Customer Discovery. Get out there and talk to your target market.
Before launching our care management services, we talked to our market segment for over a year. I interviewed over 100 health center executives and clinical staff that worked in safety-net clinics.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Benjamin Lefever, Founder and CEO of Certintell — a national telehealth company that provides remote patient monitoring, chronic care management, behavioral health integration and transitional care management for underserved populations. Through Certintell’s proprietary cloud-based telehealth platform “JoinCareTeam” for healthcare providers, the company provides mobile applications, HIPAA-compliant video, secure text messaging and pictures, scheduling capability, virtual waiting room feature, on-demand medical interpreters, payment processing, clinic-branded interface, client and tech support, professional “how to” consulting and remote medical device integration for RPM.
Certintell is the first singularly Black-founded telehealth company in the world and was named as one of Athena Health’s top five partners. Certintell has over 300,000 patients in 25 states. Mr. Lefever is a graduate of Drake University with a degree in advertising and economics.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It was my spring semester at Drake University in Des Moines in my senior year. At the time, I thought I was headed to law school, post taking the LSAT. My good friend got into pharmaceutical sales the year before, and he told me I should look into the opportunity as Eli Lilly was having on-campus interviews. Drake has a terrific pharmacy school and liked to hire those candidates. Although I was not in the pharmacy school, I went to the interview and got the job. It was the start of a career in healthcare. After spending five years at Eli Lily, I worked with healthcare clinics that provide services to uninsured Medicaid and other vulnerable populations through the biotechnology company Genenetech on telehealth in particular. From that, I had the idea to provide telehealth technology and services to safety-net providers to improve access to care for their low-income patients.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The most interesting story would be that I was in the San Francisco Bay Area working for a biotech company when I decided to start Certintell. As we know, the Bay Area is the mecca for tech start-ups. That’s where the venture capital money is along with tons of tech talent. However, I felt moving back to Des Moines was the right move. I didn’t know why for sure, but I felt it in my heart. Many questioned the move, but I knew something was happening, not only in Des Moines with start-ups, but the Midwest as a whole. I don’t think Certintell would be where I am at today without that decision. The support has been amazing!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A few years back we supported two organizations. One in Indiana called the Indiana Primary Health Care Association and one in Illinois called the Illinois Primary Health Care Association. Both were called IPHCA for short. We sent a large check for our sponsorship to the wrong IPHCA organization. It was a mess, but we eventually figured it out. Lesson learned, make sure you double-check where you are sending money as there are similar names with organizations!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Start-ups are hard. Odds are not on your side to scale a successful company as most fail. Particularly as a single founder. I knew there was a huge market for our services. I knew there would be ups and downs, but I chose to continue to drive towards the goals I set daily. I have always been very competitive.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I would say the community of Des Moines. They have created an ecosystem to support early-stage companies. A key individual for me was Mike Colwell at the Greater Des Moines Partnership. I was the first start-up in Square One, a unique accelerator that was the brainchild of Mr. Colwell. Square One provided tons of early support. I was able to get free office space, mentorship, and intros to potential investors. Square One was the catalyst to Certintell receiving state matching funding as well through the Iowa Economic Development Authority — IEDA.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Begin with the end in mind” and “put first things first.” Start with where you want to be and then set goals and prioritize activities that give you the best chance to achieve those goals.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
An area where racial inequalities are front and center is with COVID-19. A startling and disproportionate death rate among Black Americans around the country from COVID-19 is revealing persistent inequities and the need for solutions to address them.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It’s just good business. Companies that hire diverse executive teams actually report higher revenue than those that do not. Having a diverse leadership team will help you navigate times of crisis as you’ll be able to draw from a well of unique backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men In Tech in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I was reading a terrific article in Tech Crunch recently about a term called “Representation Syndrome.” “Representation Syndrome” comes from an idea that because there are so few Black people in tech, being one of the only ones comes with an added pressure to be successful. A Black person may feel that if they fail as one of the only Black people in tech, they will inadvertently make it harder for other Black people to be embraced by this homogeneous industry. That’s a heavy load to carry. In Iowa, we have a terrific STEM program and these programs need to recruit in communities of color to get Black and Brown kids engaged early.
We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
There is a shortage of providers in primary care, particularly with safety-net clinics. Safety-net clinics provide comprehensive health care services to low-income communities. We support the ‘quadruple aim’ of health care which includes:
- Helping safety-net clinics improve patient engagement. We support patient engagement by connecting our Certified Clinical Health coaches with patients in the home via our proprietary video and connected devices technology.
