Thinking is your number one skill — you can hire a good programmer or a stellar marketer, but you can’t hire someone to do all the thinking for you. Your ability to understand and synthesize market problems, generate ideas and analyze information to produce meaningful outputs is indispensable.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexander Sumin.
Alex is the Co-Founder and CMO of ClaimCompass — one of the leading travel tech companies helping travellers get paid when airlines screw up their flights. What started out in 2015 as not more than a landing page, a giant spreadsheet and a lot of manual work, has grown into an automated software serving over 500,000 travellers worldwide, helping them receive tens of millions of dollars in compensation for their flight troubles.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After spending a few years working for a large chartered airline in Montreal, I tried the wonderful world of public service and went to work for the Canadian Federal Government as an analyst. Although somewhat of a cushy job, it wasn’t particularly exciting for a 20-something year old and it pretty much meant — no more travel. So in 2012, I ended up moving to Berlin, to work for next to nothing for a PR agency, not so much because I knew a single thing about PR, but because I loved the city. That’s where I met Tanya, who a couple of years later became my CEO and cofounder. She has this amazing power of persuasion and confidence and before long, she got me excited about an idea of helping travellers when airlines won’t. At the time, she had already brought on a CTO — Velizar, who to this day is one of the best engineers I’ve ever met. And so it began…
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
In 2017, after graduating from 500 Startups, we moved from the Valley to Sofia, Bulgaria, where we began establishing our operations. We were stranded on cash and although we had some money in the backlog, it was coming in very slowly, so in the summer, we ended up having less than 3 months of runway. It was really stressful and at some point I thought “great, 3 months after being accelerated, we’re in Bulgaria and we’re about to fail”. But we didn’t — we worked extra hard and got everyone to chip in, and we reduced the time to collect our revenue, which extended our runway and allowed us to show some growth and raise a bit more money.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I remember this quite well, actually. One day I came in the office and asked Tanya to go get coffee, so the rest of the team won’t hear what we’re talking about. “If something doesn’t change, we’re out of money in less than 3 months — what’s the plan?”. The thing that always kept us going is our relationship — when things are bad, although I’m often told I overreact, we never let them cripple us to the extent that we just sit and watch things fall apart. The overall consensus among the three of us is being intellectually honest with ourselves and always doing the best we can. This is the sole thing that has kept me going over the years, and I know that if we fail, we’ll fail having done the best we can.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Well, we’re in travel and it’s 2020 with Covid19 wiping out about 55% of global air traffic and pretty much everything we managed to accomplish over the past 4 or 5 years. But it also isn’t as bad, as it could’ve been: we’re still generating some revenue, made an acquisition earlier this year, and we have a runway, which I think should last until things begin to normalize again. Not a lot of companies in travel can say the same.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I thought that avoiding competition and going into markets where your competitors aren’t present is a sound go to market strategy. There’s a reason why your competitors aren’t there and most of the time is because those markets suck.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think it’s somewhat our journey, which has matured into our culture. For example, we’ve been very capital efficient and frugal. At the same time, I can’t say that we’ve compromised the company or the culture, we’ve just always been obsessed about thinking what’s best for the company and the people. We still have equipment which we’ve bought second hand. We actually have a lot of it. We just focus on other things and surround ourselves with people who share that vision over some random vanity.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Focus onto something meaningful, set a vision, which transpires into what you do on a daily basis. Otherwise you’re just keeping yourself constantly busy, but that’s no guarantee of producing anything of any value whatsoever.
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?
My co-founders. You may think you’re just colleagues until you realize that you spend over 90% together. They care, they share the responsibility and want to succeed — it makes all the difference. We also wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for our investors as well as everyone who helped us along the way for which I am ever so grateful.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve never understood the correlation of startups and “making the world a better place”. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite. Most startups and companies are making things worse. So I don’t abide by that matra. We’re doing our best as individuals and human beings, we try to maintain a culture which is honest and fair, which crates a place for people to grow, we pay our taxes and don’t steal. That’s it.
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.
- It’s a skill and you can learn it — just like most things in life, building a company is a skill and you can get better at it. The more you do it, the better you become. I’m always fascinated when I speak to early-stage founders and serial entrepreneurs — the only difference is that the latter have tried a lot more things a lot faster.
- It’s unbelievably hard — building a product is easy. Building a company is hard. It’s an emotional roller coaster where one day things are going great and the next ten everything is falling apart. It takes a toll on your relationships with friends and family, your partner, your health, your sanity, your finances — nothing remains out of touch. Everything is always your fault because you call the shots and you’re responsible if your customers churn, if you’re running out of money, if you’ve failed your employees and you have to let them go.
- You can’t learn it in school — not to undermine the value of academic education, but you can’t learn how to build a company in class. An MBA is good if you want to go into consulting, but it teaches you nothing about how VCs think, or how to build an MVP or why retention is much more important than new customer growth.
- Thinking is your number one skill — you can hire a good programmer or a stellar marketer, but you can’t hire someone to do all the thinking for you. Your ability to understand and synthesize market problems, generate ideas and analyze information to produce meaningful outputs is indispensable.
- Get good at selling — I used to think that as soon as we get our API up, we’ll reach out to all of our prospects and they’ll immediately sign up. That is until we exhausted the list and realised that nobody used our API. Selling is a tremendous skill which you will constantly need to recruit co-founders and people to join your company, raise money and attract customers.
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. 🙂
I’d probably try to get people off social media or at least try to transform it so it brings more good than the harm it causes. It gives me great pain to see how we’re willingly giving up what used to be meaningful relationships — although “not scalable”, perhaps imperfect, time consuming and without any filters, but nevertheless real — in exchange for meaningless micro-interactions, which we’ve falsely deemed as “communication”.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Ha, see above 🙂 www.alexandersumin.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!