Culture is you. Listen to your colleagues, celebrate the wins, learn from the losses, and treat everyone the same — but enable the culture as the leader. It sounds easy, but it is very revealing as a leader.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Will Febbo, CEO of OptimizeRx.
Over the last 20 years, Will Febbo has led health service, technology and finance companies, connecting key participants in the healthcare industry. As CEO and director of OptimizeRx (NASDAQ CM: OPRX), he has continued to drive innovation in healthcare, and over the last several years, he has led the transformation of OptimizeRx into a leading digital health company that facilitates communication at the point-of-care for better health outcomes. Will was co-founder and CEO of MedPanel, a market intelligence and communication provider to the life sciences and financial industries and became COO of investment banking and CEO of the firm’s Digital Capital Network when it was acquired by Merriman Capital. He earlier held a few M&A and international business development roles at multinational companies.
Will currently serves as a faculty member for Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s linQ program, a collaborative initiative increasing the potential of innovative biomedical research to benefit society and the economy. He also serves on the board of The United Nations of Greater Boston, a non-profit focused on building a stronger network of global citizens in the Boston area. He also serves as a board member of Modular Medical, an early-stage public medical device company.https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2FsAPAYuky5Ds%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DsAPAYuky5Ds&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2FsAPAYuky5Ds%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Eating Burritos with a group of M.D.’s at my brother’s apartment in Boston. It became very clear that there was a need to connect medical wisdom and knowledge on the front line with the industry that pays for much of the innovation and manages commercialization. That day, among MD’s and burritos, I learned of a company creating focus groups of MDs for industry. I ended up offering to buy it, with my brother, and we built MedPanel –an online data and analytics business we started in 1999. We sold it in 2006 to a San Francisco-based bank, where we continued to build it out until the 2008 financial crisis. I bought the company back with a few people and then sold it again a few years later. In that process, I continued to work with the bank and met OptimizeRx when it was just generating early revenue.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
There were two turning points for me which were hard in the moment but looking back have absolutely given me the skills and knowledge to deal with whatever comes my way.
The first was me sitting in an airport in Hong Kong in my 20’s, waiting to return home from a business trip, when I realized I was not in the right place in terms of a job. The job was fantastic, working directly for the CEO of a large company helping them buy companies all over the world. I was the scout, not the check writer. I would find the businesses, approach them, talk about the idea of being acquired, build the business case and then present them to the leadership team and sometimes the board. It was a huge honor at my age, which to this day I still respect greatly. However, I was young, single and not motivated by the products of the industries I was within. It was then I called my parents, said I was making a change. I gave up my salary and benefits and moved to Boston to figure out how to be like my peers and have fun. While not completely sold on my lack of plan, they were very supportive. That is how I ultimately sat with my brother and his physician friends. The hard part was the unknown — a huge change of path without any clear upside other than searching for a different lifestyle.
The second was after we sold the MedPanel to the bank and business was going very well. We built a company, someone other than us valued it and bought it, we were integrating and growing, and the value of the combined company was growing as well. My chair became the bank’s chair, I sat on the board, we up listed to Nasdaq and I had a great position within the company. It felt good, and was a new setting for me, so it was intriguing. We moved from Boston to San Francisco with our 3-year-old. Then 2008 hit and an internal legal issue presented itself. A double whammy. I quickly saw all the value we had built for 10 years disappear in a matter of 3 months. It was absolutely the hardest thing I have experienced professionally and personally. I felt the pressure of letting down all my shareholders (many of whom were friends and family) who now held stock in a company quickly becoming devalued with no clear fix. It forced me to deal with anger, blame, critical thinking, and problem solving. Instead of disappearing, like I wanted to do, I bought MedPanel back. This experience taught me that you must lead in all circumstances, especially when times are tough. It also taught me that you can have the best laid plan, be sailing along and out of nowhere comes a storm and beats you down. Be prepared for the tough times, they are inevitable.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I was raised to work hard and not give up. So,after I got over myself and stopped thinking about money, I put my head down and put a plan in place to carry forward. I also had my wife who absolutely encouraged me in every possible way.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am. I am running a great company with a great team, which I would have never met if it were not for leaving corporate America, building and selling MedPanel to the bank, then buying it back, but staying connected to the bank and therefore coming across OptimizeRx. It all seems to make sense now, but there were a lot of twists and turns in the process. I guess that is how wisdom is built!
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?
