Not every high school dropout winds up running a $20 million-plus business, but not every high school dropout is Adam Lyons. After working a series of odd jobs, the tireless and hungry hustler went back to school to study risk management and insurance at Temple University. In 2012, he and his partner Josh Dziabiak used what they learned in school and in life to co-found The Zebra, an auto insurance comparison engine that allows drivers to anonymously compare dozens of insurance companies in real time.
The business was built by recognizing the problems that over-regulation created in the insurance industry, and finding a solution.This week at SXSW, Lyons sat on a panel with one of The Zebra’s primary investors, Mark Cuban, to discuss government’s role in tech, and more to the point, the government’s role in disrupting the disruptors.
Entrepreneur spoke with Lyons about the panel and the steps he took from being a self-described “nobody” to becoming a change-maker in business. (Hint: don’t undervalue the power of a cold email!)
How did this panel come about?
Mark and I had talked about doing a panel a while back, and it seemed like a pretty timely topic to talk about how government can work with or against innovative companies. And so Zebra being one of his more regulated investments, it made a lot of sense.
Mr. Cuban has not been shy on Twitter about his feelings about the Trump administration. Do you share his outlook?
When it comes to business, some of Trump’s ideas and policies are great. I also think that he’s doing a lot of things that aren’t great. I like the talk about how for every regulation that lawmakers want to add, two need to be removed. As a business, it is hard to operate when there is a lot of regulation.
Do you wish there was no regulation or is it a balancing act?
Of course, you need regulation and some government oversight, but as a business, you don’t want it in extremes. I do believe that often regulators come in with good intent, but their efforts end up hurting things or slowing them down to the point that they have the reverse of the intended effect.
What have you seen at SXSW that has blown you away?
I’ve been so busy that I haven’t been able to get to see a lot. But for me, the greatest part of SXSW is all of the people you meet and talk to. I love to hear new ideas and new ways of thinking.
Can you talk about the importance of making these connections?
Having a network is so important. I became at entrepreneur at age 15, dropped out of school, moved out of my house. I did not have a network. I knew nobody. If you are just starting out, you want to talk to everybody you can. You want to get people coffee. You want to focus in on people who you vibe well with. It sounds intuitive, but a lot of people get hung up on Linkedin profiles and resumes. But if you meet someone and you enjoy speaking with them and hanging out with them, that’s the types of person you want to work with. I think sending cold emails are under-utilized. I sent a cold email to Mark Cuban and that’s how he became one of our biggest supporters and investors to date.
He must get a thousand emails a day, likely. How did yours stand out?
One of the ways I like to approach challenges is to think about the game and my position. A lot of entrepreneurs don’t understand that. I wasn’t trying to close Mark Cuban on that initial email, I was trying to get a response. That was the game. And my position? I’m a nobody. He gets thousands of pitches, so I knew I had to be very succinct and honest and to the point, and we got that response.
How would you describe your approach to effective problem-solving?
The word that comes to mind is empathy. Solving complex problems — whether you are an entrepreneur or a member of government — you need to approach things by trying to understand each other’s views. You can’t just read a headline and jump to a conclusion. You have to take the time to really understand people’s positions.
You went from sending Mark Cuban a cold email to siting next to him on a panel at SXSW. Do you ever have a “Wow, how did I get here?” moment?