20VC The Framework to Scale A Team From 20 to 190 in 24 Months, How To Structure The Perfect Investor Updates & How To Create A Culture of Distributed Ownership with Radical Transparency with JeanCharles Samulian, CoFounder & CEO @ Alan

Summary Notes


In this episode of "20 Minutes VC and Founders Friday," host Harry Stebbings interviews Jean Charles Samuelian, co-founder and CEO of Alan, a startup transforming health insurance with a focus on people, simplicity, and comfort. Samuelian's journey began with a passion for technology and a desire to improve the healthcare system, influenced by his family's medical background. After innovating in the airline seating industry with his first company, Expliseat, Samuelian sold his shares to pursue his ambition of creating a frictionless, fair, and friendly healthcare company. He and his co-founder, Charles Gorintin, recognized health insurance as the ideal starting point due to its integral role in the healthcare ecosystem and the potential for differentiation through additional services. Alan's culture emphasizes distributed ownership, radical transparency, and continuous learning from productive mistakes. The company's rigorous hiring and onboarding processes ensure alignment with Alan's mission and values. Samuelian's personal approach to extreme self-organization and strategic thinking is reflected in his detailed weekly team updates, which include investors and cover strategic insights, member stories, achievements, and priorities. Looking ahead, Samuelian envisions Alan becoming the sole app Europeans use to access healthcare, offering the best in prevention, information, and care.

Summary Notes

Introduction to the Episode

  • Harry Stebbings introduces Jean-Charles Samuelian, co-founder and CEO of Alan.
  • Jean-Charles Samuelian has raised over $85 million in funding for Alan.
  • Alan is a startup aimed at revolutionizing health insurance with a focus on people, simplicity, and comfort.
  • Jean-Charles previously founded Expliseat, which innovated airline seating for economy class.
  • Harry thanks various individuals for their contributions to the episode's questions and content.
  • Harry also promotes Carter and Brex, two services beneficial for startups and investors.

Welcome back. You are listening to the 20 minutes VC and founders Friday with me, Harry Stebbings and you can see all things behind the scenes from me on Instagram at htebings 90 96 with two B's. But to our episode today and I've wanted to do this episode for a long time, having heard just the most incredible things about this founder from everyone I spoke to about him and especially on his leadership.

Harry Stebbings expresses enthusiasm for the episode, highlighting his anticipation and the positive feedback he has received about Jean-Charles Samuelian's leadership.

Jean-Charles Samuelian's Background and Inspiration

  • Jean-Charles has always been a technology enthusiast, starting with building websites at a young age.
  • His family background in medicine and his observations of poor user experiences in healthcare motivated him to make a change.
  • Jean-Charles founded Expliseat, which created lighter and more efficient aircraft seats, leading to fuel and CO2 savings.
  • A personal moment involving his grandfather's illness reaffirmed his desire to transform the healthcare industry.
  • He sold his shares in Expliseat to pursue his dream of creating a healthcare company.
  • Alan was founded with the goal of being the only app people use to access healthcare, offering a frictionless, fair, and friendly experience.
  • Health insurance was chosen as the starting point for Alan due to its central role in healthcare and its potential for differentiation through added services.

I think I've always been a big fan of technology. Like a lot of people on the show, I started building websites when I was twelve. I sold the first one when I was 13.

Jean-Charles shares his early passion for technology and entrepreneurship, which set the foundation for his later endeavors.

Takeaways from Expliseat and Impact on Alan

  • Jean-Charles learned to view regulation as an opportunity rather than a constraint, especially in heavily regulated industries.
  • Understanding regulation deeply is crucial, as demonstrated by his thorough study of the insurance code.
  • The importance of company culture was a key lesson from his first venture, leading to a more intentional approach to culture at Alan.
  • A strong culture influences hiring, development, and operational practices.

Yeah, I think one of the link between aerospace, healthcare and insurance is that they are all very heavily regulated.

Jean-Charles explains that regulation can be a catalyst for innovation in industries where it serves as a high barrier to entry.

Culture at Alan

  • Alan combines distributed ownership with radical transparency.
  • Developing a company culture that supports these principles requires a deep understanding of the desired outcomes from the onset.
  • The experience from Expliseat informed the approach to culture at Alan, emphasizing alignment and intentionality from the beginning.

I think first, what you need to st

The quote is incomplete, but it suggests that Jean-Charles was about to discuss the foundational steps necessary to establish the unique culture at Alan.## Company Ambition and Distributed Ownership

  • The company has a significant ambition within the vast healthcare system landscape.
  • To achieve this ambition, attracting the smartest people is essential.
  • Empowering employees to make decisions is a crucial aspect of distributed ownership.
  • Establishing principles of excellence within the company is necessary for distributed ownership to work.
  • Excellence involves rigorous thinking, decision-making, and deep investigation.
  • Employees should not fear being contrarian and should strive to be correct.
  • The company culture embraces non-consensual building of the right thing, which requires training and coaching.
  • Courage in decision-making is emphasized.
  • The company is seen not as a democracy but as a collection of "enlightening despots" who make bold decisions after considering their peers' viewpoints.

"The playing field is huge and healthcare system are broken all over the world. In order to reach that ambition, we knew that we need to attract the smartest people on earth."

This quote highlights the company's recognition of the vast potential within the healthcare industry and the importance of recruiting top talent to achieve their goals.

"For distributed ownership to work, we thought that you need a few principles. First, you need to define what means excellence in your company."

This quote underscores the necessity of defining excellence within the organization to facilitate distributed ownership effectively.

Encouraging Bold Decisions Without Fear

  • Differentiating between luck and execution is key when evaluating the outcome of bold decisions.
  • Failure due to bold assumptions is acceptable if there is learning from the experience.
  • Poor execution, especially repeated instances, is not acceptable as it indicates a failure to learn.
  • The organization promotes testing assumptions, akin to a scientific process.
  • Learning from productive mistakes is encouraged.
  • Alex Karp's distinction between productive and non-productive mistakes is referenced to emphasize the value of learning from errors.

"And if they fail, try to understand if they fail because they took bold assumptions and those assumptions didn't work out, or if it was because of poor execution."

This quote conveys the importance of understanding the reasons behind failure to distinguish between innovative risks and inadequate execution.

Balancing Deep Thinking with Speed of Decision-Making

  • The balance between deep thinking and quick decision-making is challenging but essential.
  • A framework is used where decisions are made with 70% of the data, promoting speed without full certainty.
  • Questioning common knowledge and challenging industry norms lead to contrarian thinking and innovation.
  • The focus is on asking the right questions, not just making decisions quickly.

"You should make decisions with 70% of the data, so it's okay to make decision when you don't know everything."

This quote suggests a pragmatic approach to decision-making where having some uncertainty is acceptable to maintain momentum.

Culture and Scaling

  • Scaling from 20 to 190 people in 24 months presented challenges, but a strong culture facilitated the process.
  • A strong hiring process, onboarding, and a clear definition of culture are crucial for scaling.
  • Documenting decision-making processes and problem-solving approaches aids in onboarding.
  • A knowledge base, including written discussions and decisions, is valuable for new hires.
  • Maintaining culture through rapid growth requires continuous attention to hiring and onboarding processes.

"I think it came with a very strong hiring process on always rising the bar, a very strong onboarding and a very crisp definition of culture."

This quote emphasizes the importance of a robust hiring process and clear cultural definition in scaling the company efficiently.

Hiring for Excellence

  • Defining excellence is the first step in hiring for it.
  • The company took a contrarian approach by staying small initially to consolidate foundations.
  • Hiring involves seeking out the best candidates, often through outbound efforts and referrals.
  • Removing bias in the hiring process is achieved through scripted interviews and shadowing.
  • The "full day at the office" step in the hiring process allows assessment of fit within the company culture.

"You need to just sit there in the room, see them interview candidates, and just take notes and see how it works."

This quote describes the shadowing process as a method for training interviewers and ensuring quality in the hiring process.

Onboarding Process

  • The onboarding process is designed to be warm and welcoming.
  • A structured approach with documentation, training sessions, and support from multiple team members is implemented.
  • Role bodies, cultural bodies, and coaches provide support and guidance to new hires.
  • Strong written knowledge resources and live training sessions are central to the onboarding process.

