Startup Life: Unscripted #35 with Danial Sahak, Partnership Manager at PolicyStreet

Transitioning from an engineering background to leading initiatives in insurtech, Danial shares wisdom on thriving amidst the hustle of startup life.

Startup Life: Unscripted is a TNG Media newsletter, as part of The Nudge Group, where we feature candid conversations with startup operators about their career journeys and experiences. If you received this email as a forward, you can read all our past interviews and subscribe right here.

Welcome to another edition of Startup Life: Unscripted! Today, we're diving into the insurtech world with Danial Sahak, Partnership Manager at PolicyStreet. From his engineering roots to shaking up the insurance tech sector, Danial's career is nothing short of a fascinating pivot.

Key interview takeaways:

🔍 Career Shift: From engineering to insurtech, Danial talks about the transition and how his engineering skills play a role in his current position.

🤝 Partnership Strategies: How Danial's varied past experiences shape his approach in building strategic partnerships.

🚀 Startup Challenges: Insights into staying agile and informed in the rapidly evolving tech sector.

💡 Advice for Aspiring Insurtech Pros: Danial offers practical advice for those eager to break into the insurtech world, emphasising the importance of curiosity, continuous learning, and making connections within the industry.

Hey Danial, let's start with your story - you've got a degree in mechanical engineering, but you're now in the insurtech space with PolicyStreet. How'd that transition happen? 

I have always believed that life is all about exploring what you’re interested in. It all started in high school where the burning desire to become an environmental engineer began.

After successfully finishing high school, I was offered a scholarship by the Malaysian government to study abroad in Australia for a mechanical engineering course at the University of Sydney. A ticket for me to spread my wings and experience something outside of Malaysia. So, I took it. 

My technical knowledge grew immensely in the span of 4 years. From critical thinking to number crunching, these skills were naturally cultivated within the difficult course I was pursuing. All while adapting myself to a foreign country. 

In uni, I was involved in many student leadership and extracurricular activities. From touch rugby to student leadership roles in various societies to organising sports events. This opened up one of the many career routes available for me out there. I found myself more attracted to relationship building rather than building up hardcore technical knowledge, at that point. 

In my final year, I was offered to work in one of the biggest tobacco companies in Malaysia for a graduate program in 2018. This program was one of the most prestigious in Malaysia.

Though it might have contradicted my values at the time, the opportunity to learn about marketing, commercials, and operating in a corporate behemoth excited me. The challenge of navigating the regulatory environment definitely challenged me. 

It was a great 4 years in the ‘sin’ industry. Then, COVID happened. I embarked on a journey to further understand investing with none other than Warren Buffett. I started deeply studying companies, became obsessed with them, and realised there’s a whole exciting world out there. One thing leading to another; I came across the tech industry - and eventually, the Insurtech Industry as part of my research. 

85% of Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are underinsured. 58% of Malaysians are not insured. There’s a big hole that needs to be filled, and technology might just be the solution. That’s when I found YAS Malaysia, a Hong Kong-based insurtech in Malaysia, where I landed my first role in partnership. I fell in love with relationship building and the agile nature of working in a startup. 

A bigger opportunity arrived with PolicyStreet after they completed their Series A funding. As I was approached by the co-founders, Winnie Chua & Wilson Beh, and the 30-minute discussion sold it for me.

Being a partnership manager in this rapidly growing startup allowed me to marry all my strengths and interests throughout the years. I could finally use all the critical thinking, marketing, relationship building, and commercial thinking to my advantage for my career. It is the beginning of a fantastic journey. 

Now, as the Partnership Manager at PolicyStreet, I'm sure no two days are the same for you. Could you give us a peek into what a 'typical' day looks like for you, and how you juggle the daily tasks with the curveballs that startup life inevitably throws your way? 

A typical day at PolicyStreet is very exciting. Generally, every morning will start with a cup of coffee and my bread to kickstart the day. 

The first thing I always do is organise myself for the tasks of the day. I have been obsessed with Notion, and it has helped me organise my work life immensely. It allows me to prioritise my work and break down big, difficult tasks into digestible chunks. 

The day can generally encompass business model brainstorms, meetings with insurers/companies, developing new insurance programs for companies, commercial crafting, and of course, deck building. These activities can be overwhelming at times, of course, but I have always believed in balancing work and personal interests to maintain mental clarity. 

Therefore, I have also committed myself to become an amateur athlete in the sport that I love, rugby. Since I have been playing the sport since high school, the love for the sport has never left. In fact, this year, I am honoured to represent my state (Selangor) in the National Rugby Cup. The hard work outside of startup life has allowed me to maintain a great balance in life. I believe it helps with my creative thinking on a daily basis. 

You've got a pretty diverse background, having worked in the tobacco industry and now in insurtech. How have these varied experiences shaped your approach when it comes to strategic partnerships? 

I have always seen these two industries as very similar in certain aspects and very different in others. 

Let’s start with the similarities. The biggest similarity is the highly regulated nature of both tobacco and insurance. To succeed in both, innovation should be the priority in developing strategies moving forward. Especially being in the tech industry, to innovate, boundaries need to be pushed, and new ways are required to reach customers.After all, PolicyStreet’s goal is to make insurance more simple and purposeful.Of course, everything that is executed needs to be done within the legal framework. 

The difference? The pace of decision-making. Being in a startup allows us to be agile and highly adaptive. Previously, in a mega corporation, decision-making can be a little delayed due to multiple alignments that need to be done to come to a conclusion.

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Startup life can be quite the rollercoaster ride, right? How do you stay true to your core values, particularly innovation and data-driven decision making, while riding those highs and lows? How have these values helped you handle the hustle and bustle? 

The rules that I have always stayed with are: 

  1. Be ever curious. 

  1. Highlight something if it doesn't sound right. 

  1. Be decisive. 

Being curious is important in learning, especially in a fast-paced environment. With the fast-changing landscape in the insurance and tech space, it is important to always ask questions and, of course, find the answers. Most of the time, being curious led me directly to my core values. These questions will lead to data which will point to an open question. This is where innovation exists. 

I have always seen these two industries as very similar in certain aspects and very different in others. 

Keeping up with the tech startup world can be quite the task - it moves so fast! Are there any go-to resources or habits you have that help you stay on top of things and ahead of the curve? 

On top of adhering to my rules and values, one technical thing that I have always found to be very effective is taking notes. I have developed my own Notion system that allows me not only to take notes but also to connect it to the current projects I am working on. The notes are organised and will always be available for me to refer to whenever there is a new task. I picked up this habit after reading one of the most impactful books for my career, Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte. Highly recommended read. 

And finally, you've carved out a pretty unique path for yourself, from mechanical engineering to insurtech. If someone was looking to make a similar leap into the insurtech startup space, what advice would you give them or steps they should consider? 

Stay curious and keep learning. I would also say, if you believe that the specific industry is your calling, go for it. Apply for it and get connected to the people within the industry. With the compounding nature of learning, this will be your competitive advantage in whichever industry that you're trying to dive into. 

From the Startup Life team

And that's a wrap! We hope you've enjoyed this edition as much as we loved putting it together. Stay curious, keep learning, and above all, enjoy the rollercoaster ride that is Startup Life. Catch you in the next one! 👋 Not subscribed yet? Do it here and don't miss out! Subscribe Now.

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