Celebrate big successes comprehensively and with vigor for 24 hours, then face the next day as if your competition were five miles ahead of you. Launches of new products, increased retention, big or high profile enterprise sales, hitting e-commerce bookings goals, are all examples of things you might expect respective leaders to celebrate in a meaningful way, but then be back at it 24 hours later and focus on the next hill to climb.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Ellen Beliveau, CEO and founder of Knowledge to Practice (K2P) and an impassioned visionary in the world of continuing medical education. Named a 2020 DC Inno on Fire winner, Mary Ellen was applauded for K2P’s recent launch of CurrentMD COVID, a groundbreaking subscription-based educational platform that empowers frontline teams to deliver the best quality care to their patients. Mary Ellen Beliveau’s vision is both inspired and grounded by over 20 years of experience innovating postgraduate medical education curriculum, including serving as Chief Learning Officer (CLO) at the American College of Cardiology and as a CLO consultant to Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and Executive Vice President of Specialty Sciences at Pri-Med. She is currently the Chairperson of the Board of Trustees for Suburban Hospital, and a member of the Johns Hopkins Board of Trustees.
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?
I have a daughter with congenital heart disease. Her infant years were filled with invasive procedures and much of our time was spent in hospitals. Through the process, I was impressed by the team’s brilliance, expertise, commitment, compassion, and empathy for my daughter. Even though she was treated in a top hospital, with the top physicians in their fields caring for her, mistakes were made. Through this experience it became clear to me that I needed to dedicate my career to developing technology and educational content that would enable physicians to keep up with the rate of medical developments.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
When I launched Knowledge to Practice (K2P) in 2014, I was most excited to carry out my vision and develop a transformational educational product that would enable physicians to provide the very best care. The personalized learning we offered would make education both accessible and personally relevant and would feature best-in-class assessments and content. Accordingly, we designed a data structure that was rich and flexible, so we could yield real-time needs assessments and continually improve our product.
At that time, I never thought about disrupting the business model. Rather, I was 100% focused on developing game-changing products. Once we brought a prototype to market, we were blown away by the acknowledgement and response we received. It was at that time and through reviewers’ comments that I realized the data structure we had designed to inform continual content improvement would be unbelievably powerful in the hands of healthcare organizations. It was at this point that I realized great companies were not built upon great products alone — they were dependent on disruptive business models. At this point I recognized our go-to-market model would span B2C through B2E, and the opportunity was much much bigger than I had imagined.
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?
In our earliest days, we pitched a collaboration with a major academic medical center. In the process of meeting with them trying to land our first contract, we had a clickable prototype in progress. After 35 days of iterating with them on our prototype, we had a contract, and our final product was due in six months. My CTO and I were thrilled and went to dinner to celebrate after the meeting. At dinner, the blood suddenly drained from my face as I realized this contract meant I had to quit my day job, hire five people, design curriculum, develop content, and build a platform in six months (a process that typically takes 12–18 months). We needed to develop an entire system from the ground up in record time. The lesson I learned was to know where to draw the line between business development and hard commitment. We were pushed to the max; it was risky and high stakes to say the least, but in the end we were successful.
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?
When I started our journey, my first expenditure was on hiring an attorney who could educate me on how to structure stock options and the leadership team in the early days of a start-up. We all agreed to a policy of no payments, no equity, until a signed contract was in hand. Once we got the signed contract it was only big enough to pay the engineering team and a clinical writer, so I determined that I would go without pay. We were still an LLP, and were bootstrapped, so we delayed establishing equity until we knew we could secure a second contract and have confidence we had something sustainable. Our initial software was so successful, we not only got the renewal, but also a significantly expanded contract!
Later, when I outlined our growth plan and the critical hires we needed to make to get there, I ran into some challenges when it came time to determine salaries. Not all members of my founding team understood that founders of a start-up tend to take most of their compensation in equity. The implications were I would need a new engineering team and potentially a new platform. I began my expedited journey to find a new engineering team who could replicate the learner experience we had created and build a new platform, quickly. And I would need to develop a cutover plan that my old team would agree to and support me through. These were both stressful and complex days, but in all honesty, I was too passionate about my vision to consider giving up.
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?
Our Chairman of the board Anthony Sanzo has coached and guided me with integrity, understanding, and a high level of operational expertise. To give an example, there was a time we had an important presentation to give, and I was downright horrible. Although I’m usually strong at presenting, I just couldn’t find my groove. Anthony knows me well enough that he knew I would move into a place of reflection and beat myself up. He also knew me well enough not to ignore my poor performance or pretend it didn’t go badly. Anthony is very direct and often sharp-elbowed. To this day, I want to know how long it took him to write his most heartfelt, authentic email to me, one that both guided me and gave me the perspective I needed — that the presentation was a learning opportunity and not the end of the world. I will never forget his sage advice and continue to appreciate his authentic response and supportive coaching.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My father ingrained in me to always give 110% no matter what your job is. Striving to always do my best allowed me to progress quickly in my career and develop a strong work ethic. This simple advice from my father helped inspire my commitment, sense of accountability, drive, and resilience ever since my childhood.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Our company believes that every patient deserves the best care possible. We look to enable that by helping providers acquire and maintain the most current knowledge, skills, and attitudes, and to keep pace with the rapid rate of development in medicine, to ensure cutting edge patient-centered care.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our mission unifies the team and knits us together. I think what makes us stand out is our ability to weave adult learning theory (comparisons, analogies, visual maps, etc.) through the content that our academic faculty create to elevate the learning experiences for our customers. As a result, our learning experiences yield better assimilation, higher retention and recall. By distilling the complex into meaningful learning experiences, we drive practice-changing behavior, and that improves patient care. Improving patient care brings satisfaction and pride to each and every employee.
We are also incredibly committed to our customers. To give an example, in our second year, a young cardiologist contacted me requesting help in passing her medical board examinations. Both times she had taken her boards, she received devastating personal news just prior to the exams, including her mother’s cancer diagnosis. Not surprisingly, her emotional state impeded her performance each time and undercut her confidence. As she prepared for her third and final attempt, she was a nervous wreck. I gave her a small test to determine what type of learner she was, and I gave her free access to our curriculum and explained how she should use it to optimize retention and recall. The whole team was rooting for her. Months later, I received a very moving thank you note from her which I shared with the company — she had passed! At our next all-hands meeting, we spoke about it, and there was great pride in our work across the board. To this day, at our Friday stand-ups, at least one person shares a user-satisfaction story or testimonial with the company. This practice unifies us and connects us to our customers in a very personal way.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Our COVID curriculum is our newest product in the market. The calling was strong for us as we watched the physicians and professionals on the frontlines struggle to diagnose and successfully treat patients infected with the virus. By developing CurrentMD COVID in just two months’ time, we remained true to our mission of helping providers keep up with the rate of development and provide the very best care at all times — even when dealing with a novel and rapidly evolving global pandemic.
It was quite risky at the time when we made the decision to develop it. We knew we would have to work hard to keep up with emerging COVID findings, and we weren’t sure how much time would be required to continually keep updating, refreshing, and expanding content once the initial release was published. We also didn’t know whether other companies would release products to compete against ours. In the first quarter of 2020 we had devised a model for rapid design and delivery of content in order to scale our growth. CurrentMD COVID was the perfect product for us to trial this new model.
At the same time, we realized the need for just-in-time learning had never been greater. We knew hospitals were struggling financially, so we felt this was an opportunity for health insurers to give back and support providers. So we approached them to sponsor and release our curriculum across their regions. Our first sale was with BlueCross Blue Shield of South Carolina. Since then word of mouth is driving usage and engagement, and I’m happy to report that user satisfaction with the product and the content remains 4.8 on a 5 pt scale.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
In the ed-tech space there are a tremendous number of females, so we are lucky in that way. The majority of my team is female. But pure technology play companies remain male-dominated. Creating a movement in terms of encouraging more women to pursue careers in technology requires consistent focus across multiple levels. First, it’s important to inspire girls in high school (or earlier if possible!) to connect to engineering, math, and science and also inspire women to teach engineering, math, and science. In addition, male leaders in STEM ought to create a culture to support women in their fields. This includes offering internships for women, committing to having women on executive teams and on their boards, building mentoring programs, and including women in succession planning.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
In a word, respect. Typically, women have to work much harder to earn respect from their male counterparts. However, a forward-thinking human resources and development team can lead the fostering of women engineers, celebrate female leaders in tech, address any signs of unhealthy culture, ensure pay is equal across genders, and nurture respect for women in STEM fields. Leadership teams should participate by serving as role models, rewarding desired behaviors, and being intolerant of undesired behaviors.
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”?
It’s important to take a step back and view progress from a different vantage point. Similarly, leaders should be sure to stay on top of innovations and not just those in their direct line of sight. We might find valuable perspective from books, roundtable discussions, or events. Keeping abreast of industry developments and remaining fully engaged in your vertical and the emerging challenges helps leaders anticipate market solutions and innovations. When we are recharged and inspired, then we can bring it back “home” to help inspire the teams that lead product development, marketing, sales, and customer success.
Sales teams will benefit from professional development opportunities that offer a refresher or a new perspective relative to changing market dynamics. These opportunities often provide valuable insight in how to reposition their strategy to take the lead in the market.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Everyone in a company needs to know and understand the value proposition of its products, and each person should be able to effectively demonstrate how they benefit potential customers. It also helps to ensure all employees have direct experience with customers, so they can best empathize with their challenges.
