Indu Subaiya Interviews Steve Krein & Unity Stoakes - Part I

This is the first installment of a new interview series on Health 2.0. As a complement to the typical news features on Health2News, these interviews will focus on the individuals behind top companies in the Health 2.0 community, and their stories. We’re glad to welcome Steve Krein and Unity Stoakes of OrganizedWisdom and StartUp Health for the first interview which will be posted in two parts. You can catch more about StartUp Health when Steve joins us onstage for the incubators panel at the 2012 Spring Fling Matchpoint Boston.

Indu:  I’m really excited to be talking with Unity Stoakes and Steve Krein of StartUp Health today. It’s been really fun to see you work together over the years.  You’ve been a bit of a couple in healthcare for a while now, if you would, and which number venture is StartUp Health?

Steve: Our third venture together — actually, fourth venture together.

Unity: Yeah, fourth.

Indu: So, how did you initially meet and start working together?  Take us a bit to the history there.

Steve: We’ve been working together since 1997 when we were building our first company, which was a startup that was focused on transforming the way marketers used the internet to engage with their customers and I was looking for a — I think it was Director of Marketing initially, Unity?

Unity: Yeah.

Steve: We had put in place a home management team and we were looking for a young scrappy guy at a college who had experience in the digital marketing world, and we were recommended a guy named Unity Stoakes who was working for one of the biggest interactive PR firms at the time, Middleberg Associates.  We were lucky enough to get to meet Unity, and I think within probably six weeks of hiring Unity, he ended up replacing our chief marketing officer, who we let go, and Unity became the chief marketing officer of Webstakes which became, which we ended up taking public and was acquired by iVillage.  So we’ve been working together a long time and we were fortunate enough to have met in the previous era of internet companies what some people call now Web 1.0

Indu: Oh, good Lord, right. I didn’t really know.

Steve: By the way, that’s my version of the story. I’d like to hear Unity’s.

Unity: Similar.  I mean, it was one of these great opportunities.  I had been working at an agency and when I met Steve and Steve’s partner, Dan Feldman, I was just blown away at the energy and sort of the culture that they had created at Webstakes and it was just something that I really wanted to be a part of.

Very quickly, I think Steve and I developed a bond and really enjoyed working together.  Through the whole process of taking the company public, we ended up spending about 20 hours a day together, seven days a week, so really got to understand the things that we both needed.  It sort of is like a couple if you will.  We call it “inside guy, outside guy” where one of us takes one role and the other takes another role and sort of switch back and forth between that depending on what the needs are, but it’s been a great partnership.

Indu: I wanted to ask you about that because of course, I have a work husband myself, if you will. If you were to ask us how that works, it actually works really great, but I’m sure it’s about your dynamic.  How do you make decisions?  Do you fight?  How does it play out?

Steve: I’ll give you my answer.  One of the things that we were both fortunate to get to learn about each other when we started working together in our 20s was this notion of what we call unique ability, and unique ability really being what each of us — and this is really relevant to everybody in the organization, everybody you interact with — everyone has a unique ability and when you can keep people operating in their unique ability and really support that person working in their unique ability then you don’t end up fighting and you don’t end up having a lot of that friction. Not only partners but employees and in other relationships that you have.

I think we both mastered that so early on, much like any marriage.  Like you said, the work wife, work husband idea.  I think it’s a yin yang.  We know how each other think and we know where we need help from the other and it’s worked really well.  It worked really, really well, and the answer is no, we don’t fight.

Unity: The other thing we do, we don’t make decisions on Friday afternoon after five o’clock.

Steve: Actually, up to about one o’clock.

Unity: After about one o’clock on Friday.

Steve: The good news is it’s after one o’clock on a Friday, so no big decisions made this afternoon.

Indu: Well, would you say what that means?  What does that mean about this interview?  Is that because you value the separation of kind of work and personal time?