- Supporting population health in low-income communities. We provide a comprehensive health risk assessment via telehealth. This identifies patients that are at risk for complications around chronic and mental health challenges.
- Lowering the cost of chronic patients by supporting safety-net clinics through telehealth technology and our highly trained clinical staff. Through our proprietary workflows and connected devices, we decrease high-cost care settings like the emergency room.
- Improving health care worker satisfaction by providing staff support for high-risk chronic patients. Providers are overwhelmed. They don’t have enough to time to spend with their high-risk high-cost chronic patients. We integrate our clinical staff and use technology to help engage these patients that need additional support.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our unwavering focus on the underserved populations and the providers that serve them. Nothing in health care is fast, particularly with non-profit health care organizations that are federally funded. You have to stay with it!
We had been engaging health centers called FQHCs — Federally Qualified Health Centers — for a few years around our telehealth and remote patient monitoring services. It was slow-going early on. Then COVID-19 hit! Because we kept at it in the space, we quickly became the partner of choice to support remote engagement around remote patient monitoring and connected devices.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re currently working on using data analytics to process patient monitoring output. To extract usable information from the flood of data generated from patient monitoring devices, health care providers are increasingly turning to big data analytics and other analytics solutions.
Predictive analytics is becoming an important technology because it can not only track the current state of the patient’s health but also predict future illnesses.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Go back to customer discovery. Ask questions and listen to the feedback. Track everything about your customers and their journey. It might not be the product itself, but you won’t know if you don’t have data.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
It starts at the top. If you can’t sell yourself, it will be a long road. I was fortunate to be part of some of the best sales training. I was a sales trainer myself. I believe everyone in the organization should be able to demo and sell our solution. Everyone!
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
The safety-net market is tight knit and relationship-focused. They want to know you are in it for the right reason and it takes a while to build trust. You have to show up at their conferences, listen and share your passion to support them in their mission of improving health outcomes for the underserved.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
We really have three customers. The associations that partner and support safety-net practices, the safety-net practices themselves, and last but not least the patient.
With safety-net practices, it’s about understanding and listening on how we can support their mission of improved patient engagement and health outcomes. With patients, it’s about meeting them where they are, listening to their barriers and helping them overcome those barriers to achieve improved health.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Provide a terrific service that your customers can’t do without. We provide a unique service tied to our telehealth and remote patient monitoring technology which is that we integrate our clinical staff as well. Though we have three customers typically — the parent organization, the clinic or health center and the patient — we focus on the patient. If the patient is engaged and improving their health, the other two customers are happy.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Assemble a great team.
- Start-ups are hard. You need bright people that compliment your skills to get off to a good start and give yourself the best chance to succeed. I was able to bring on an industry expert early that knew tech and could help build something great.
2. Customer Discovery. Get out there and talk to your target market.
- Before launching our care management services, we talked to our market segment for over a year. I interviewed over 100 health center executives and clinical staff that worked in safety-net clinics.
3. Become an expert in your field.
- I spent a lot of time and money attending industry conferences, listening and talking to experts in the field. I’ve probably attended over 100 conferences the last few years. It is draining but necessary to stay ahead of the trends.
4. Don’t wait until the services/technology is perfect before you get it in customer’s hands.
- We started with early adopters and what we called “friendlies” to get constructive feedback. We took the feedback to iterate our services/solution to improve the user experience.
5. Optimism and adaptability.
- You will likely pivot your start-up. There will be challenges and set-backs. Optimism to continue on is key as well as a competitive desire to succeed. I knew that we needed to provide more than a technology platform to be successful.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Understanding that social determinants of health — SDOH — have a major impact on people’s health, well-being, and quality of life. Examples of SDOH include:
- Safe housing, transportation, and neighborhoods.
- Racism, discrimination, and violence.
- Education, job opportunities, and income.
- Access to nutritious foods and physical activity opportunities.
- Polluted air and water.
- Language and literacy skills.
Certintell’s overarching goals is specifically related to SDOH. Create social, physical and economic environments that promote attaining the full potential for health and well- being for all. Who’s with us?
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Bernard Tyson, who died unexpectedly last year. Mr. Tyson, who had led Kaiser Permanente since 2013, was one of the most prominent health care executives in the country and a leader of health care reform, spending 34 years of his career in the health system. He was a visionary and a champion for health equity.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!