Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?
Tom: Probably that I call Seattle home. Many people immediately assume RealSelf is based in New York or Los Angeles because of our focus. Consumer companies are rare in the Seattle tech scene. We stand out amid the masses of enterprise software companies, and I like that.
I do feel it’s important to point out, however, that Seattle is one of our top markets. I think it reflects how broad and mainstream the cosmetic and aesthetic industry has become. The thinking that cosmetic treatments are only for wealthy housewives in Beverly Hills or the elite is archaic.
Adam: How did you come up with the idea for RealSelf? In your experience as an entrepreneur, how much of success is the idea and how much is execution?
Tom: I was shown a glossy brochure for a $1,500 laser treatment that made exaggerated promises about risks, downtime and side effects. I was working at Expedia at the time, and it reminded me of the terrible travel brochures that used to exist. Before Expedia, there was no transparency in travel—brochures didn’t show you what the real experience was like. In reality, there’s no waiter handing you a cocktail on a beautiful white sand beach. Instead, you’re fighting to get a lawn chair and kids are throwing a football over your head.
RealSelf is doing something similar for medical aesthetics—we bring transparency to highly-considered decisions and purchases.
I saw a world that was unregulated, extremely opaque and lacked forces of trust beyond the one-on-one relationship that a person develops with their physician. I wanted to change that, so in 2006 I founded RealSelf. More than ten years later, we’ve built a global community of millions of users and tens of thousands of plastic surgeons and other medical aesthetic providers.
Adam: Can you talk about your experience raising over $40 million, including from other very notable entrepreneurs? How did you do it? What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs when it comes to raising money?
Tom: We were not just looking for money—we were looking for a strategic partner.
My advice is don’t take the first money you’re offered. Find someone who is passionate about your consumer and the change you want to make in the world, not just the financial opportunity. One of our investors is a co-founder of Warby Parker, which is a company incredibly focused on the consumer experience and solving problems for consumers. He believes in my long term vision, which is to create an enduring, loved brand that serves as a beacon of trust and aspiration.
Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your development and growth?
Tom: The digital world still has a somewhat binary view of subjects like nudity. Sometimes before-and-after images are bucketed and associated with adult websites. Algorithms and artificial intelligence struggle to discern what the true intent of that content is, and we continue to have those challenges with Google. Right now, Google is preventing that discovery and full information from being shared. It’s frustrating, because we know that more informed, confident decisions are made when people have access to the information on RealSelf.
Adam: How can other entrepreneurs follow your lead and build an online community from scratch?
Tom: Have good intentions and find a category that needs community support, and then focus on bettering that community and your customer first and foremost. When I first started RealSelf, my friends thought I was crazy. I’m not exactly the poster child for beauty. Yet I was interested in this fascinating space where, just like travel, it’s a highly considered, out of your own pocket expense, and intended to change or improve your own life. Over a decade later, I’m still thinking about what improvements we can make and what new products we can launch to help consumers and our community.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Tom: It’s important to create an environment where you can feel safe to express your true self. Great leaders allow people to lower their guard, check their ego at the door, and make space for direct, personal conversations to happen. Those who separate themselves from the pack are those who feel that deep level of trust—and it goes back to feeling safe and supported.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Tom: We all need deep levels of authenticity in how we communicate—so be very thoughtful and open in sharing.
Recognize and embrace the shifts that are happening in our country, and adjust your strategies to make sure you are being inclusive. The next generations will only be more diverse, and I think leaders have a lot of catching up to do to acknowledge that in their planning and business actions.
Finally, we need to recognize that we all communicate in different ways, and that we need to look for ways to bring more people into the conversation so we can listen and hear from everyone. At RealSelf, we have started to open up new channels of communication so people can choose the one that works best for them.
We believe employees shouldn’t have to adjust to a company that only wants to support people who speak out in a group setting—they should have more options, like an anonymous text line or online chats.
Companies are not really listening to their employees if they are not offering more than one type of communication channel.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Tom: My college roommate gave me advice that stuck with me: Take the road trip. What that means is that you are going to learn so much more by going outside of your comfort zone and discovering the world instead of just sitting with a textbook in your dorm room and trying to master the principles of advanced calculus. That openness and encouragement to learn about other cultures and how other people live their lives has really stuck with me.
Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?
Tom: I think we’re all supposed to do one thing to make the world a better place during our time here. It’s not about trying to change everything, but to make a difference in one impactful way.
I’m passionate about developing reconstructive surgical capacity in underserved communities. RealSelf is a longtime partner of ReSurge International, a nonprofit humanitarian aid organization. We work with ReSurge to bring medical support and build surgical capacity in countries outside the United States, because there’s a vast world of need out there that deserves our attention.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?
Tom: I live in the Pacific Northwest because I love to see the magnificence and natural beauty of our region through climbing, hiking and biking.
Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Tom: I’m really passionate about providing radical transparency to consumers and doing everything we can to help them make smart, confident decisions about medical aesthetic treatments.
Earlier this month we launched RealSelf Verified, a new program that helps educate patients about where a doctor stands in terms of their willingness to embrace transparency and authenticity. RealSelf Verified doctors must meet requirements confirmed by RealSelf, including proper medical licensing, high patient satisfaction ratings and responsive service. RealSelf also requires Verified doctors to provide the information most important to consumers on their profiles, including years of experience, hospital privileges and whether they carry malpractice insurance. They are also required to have before and after photos of their most-performed procedures and list their active board certifications. If someone is looking for a doctor, they should fact check everything on RealSelf.