When I worked for the conglomerate in my 20’s, they had a division dedicated to precious metals. My big day came when my boss asked me to put in a sample order for a very important client in Asia. I had been studying the business for about 3 months and when I filled out the paperwork, I inaccurately put the quantities and therefore weights of the sample sizes. I submitted the order and felt good that the company trusted me to do such an important test. The next morning, I was called down to the president’s office with the head of manufacturing and, of course, my boss. I was wondering if I was getting a promotion for doing such a stellar job on the sample order as everyone had big smiles when I walked into the plush office. Long story short, they had some fun with me because they were great people, but I had put in a multimillion-dollar order. It would have been the largest in the firm’s history — for what was supposed to be a 5–10-thousand-dollar order. They did not fill the order as presented, but I was embarrassed and learned to check my work and focus on the details!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My current company, OptimizeRx, is so much fun to talk about. Almost everyone understands what we do, and how we are helping the healthcare industry, even if you are not in the industry. We help our clients -pharma- connect and communicate with doctors and patients to improve affordability and adherence of medical treatments. We do this all digitally, either on a computer for doctors, or a mobile device for patients. My passion of connecting industry and medical professionals and patients, which was started over burritos with my brother and his friends, continues at a much broader scale today. It continues to drive me to work even harder to digitally connect the healthcare industry and ultimately help patients get more affordable treatment options and better treatment outcomes.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
- Hire up, surround yourself with smarter, more knowledgeable, and highly ethical people.
- Work out or meditate everyday — if even for 15 mins.
- When with family or friends, be with them. Keep your eyes and ears off your phone.
- Be sure to involve yourself in other industry events, as well as (at least) one non-profit or charitable organization at least once a year.
- Keep up with your hobbies
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?
I have many people to thank for who I am. My parents, first and foremost, have completely and unconditionally supported me throughout my life. My siblings, they pushed me, listened, supported, argued, and loved me through good and bad, that is what gives me the confidence I have deep inside. My wife and children make me feel like a superhero, which comes in handy. Jim McElya, Kyle Remus, Ian Edgar, John Thompson, Jon Merriman, Jim Lang, Lyn Vos…and many more have believed in me and I will forever be grateful. As to OptimizeRx, the leadership team and everyone who has joined the journey — they inspire me. I believe it does not just take a village, but many villages and many people.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have been on a non-profit board for over 15 years called United Nations of Greater Boston (UNAGB). An organization focused on building and supporting the next generation of global citizens. I am also faculty/mentor at MIT in a program called linQ. The linQ Method helps innovators accelerate and heighten the impact of their solutions on serious health and medical challenges. I also advise and do some board work for companies inside the health industry, both public and private. Working with UNAGB and MIT is about giving back. Mentoring and helping others have helped me. The board work is always interesting and challenging as the companies I tend to lean in on are early stage.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1) Pursue your passion and enable believers. If you are not passionate, who will be? You need to enable believers every day, from team members, to investors to clients. As I mentioned, while eating burritos with my brother and his friends, I saw firsthand something in which I could use my business and people skills and really make an impact. That is what pushed me to focus on the health space. When times get tough, and they will, your passion will carry you.
2) Enable a founder’s mentality. Ownership is key. You take better care of what’s yours and this includes owning a piece of the company. Ownership is rewarding, fuels culture, and keeps people connected to each other. When it works, it is incredibly powerful. It creates ambassadors for the company. I find most founders overuse their title, which makes it harder to attract the talent you really need to hit scale.
When allocating ownership, have milestones. For example, you can connect ownership to milestones in the company, so it is not just ownership but connectedness to a true deliverable. Colleagues feel connected not to just the value they create, but also the service, tech, and revenue.
3) Hire up! When choosing a board, and executive and operational team, hire people that will still be challenged and growing the business 10 years out. Hire people who are smarter, different, and fun. It will make it less about you and more about the team. For me, I had to find the right people with the right experience and allow people to do what they need to do. This is true for a start-up, but also applies when you are going into a company with an existing team in place. You need to quickly assess what is standing in their way and help them succeed. It is all about empowering people, so they do not feel stuck.
I think of athletes and chess players (when talking about hiring ahead of your needs) because they tend to be people who can handle the work, push themselves and others, and think several moves ahead. This leads to a faster pace and quicker decisions. Business is a race and competition is always brutal — no matter what industry you are in. You need a team with agility and smarts.
4) Culture is you. Listen to your colleagues, celebrate the wins, learn from the losses, and treat everyone the same — but enable the culture as the leader. It sounds easy, but it is very revealing as a leader.
I prefer to communicate openly with all stakeholders- whether they are internal or external. Invest time and money on your team and colleagues. At OptimizeRx, I write a blog called CEO Café where I share my thoughts on the industry with external stakeholders on LinkedIn. It provides me with a forum to stay connected with my industry. I also host internal monthly “cafés” with my colleagues which allows us to maintain our connected company culture while we are living and working in virtual environments. It keeps me connected to what is really happening operationally. My hope is that this enables everyone to be open and collaborative.
5) Always remember your purpose. Share your big vision but manage how it is executed and communicated and foster an atmosphere of creative thinking. At OptimizeRx, our purpose is to help industry communicate with doctors and patients to improve care, so we must always be open to alternative ways to reach them even beyond our current channels. We foster an atmosphere of innovative thinking so people know they can think and create outside the box while still being connected to our purpose.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
Enable wisdom. Talk to your older family members and friends, ask them to share their mistakes, accomplishments, regrets, and joys. Then share what you learn with others.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights!