As part of my series of interviews with influential CEOs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Peate. Dan Peate is the Founder and General Partner of Peate Ventures and has also founded two Insurtech companies — Avinew and Hixme. He is the CEO of Avinew, which is focused on reinventing auto insurance for semi-autonomous vehicles. He served as the CEO of Hixme and previously worked at Aon and Arthur J. Gallagher. He sits on the boards of Avinew, CardiacDirect, and BOOM! Studios. Dan sits on nonprofit and charitable boards including the University of Notre Dame Campaign Cabinet and helped start The Peate Institute for Entrepreneurship at Pepperdine University. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.
Thank you so much for joining us Dan! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Istarted my career in the insurance industry in sales, then later moved into sales management. I soon realized that I wanted to do things in the insurance industry very differently than they were being done. The only way I felt like I could really make the changes that I wanted to see in the industry was to start my own company. No other companies were doing anything close to what I was thinking, so in starting my own company I became a CEO.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
When I started Hixme, my first insurtech company, I went from managing a really large PNL at a very large company, to managing one small, but entire, company. While I’d managed to budget at two Fortune 500 companies, I’d never had to manage cash. I was never worried about cash at the larger companies as long as I was on plan with my budget. But, in the beginning at Hixme, even if we were on budget it didn’t mean there was money in the bank. I’d never had to have the responsibility of making sure the money was collected, that we were getting paid, that bills were getting paid, and so on. So, managing cash rather than managing a budget was a big thing that I learned when I first became a CEO.
Another challenge I faced was how the weight of responsibility shifted when I became a CEO. I can tell you that when I was running sales and marketing, I was very diligent and wanted to be good at what I did. When I went and became CEO, the weight of the success or failure of the company was on my shoulders 100% of the time. I don’t think that anyone could have prepared me for what that felt like. When I hired a new CEO at Hixme, I still had responsibilities, but that weight was lifted from my shoulders. There’s just the sense that everything is on me, that the buck stops with me. That, if we succeed we succeed as a team because we all made that success happen, but that if we failed it would ultimately be my fault.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
The #1 thing is that I have never believed that I would do anything other than succeed. Failure has never been an option in my mind. I feel like when you let failure be an option, you’re more likely to fail than succeed.
I also think that a lot of people are afraid to be scrappy, and I have never been afraid to be scrappy. When you’re building a venture-backed company, it’s like getting into an old-time locomotive. At first, it goes chugga-chugga, then it starts speeding up — building steam — then you realize that off in the distance that the bridge you are about to cross is out, and you are going full steam ahead.
The difference between those who succeed and those who fail is that those who don’t pull the brake are the ones that succeed. You can’t “brake” if you are running a venture-backed company. You’ve got to keep moving, keep going. You have to assume that you’ll figure out how to solve the problem — you’ll fix the bridge or learn to fly, but one way or another you’ll get across the chasm.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- You have to be an architect and a firefighter. In building a business you get to be an architect, but you don’t truly appreciate that sometimes you have to firefight, and run into the building to rescue the baby. The best example of this is the one I shared before — when everything is on budget but the cash isn’t in the bank. When that happened at Hixme I had to become the collections agent. Nothing ever goes exactly as planned. Sometimes something isn’t working how we thought it should. Sometimes I’ve had to step in with customers and work with them to help solve their problems.
- Have a “head cook and bottlewasher” mentality. You’re leading the company, but you may also have to make supply runs to Costco and plunge toilets. Even as the company scales, you realize, sometimes you just don’t have the resources that you may have had at a larger company, you may not have those people. I literally have had to plunge toilets and make Costco runs.
- Schedule time to just think about the business. Running from meeting to meeting may be necessary, but so is strategizing about the business. It’s important to take time to just think about what needs to happen next. Time is built into my schedule to think about the business and sometimes I feel guilty when I take the time to do it because there are so many other things that need to get done as well — the architecting and firefighting. To do this successfully I sometimes need a quiet place that is not in the office and have to go be somewhere else for a couple of hours to avoid interruptions. The reality is, when you don’t take time to think about the business, you may end up with blinders on and, as a result, end up doing a lot of damage to the company.
- Sometimes being a CEO can be lonely. It’s important to find a confidant, a peer to talk to that’s independent of everything related to the business. I have joined several groups that are CEO networking groups over the years and these groups have been really important to me. I’ve developed relationships with peers that have nothing to do with my business, but who are in the same situation I’m in and this has been immensely helpful to me. Having a regular coffee meeting or dinner with another CEO may seem like a luxury but I feel it’s a necessity.
- One calendar to rule it all. Work, family, fitness, community, and faith must all live on the same calendar to strike a balance and ensure everything is getting the attention it needs. My wife, children, and assistant all have access and the ability to put things on my calendar. My wife, assistant and I all meet regularly to just discuss everything — from work trips to family events so that personal appointments and business appointments are all coordinating with each other. I don’t know how I would manage everything otherwise.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
One thing that I try to do regularly is to encourage people when there are important moments in their family, to not miss those important moments — family members birthdays, anniversaries, school plays, etc. If it’s a child’s birthday and someone is still at the office at 5 or 5:30, I say, “Get out of here.” The reality is it should only take a life or death moment at the company to prevent someone from leaving work — and those just about never happen. Stop thinking that if you spend another 30 minutes at work that somehow, it’s more important than seeing your child in their school play.
I go back and forth on the topic of remote working. Being in the same place at the same time is important for people. At the same time, if there’s a school event you really want to be at for your child, work from home so that you can do that. It’s about transparency and letting people know what’s happening. Good workers don’t abuse working from home privileges.
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?
There have been a lot of people that have helped me achieve success, but rather than call out one person I want to mention The University of Notre Dame, where I went to school. It has always done a great job of making sure the alumni network really works to help students and alumni. There have been many — too many to count — times that I’ve been helped by someone in the network. There’s a “pay it forward mentality” with the network as well, so I, in turn, have helped other alumni as well. It’s a tremendous group and has really been amazingly valuable and helpful to me in a variety of ways.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
I don’t know if I’ve achieved any of my goals yet. My #1 goal is to make this world a better place through the businesses that I start, or the nonprofits that I’m involved with. This is always what my guiding principle has been. Then it becomes — how can I make the universe a better place? And trying to find ways to make other planets places that can be made livable for humans. At some point, we are going to need to expand our dwellings beyond earth, so then the goal will definitely become making the universe a better place for everything.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
Really, it’s to be successful in making everything a little bit better. Helping make the world and the universe a better place for everyone.
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!
To me, it’s about creating opportunities for people. One thing my wife and I are very passionate about is education. Creating opportunities for people to get education is important to me. Helping to create entrepreneurs is also important to me — especially helping to create entrepreneurs who are interested in making the world a better place. In funding entrepreneurs, I feel like I’m helping and setting up others do what I’ve done so that they can have an impact on the world as well.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@DannyPeate on Twitter