Startup Leadership Insights: Dogan Kaleli from Nion

Our next guest always seems to be positively disrupting and his agile mindset has carried him far and wide throughout his 15 years of experience. Dogan Kaleli has worked on various executive roles in Allianz, moving from Turkey to Brazil and finally the United States. You could say that he is an insurance executive and entrepreneur, but just one glance at his bio and you'll see that he is so much more. Two words that perfectly explain his career path are - leadership and innovation.


He holds a bachelor’s degree in Actuarial Science and his experience is mostly in insurance and business development. In the last two years alone he has founded two projects: Nion Network, an insurance innovation ecosystem, in September of 2020, and Stere.io on May this year, a platform to launch and grow insurance programs, where businesses can connect with carriers and reinsurers.


As if this wasn't enough, last year he also launched the LinkedIn Newsletter Series - The Future of Insurance, where he managed to get more than 23k subscribers in this short period of time.


All of this lead to him being named among the “HOT 100” in 2019 by Insurance Business Magazine for redefining the insurance industry and one of the 30 "INNOVATORS TO WATCH" by the Digital Insurance conference. There is a lot we can learn from him, so let’s just jump straight to the questions!


Hi Dogan, it is such a pleasure getting to talk to you and learning more about leadership. To begin, tell us more about yourself and your startup.

You can describe me as the insurance guy: I studied actuarial science, I joined the Allianz Group in Turkey, then I was transferred to Allianz Brazil and after 4 years to Allianz North America, based in New York. I’m a proud AIESEC alumnus and lived in Argentina and Costa Rica before my Allianz journey started.


After my corporate life, I decided to become a full-time entrepreneur and founded Stere.io which is a digital marketplace for insurance startups to find capacity from insurers, reinsurers, and capital markets to operate. This requires deep insurance knowledge and plenty of tech capabilities. Currently my team has three members and we are actively hiring. In a couple of months, the plan is to have around 8 people.


You work in a very competitive field, dominated by already established companies. What do you do to keep your team members engaged and motivated?

During my corporate life, I used to get so much support on topics like this. Of course, in those environments, it’s really up to you if you want to keep an “average” team in terms of engagement and motivation or go the extra mile. Right now, I’m noticing that creating the ownership feeling and keeping the team engaged is much easier, when the company goal is one, aligned and supported by everyone. We keep ourselves engaged with meetings and Slack (which can sometimes become overwhelming :)), and I feel like the motivation comes with the company’s journey and success, at least so far.


You’ve had a lot of time to fine-tune your leadership and people skills. How would you describe your leadership style?

Inspiring… I’ve never been the “running a tight ship” type of leader. Rather, I like inspiring people and shaping the vision, setting the direction, and making the goals clear to everyone. I engage people in those conversations and decisions too, so they feel the ownership of a unified vision. I think people operate much much better when they have a feeling of ownership and it’s not “just a job” for them.


You worked in a corporate environment and decided to leave it to start your own company. What is the most challenging part of being a startup leader?

Building a startup is definitely a challenge, especially the go-to-market aspect where you’re trying to enter the market and find your place. I can’t say being a startup leader has been a big challenge for me because we have a very experienced team and we can navigate the obstacles pretty quickly. The most challenging part has been the amount of so many different things I have to handle, digest them myself, and make sure that the team is engaged and bought in.


During Covid, we all had to adapt to working remotely... How did you face this challenge? How did you keep your team productive and motivated?

With the pandemic, we all had to adapt to work remotely for sure. Only nowadays - after a year, we see people going back to their offices. We decided not to have an office and keep it 100% remote. This enables us to find talent anywhere, which is a great advantage for a startup. We get co-working space memberships if needed, so we have access to meeting rooms or simply a different environment to work from, from time to time. With this setup, it's essential to keep the communication channels open and efficient like team meetings, Slack channels, team activities (both online and in-person) to ensure the team is not operating separately but we’re unified towards one company vision.


We are sure many would like to have your experience and drive. At least they can learn from you. What advice would you give other startup leaders?

I would say pay attention. Startup life is hectic, and there are a lot of things to take care of (and usually, all of them are of high priority :)). So it’s easy to get distracted with those things and pay less attention to the team. I think that’s one of the worst things that we (startup leaders) can do. There is much less support system for leaders in the startup role, compared to corporate jobs, and we need to be aware of it and make sure the team comes first because they’re the ones that will make our vision come true at the end of the day.


Let’s finish this conversation with some concrete steps for our avid readers. Could you please share 3 tips to manage startup teams?

  1. Include your team in your startup’s vision conversations, let them have a say, and (re)shape the vision together

  2. Keep it clear and “laser-focused” when it comes to goals and deliverables, and show your team their contribution to the entire vision

  3. Don’t be greedy… Start an equity incentive plan based on concrete and very transparent deliverables. Adapt to modern workplace practices like remote offices, flexible hours, your-own-device, unlimited vacation, etc.


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