Leadership Lessons With Corestream CEO, Neil Vaswani
“I once attended a seminar about a Buddhist Monk that started a company and sold it to Warren Buffett for $300M+ and he did it based on Buddhist principles, but mainly the art of giving and receiving. Too often, it is dog eat dog/zero sum that governs western business practices. I would love to see people adapt a more Buddhist approach to creating value and giving as opposed to take take take. It is my belief that you will receive more if you know how to give.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Neil Vaswani, CEO of Corestream, whose platform streamlines the delivery and administration of voluntary employee benefits, an important tool in an employer’s toolkit for attracting and retaining the best and brightest workforce. Neil founded his company in 2006 to reinvigorate the voluntary employee benefits industry. By 2015, Corestream had reached 1 million employees. Prior to founding Corestream, Neil installed and managed voluntary benefits solutions for international organizations including Citigroup, GlaxoSmithKline, Applebee’s, and Wachovia. Neil graduated with a Bachelor’s in Entrepreneurship and Finance from Babson College.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I have always been an entrepreneur at heart with fire in the belly and if you have both of those things, the itch to start a company is overwhelming and can be an unstoppable force. This feeling was so strong that I would get angry with myself every day that I had not started a company. At the age of 14, I started a noodle business in boarding school and that was the first stepping stone on my entrepreneurial journey. It led to 4 years at Babson and ultimately starting Corestream. As a kid, I witnessed the ups and downs of an entrepreneur (my father was one too) and realized that those “down” moments motivated me more than anything. The desire to be accomplished while creating something special and unique was paramount in my DNA. Early on in my career, I tried the Wall Street route and felt like I was just a number or a cog in a big machine that could be replaced easily by the next number crunching kid — it was not fulfilling, hence the desire to start Corestream.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In August of 2006, I had an important meeting with a large investment/VC firm in NYC to raise capital. At the time, I lived downtown and my meeting was in midtown Manhattan. So on the day of my meeting, I packed-up my things and made my way to the subway, just as I’d done countless times before. Only this time, of all times, rather than an uneventful and on-time commute, the train got stuck! By the time I and my fellow passengers got out, I was already late for my meeting. I ran up the subway station stairs and out into the bright sunlight, and heat, of a New York City August afternoon. Keep in mind — August in New York can make Florida feel cool. I’m now running down sidewalks and across streets, trying to make up time. I finally arrive at the investment firm’s offices and I’m shown in to the conference room. This is where it goes from bad to worse. The conference room is warm and because I’ve just finished rushing from the subway station to the office, almost immediately I start sweating. I don’t mean just a little, I mean beads of sweat are rolling down my face. The situation is compounded because my body gets even warmer from the embarrassment, which of course results in more perspiring. I couldn’t risk taking off my blazer since I was sure I was soaked, so I kept it on. Needless to say — we did not raise money from that firm! Great lesson — don’t take the subway in August and don’t be late!!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Corestream’s mission, positioning and our desire to create value for all parties that engage with our platform are unique and make us stand out in our industry. The mission is to scale the distribution of voluntary benefits and create alignment for all of the constituents in the industry, which includes employers, employees, brokers, carriers and tech platforms in our space. Our positioning can best be explained by thinking of us as a universal adaptor that plugs into other larger tech platforms to enable them to access all that we’ve created through a single point of integration. Most tech companies like us aim to disrupt the status quo by eliminating the incumbents while our goal is to create a win/win scenario that can enable the incumbents, rather than disintermediate them. This approach is unprecedented and often unbelievable to the incumbents in our industry.
Story: One of our sales representatives received a call from a broker (incumbent), whose client is a very large employer. The broker was interested in introducing our voluntary employee benefits platform to his client and wanted to learn more about how our compensation model worked. When our sales rep walked the broker through the model, the broker didn’t believe it. The old adage of “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” was playing out here. The broker insisted that he speak with me — as he wanted to hear this straight from the CEO to ensure it was real. As it happened, my description of the win/win scenario we’ve created at Corestream also seemed too good to be true, and this particular broker asked to then speak with another broker as a reference — he just couldn’t believe our model as he was so used to the zero-sum game that is the norm in our industry. Well, the broker is now one of our greatest advocates and his client is now our client too.