"You have what we call the role body. So it's someone that is going to help you understand what your job is at Alan and how you interact with others."

This quote details the support system in place for new employees to help them integrate into their roles and the company culture.## Hiring a Chief People Officer

  • Recognizing the importance of hiring for people roles early in a company's journey.
  • Early talent hires can be instrumental for building company culture and processes.
  • The decision to hire a Chief People Officer should be based on the problems the company is trying to solve.
  • A Chief People Officer should empower everyone in the company to make people decisions, not centralize HR functions.
  • The ideal profile for this role includes experience in tech, classical companies, and a passion for empowering others.
  • The hiring process involves seeking recommendations, interviewing candidates, and matching them to an ideal profile.

"But like hiring for people very early in the journey is really important."

This quote emphasizes the significance of prioritizing talent acquisition early on to shape the company's culture and processes effectively.

"What is the problem we are trying to solve and is the problem like you are not sure of the culture of your company, you are not sure of the onboarding, you are not sure on your hiring process, you are not sure on. I need to provide a career path to my team."

Jean-Charles Samuelian highlights the importance of identifying specific organizational problems that a Chief People Officer can address, such as company culture, onboarding, hiring, and career development.

"We wanted someone that truly understand very well business, because for us, people is about organization and we don't want a centralized HR function."

Jean-Charles Samuelian explains the need for a Chief People Officer who deeply understands business and supports a decentralized HR approach where employees are empowered to make decisions.

Extreme Self-Organization

  • The value of time and the necessity of taking control over one's schedule and notifications.
  • Extreme self-organization is about aligning one's schedule with the key aspects of their role.
  • Jean-Charles Samuelian structures his calendar to include no meeting times for deep work, coaching sessions, hiring slots, and time for checking notifications and emails.
  • This organization allows for periods of unstructured thinking that can be highly productive.

"I'm always surprised how much people don't consider the value of their time and how they accept to waste 20 minutes here, 20 minutes there."

Jean-Charles Samuelian expresses his surprise at how often people undervalue their time and tolerate inefficiencies that lead to a lack of productivity.

"So for example, in my calendar, every day from 08:00 a.m. To 11:00 a.m. I have a no meeting long thinking time where I go deep into topics."

Jean-Charles Samuelian details his approach to extreme self-organization, dedicating specific times in his schedule for deep work without interruptions.

Scaling CEOship

  • The struggle of giving more praise than criticism within an organization.
  • Recognizing and reinforcing positive outcomes and behaviors is crucial for scaling a company.
  • Jean-Charles Samuelian has worked on providing positive feedback to create a good feedback loop within his team.

"I think where I struggled a lot at some point, and I've been working a lot on it, is to give more praise than criticism."

Jean-Charles Samuelian shares his personal challenge of balancing praise with criticism, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging excellent work to foster a positive organizational culture.

Appreciation and Ambition

  • Balancing celebration of achievements with the drive for continuous ambition.
  • The importance of thanking and acknowledging both oneself and the team for their accomplishments.
  • Connecting celebrations to the long-term vision to maintain momentum and motivation.

"But every week I think we'd all try to celebrate what we have achieved and really spend time to thank the people who have done that and also try to thank yourself."

Jean-Charles Samuelian stresses the importance of regular celebrations and gratitude as a means to motivate and acknowledge the contributions of the team and oneself.

Investor Updates

  • Investor updates are treated as team updates and shared with both investors and the team.
  • Weekly updates encourage reflection on achievements and planning for the upcoming week.
  • Structuring updates to include strategic insights, member stories, and community impact.
  • Frequent updates lead to more productive board meetings focused on strategic topics.

"I think they are the best because they are not investor updates. They are team updates on which I put my investors."

Jean-Charles Samuelian explains that the quality of his investor updates stems from treating them as comprehensive team updates, ensuring everyone is aligned and informed.

"So it forces us every week to say what we have achieved, what equity value have we created every week."

Jean-Charles Samuelian describes the benefit of weekly updates in maintaining a focus on tangible accomplishments and value creation within the company.## Weekly Team Updates

  • The team shares various aspects of their work, including user feedback, the value added during the week, and the lowlights.
  • They discuss the top three priorities for the upcoming week, ensuring everyone understands the company's direction.
  • Key metrics and examples of how the team's actions align with company culture are shared.
  • The update includes a deep dive into growth, product, international brand, communication, people, and finance, with a structured framework for each.

