Julia Cheek: Transforming healthcare with at-home lab tests
Name of BusinessEverlyWell
Product/ServiceConvenient, easy-to-understand, at-home lab tests
Home BaseAustin, Texas
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EverlyWell is the next-generation lab testing platform and one of the fastest-growing consumer healthcare startups in recent history, providing at-home lab testing kits with useful results and insights.
- Tell me about EverlyWell – what is your product? EverlyWell sells over 30 at-home lab kits that test everything from food sensitivity and metabolism to hormones – and are all physician-reviewed and authorized. We transform how people experience lab testing by making it convenient, affordable and accessible. Our customers can take control of their health by simply ordering their test kit online and taking the test at home. No doctor's appointment or lab visits are required. Results arrive in five business days or less. We sell our tests online – including Amazon – and have started to move into some brick and mortar.
- Why did you decide to start your own business? How did the idea for your business come about? Did you know from early on that you wanted to start your own business, or was your idea unexpected? I got my first exposure to entrepreneurship during my MBA, and realized it could be a career for me. I toyed with various ideas, but none of them got past the idea zone. I loved the process of creation, and I helped others for free. It was a hobby. At the age of 30, I started having health problems, and wound my way through a series of doctors to figure out the problem. I took hundreds of lab tests and started to get bills for things that weren’t covered by insurance – I received one bill that cost $2,000. The number one thing for success with start-ups is timing. You can have a great idea or solve an important problem, and the timing can be wrong. I saw healthcare transforming so I felt the timing was right. I gave notice at my job and incorporated in June 2015, and started full-time with EverlyWell in July. It was very quick, but I had the educational background and enough of an entrepreneurial network to take the leap. I had no business plan, but I had done a lot of research about the market.
- What was literally the first thing you did after deciding to launch a business? I secured funding and, within three weeks, I hired a chief medical officer since I don’t have a healthcare background.
- How did you pursue funding? Did you go to your family at first? Friends? Investors? I got an angel investor in New York. I started calling labs to see if they would work with us, but no lab would talk to me. The second I got a medical doctor on board, however, they were super interested. You have to build enough of a structure and start hiring before you can prove out a model.
- What has been most exciting for you on this journey? Creating something from nothing, and having a team of amazing people who are excited about building the future of healthcare.
- What do you see as the essential qualities an entrepreneur needs to be successful? You have to have a thick skin and, in some ways, not care what anyone else thinks. You want to take feedback from investors, friends, and family, but often you hear: “If someone thought it would be a billion-dollar idea, they would have already done it or be doing it.” Sometimes entrepreneurs are egotistical as a self-protection measure. If you listened to everyone, you probably would not start a company. You have to decide who to listen to and who to ignore. You also need perseverance and an ability to learn very quickly. Being a subject matter expert in many different areas is important as an entrepreneur, and you have to figure out what you don’t know, what decisions to make, and execute very quickly.
- What are some specific examples of activities you do on a daily basis? None of my days are the same, and they are booked back-to-back. Every 30 minutes I could be working on something radically different – a legal contract, a marketing project, a clinical or regulatory meeting. You have to be able to switch gears and ask the right questions whether you are recruiting, selling, or fixing a problem. You have to hone in quickly on critical decisions that need to be made. I often travel one or two days per week – to develop partnerships, attend conferences, meet with investors, pursue fundraising. You are always fundraising if you are a CEO!
- How do you define your business' company culture, and what steps, if any, do you take to deliberately foster this culture? We have worked really hard to hire well and have learned that you can almost spot people who are not right for a start-up culture or this particular environment. We have a very strong team, and our internal leaders define the culture within their areas. We encourage being transparent, doing the right thing, and having good judgment.
- How do you define success? I am motivated by freedom and choices – which includes flexibility, making a difference, and creating something sustainable. If money is your motivation, don’t go into entrepreneurship. Starting a business is the absolute worst way to make money.
- What are some things that the entrepreneurial process has taught you that you can't learn in the classroom? Every single day there are five or six highs and lows so you need emotional resilience to stay even-keeled and be the rudder. You are the shock absorber and help the team stay on track. It is hard to prepare for unless you are in it every day.
- How has having an MBA been an asset to you through that process? While business school may not be the right path for everyone, getting an MBA at HBS was transformational for me. The MBA program itself, the classes, the discussions, and the network provided an opportunity to push myself and how I wanted to transform the world. I would never have started a company had I not gone to business school because I never would have been exposed to the option.
- You are a former multiple world champion equestrian. How does that experience relate to your role as an entrepreneur? Being an elite athlete requires a lot of hard work and persistence. You are also always marching to the beat of a different drum.
