Surround yourself with people that think differently than you. It may feel nice to hear what you want to hear all of the time, but it’s not useful, especially when running a business. Being able to see different points of view will help you have a better understanding of the situation and ultimately result in better decision making.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Atilio Spaccarotella
Atilio Spaccarotella is the current CEO and founder of Rene, a travel insurance startup that’s helping the world get back to safe travels. Atilio started his first company when he was only 17 years old, creating an automated platform for hospitals that allowed patients to book medical appointments over the phone. Atilio raised institutional capital for two of his startups and received several awards for his contribution to the healthcare field, including a grant from the Mexican government and a US O1 Visa for individuals with extraordinary abilities so that he could grow his business in America.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born in Buenos Aires in 1989, I’ve been into technology since I was 10 years old, while all of my friends were playing soccer I was doing experiments tearing apart my toys and building them again. At age 13 I enrolled in a school that specialized in technology where I studied IT, there I met Gustavo Lindenberg, my current co-founder and CTO. We started our first business together right before graduating from high school. It was definitely a tough experience. We were very young and no one in our families were entrepreneurs or business owners, so we had to learn by ourselves. Two years into the business we started to see some growth and we were able to hire our first employee. Fast forward 5 years, we had users all across the country and began operations in Mexico. When the company started to grow, I was flying and traveling all the time, and during one of those trips, I had a serious scuba diving accident that landed me in the hospital. Even though I had travel insurance, it didn’t cover my bill. It was after this accident that I realized how outdated this industry was, and this motivated me to create Rene.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is, “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there” by Will Rogers. I believe that in order to succeed, you need to be in constant movement: learning, adapting, changing and implementing. If you become complacent, life will run you over.
Prior to Rene’s launch, I ran a fairly successful business that allowed me to live, buy a car, travel, and invest, but it was a lifestyle business. I knew it wouldn’t grow to become something huge nor impact people’s lives the way in which I intended.
Naturally, I had to start something new. It felt like the right move for me to help people travel safely and hopefully avoid the financial burden that can occur when someone has an accident abroad.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One of the books that was a game-changer in my career was Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Extreme Ownership talks about different tactics used in the military and how to apply them to business. In my case it helped me lead my team in a crucial time, fundraising to start operations in the US.
The sudden need to expand the team and adapt to a new culture, move to a different country and manage the company remotely, prompted in me the desire to improve my leadership skills. The concept of Extreme Ownership is incredibly simple yet very powerful, it means that you “own” everything in your world, making you responsible not only for the task which you control but also for all those that affect the overall mission.
This helped me to empower my teammates so we could build and execute a business strategy together. I’m very proud of the result since we were able to open and grow the company in America.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
Pre-COVID, our main product was travel insurance for businesses with employees traveling internationally. As countries were closing their borders and COVID cases grew exponentially, we understood that it may take awhile for business travelers to get back to the skies. Therefore, we begun mapping out a few scenarios that would allow us to:
1) Identify our ideal customer who would be needing a service like ours in the near future
2) Adapting our solution to serve this customer
3) Predict what the market will need after the new normal is established
One of the hypotheses was that Luxury Travel Agencies were desperately looking for ways to get travelers back and mitigate their losses of sales to stay afloat during such trying times. In order to validate our this, we reached out to hundreds of agencies and asked them to participate in a survey.
After interviewing over 30 agencies we discovered that they were manually sending their customers safety information, travel restrictions, and COVID updates to keep them informed of future trips, but also trying to entice them to book trips to destinations that appeared safe.
With this information, we pivoted our business model and created a tool which allows these agencies to give all of this information automatically and at no cost to their customers.
Now besides offering travel insurance with COVID-19 coverage, we provide safety information about any destination in the world, travel advisories, and COVID updates.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
In this case, the “aha moment” came when we realized that travel was being suspended all around the world and that COVID was not going anywhere quickly. We knew we had to take immediate action and pivot.
The thing that allowed us to identify those opportunities and validate our hypothesis was to be in constant communication with potential customers and people in the industry, it’s one of our greatest assets.
How are things going with this new initiative?
The new business model was so successful that Rene got selected to participate in the Plug and Play travel program, backed by airlines and travel industry leaders. We also receive investment from Quake Capital, a VC firm specialized in seed-stage companies, and 10 agencies signed up for a pilot, we are projecting over 250,000 dollars in revenue from those pilots alone.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am deeply grateful for my team. Finding the right people is the key to success. Ideas are worthless if they are not executed correctly.
The Rene Team is small but mighty, we all compliment each other very well and help one another when in need. Like everyone, we have our flaws and make mistakes but the thing that I love about the team is that anyone can point out a mistake or a flaw in someone’s character and it will be well received and used as feedback to improve upon. Being able to work with smart and fundamentally good people is a true blessing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
Running a small startup in the travel industry during a global pandemic is not an easy task, especially in the middle of a fundraise. It was concerning anticipating what our investors or partners would say, but we were overwhelmed by their support and feedback. They praised our ability to move fast and make the best out of a very difficult situation. One thing I take from this pivot is that opportunities are everywhere, you just need to look for them.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Surround yourself with people that think differently than you. It may feel nice to hear what you want to hear all of the time, but it’s not useful, especially when running a business. Being able to see different points of view will help you have a better understanding of the situation and ultimately result in better decision making.
- Listen to your customers. When I started my first company, I was building solutions for myself and not for my customers, instead of taking their needs into consideration I was thinking about how I did things, and it led to bad returns on our marketing investment and lack of overall interest from customers.
Once we understood this, we started doing research and we discovered that some features we thought were great, didn’t add any value to our clients, while some “nice to have” functionalities were the reason our customers were paying for our product.
- Capital is not the key to success. Before we raised institutional capital, we thought that having an investor would solve all of our problems. Oftentimes, there are a whole list of other issues that need to be solved before looking for outside capital. For example, if we had received investment when we started our first business we would have definitely failed, since we had no money, we needed to make sure that our strategy was tested and right before spending a dime on it. Of course having capital will help the business grow, but it’s only when you have a proven method for acquiring customers and a mapped-out strategy that allows you to allocate the capital wisely. Looking back, bootstrapping my first company was the best thing that happened to me.
- If you don’t ask, you’ll never know. Starting a business can be intimidating, and even though I usually didn’t have any issues reaching out to clients or partners, I missed a lot of opportunities for thinking that a customer was “too big” for me or a brand “too important” to partner up with us. After gaining some experience, I realized that many of these brands actually appreciated the energy and dynamic capabilities that a young company has to offer… they were very open and collaborative with us, we just needed to ask.
- School doesn’t prepare you to be an entrepreneur. One thing that I realized during my career is that in many cases, what is in the books differs from reality. Formal education gives you many opportunities and it takes hard work to graduate but it’s not for everyone. I dropped out of a University after only attending for a couple of months. Since I already had a business when I started studying, I realized that I wasn’t applying much of what I was learning in school to my daily job. No one was teaching me how to deal with customers or how to negotiate deals with vendors. Nor was there a class to help you deal with hiring your first employee or creating a copy for your website and advertising material.
And from the tech perspective, it was even worse. We were creating innovative software with technology that only had a few years in existence and our teachers weren’t able to help, so we decided to go with our gut and learn from experience.
On the other hand, many mistakes were made due to our lack of formal education, so there are many ways to gain knowledge, just not in one single place.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
There are always things beyond our control, especially during these times, so I try not to overthink things and focus on the stuff that I can actually control, like trying to stay healthy and exercising, focusing on my family, my relationships, and trying to help out other entrepreneurs and businesses.
I know that being an only son and living abroad was particularly hard for my parents, who were in lockdown back in Argentina due to COVID, so I flew them here to California for a few months in order to be close to them.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
If I could inspire a movement, it would be the empathy movement, I think we are living in a very polarized world where it’s always “us” vs “them” and we forget that we are all human beings, we just have different stories and went through different experiences that made us who we are today.
If everyone was able to put themselves in the other person’s shoes, the world would definitely be a better place.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I’d love to have lunch with Jocko Willink, his books helped me a lot in my career and I find it fascinating how he applies his military experience to the business world.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!