I am a strong believer in Account Based Marketing. Getting marketing and sales to develop strategies and solutions together, as well as aligning goals and incentives will create a powerful team rowing in the same direction. Having sales and marketing work side-by-side and attending key client meetings together creates a powerful listening post. This type of collaboration also helps both teams understand target buyers and influencers and helps companies pivot quickly to improve messaging as things evolve with time. In addition, regular opportunities for outside training, refreshers, and inspiration are always key to keeping sales teams excited and charged.
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?
At Knowledge to Practice, we conduct deep research at the outset of our go-to-market planning sessions. We strive to understand the depth and breadth of market problems, size and segment the market, identify perfect prospect criteria, determine which organizations need our solutions, and identify decision makers and stakeholders in those organizations. We develop personas to inform our positioning and messaging and create content to appeal to them. Finally, we move into planning by account and continually review and revise our messaging, content, and tools through feedback, both successes and challenges.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
- Almost 100% of the time with the design and launch of a new product, we will do a beta test to ensure we are clear on all aspects of the problem we are solving. Then we move to a paid pilot, ensuring we understand desired user and administrative experience as well as essential data for reporting purposes.
- Our user interface (UI) is always informed through adult learning theory then honed through extensive user testing. Getting the right user experience (UX) and UI is essential to ensuring quick access to the exact content users need, when they need it.
- The first experience with your brand is critical. We place high value on our onboarding new clients as an essential part of best user experience. Our customer success team develops in-product messaging, or explainer videos, to ensure we automate as much service as possible and continually orient new users to features and functionality at an appropriate pace.
- Both our product and customer success teams monitor product performance and generate regular reports for our leadership team. The criteria by which we are measuring performance is set each quarter by our Chief Product Officer and her team. We also provide reports to all our customers once a quarter, and each client has real-time access to any report they need through their dashboard.
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?
Customer retention has been one of our top goals for the second half of 2020. In August, we created a new role focused on data optimization, visualization, and reporting, as well as customer retention. This individual is also charged with mapping customer journeys by product type by market segment. The goal is to design both proactive and reactive communications and engagement with customers across our e-commerce business to ensure we are engaging at appropriate intervals and improving customer experience. Our Customer Success team handles our B2B business retention, which is currently at 94% and offers much higher touch than our B2C business.
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.
First, build, coach and develop a “strong team.” In accordance with Patrick Lencioni’s power pyramid, leaders need to establish a foundation of trust across the leadership team. Ensure your team of leaders feels confident and able to openly communicate with all other members of the team.. Engage in healthy conflict and realize the power of collaboration. Each person on our leadership team demonstrates full commitment and will do whatever it takes to lead the company’s success. Leaders are highly skilled at managing their team’s accountability on a daily and weekly basis and exhibit passion for data, analytics and rigor against results.
Second, leaders need to empower organizations from the ground up. Enable your team to identify and set strategies to reinforce core values and nurture culture. For example if trust is a core value, your team needs to establish a safe environment where people feel safe enough to be vulnerable with one another. It’s also important to build a reward system for failing fast and learning from those failures.
Third, build a highly collaborative leadership team, committed to stretching and inspiring performance from their respective teams. Leaders must be committed to the development of their team, be able to speak to such on a quarterly basis, and skilled at setting direction and building playbooks that enable teams to be successful without mirco-managing.
Fourth, know both your customers and your competitors inside and out, stay on top of marketplace trends, and be clear on implications, threats and opportunities. Address these quarterly with the leadership team. For example, you might ask an interdisciplinary team of marketing, product and customer success to work together on bi-annual insights relative to a competitive framework to present to the entire company.
Finally, celebrate big successes comprehensively and with vigor for 24 hours, then face the next day as if your competition were five miles ahead of you. Launches of new products, increased retention, big or high profile enterprise sales, hitting e-commerce bookings goals, are all examples of things you might expect respective leaders to celebrate in a meaningful way, but then be back at it 24 hours later and focus on the next hill to climb.
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. 🙂
If I were to inspire a movement, it would be to ensure every patient receives the very best care possible. This would be a very complex movement, involving many high powered stakeholders, that generally do not align with each other. I envision that each cohort would lead one aspect of a larger, multifaceted plan to improve patient care. I would personally love to lead the cohort developing personalized just-in-time learning to set and manage care standards across a health system, while others might lead cohorts in charge of other aspects that are ripe for change. A few examples off the top of my head would be: more efficient and effective provider credentialing; Medicare, Medicaid, and Health and Human Services (HHS) policies; improvements to medical billing, coding, and reimbursement systems and processes; and finally electronic health records (EHR) simplification.
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 🙂
I would enjoy the opportunity to dine with Charles W. Sorenson, Jr. MD, president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare. His commitment to a system-wide focus on best clinical practices aimed at producing better measurable outcomes for patients, is impressive to say the least. A lunch with him would be inspiring, insightful, and empowering.