- What ONE piece of advice do you have for women who are considering starting a business? Go work for a start-up first – it is one of the very best ways to build the career you want.
- Do you have favorite resources (e.g., book) that you recommend to people considering starting a business? I love the book, “The Hard Thing about Hard Things,” by Ben Horowitz. Another book recommendation is “The Founder’s Dilemmas” by Noam Wasserman, an HBS professor.
- What do you do for fun when not being a boss? My husband and I have two dogs that we treat as children. We enjoy Austin’s outdoor activities – hiking and going to the lakes. I also love a glass of wine and a cheese plate.
Director of Strategy & Operations, George W. Bush Institute, raising $500 million for the Institute’s non-profit arm (Dallas, TX)
Marguerite Pressley Davis: De-stressing the wedding planning journey
Name of BusinessTulle La La
Product/ServiceMonthly, subscription-based gift box for brides-to-be
Home BaseAtlanta, Georgia
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Tulle La La’s monthly subscription gift box for brides-to-be puts the fun into nuptials planning.
- What ONE piece of advice do you have for women who are considering starting a business? START. Oftentimes we are too afraid to just START. We fear failure so we spend time researching and analyzing and researching some more. The truth is, you will gain your nuggets of wisdom only through actually STARTING.
- How do you strike a work-life balance? I’m not so sure that I believe in work-life balance. There will be times when you have to go hard on work and then you afford yourself the luxury to go hard on life. I truly believe that you have to be all in with one, committed to one at a single point in time, and then you can transition to giving the other priority.
- How do you define success? Success is a very personal measure. Success means different things for me at different points in time – it’s a moving target. I’m constantly setting goals for myself, and I constantly compete with no one else but myself. Once I achieve a goal that I’ve set, I’m quickly onto the next. The takeaway: don’t let anyone set the mark for success for you. You define it.
Dorie Smith: Offering high-quality, affordable, stylish clothes for professional women
Name of BusinessOf Mercer
Product/ServiceAmerican-made, high quality workwear for the modern professional woman
Home BaseNew York, New York
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While getting her MBA at Wharton, Dorie Smith and a classmate had trouble finding high quality, professional women’s clothing at a reasonable price point. They decided to launch Of Mercer – smart-looking, well-made workwear available both online and in their own retail stores.
- Why did you decide to start your own business? How did the idea for your business come about? Was there a lightbulb moment? My co-founder, Emelyn Northway, and I found that getting dressed every morning when we were in consulting and finance was a challenge. We saw a market opportunity, and we used our full two years of business school to figure out the solution. We produced five dresses, and started testing – price, color, silhouette, fabrication. We asked ourselves, “Will people actually buy this?” You can have focus groups until the end of time, and people say, “Yes, I will buy this,” but people have to put money where their mouth is and actually make a purchase. In our pre-launch beta phase, we sold 200 pieces at trunk shows at Wharton and in New York, and once we proved the concept, we decided to dedicate ourselves to the business.
- Did you know from early on that you wanted to start your own business, or was your idea unexpected? At Wharton, I got the entrepreneurship bug, but I didn’t know if that meant my own company or working for a startup. Consulting is amazing training ground, but it was tough to work for a big company. I did innovation work as a consultant, which helped me develop skills to start a business – how to change a company, industry or brand, for example. Growing up, my parents encouraged my every interest. Entrepreneurs need a support system. You cannot be successful without an army of people behind you.
- What was your next step: did you start with a business plan? What is literally the first thing you recommend doing when you know you want to start a business? We did business plans, entered competitions, and researched the market. It is important to put down on paper why and how and what you are doing. But it is only the very first step. We got some nasty feedback when we first started – honestly, a lot of men told us, “You can go to Ann Taylor.” In the initial stages, you’ll be pitching your product and people won’t get it.
- What about funding how did you pursue it? Did you go to your family at first? Friends? Investors? You have to think about what is important to you in terms of running the company. Some companies raise as much as possible to grow quickly. We went the other direction – we raised a small amount from family and friends and still have no institutional investors. It gives us more control, and we can spend time running a company and not worrying about making investors happy. We may not stay that way forever, but right now this is right for us.
- What were some of the challenges you faced starting your business? What lessons have you learned? One of our lowest lows was a time when a photoshoot was an utter failure, but we had to use the images because as an e-commerce company, we couldn’t sell products without them. We picked a cheap photographer, did the shoot inside a dusty shoe factory, and the models were inexperienced, so the quality was really low. Lesson learned. Now we invest in photography. We have a retail store in Soho (New York City) and have tested pop-up markets in Boston and Georgetown (Washington DC). There are so many brands popping up online – it’s hard for people to shuffle through, and having a store gives us some legitimacy and connotes a stable brand.