"So what are the measured things we've shipped, what we have learned. We also share the low light of the week, what didn't go as expected or what we are not proud of. And then we share the top three priorities of the company for the week to come, with a quick explanation."

This quote explains the structure of the weekly updates shared within the company, highlighting achievements, learning opportunities, challenges, and future priorities.

Investor Updates and Engagement

  • Investor updates include requests for help and expressions of gratitude towards the investors.
  • A personal approach to thanking investors, such as calls or personalized messages, is favored to strengthen relationships.

"What we do is that we do the request. So we ask questions and we try to thank. But the way we thank, we try also to do it in a more meaningful way."

Jean-Charles Samuelian emphasizes the importance of making meaningful connections with investors by asking for their assistance and personally thanking them for their support.

Preparation for Parenthood

  • Anticipating the birth of his child, Jean-Charles Samuelian reflects on how parenthood will teach empathy, patience, and self-organization.
  • He believes that being a parent will bring new challenges and insights, particularly relevant to his work in the healthcare industry.

"I think it's also going to be a great test on my self organization. I've been kind of extreme of how I allocate my time."

Jean-Charles Samuelian discusses how he expects the arrival of his child to test and potentially improve his personal organization and time management skills.

Personalized Wedding Planning

  • For his wedding, a seating plan algorithm was created to accommodate 400 guests.
  • His wife played a crucial role in finalizing the seating arrangements, demonstrating her problem-solving skills.

"And then the algorithm, in fact, was my wife, who woke up one night at 03:00 a.m. She could not sleep and she took like those big blank paper and she draw the tables for 400 people based on the algorithm we built."

Jean-Charles Samuelian recounts how his wife effectively became the 'algorithm' for their wedding seating plan, showcasing her ingenuity and dedication.

Early Investment and Support

  • Early investment in Jean-Charles Samuelian's company came from individuals and groups who had established relationships with him.
  • The initial funding was secured based on a four-page document, highlighting the importance of trust and reputation.

"We were pretty lucky to raise a siege round when we had only a four pager document."

This quote illustrates how Jean-Charles Samuelian's company was able to secure early funding based on minimal documentation, thanks to the strong relationships he had built with investors.

Learning from Mentors

  • Jean-Charles Samuelian values the insights and thinking processes of his investors, peers, and other entrepreneurs.
  • He finds shadowing and observing how people work to be an effective way to solve problems and grow professionally.

"And I think the most fascinating thing is to see how people work. And I love shadowing people and trying to follow people in their daily work to see how they solve problems."

Jean-Charles Samuelian explains his approach to learning from mentors, emphasizing the importance of understanding their thought processes and problem-solving techniques.

Investor Update Process

  • The investor update process involves the entire team and takes strategic thinking about the company's priorities.
  • The writing of the updates is distributed among team members and serves as a strategic exercise rather than just a communication task.

"But it's not really writing it that takes time. It's the strategic thinking and the priorities for the companies and challenging the people of the company that takes time."

Jean-Charles Samuelian describes the investor update process as being more focused on strategic thinking and setting priorities than on the actual writing of the updates.

Hiring Challenges

  • Hiring for B2B marketing is particularly challenging due to the need for experience in scaling quickly in Europe.
  • The European market's distinct differences from the U.S. market necessitate a specific skill set.

"And we want people that have experienced Europe because the market is very different from the US."

Jean-Charles Samuelian highlights the difficulty in finding B2B marketing professionals with relevant experience in the European market, which differs significantly from the U.S. market.

Vision for the Future

  • The vision for the next five years includes becoming the primary healthcare app in Europe, offering prevention, information, and access to care.
  • Health insurance will be the foundation, with a focus on international growth, differentiation, and holistic healthcare services.

"Meaning the best prevention, the best information, access to care, and having health insurance as the foundation for it."

Jean-Charles Samuelian shares the long-term vision for his company, emphasizing the goal of providing comprehensive healthcare services underpinned by a strong health insurance offering.

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