NuevaHacks Speaker Series with Dan Kan, co-founder of Cruise Automation

Day 1 of NuevaHacks has officially started! We have over 340 students from 8 different countries around the world collaborating. This morning we hosted Dan Kan, the co-founder of Cruise Automation, in a fireside chat discussion about his journey to leading the world’s biggest and most advanced self-driving car company. I had an amazing time speaking with Dan.

My first question to him was: how did your childhood impact how you created Cruise?

Dan: My love for efficiency started when I started doing chores as a child. As a child, my mom used to say clean in a rectangular pattern as it is most efficient. Efficiency has shown up a lot in our culture at Cruise. We have 6 core behaviors at Cruise. One of the six behaviors is to Stay focused on things that matter and be efficient with your time. Time is the only thing you cannot get more. Be very efficient with it.

Yash: What is one thing that you would wish you knew when you were a child?

Dan: There are 100s of things I could tell you. One thing I wish I knew is that you don’t get what you don’t ask for. It is very important to think critically about what you want and then go out and ask it. You will find most people are very receptive when you ask. Making your goals and intention clear is very important. The only person who is thinking about it apart from your parents is you. You have to speak for yourself. I wish I knew this when I started my career as a teller at the bank.

Yash follow-up: Where has knowing what to ask for played a role in your life?

Dan: There are tons of examples — even in negotiation when GM acquired Cruise. Asking for terms, asking for compensation or stocks, or someone to talk with. You have to tell people what you want. Otherwise, they don’t know. This carries through every aspect of life. I learned this a lot along the way. It has only led to positive outcomes. That may lead to hard conversations. They may say I no at first, but this will likely lead to a conversation about how you can get to where you want to be.

Yash: How has the COVID-19 outbreak impacted Cruise?

Dan: To be honest it’s a little too early to say what lasting impact will come. Because we are developing a self-driving car, it has to be tested in the real world. Unfortunately, operations are limited. I cannot go to the office and test. All 1600 people remote and virtually test and keep productivity as efficiently as we can. Cruise, Kyle, and I had a fundraiser to match employee donations to coronavirus efforts.

Yash: What is one thing we kids can do in this moment of crisis?

Dan: First is understanding what is happening right now is a great start. Then how we can help most vulnerable people in the community. Take care of one another, get groceries of older people if you are old enough and your parents would allow you to.

Yash: What was the most pivotal moment in your company’s success?

Dan: The most pivotal moment for the company’s success was our decision to partner with GM. It was risky as GM is a huge company and not traditionally a tech company. Leadership really believed in the same vision we had for autonomous vehicles. It was a really interesting pivotal moment — people said you might die but the opposite happened with what they were willing to help us with.

Audience Question: How did you reach out to points of connections and relationships?

Dan: It is easier to reach people through intros. Harder to reach people cold. It was important to develop those relationships and utilize them when the time was right. For us, that was during fundraising and when GM acquired us.

Audience Question: How did you grow your company to become well known besides using social media?

Dan: We didn’t do much. We stayed focused on what was most important. For us, that was developing the technology. We knew the rest would come.

Audience Question: What are the resources you had when you first started?

Dan: We were somewhere in between, we had connections, but at the time very few people wanted to invest in self-driving cars. The prevailing view was that because Google was 10 years ahead of you with unlimited money, why we should invest in Cruise? There was no smart answer to that. It was convincing the right investors about us. It took a lot of calls. Ask for what you want but be okay to hearing NO.

Yash: How do you show people you are the right person?

Dan: In startups, it is really hard to know. Investors are making a bet. Can you execute? Do I like this person? Every time people said no to us, we came back 6 months later with something even bigger, making them believe in our progress, momentum, and growth. Anyone can come up with an idea. There are many self-driving companies. But not everyone can build one. Investors really value execution. We are currently testing in SF 24 hours a day.

Yash: As a final question, we ask all our guests, imagine it is the year 2030. What industry has been transformed?

Dan: I believe in 2030 most modes of transportation will be replaced by self-driving vehicles. And I hope Cruise is leading the pack!