Peter Colis is co-founder and CEO of Ethos, a next-generation life insurance company that makes policy-buying self-serve and instantaneous. A former competitive rugby player, boxer and rock climber, he broke his neck before entering the comparatively safe world of tech startups.
Remember every company that changed the world had to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. The first few years of Ethos have gone pretty smoothly, but we’ve still faced all kinds of business problems—fundraising, growth, hiring, you name it. Getting our first customer took about two weeks of me calling twice a day, and the second one was tough, too. I remember thinking, “Well, clearly we don’t have product-market fit.” And we’d spent a year building the company at that point, so that was scary.
There have been times when my stomach was churning for weeks. But eventually, it always turned out fine. So over time, I’ve learned to process volatility as normal. There are going to be days when it feels like you’re eating glass. But the more glass you eat, the less you taste it.
I’m often asked how to scale successfully, because my co-founder Lingke and I went from never managing anyone to leading a 100-person team in a year and a half. For me, the key is to constantly reinvent my abilities and rewrite my job description. It’s unlikely that the qualities that got you started are the same ones that will make you a successful leader at scale.
Leadership is a muscle that requires nonstop exercise, and I’ll never be perfect at it. I listen carefully for feedback and try to keep my ego low when I get it. Whatever you need to get better at, whether it’s implementing processes or hiring executives or sharing culture as your organization grows, feedback is the canary in the coal mine. To make sure I receive it, I’m specific. I’ll ask, “How do you think that meeting went?” or “How could I have better presented that argument?” We also put a lot of effort into encouraging a culture of feedback throughout Ethos. Lingke and I start all-hands meetings by sharing the feedback the two of us have received, discussing the mistakes we made and explaining what we plan to do about them.
When I started my MBA at Stanford, I had impostor syndrome. I’d spent my high school years working on a cattle ranch during the day and going to school in a double-wide trailer at night, and I felt outmatched by my classmates—most of whom had technical undergraduate degrees or jobs at Google or Goldman Sachs on their résumés.
But eventually, I realized you don’t need a sterling pedigree if you have common sense and you’re determined. I just kept building my abilities. I taught myself calculus, statistics and accounting, and started two companies while I was working on my degree—which taught me far more about business than the formal curriculum. As Roelof and Stephanie told us when we partnered with Sequoia, “no one but you is the authority on your potential.”
I don’t want to give away the actual question, but I usually ask candidates about their experiences with culture. In part, that’s because I care about culture fit—people who are results-oriented, have grit and aren’t jerks tend to do well at Ethos. But it’s also because when people talk about culture, what they’re really talking about is themselves. Do they blame other people when things go wrong? Do they take initiative and overcome obstacles?
In general, I focus interview questions on personality, rather than trying to assess someone’s abilities in one hour-long meeting. By the time we’re talking, I’m probably not qualified to judge their hard skills, because I’m looking for someone who’s better at the job than I would be. So for that part of the equation, I place far more value on case problems and extensive backchannel references.
Shackleton’s Way, by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell. Ernest Shackleton led expeditions to Antarctica in the early 1900s, and the book is about an expedition that ran into disaster after disaster. The crew lived for months in the Antarctic winter on a floating piece of ice, eating penguins and their dogs. Then they rowed small open boats for 800 miles, through storms, to be rescued.
It’s a case study in leading a team through difficult times—specifically, in building psychological safety and motivating people. Shackleton used positive reinforcement to keep his crew engaged, was incredibly efficient in the way he structured teams and never let people give up hope. The book is more relevant for navigating a crisis than everyday growth, but it’s a spectacular story of leadership.
Your team needs to feel safe to make mistakes. There have been times where I didn’t choose my words carefully or was too harsh, and that can scare people into thinking there’s no room for error, even if they have the best of intentions. But it’s my job as a leader to block that kind of pressure on my team, not create it. The small moments add up—it’s about being supportive in everyday interactions, focusing on learning when we do postmortems, and reminding my team and myself that pain plus reflection equals progress. It’s also getting comfortable feeling embarrassed, so I can share my own mistakes. There’s no room for vanity as a leader.
I’d rather un-invent something: notifications. People are so acclimated to distractions these days, but those distractions prevent us from thinking deeply—which isn’t good for your productivity or your ability to achieve. And when you’re a founder, you have such limited time. You have to ruthlessly prioritize, whether it’s for your top areas of focus in the business or your family and loved ones. No email or text or Slack message is so important that you should stop focusing on those priorities to respond immediately.
I turned off every notification on my phone except for calls and scheduled four times each day to respond to messages. I wish everyone would do the same. I think we’d lose far less in context, things would happen faster and better decisions would be made.
- Reinvent your abilities
- Block pressure—don't create it
- Share your mistakes