Steve: No, actually something we learned along the way, again, is we’ve both been students of entrepreneurship for so long and spend a lot of time talking about what kind of lessons you learn as you go through building a business and inevitably, at the end of a week, after you’ve gone through five days of — you still work in the 12 to 18 hour a day, you end up getting to Friday and everything seems so much more. I’d say everything is a little scarier on a Friday afternoon when you start to make a big decision.  So coming off of a weekend — rejuvenation, you seem to have a much clear and ability to make a good decision or a better decision.  So we defer all big decisions back to Monday.  It’s really just that notion that decisions don’t seem to be made as well with a clear head on a Friday as it is on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

Indu: That’s really interesting because I found that even overnight, coming back to something the next day can seem less daunting. You also reach a point of diminishing return, where you’re just stuck — I agree.

Unity: Eventually, you end up going circles too.  You find yourself talking in circles or rethinking things that you’ve already decided.  We realized that many years ago and we’ll joke and we’ll say, “It’s two o’clock.  Let’s not talk about that decision today.”

Indu: And regarding decisions, Matthew and I — it’s interesting.  We have a policy where we don’t always have to agree, but we make a very strong effort to teach the other person on our point of view and usually, one of us will join the other person’s point of view.  Very rarely will we remain apart indefinitely.  We do things by consensus, but there is often this process of negotiation and arguing that can be the best possible thing; it’s argument without the negative connotation.  How about you guys, what does it come down to in actually making the call?

Unity: I think if there’s ever a big issue that we just agree on which I really think is very rare, one of the things that seems to happen, you let it play out, you let time sort of help in the process and a lot of times, the right path or the direction sort of present itself and what that creates is the opportunity for us to sort of get on the same page and make sure we both agree over that process and over time.  But generally speaking, it seems like we’re usually on the same page sort of organically.

Steve: The reality of it is that — and this is kind of the — we’re also very aware of onstage backstage things that occur in the business.  Forward facing, I think it’s critical for any partnership and I’m sure you and Matthew have the same experience which is unification.  I mean I do this.  I have three little girls at home now.  Unification of decisions so that even if we don’t agree, you’ll never find disagreeing in front of anybody or with anybody else.  It’s never discussed or debated outward and open to whoever we’re in front of.  I think there’s something to be said so you’ll never get a different decision from either one of us that doesn’t have the other person’s decision in mind.

My wife and I joke when we say the same thing in our house.  One of my daughters will walk up to me and ask me for something else, I’ll say, “What’s your mother say?” and regardless to whether I agree or not, that’s the decision.

Unity: One of the most important things is if you’re aligned in your overall vision and a mission, and that is sort of the beacon out there. A lot of the tactical strategic issues sort of fall into place because you’re really on the same team and trying to get to the team place.

Indu: I admire that. Of course I’m taking notes! So let’s move a little bit to the OrganizedWisdom chapter which is very much still active as I understand. OrganizedWisdom is famously part of the first bunch of companies at the first Health 2.0 Conference in 2007 and at the time, we were surrounded by Daily Strength, Sermo, MedHelp and Patients Like Me, two of those have gone down in some capacity.  Doug Hirsch and Daniel are doing new ventures.  OrganizedWisdom has really stuck around and gone through a number of iterations.  Why do you think that is?

Steve: I think that one of the single most important assets that any entrepreneur need to have is the ability to evolve and allow the marketplace to help define and improve and build on what you put out into the marketplace.  I think we’ve been very open-minded about the evolution that OrganizedWisdom would take. When we started the company, we had this very simple notion that there is a huge gap between the doctor visit and the internet and that what you would hear in a doctor visit, when you got a diagnosis or prognosis, or you had a discussion, was very difficult to translate back to when you went on the web and do the Google search.  So for the most part, OrganizedWisdom has been very much stuck to this one thing which we want to try to close the gap between the doctor visit and the internet, and that huge challenge has been dealt with with a variety of solutions over the years.  At first we started out curating content and maps with editors and doctors, and over the years, it evolved becoming a much more personalized custom product for doctors to actually help their patients find the best health information.

