Stephanie Tilenius first revolutionized commerce, and now she’s doing the same for health care.
Tilenius, a former executive at Google, eBay and PayPal, is now using her problem-solving talents to disrupt medicine with her company, Vida Health. Founded in 2014, Vida is a subscription-based app that connects patients with health coaches, who help their clients tackle a spectrum of problems such as obesity, insomnia and diabetes. The San Francisco-based startup’s end goal is to help Americans achieve greater health at lower cost.
In a recent chat with Lauren Schiller on Inflection Point, Tilenius covered a lot of ground about technology’s role in modern medicine, but she also revealed a wealth of wisdom about running a business. Here are some lessons for current or future entrepreneurs:
Don’t Downplay Job Candidates’ Soft Skills
Tilenius says that when Vida first started looking for health coaches, the company placed the greatest emphasis on clinical expertise. It wasn’t long before they realized that soft skills — empathy and the patience to discover customers’ inner motivations — were also hugely important for successful coaching.
Acknowledge Customers’ Uniqueness And Tailor Services To Them
Understanding the complexity of customers and the factors that contribute to health is also essential, according to Tilenius. “A lot of these root causes for our health are a combination of many different things, including mental health,” she says. “We learned how to match personality to the individuals they would actually stick with. We now allow people to pick the coach and their desired way of working.”
Surround Yourself With The Right Types Of Motivators
In keeping with the spirit of customization, Vida hires a diverse set of coaches according to a set of personas: the cheerleader, the innovator, the drill sergeant, etc. As an entrepreneur, Tilenius has learned what kind of coach is best for her. “I like a drill sergeant,” she says. “I like someone who’s positive, of course, as well, but someone who is aggressively keeping me moving and pushing me.”
Aim For Mutually Beneficial Relationships
As for the type of coach she strives to be, Tilenius says she tries to make employment with Vida a win-win situation for her and her staff. “I try to push us all forward and innovate as fast as we can, but I also try to bring out the best in people and support their individual goals,” she says. “We have to be in an environment where people can achieve their professional and personal goals.
Start With A Real-Life Problem — Bonus Points If It’s Personal
Before Tilenius started Vida, she invested time exploring solutions to health-care problems in her off hours. “I did a bunch of prototyping, and then I really had the conviction to do it,” she says. “I was intrigued by health care. I have used all these different apps, and I have all these devices, and I was doing triathlons at the time, and testing everything. My parents both had chronic conditions, so I was interacting a lot with the health care system, and then all these ideas were flowing. I knew there was a solution in there.”
Live Your Mission
As the owner of a health-care company, Tilenius is careful to walk the walk. “You get to set the culture,” she says. “For example, we do a monthly challenge, and every day we have something new in the challenge. Like today at lunch we did our sit-ups, our V-ups, and our push-ups. Most of the company participates, so we can create the kind of culture we want. We do get our exercise in, and every Friday at 5 p.m. we have a run around San Francisco, and most of the company participates. It’s great fun.”
Lean On Your Network
Although Tilenius isn’t an engineer, she’s nonetheless had success developing technical products. Her secret: a strong network of talent. “I worked with people that had actually prototyped both software and hardware,” she said. It wasn’t as simple as picking up the phone, though. “It was people I knew, and [with whom I] had a common passion, and then through connections and networking got to meet people” who could help her achieve her goals.
Be Ready To Jump When The Timing Is Right
In the late ’90s, Tilenius founded PlanetRx.com, an online pharmacy and health care business, which went public in 1999. Though the company suffered when the tech bubble burst, Tilenius never lost her interest in health. “I’ve always been passionate about health care,” she says. “I did at the time actually have a vision for disease management and some of the stuff we are doing today, but the technology was not there, actually. I think I’ve had some elements of what we’re doing at Vida in my head for a long, long time, but it just so happens that right now the technology, between mobile and cloud, really enables it.”
Tilenius says that her experience — sitting on an idea for a while, perhaps even 10 years, before the timing becomes right — is common for a lot of entrepreneurs. “Timing is everything,” she says. “You always are wondering is this the right time. It sort of naturally unfolds in the sense that if you start prototyping and building, you can see what’s viable today.”
When In Doubt, Just Start
By now an old hat at innovation, Tilenius has some words of advice for other women who are trying to do something that’s never been done before:
“Do something that is non-scalable, and just start,” she says. “Just lay one brick. There’s going to be thousands and millions of bricks that you need to put on top of that, but just get started.”
Listen to Lauren’s full interview with Tilenius below: