Virtual Engagements and Technology. In just a few weeks, awareness and use of telehealth has mainstreamed. Solutions like virtual appointments are making it possible for consumers to meet with experts from home, at a time that is convenient for them. We’ve been forced to adopt this new technology in the current climate, but we’re also realizing there are big opportunities for the space — from patients being able to consult with multiple doctors without having to take time off of work, to doctors being able to check in on their patients from the comfort of their home. From work to personal and romantic relationships to professional counsel and support, we’re looking at virtual solutions through a different lens. Much like these other industries, the medical aesthetics world will be embracing virtual solutions in a much bigger way moving forward.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Seery the founder and CEO of RealSelf, the leading online resource to learn about aesthetic procedures and connect with the doctors who provide them. Tom founded RealSelf in 2006, after seeing a consumer need for transparency and unbiased information in the aesthetics industry.
Today, RealSelf attracts millions of unique visitors each month and facilitates millions of patient-doctor connections every year. Powered by a growing community of patients who share their personal experiences, industry experts committed to providing comprehensive, vetted information, and a network of verified doctors and providers, RealSelf helps people make smart, confident decisions about self-improvement.
Among his colleagues and employees, Tom is known for his connection to and advocacy for the consumer, as well as his strong relationships in the medical aesthetics community. He leads a team of executives who set strategy and operate the company, and spends significant time speaking to employees at all levels and functions.
Prior to RealSelf, Tom was an executive at Expedia, where he developed a private-label travel business, and was an early expert in search engine marketing long before Google was a household name. Tom sits on the board of ReSurge International, a nonprofit that is building reconstructive surgery capacity in developing countries. He holds a master’s of science from Drexel University, an MBA from the University of Washington, and a bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two energetic boys.
Thank you for joining us Tom! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
While working at Expedia, I saw firsthand the power of transparency and peer-to-peer reviews. Expedia brought disruption to travel in a way that no other business had, and I knew years before ever starting RealSelf that I wanted to do something similar for the health & beauty industry.
Then, in 2006 I was shown a brochure for a $1,500 laser skin treatment that made big promises about amazing results, and downplayed risk factors as well as important considerations like when can you return to work. I realized that medical aesthetics didn’t just lack transparency — the industry is also highly unregulated. That’s when the idea for RealSelf was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Not long after starting RealSelf I was connected to a woman who was very active in the industry and involved in patient education in particular. She asked if we could meet and flew from Chicago to Seattle to make that happen. At that meeting she delivered a very unexpected message — that it’s important I understand the power of RealSelf. She reminded me that tens of thousands of people are looking to us as they make critical decisions about their own bodies, and told me that I have a social responsibility to “do the right thing”.
I knew I was bringing transparency to an industry and providing people with important information, but that meeting humanized what we do at RealSelf and how we need to consistently do the right thing, above profits and any other agenda.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
In 2008, RealSelf was sued in U.S. federal court by Lifestyle Lift, a company that sold a branded facelift on late night infomercials. A company thousands of times larger than us at the time, Lifestyle Lift was frustrated because reviews of their brand on RealSelf were trending negatively.
As founder and CEO of a young very lightly financed business, I felt a sense of panic after being served with the lawsuit paperwork. That changed when my board member Rich Barton explained to me that, “You’vebeen handed a gift,” and the lawsuit was a validation we were both disruptive and making a big difference in the world.
The quote “never allow a good crisis go to waste” is great advice for entrepreneurs, but it’s also within our power to frame a challenge to your business as a new opportunity.
Can you tell us about one of the “cutting edge” technologies you introduced? How will it help people?
At RealSelf, our goal is to use technology to make aesthetics decisions and purchases easy, personal and trusted. For instance, we are rapidly iterating on virtual solutions including a virtual consultation feature that makes it easy to find and schedule video-based appointments with doctors. Through the new search experience, consumers can connect from the comfort and safety of their home to over 1,200 plastic surgeons, dermatologists and medical providers who offer online consultations.
Looking ahead, we see a promising opportunity for patients and doctors to both make connections and maintain relationships virtually.
As we’ve seen in the news around “Zoom bombing,” video connections only work when they are secure. That is especially important to our audience, which is exploring highly emotional and sensitive decisions about changing their body, their skin, or other aspects of their physical appearance. For that reason, privacy is a top concern among both patients and doctors. This is especially true for virtual consultations. While the Department of Health & Human Services announced last month that it will waive HIPAA penalties for good faith use of telemedicine, this should be seen by the industry and our company as a flashing yellow light to go forward cautiously and keep protecting patient privacy at the center of all decision making.
Can you share 2–3 things that most excite you about the “beauty-tech” industry?
1-Virtual Engagements and Technology. In just a few weeks, awareness and use of telehealth has mainstreamed. Solutions like virtual appointments are making it possible for consumers to meet with experts from home, at a time that is convenient for them. We’ve been forced to adopt this new technology in the current climate, but we’re also realizing there are big opportunities for the space — from patients being able to consult with multiple doctors without having to take time off of work, to doctors being able to check in on their patients from the comfort of their home. From work to personal and romantic relationships to professional counsel and support, we’re looking at virtual solutions through a different lens. Much like these other industries, the medical aesthetics world will be embracing virtual solutions in a much bigger way moving forward.
2-Personalization and Customization. We’re starting to see brands in the medical aesthetics space embrace technology that helps them deliver more personalized solutions — from skincare treatments that use a patient’s own plasma to diagnostic tools that help identify an individual’s unique skin concerns. Doctors are also embracing tools like 3D imaging to help patients envision outcomes of procedures. As technology continues to improve and demand for individualized solutions grows among consumers, personalization and customization will be a point of differentiation for brands.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
1-Inclusivity and Diversity. From producing wider shade ranges for products to celebrating gender-neutral makeup, the color cosmetics world is embracing diversity and inclusiveness, but medical aesthetics is largely lagging behind. We’re starting to see more diversity in marketing and increased conversations around acceptance, but there is still a ways to go. Furthermore, there is a pretty significant gender gap in the industry: only about 15% of plastic surgeons are women. That has started to improve as more women enter plastic surgery training programs, but considering that the vast majority of plastic surgery patients are women, the industry still has a lot of room for adapting to the needs and sentiment of the market.
2-Safety. Cosmetic treatments are more accessible than ever before. However, it’s important to remember that these are still medical procedures and they warrant serious consideration and research. RealSelf is committed to making sure consumers have access to the complete picture — like the pros and the potential side effects of a treatment, and transparent information about the doctors performing them. Last year we launched a program called RealSelf Verified, which recognizes doctors who meet high standards of trust and transparency. In order to become Verified, doctors must be in good medical standing with board certifications and medical licensing, have high patient satisfaction ratings, and demonstrate a commitment to patient education.
3-Influence vs. Expertise. Social media gives people a voice and as a result, can help foster important conversations. However, there is rising concern about the level of expertise that social media influence can convey. Storytelling and personal recommendations are useful, but shouldn’t be prioritized over the advice of a credentialed professional.
You are a person of great 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?
Governments around the world appear to be shifting inward and away from globalism. As a lover of travel and beneficiary of exploring cultures around the world, I truly believe that we need to rise above politics and tap into our human nature to seek connection and help one another live a better life. The movement I’ve sought to inspire with those who know me, and the community on RealSelf, is to forge connections and make it a norm to give back. The best part about connection and giving back is that it fills your heart and keeps you centered on what truly matters.