It’s not easy being the only girl growing up with two highly competitive, sports-playing older brothers. You either get in the thick of it with them or you quit.
Kristen Nunery, CEO of high-flying SaaS company myCOI, is no quitter. Never has been. Never will be. Kristen plays to win, whether it’s volleyball, flag football or starting businesses.
There was, however, that one day. The one day Kristen came this close to giving up. Know what? She may have blinked, but she didn’t quit.
She doesn’t like talking about the shocking turn of events that brought her to the brink in 2013. myCOI was just a young startup in Indianapolis fighting to make things happen. Kristen had a vision to transform the insurance industry and her team was working their butts off to make it happen.
One weekend, out of the blue, a key employee suffered a fatal heart attack. The always strong, always fearless leader experienced something she’d never felt before.
Kristen didn’t know what to do.
Have you ever had a time where your brain is racing like a hamster on a wheel and the harder you try to get off, the more panicked you become?
That was Kristen. So she called one of her board members and explained her fears. The board member listened quietly and when Kristen ran out of words, offered this advice:
“Take a vacation. Then decide what to do.”
A vacation? Now?
The hamster wheel slowed. Kristen took a vacation. She doesn’t remember where she went. Or exactly what she did. But when she came back to address the future of myCOI, she felt whole again.
“It was only a few days, but I felt re-energized. I knew what I had to do to keep the company going,” Kristen says. “I needed investors, but I also needed to thank my very wise board member who taught me how walking away from work for an hour, a few days or week, can bring you back to your center of clear strategic thought.”
An innate sense
There’s a Kenny Roger’s song, the Gambler, that goes like this: “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”
Old Kenny must be Kristen’s spirit animal as she seems to have an innate sense for when to hold, when to fold and when to walk away. While in college in Arizona, she started a stock photo business, but walked away after realizing the opportunities were limited in an industry dominated by large corporations.
Moving back to Indianapolis in the 1990s, Kristen saw an opportunity in real estate. Indiana’s capital city was heating up so she got her broker’s license and began flipping houses and buying rental properties. Long before HGTV, Kristen was a flipping star. When the bottom fell out of the housing industry in 2008, she walked away from real estate, but didn’t go far.
“During my real estate career, I worked with a lot of construction subcontractors. Before I hired them, I had to make sure they had insurance. One of the first questions I asked was, “Where’s your COI?” If they didn’t have a certificate of insurance (COI) or it wasn’t current, I didn’t hire them. It was a pain having to verify a sub’s insurance, but I couldn’t take the risk,” she explains. “One unexpected claim can really hurt you.”
Though Indy’s housing business was tanking, its tech startup scene was cranking. Kristen saw an opportunity to get in through an unlikely path: those pesky certificates of insurance.
“I understood the pain point and believed if we could automate the process of tracking certificates of insurance, we could create our own market. No one else in the insurance industry was doing it. When I mentioned the idea to people in real estate who knew how time-consuming and tedious insurance-related work is, they immediately saw value,” Kristen explains. “In 2009, I hired a programmer.”
Launch and learn
Startups aren’t easy. Tech startups are particularly difficult. Trailblazers rarely get a straight path. Kristen let the first programmer go and hired another. And then another. The third one was a charm, and in 2011, myCOI was launched.
“I’m driven by accomplishment and recognized in the early days of myCOI that we had a big opportunity to become a leader in our industry. What an exciting challenge! It became my mission,” she says.
Because the industry was new—process automation was in its infancy in the insurance industry—education was a large part of myCOI’s sales strategy. At times it was a slog. Each new client was a major win. Each day brought a new opportunity to grow the business and herself.
“As a founder or CEO, you’re expected to lead the organization and no matter what’s taking place that day, good or bad, you have you walk in the door with the right mindset. Building a company and leading in a new space comes with challenges, but I learned to address them head-on and tackle them as a team. The attitude you come with is critical to a company’s collective success.”
myCOI began racking up major milestones. In 2011, myCOI was the recipient of the Indiana Innovation Award. In 2014, Kristen landed a major investor, Elevate Ventures, which not only provided access to capital, but also served as an entrepreneurial advocate. In 2015, she was recognized as one of Insurance Business America’s Young Guns approximately 100 customers under her belt. Then in May 2017, myCOI, now pushing 60 team members, relocated to downtown Indianapolis with the goal of adding 185 new jobs by 2021.
Even though myCOI is recognized as the leader in its market, Kristen is reluctant to say she’s made it. “I’m very competitive and like to win. But what I’ve learned it’s not achieving the goal that’s most satisfying, it’s the day-to-day journey. If you can get a company off the ground and it’s going, that’s 90 percent of the battle. If you can continue to grow and adapt–congratulations! You’ve made it and it’s amazing!”
Her advice for other women entrepreneurs?
“Startups are incredibly hard. Stick with it. Lean in. Don’t quit. As a leader, you have to intentionally walk away at times to think and brainstorm. I am very intentional about my creative time. Every week I make time for myself and every quarter I take a long weekend vacation.”
This blog post is the work of Melanie Lux, an entrepreneur who went out on a limb 25 years ago to launch Lux-Writes, a highly successful business that took her all over the world as a branding, marketing and public relations strategist. Today, Melanie is an angel investor and founder of “Women Making It,” a social network and blog that celebrates female entrepreneurs and those who support their success. If you know a female entrepreneur you’d like to celebrate, connect with Melanie here. If you provide resources for women entrepreneurs, we invite you to connect.