aspect of the CarePod solution. We will not compromise on safety or quality because this is for our pets. Our relentless focus on pet safety and wellness resonates strongly with pet owners and airlines. Another factor that pulled the company forward was the constant encouragement from other pet owners that reinforced my belief that there are many more pet owners like me. People who love their pets, love to travel, and who also demand a higher standard for flying their pets. After an intense meeting or work day, I’d go down to the local dog park to talk to people and play with their dogs. Every single time, there would be pet owners who shared the same fears or concerns about flying their pets. Those dog owners might not remember, but their shared experience and words of encouragement kept me going through the dark moments. Another important factor is working with talented, team oriented people. We are fortunate to be working with some of the best people and our success is very much a tribute to their dedication, intelligence and integrity.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Things will take a lot longer than you think — there is a glamorized view that you can start a company and be successful after one or two years. That rarely happens.
2. It is all consuming, physically and emotionally — it is a humbling experience and will take you to higher peaks and deeper lows. Find a way to take care of yourself both physically and emotionally. The journey is long and as the leader, you need to be there to guide your team.
3. People are important — A proverb that resonated with me — “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go further, go together”. In the beginning, you might be able to go alone and push things along but try to find the right people and build up the right team to go further.
4. Work life what? — Don’t start your own company if you’re looking for work life balance. I’ve been told by other CEOs who have walked this path that work life balance will slowly return after you’ve hired your 20th employee. Refer to above point, build up the team of right people quickly!
5. Trying to innovate is like a plane attempting to take off — you are running against all odds, in the face of rejection and resistance, trying to find the right combination of speed and angle to lift and launch. It’s important to build, test, learn and repeat otherwise you’ll never even take off.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
That is a tough one, ask me again in five years.
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?
We are extremely thankful for those who have been keen supporters of CarePod from the beginning. I am particularly grateful to one of our mentors who have introduced me to my amazing co-founder, Tucker Dearth. CarePod would not be operating as a world class company without Tucker’s razor sharp commercial focus. Tucker and I were working together remotely for almost a year before we met in person. I flew in from Singapore, he flew in from London, and we met underneath a massive windmill in Amsterdam. That was the beginning of our strong working partnership.
I am also very thankful for one of our supporters from the travel industry. An established and well-respected leader, she believes that CarePod will forever change how people and pets fly. With her strong grasp of market direction and even stronger network, she connected us with key stakeholders that continue to drive our business forward. CarePod would not have launched the same way without her support and influence.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
My current goals are focused on building the team and taking the company to its next stage of growth, while trying to spend more time with my dogs and my family. I’d love to be able to fly my pets with CarePod and travel with them when it launches globally. There are so many places I’d want to take my pets and family to enjoy together.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I hope CarePod will raise the bar on safety and comfort for pet air travel. My dream is to be able to fly my pets with the highest level of protection and care. With CarePod, I hope millions of pet owners around the world will also be able to realize their dream of travelling with their pets, along with the peace of mind knowing that their pets are protected and cared for throughout the entire journey.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
A movement on responsible pet ownership and responsibly integrating pets into key aspects of modern society. If we can help people understand what it means to be responsible pet owners and work together with our communities to learn to share spaces with pets, we’d have more well-behaved pets and a better chance at having pets allowed in more private and public spaces.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Follow us on Instagram @flycarepod
Who doesn’t want more pet and travel inspirations on their feed?