“Learn as much as you can, as fast as you can.” — A mentor told me this the day I decided to found Sigo. As the founder of a startup, you’re often building something that no one has ever built before — by definition. As a first-time founder, you can’t even lean on tangential experience building a company that would be applicable. Whoever learns the most wins. Learning faster is an advantage because time is often a luxury founders don’t have. Especially at the early stages, everything you do should yield some learning — from customer interviews or marketing tests through generating your first revenue. Building a strong business means constantly leveling up.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Néstor Hugo Solari.
Nestor is Co-Founder and CEO of Sigo — a mobile-first auto insurance provider focused on providing underserved populations with easy-to-use and fair-priced auto insurance. He started his career in Investment Banking at Goldman Sachs, and spent most of his career in impact investing prior to founding Sigo. Nestor earned a BS in Finance from Penn State, an MA in International Studies from the Lauder Institute at UPenn, and an MBA from the Wharton School.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My parents immigrated to the US from Uruguay, and I was born and raised in northern New Jersey. As the first in my family to attend college, I recall arriving to Penn State a little confused and intimidated, but above all I was hungry to learn and grow. At the time, Finance was the most competitive major at the business school, and so I decided to pursue it, somewhat blindly. Similarly, someone had mentioned that Wall Street was extremely competitive, and that got me excited. I just had no idea what Wall Street was.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I was able to land a role in Investment Banking at Goldman Sachs, after interning in their Securities division the summer before. This was an incredible experience. I was surrounded by some of the smartest and most-hardworking people I had ever met, and the learning curve was steep — at least initially. While I learned a lot fast, I found myself searching for more fulfilling work. This is when I moved towards impact investing. I saw this as a way to use the skills I had built to impact society for the better.
I launched my career into impact investing and spent most of it working in private equity focused on financial institutions across emerging markets. During my time working at two different fund managers in the space, I did business in more than 20 different countries across Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Here I was able to see countless examples of extremely successful commercial businesses built on serving the underserved.
I decided to go to business school to found Sigo after I saw how hard it was for some family members to get auto insurance. My aunt struggled to get auto insurance online and was forced through a terrible brick-and-mortar experience that resulted in overpriced insurance and extra fees. This anachronistic process was not what I envisioned given the technology available today, and so I saw an opportunity to fix the problems my aunt faced.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
A related question to set the stage might be, “why was it so hard for my aunt to get insurance?” The answer here is a little complicated. I found that most immigrants and low-income populations in the US are grouped into the same risk category as drunk drivers, and the reason is largely because they are buying your state-mandated minimum liability limit auto insurance policies (think of this as the cheapest insurance you can buy to drive legally).
The problem here is that this insurance is primarily distributed through physical storefronts, rather than directly to the consumer. The issue is that setting up and staffing those stores is expensive, and so brick-and-mortar insurance agents that focus on selling state-minimum liability limit insurance policies end up charging extra fees.
Sigo is disrupting this process in two primary ways: 1) distribution, and 2) underwriting.
On the distribution front, we have built a bilingual platform that has automated many of those touch points that had previously made it expensive to service this customer. With a lower cost base on distribution and customer acquisition, we are able to pass those cost savings on to the customer.
With regards to underwriting, we are using technology to not only better understand our customer but capture significantly more information on our customer. Our mobile-first approach means we know our customers’ behavior from end to end, unlike your existing insurance providers that lose much of that data behind the layer of physical brick-and-mortar agents.
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 imagine my first couple of investor pitches were pretty funny, and I know they were full of mistakes. What I learned from those early conversations is to start fundraising before you need funding. What I mean by this is that it is important to develop relationships with venture capitalists and other potential funding sources over time before having the conversation about investment. Ask for money, and you get advice. Ask for advice, and you get money.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
This is a long list. I’ve been fortunate to receive guidance from many different sources including several peers along with former bosses. The key I would share regarding mentorship for founders is that the most valuable source of information in my experience comes from other entrepreneurs. The two primary ways I’ve gotten value from my mentors are through introductions to other founders, and specific tactical advice on building (if they’re an entrepreneur themselves).
I would be remiss if I did not mention the “over mentoring” underrepresented founders seem to get. There are many “mentorship” programs that pair you with different professionals in hopes of generating value. This is different than developing a relationship with someone to the point they become a mentor organically. Network and build real relationships within your relevant industry and with other founders.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Disruption is positive when the net gain to society is positive. This is really hard to measure, particularly at a static point in time. Many people might use cost to the consumer as a measure of whether disruption is good. In this case, you might look at Uber or Amazon and how they have decreased the cost to the ultimate consumer.
The opposite is how I would describe negative disruption. If the net value to society is negative, then disruption is bad. Some might look at the role Facebook plays in spreading false information or even blame them for mental health challenges many in society face today.
Keeping those scenarios in mind, you could also make the case for Amazon having a net negative effect and Facebook a net positive effect, as there’s of course a level of subjectivity here. Disruption and whether it is positive or negative is in the eye of the beholder, and the truth is probably somewhere in the middle in most cases.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
“Learn as much as you can, as fast as you can.”
A mentor told me this the day I decided to found Sigo. As the founder of a startup, you’re often building something that no one has ever built before — by definition. As a first-time founder, you can’t even lean on tangential experience building a company that would be applicable. Whoever learns the most wins. Learning faster is an advantage because time is often a luxury founders don’t have. Especially at the early stages, everything you do should yield some learning — from customer interviews or marketing tests through generating your first revenue. Building a strong business means constantly leveling up.
“Get to revenue as fast as possible.”
This one might be a little controversial because I’ve also received the opposite advice. The context for not getting to revenue in a ventured-backed scenario is that investors will judge your venture based on how fast you’re growing. So hiccups in that exponential growth might be seen in a negative light by investors. That concern doesn’t hold weight when compared to the learnings that comes from actually acquiring your first customers and building something that someone will pay you to use.
“Figure out what your weaknesses are and find someone with those strength to help fill the gaps.”
It is all about the team. Don’t try to do everything yourself, especially the things you aren’t good at. Build your team and leverage your strengths. One caveat here is that there are certain skills founders and CEOs need to develop, regardless, such as sales and storytelling. This is sometimes also easier said than done as founders will need to do 100% of the work at the initial stages.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
For now, I am singularly focused on attacking the systemic racism we see in the auto insurance industry. A recent investigation by ProPublica and Consumer Reports found that minority neighborhoods get charged up to 30% more for car insurance when compared to other areas with similar accident costs. This is no minor problem, and that’s why I’m giving everything I have to grow Sigo.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
Shoe Dog. The story of Phil Knight and Nike forever changed the way I see entrepreneurship. The lengths Phil went to make Nike successful at times left me with my jaw wide open. It was my first real look into entrepreneurship. A mentor recommended the book after I came to him for advice about creating a startup.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” -Babe Ruth
Don’t be scared of failure. Failure is part of success, and with each failure comes a lot of learning. I remember first hearing this quote as a child from one of my baseball coaches, but back then it was actually about playing baseball for me. This of course changed as I grew and came to understand the deeper meaning. I encourage everyone to reach as far as they can and be bold with their ambitions.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would encourage people to support a Universal Basic Income plan. This would not only provide a much needed safety net for those who are vulnerable today, but also for those potentially impacted by the future of technology and increasing impacts of automation. We don’t want the progress of society to be halted, but we also must be conscious of the consequences and challenges capitalism presents. Capitalism is the best engine for progress humanity has discovered, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t actively try to address its shortcomings.
How can our readers follow you online?
Find me on Twitter @nestorsolari
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!