So at the core, it’s the very same mission we started out with in 2007 in solving the same problem that we originally have back then.  The solution has evolved, but we’ve just been very much open to letting the technologies and the marketplace evolve OrganizedWisdom for us.  So it’s being open to that.  It wasn’t being stuck in one mode of what OrganizedWisdom meant to do.

Unity: One other thing that we did is that we handpicked a group of investors and partners that were really supportive along the way.  We also stayed completely in control of our business and we made it a focus very, very early on to build a sustainable business.  So what that sort of empowered us to do is not only be in control but also, as Steve said, sort of evolve along the way, because we didn’t have a bunch of outside forces dictating what the decisions had to be. It allowed us to build the company the way we needed and wanted to build it.

Indu: And it always seemed to have a lean feel and you guys are able to do things pretty quickly in terms of redirections, which I think may be a function of the control you had, as well as the type and pace of investment you accepted.

Steve: Absolutely.  Very early on, we recognized — we we’re part of the first dot-com era when we raised 40 million and took our company public, and it was acquired.  We have a little notion of how quickly these sale cycles or life cycles know of businesses and industries. When we started OrganizedWisdom and started working in the sector for the first time, just thinking about a 17 or 18-year horizon it became apparent to us, very early on, that it’s going to take a lot of patience and a lot of time to be an entrepreneur and to transform the sector. We realized that it would need to be a long haul.

So we’ve been working with investors like Esther Dyson who was one of our earliest investors. Jerry Levin, the former chairman and CEO of Time Warner, who is one of the newer investors for the next couple of years.  We’ve been very lucky to have had these investors not only being patient helping us in that perspective, but really challenging us to think about how to build a product that not only makes money, but makes an impact.  I think that what OrganizedWisdom really allowed us to do is be in a position where we could build the business we want the way we want in the market we want with the people we want and to take us on the journey. So, I felt very fortunate that we got to learn from that.  I think that as an entrepreneur, one of the biggest lessons around — giving yourself a vehicle and a platform to grow from is very critical.  We are just very open-minded about it and allows it to take us where we needed to go.

Indu: And actually that leads me to a couple of interesting questions.  One, what would you say one of the biggest changes has been in the industry over the past five years, when we all first started looking at this space together?  Then I’d love to hear the transition to how the concept came about and Jerry Levin’s role as well.

Unity: That’s a good question.  A lot of startups in the ’90s, the focus was on investors and raising a bunch of capital and growing really quickly.  The companies that are still doing well, they focused on customer development, they focused on solution and building a real business.  So I think that it’s the focus of how entrepreneurs in the tech space have shifted.  It’s been really important.  Steve, what is you feedback?

Steve: You’ve mentioned a couple of companies.  We’ve been operating OrganizedWisdom off of cash flows since summer of 2010.  I think the fact that you can do that in this sector is a testimony to how far it has come.  I think that what probably happened most in the last five years is inspiration from the other sectors that’s now kind of taking shape in the healthcare sector.  You’ve got a shorter technology development cycle to build from idea to product — your service.  You’ve got the lower cost of getting people to use or pilot your solution.  You’ve got the ability now, I think, where people don’t point to just WebMD as the only company in the space.  I think there is the idea that there are other kinds of innovative, larger companies being funded and getting some traction, and they are giving people the idea to look up and see what’s possible so you can now get, I think, a much bigger picture of what used to come in the space.

I think as an entrepreneur, all of us can be excited that there is kind of now an instant access to the expertise and peer support and resources to help propel a lot of these startups forward.  We started the sector a little bit alone.  I mean, there is a whole crop of us that were at Health 2.0, but everyone joked that we were the silly bunch that were trying to get to a sector that had very little innovation and open very little things that were really possible. I think to be sitting here in 2012, five years later talking to you and working together, doing such exciting things, is a testament of how much has changed for the last five years.


 Tomorrow we’ll post part II of Indu’s interview with Steve and Unity.