Our philosophy is disruption by creating a new equation that is accretive to all parties as opposed to dilutive.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Yes, two projects come to mind:
- Our adaptor/product shelf that enables a third party platform to syndicate our content/marketplace through their platform and UX, while also leveraging our administration capabilities. Think, a single and simple point of integration to take advantage of years of Corestream’s product development. We have invested our hearts, sweat and blood in creating the best darn platform in the industry.This enables us to proliferate and distribute our product to more users and more platforms in rapid fashion at scale.
- We are cooking up all sorts of unique voluntary benefits in our Corestream Labs but shhh.. it’s a secret.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
A few things come to mind — perhaps a bit cliché but they are real:
1) Be humble: the entrepreneurial journey is a long one that is full of mistakes. The only way to learn from your mistakes is to be humble enough to admit you made them.
2) Know what you don’t know: Hire great talent that compliment your strengths and weaknesses. Only way to do that is to be able to face your weaknesses about what you know and what you don’t know.
3) Challenge the status quo.
4) Don’t be afraid to fail.
5) Most importantly: Be Authentic. Being authentic is key to leadership — people will accept your weaknesses but they wont accept a fake.
6) Must have a bigger vision — a North Star — to rally around as a team. For Corestream, it’s solving for the complexity of voluntary benefits at scale. Making brokers and HR professionals heroes.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My father for sure. He taught me how to persevere and to have grit — he never took the word “no” easily. When he wanted something, he pulled every lever. He also set me on this path to starting Corestream — the more difficult but more rewarding path. When I graduated from Babson, I joined the family business, which was in the jewelry industry. I figured I would settle in to his business and eventually take the reins but it was really because I didn’t know what to do and this was an easy path for me. Two months after joining, my father basically fired me on the basis that the jewelry industry was not an industry of the future and that I was to accomplish greater things than join his business, which was in an archaic industry. He instead forced me into finding something much more creative and dynamic — something where I could stretch my legs and achieve the greatness that he believed I could. I remember shedding tears thinking he didn’t want me on his team. Without that moment, I wouldn’t have gone down this path and started Corestream.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
While there are charitable things that we do, causes that we contribute to as a company such as helping sponsor families during the holidays, sending water to Puerto Rico, saving an employee from hurricanes — I consider the goodness we share externally as our biggest contribution. In the early years, the scariest thing was making sure we made payroll every couple of weeks. The most satisfying and fulfilling thing is knowing that something that I created supports the livelihood of all our team members. The goodness we bring to the world is the energy we create together as a team and project outward into the world and to our families — that is our contribution.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1) Do your best to uncover all of the complexities of the industry you’re moving into, but don’t be afraid to drive change and challenge the status quo.
2) Choose the right investors that share your vision, including your timeline for growth.
3) Don’t be afraid to pivot strategically, even if you’re pivoting one of your core tenets.
4) You’ll spend a lot of time working directly with employees and clients on solving challenges; be sure you find that motivating; i do.
5) You have to understand the motivations of the customer segments and partners you’re working with, and craft an experience that uniquely appeals to each; a “one size fits all approach” will never work.
You are a person of great influence. 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. :-)
I once attended a seminar about a Buddhist Monk that started a company and sold it to Warren Buffett for $300M+ and he did it based on Buddhist principles, but mainly the art of giving and receiving. Too often, it is dog eat dog/zero sum that governs western business practices. I would love to see people adapt a more Buddhist approach to creating value and giving as opposed to take take take. It is my belief that you will receive more if you know how to give.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” — Winston Churchill
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 with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
Reid Hoffman — huge fan of his Podcast and LinkedIn. He seems super authentic, humble and listens really well.