An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Don’t go it alone: Starting a business is hard, and anyone who has started one will tell you this. If you are motivated enough to start a business, it’s easy to have the self-belief you can launch it alone — and some people can. But even the solo founders have a strong network of supporters they can lean on when the going gets tough.

As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Woody Mawhinney, Co-founder and CEO of Pawlicy Advisor.

Woody Mawhinney is the CEO & Co-founder of Pawlicy Advisor, the leading pet insurance marketplace offering personalized product comparisons based on breed-specific attributes and total cost predictions for the lifetime of the pet. Having served over three million pet parents across the U.S., Pawlicy Advisor is recommended by the American Animal Hospital Association and has raised $20M in venture capital. Woody launched the company in 2018 out of Columbia Business School, where he received his MBA.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in an apple orchard in Maine, atop a local ski hill. It was the perfect ecosystem to foster curiosity and exploration: there was never a limit to hiking, running, biking, and nature walks. My mother was a teacher, and home-schooled my siblings and me until public high school. My education was largely hands-on and interactive. Instead of reading about renewable energy, we built model solar cars and boats; rather than hearing in a classroom about how the government operates, we visited the State House to speak with representatives. My upbringing fostered a sense of curiosity about why things operate as they do and how one can make a tangible impact on the world, and I’m thankful I had a supportive and smart educator in my mother who encouraged taking the less-traveled path.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Ultra swimmer Petter Attia was interviewed by Joe Rogan and asked, “Why do you do this?” Petter’s response is ingrained in my head: “Velocity means very little and acceleration means everything.” What Petter meant is you only feel when speed changes and he believes that emotionally, this is also true. He provides the example of how the feeling of crawling on the shore after swimming for 10–14 hours is amazing, but what makes it especially amazing is how six hours earlier, he felt like he was going to die. By challenging oneself and persevering through difficulty, the beauty of everyday life reveals itself more vibrantly. I’ve found this concept especially helpful to think about when I’ve wanted to procrastinate, when I’ve faced stress, or when I’ve felt complacent.

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?

In high school, I was gifted a book called “Why Not? How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small.” Two decades later, I still keep this book close and routinely ask the question “why” and “why not?” It’s had a profound impact on my life. The premise is that some people have the notion that coming up with solutions for real-world problems is somehow reserved for the experts–that innovation is somehow beyond the capacity of a typical person. In fact, it taught me that looking for new and better ways of doing something is a skill to develop–a way of life. I frequently find and identify problems by tuning into moments of frustration or friction: my zipper caught on my jacket–sure, I could have pulled the jacket fabric tighter when zipping, but what if I didn’t have to in the first place? When I came up with the idea for Pawlicy Advisor, I found finding the right insurance coverage for my dog harder than my day job as a risk analyst supporting Homeland Security. So, I paused and asked myself, “Why can’t I compare my dog’s unique breed-related health risks to the insurance coverage options on the market?” “Why can’t I easily understand which insurance policy is the best price?” “Why does my veterinarian care about pet insurance but not know much about it?” “Why isn’t there a tool to help pet owners like me and a platform to help veterinarians like my vet?” “If I had unlimited resources, what would a solution look like?” You get the picture.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle to take a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?

To transition from idea to launch of Pawlicy Advisor, I spent a long time developing a business model canvas (an approach that is widely taught) and testing my assumptions with customer-driven research and by pitching prospective customers as early as possible. The business model canvas is helpful in structuring your idea within nine company building blocks: (1) key partners; (2) key activities; (3) key resources; (4) value propositions; (5) customer relationships; (6) customer segments; (7) channels; (8) cost structure; and (9) revenue streams. Yet a business model is only as good as it is rooted in customer demand, and I am a big believer in speaking directly with prospective customers as early as possible. For example, I learned there was a need for a pet insurance marketplace because I walked from the length of Manhattan speaking with every pet owner I could find. They told me (1) if they had pet insurance, they didn’t know if they got a good deal or not; and (2) if they didn’t have pet insurance, it was because they didn’t know if it was worth the money. I then found that most of these individuals would take me up on my offer and trust me to compare options and find them the right pet insurance plan. Ultimately, a lot of entrepreneurs fall in love with building at the risk of not selling early or frequently enough. Engaging with customers at the outset increases the chance you are efficiently driving toward a productive and sustainable business.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

I would argue most ideas are not really original, and that’s okay. Sometimes fantastic solutions are derived from asking, “where else would this concept work?” Sometimes, the time when entering the market matters most and a failed idea in the past could be a successful idea moving forward. Obviously, risk can and should be reduced when intellectual property is involved. It’s always a good idea to search internet domains, trademarks, and patents to see what’s out there.