- What has been most exciting for you? Almost always when we talk to customers. “I wore the Fifth Avenue dress, and I felt so confident and knocked my presentation out of the park,” or “I used to shop at Banana Republic – but the quality was low, I couldn’t afford a designer brand, and you solved my problem.” When we hear our value proposition [from a customer], it means a lot because we have answered with a solution.
- What do you see as the essential qualities an entrepreneur needs to be successful? Patience – it takes a long time to build a company, especially one that requires brand loyalty and trust among customers. Think about really strong brands out there with staying power – Michael Kors and DVF (Diane Von Furstenberg) have been around awhile. We didn’t start an app with a million subscribers. It takes time to build a successful brand.
- What are some specific examples of activities you do on a daily basis? I keep tabs on what is selling, manage online and in-store merchandising, and optimize fabric orders. I also build relationships with people outside of Of Mercer and oversee our physical location. We have events in our store all the time – for example, a resume workshop, styling session, whiskey tasting. We like to support other women in business.
- How do you define your company culture, and what steps, if any, do you take to deliberately foster this culture? Our culture comes from the top down so how we [the founders] behave is important. Our overarching culture is work hard, play hard. Everyone has to pitch in – we may have an MBA replacing the ink cartridge. We like to get out of the office once a month and build camaraderie as humans. Another thing: No idea isn’t worth vocalizing. We want people to constantly create, change and innovate.
- What are some things that the entrepreneurial process has taught you that you can't learn in the classroom? Relationships are hugely important. We want to build a company where we know that our vendors are using the best employment practices while also helping us build the most profitable company. For example, we could design a style, and our factory might say, “If you use this stitch, you will save $x per garment.” It’s a win-win. If we were doing this overseas, we probably wouldn’t have this relationship.
- How has having an MBA been an asset/help to you through that process? It was hugely helpful to work on this while we were in school. So much of what you learn at business school is theoretical: accounting, data analytics, work flow optimization, etc. It was great for us to have a real world application of what we were learning and go to professors with expertise. Post-MBA, the network is really important. We have an army of our MBA cohort behind us who are advocates in their cities and companies.
- Does your background in civil engineering help you now? I understand the construction of clothes better than the average person. That’s not based on my civil engineering classes, but I am good at visualizing things and how pieces come together as a whole. The factory can explain something to me, and I understand it without having to see it. That is helpful in product development.
- What ONE piece of advice do you have for women who are considering starting a business? Take every decision one day at a time, and make the best decision you can right now. It feels overwhelming to think about five years from now. If I knew all that I had to go through at the beginning, I may not have done it.
- How do you define success? As an entrepreneur, as a business owner, it is about survival: selling products and making customers happy. Every day is a success if we are selling products and surviving. I don’t think I will ever have a day where I say, “I’ve made it.” There are always things to do and ways to grow.
- What is your favorite book? I am huge fan of crime fiction – Michael Connelly is a favorite author, and Agatha Christie is a go-to.
- What do you do for fun when not being a boss? I like to be active – walking in different neighborhoods, going to art exhibits, doing yoga and working out at Barry’s Bootcamp. I also love to travel and get out of the city, and we encourage our team to do that as well.
- Is there a song you listen to that makes you say, “I got this thing called life!”? Dream On by Aerosmith.
Angelise Hadley: Helping young girls embrace their natural curls
Name of BusinessEmbraceBox
Product/ServiceSubscription-based, make-it-yourself products for curly-haired girls
Home BaseAustin, Texas
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EmbraceBox offers make-it-yourself products that give girls confidence in their unique hair texture.
- What ONE piece of advice do you have for women who are considering starting a business? Don’t wait until you have the perfect product because it will never be perfect. Launch now! Feedback from customers will be invaluable to informing how the product should evolve.
- How do you strike a work-life balance? Find friends who are like-minded. I’ve had countless “work parties” with friends where we all bring our work/laptops and snacks and spend hours working together. Working with people I enjoy being around makes things so much more enjoyable.
- What do you do for fun when not being a boss? I love to dance! Lately I’ve been taking salsa lessons, and it’s such a fun way to learn a new skill, meet new people, and get in a bit of cardio.
Roles in retail management, scientific research, and technology consulting (Fort Worth, TX)
Attends the McCombs School of Business, studying for MBA with concentration in Entrepreneurship (Austin, TX)