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Peter Colis of Ethos: “

What are their needs and what do they amount to? Think about how much you contribute financially to your family. What are their needs and how will they pay for basic needs like groceries and child care if you should pass? Life insurance can be thought of as a supplement for your income. As part of […]

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What are their needs and what do they amount to? Think about how much you contribute financially to your family. What are their needs and how will they pay for basic needs like groceries and child care if you should pass? Life insurance can be thought of as a supplement for your income.


As part of our series about the “5 Things You Should Ask Before You Purchase a Life Insurance Policy” I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Colis, CEO and Co-Founder of Ethos, a new kind of digital life insurance company which makes simple and ethical life insurance for families. Prior to Ethos, Peter was the CEO and Co-Founder of Ovid, a life insurance marketplace. Peter has an M.B.A from Stanford Business School.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I co-founded Ethos in 2016 with Lingke Wang while at Stanford Business School. This company was actually inspired by Lingke’s unfortunate experience with an agent who convinced him to purchase a permanent life insurance policy as a 20-year-old college graduate. At that stage of Lingke’s life, being sold a permanent life insurance policy was clearly not in his best interest, and this was a situation where an insurance agent took advantage of the situation. We quickly realized that life insurance was an industry that was ripe for disruption — both making it simpler to purchase and aligning our incentives with the customer. There’s an industry saying that life insurance is sold, not bought. But our core thesis for Ethos is that with a digitally-driven, ethical product, life insurance can be bought instead of sold.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting in the industry? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Entrepreneurs are necessarily optimists — myself included. Launching our product and building Ethos took longer and cost more than I originally anticipated. Especially since we launched a technically complex product in a highly-regulated industry which required partnerships with large life insurance companies. Todd Mckinnon, the CEO of Okta, describes this perfectly: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with someone who has no idea how long a thousand miles actually is. If you did, you’d probably never start”.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We launched less than a year ago in June 2018 and are growing so quickly that we’re onto our third office in less than a year. This growth is inspiring to us, that people are excited about what we’re doing at Ethos and want to be a part of this shift in the life insurance industry. Lingke and I are constantly evaluating how we can improve on what we’ve started here — everything from product strategy to how we take care of our people. One of the ways we do this is actually by heading out to a park near our office to unplug — no phones or laptops — to get into a different headspace and just spend time brainstorming new ideas.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lessons that others can learn from that?

I was working in account management at an advertising agency in Chicago at the beginning of my career. My responsibilities there afforded me invaluable insight into not only managing people but getting the best out of them. This position required me to be responsible for the work of team members who didn’t report to me, so I had “indirect authority”. This indirect authority taught me a lot about leading by motivation and respect versus authority and orders. More important than being right, is how you make people feel. I try to emulate that at Ethos every day.

What advice would you give to other people in the insurance field to thrive and avoid burnout?

This advice is more so for founders, but it’s relevant for any industry — and something I certainly experienced building Ethos. It’s difficult not to let your emotions and identity become one with your everyday business successes and failures, especially when you’re just starting out. That personal passion for this idea you’re bringing to the world is a major driver of its success, but you have to remember to invest in yourself outside of your business. A few things have been excellent for me: I meditate frequently and am an avid chess player.

As an “insurance insider”, you know much more about insurance than most consumers. If your loved one wanted to buy a policy from another person, which 5 things would you advise them to find out about before committing to a policy? Can you give an example or story for each?

‘When is the right time to purchase a life insurance policy’ is a frequent question we see from our customers, and general consumers — it’s been a confusing industry for a long time. At Ethos, our philosophy behind the motivation to get life insurance coverage, is when you have a loved one who depends on you. If we had to choose top five considerations before purchasing a policy, here’s what we recommend you ask yourself first:

  • Do I have people who depend on me? If you have children or care for an elderly parent, a life insurance policy is a secure way to ensure that those you love most are financially protected.
  • What would happen to them if I passed away — would there be food on the table, college tuition, a mortgage payment? Life insurance doesn’t just cover the cost of a funeral. It can be used to cover outstanding debt, bills and even your kids tuition.
  • What are their needs and what do they amount to? Think about how much you contribute financially to your family. What are their needs and how will they pay for basic needs like groceries and child care if you should pass? Life insurance can be thought of as a supplement for your income.
  • Does more expensive mean better coverage? Be wary if your life insurance agent is pushing a more expensive policy. Ultimately, you understand your needs better than an agent. A more expensive policy may seem better on paper, but like my co-founder’s experience — it could be unnecessary.
  • Do I feel better knowing they’re protected? Protecting your loved ones is the most selfless thing you can do. Purchasing a policy is an easy way to ease your mind and know those who matter most to you will at least be financially protected when you pass.

Insurance agencies or companies are often known to be very creative and innovative marketers. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?

Life insurance is an industry notorious for aggressive sales agents, confusing processes and a lack of overall innovation. We take a different approach to help people realize that life insurance isn’t impossible, it’s trustworthy and it’s important. We often focus on messaging ‘empowerment’, unlike the traditional industry which often focuses on messaging ‘fear’. Our marketing, branding, and most importantly, product, are tailored to fit the needs of the modern buyer. Signing up for life insurance with Ethos is simple, we offer an entirely online process and we aren’t here to hard sell you a policy that is expensive and unnecessary. Our customers are looking for an honest answer to a very sensitive topic, and we aim to provide them with a frictionless application process. That means a digital-first experience and presenting our product in an authentic manner.

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 about that?

I stand on the shoulders of giants. My father, George, has been my biggest supporter since day one. He pushed me to expand my view of what was possible, that I could accomplish a great deal with focus. Still today, he is often my first call when I need great advice.

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 make life insurance a public service. Every family deserves protection and it’s unfortunate that not every family can afford it, meaning people have to gamble on the financial security of their futures. Life insurance as a mandatory public service and safety net system would mean no family would ever have to make that difficult decision.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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