If you’re going to run a business, you should have the passion and discipline to become a leading expert on the topics most relevant to your business. I wasn’t a pet insurance expert before starting Pawlicy Advisor, but I became a licensed insurance producer in every state, joined the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, and participated in the National Association of Insurance Commissioners Working Group on Pet Insurance. You need that inherent hunger to learn and grow that will drive you during challenging moments in your entrepreneurial journey and allow you to think comprehensively when researching your idea.

For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

I named Pawlicy Advisor only after I had vetted the business idea thoroughly. I reviewed internet domains, trademarks, and conducted user surveys. When I felt like there was alignment on all three (available domain, no similar trademarks, and broad customer support), I incorporated the business. The advice I received early on was, “use a startup lawyer to incorporate the business and file IP,” rather than an internet legal service. Maybe things have changed somewhat from five years ago, but some startup founders I know have run into issues with the defensibility of their IP and the ease of scaling their startup because of user-generated mistakes that could have been avoided when filing their legal paperwork. In a similar vein, I used a registered agent to help me with major state filings.

As a marketplace, Pawlicy Advisor needed to solve for not only demand, but supply. We needed insurance partnerships to be able to sell insurance. I’m a huge believer in picking up the phone and communicating directly with decision-makers in key business relationships–I’ve found nothing more effective in business development. Early on, I used a free email domain research service to identify potential email addresses of pet insurance carrier CEOs, and I reached out to them directly, going straight to the top of my ideal partner organizations. I’m not necessarily recommending others take that approach, but I can say 100% of my emails received responses leading to scheduled calls with either the CEOs themselves or the individuals to whom they delegated. Those conversations were extremely valuable and productive because any action after the calls were supported by the organization’s leader.

I take a similar approach with key vendors and manufacturers. I rely on other leaders I trust and know or other leaders I don’t know yet, but I respect them to guide me to the right suppliers. For example, we needed to create boxes of marketing materials we could send to veterinarians, so I got an intro to a paper and packaging VP I respected who shared who their favorite vendor was. We have used this vendor for three years and greatly value that relationship.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why?

  1. Understand and truly love the “why”: As an entrepreneur, you need to be resilient–resilient to hearing “no,” resilient to things moving slower than expected, resilient to something going wrong. Internalizing the “why” builds not only your resolve, but also your enthusiasm for your work, which can be a vibrant and powerful energy for yourself, your employees, external partners, and the public. Whenever I wake up, two of the first faces I see are Wilma and Wrigley, my two dogs. A simple hug to the two of them reminds me why I am in the business of helping other pet owners.
  2. Don’t go it alone: Starting a business is hard, and anyone who has started one will tell you this. If you are motivated enough to start a business, it’s easy to have the self-belief you can launch it alone — and some people can. But even the solo founders have a strong network of supporters they can lean on when the going gets tough. Some of my most challenging days at Pawlicy Advisor occurred before I met Travis Bloom, my Co-founder, and Pawlicy Advisor’s CTO. In Travis, I found an expert in business areas where I fell short. I also found in him a confidant and leader I could lean on to drive the business forward.
  3. Receive buy-in from your spouse and/or core support systems: There is a reason why actors, athletes, politicians, and awardees thank their families–often first–during receptions acknowledging their work. Even if you work up the courage to start a business and are prepared for the challenges ahead, your key supporters may not have internalized the journey the same way as you. My wife likes to joke she’s another “co-founder” of Pawlicy Advisor because of the stress I feel, she feels; the wins I recognize, she participates in; and the puzzles I solve, she often contributes. I overlooked how my wife married not only me, but my business. I can’t thank her enough for the support she has provided and the sacrifices she has made to support my dreams.
  4. It’s a rollercoaster: Entrepreneurship offers some of the highest highs and lowest lows. One day you can be closing an incredible business partnership, and the next day you can be trying to get your business back online. I think some of the most even-keeled leaders are not only calm because they are skilled but because they have experienced the volatility of running a business, leading to reservedness during the highs and optimism during the lows.
  5. Deals aren’t done until they’re in writing: Running a business is full of potential distractions, and it’s a leader’s job to keep the operations of the company pointed at true North, solving its most important needs and steering toward its most impactful opportunities. I’ve encountered countless distribution and investment opportunities that fell apart at the one-yard line. We have a saying at Pawlicy Advisor, which is don’t commit resources or revisit the roadmap until the ink is dry.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Make a minimum viable product and put it in front of a potential customer or user as quickly as possible. Nothing beats testing your idea “in the wild,” and if you aren’t embarrassed by the quality of the minimum viable product that you shared with the world, you probably waited too long to put it in front of people. Put any ego aside, and prioritize testing with the end-user at the risk of looking silly.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

It may depend on how technical or scientific the invention is. If the consultant has a stellar reputation, the price is right, and you need an expert to help you go to market, it may be worth it. At the earliest stage, more often than not, it’s cheaper and more valuable to go directly to prospective users and customers for their opinions than it is to go to a consultant. It can also be valuable to lean on your network and people you trust to recommend the right resources for you. Consultants sometimes do not have incentives that are aligned with your direct interests. Ruthlessly prioritize what you are focused on accomplishing and think of a consultant as only one resource to help you get there, not as the core strategy itself.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

At the end of the day, no money is free money. If you accept outside capital, venture or otherwise, you are adding key partners in the business who may impact strategy, operations, and outcome. It’s your responsibility as a fiduciary to treat shareholders’ interests equally. Venture capital is a fantastic accelerant: you can fuel exceptionally quick growth, which can help you shoot for the moon. VCs are also exceptionally skilled at pattern recognition, which helps founders avoid tunnel vision and optimize their approaches. If you go the VC route, you need to be honest with yourself about VC economics. VCs aren’t in business for a 2x or 3x return. They are stewards of capital who invest because they believe you could be the next 50x, 100x, or 200x return. You should be aligned with that vision if you accept venture backing.

What’s most important is to have a clear vision of where you want to steer the business and what resources you need to get you there. Fundraising isn’t the milestone that particularly matters: progress toward achieving your core objectives matters more. What a bootstrapped business may not receive in terms of expertise, network, and larger balance sheet, it may receive in flexibility (including in an exit), ownership, and even possibly ROI. The truth of the matter is running a business is hard — many fail. ROI for the founders of a bootstrapped business and a business that has raised $50M in venture funding can look surprisingly similar when dilution is taken into account. I am amazed at how many venture-backed founders are jealous of bootstrapped founders and how many bootstrapped founders are jealous of venture-backed founders.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

As we have grown, we have stayed true to our mission of making it easy for pet parents to do the right thing. We believe personalized advice from trustworthy experts ensures pets get the best care possible. Navigating pet care is hard: medical care is expensive and because pets are treated as equal family members these days, conversations pertaining to affording their care are naturally personal and emotional. I’m exceptionally proud of how our team has prioritized providing both pet owners and veterinarians with resources that allow them to care for the pets they and we all love. From a pet parent perspective, we’re saving them up to thousands of dollars over their pets’ lives and providing them peace of mind. From a veterinary perspective, we’re supporting some of their most delicate and impactful conversations that take place in a clinic (financial ones). As a pet parent myself, it’s a marvelous privilege to hear from veterinarians and pet owners about the positive impact we’re making on their clinics and furry families.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. 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.

My alma mater, Bowdoin College, instilled in me a philosophy that no matter what fields we pursue, we can make them more accessible and ethical by making space for empathy, understanding, and context–committing to and seeking out the Common Good. While broad, the concepts of civil discourse, active listening, the promotion of mutual understanding, free and respectful discussion, and honesty are key values that deserve protection. The intersection of tech and public discourse is a topic that’s currently buzzing in the news, and the discussion that’s occurring about the intersection of tech and free speech is valuable. My hope is it starts a public movement to better understand and address the ways technologies impact public discourse and opinion formation.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Jon Stewart. I admire his contributions to the veteran and first responder communities. As a vegan and pet care founder, I admire his animal sanctuary work. And I’m a fan of his writing, comedy, and shows.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Making Something From Nothing: Woody Mawhinney Of Pawlicy Advisor On How To Go From Idea To Launch was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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