Sten Saar is the CEO and founder of Zego, the insurance tech firm that has partnerships with Uber Eats and Deliveroo. He launched his first business at 17 and was in four countries by 21.
The 33-year-old has seen complete failure and resounding success and is brutally honest about what he has learnt from both, as RSNG found out when we spoke to him…
RSNG What’s your mantra and why?
STEN SAAR, ENTREPRENEUR ‘I don’t have a mantra, but I carry two quotes with me everywhere I go on a card in my wallet. One is Winston Churchill’s “never give in.” It’s hard to change and improve things because people will hate your ideas and struggle to buy into them – perseverance is essential.’
‘The second is from Zig Zigler: “before a person can achieve the kind of life he wants, he must think, walk, talk and conduct himself in all of his affairs as would the person he wishes to become.”’
‘To make the world a better place, there needs to be progress in many different ways, and it doesn’t all happen at once.’
‘To solve a problem you just need a willingness to go for it’
RSNG What did you learn from launching your first business at age 17?
SS ‘I learnt that I knew nothing about business! I didn’t know how to do anything, but I had drive, excitement, a wish to do something and create something. Because of that, a lot of things just happened.’
‘To solve a problem, you just need a willingness to go for it. When I expanded to four different countries I had no clue what I was doing. I was talking to people who didn’t speak the same language, trying to negotiate a sales deal through body language alone!’
‘It’s all possible when you are willing to do everything to grow the business.’
RSNG Your newspaper business suffered from the crash – what did that teach you about failure?
SS ‘I launched a country-wide, free newspaper for schools in Estonia. We had a very talented team, broke even in the third month, then the crash came and all of our advertising revenue just disappeared. I didn’t even know at the time that there was a worldwide financial problem. But the experience didn’t teach me much, to be honest.’
‘There was another project afterwards which taught me more about failure. I took out a mortgage to invest in it, then six months later, I had no money and no project. I completely messed it up.’
‘At that point, I definitely learned that whatever I touch does not turn to gold! I realised that failure always has a very high probability, and success isn’t guaranteed – but there are more things you can do to limit your chances of failure than to secure overnight success.’
RSNG You’ve worked in disruptive industries – is looking for ways to disrupt the new normal?
SS ‘Disruption isn’t really disruption in a lot of cases. If you take a closer look, improvement is often incremental and ongoing: change doesn’t happen all at once.’
‘I don’t think it’s good for people to always create pure ‘disruption’ – although I have started my own companies, I have learned more from working within established businesses, collaborating with others and learning from them.’
I’m a builder, a fixer, and I always question why. At Zego, I’m thinking about improvement, not disruption. If we work on that every day, the cumulative output might look disruptive – but we’re trying to make the insurance industry work better for everyone, and we’re not planning to stop!’
RSNG What are your top three tips for budding entrepreneurs?
SS ‘Don’t believe what investors, advisers and other people around you have to say! They all come from their own angle and have their own experiences, so their advice may not be applicable. Your gut instinct is most important, and your duty is to filter well.’
‘It’s a bloody lonely journey. Surround yourself with support – look after your mental and physical health. Being an entrepreneur is very hard as you’re constantly questioning your decisions. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t take regular therapy sessions.’
‘Make sure you enjoy what you do. I’ve seen entrepreneurs build things because they just want to exit or make money, and others who want to build a great company. These people subconsciously make totally different decisions. The ones who are in it for the right reasons come out on top.’
‘90% of success is determined before you have your first investor conversation’
RSNG How do you go about being a good mentor?
SS ‘I’m not sure I’m a good mentor, just brutally honest! From speaking to other entrepreneurs, I think it is most valuable when someone can look objectively at your business and be completely honest.’
‘We can be great at what we do, but outside perspective is something we don’t have. A mentor may not be the best source of support for everyone – I’d rather have someone who can think with me, bring a different view and help brainstorm ideas.’
RSNG In terms of funding rounds, what are the golden rules of getting outside investment?
SS ‘90% of success is determined before you have your first investor conversation. If your business is not performing, if you don’t have certain things in order, there’s no point in going out for investment.’
‘Building a business is your number one job. Put your company first and make sure it’s in good shape: team, product, growth, whatever is necessary at your current stage before you can move forward.’
RSNG Do you see another big disruption on the horizon, possibly from blockchain or another innovation?
SS ‘I can definitely see something with physical items being connected – IoT technology will be big! I think innovation in this sense has barely started and I can’t wait to see what’s next. Also, I expect developments in food production will be intriguing.’
RSNG What’s the one thing in your routine that really powers you on?
SS ‘I go to therapy on a regular basis, force myself to exercise with a personal trainer, eat well, don’t smoke, rarely drink alcohol and always stay hydrated. I always take care of my health, and that starts with a glass of lemon water every day!’
RSNG What’s more important, ambition or motivation?
SS ‘Motivation. When I started out, my ambitions were relatively small. With my notepad business, I wanted to sell in the capital city. When I achieved that, I wanted to sell the notepads nationwide – and then in four countries.’
‘With Zego, we originally wanted to provide pay-as-you-go insurance for gig economy workers. Now, we’re committed to building flexible policies which are fit for all kinds of modern innovation – micromobility services like e-scooters and bikes, fleets of shared cars, who knows what’s next?’
‘Ambitions change, but motivation is necessary to keep working towards your goal every single day.’