This is a rate of Starting year one, a special series of interviews with Founders on key lessons learned immediately after their company’s first year of operation.
Many founders fall into the trap of believing that fundraising is a rite of passage in the startup world. But it can also be very distracting and daunting, and if you are a woman the odds are good to say it politely.
Former Air Force pilot and self-described serial entrepreneur Riley Rees initially went the traditional route with her startup Sofia Health. Sofia Health was founded in 2019 and is a digital platform to connect potential patients with doctors and specialists in Western, alternative and holistic medicine.
To be appreciated valued at $ 120.8 billionThe mental wellbeing market was recently first defined by the Global Wellness Institute as having four subsegments: self improvement; Meditation and mindfulness; brain-boosting nutraceuticals and botanicals; and senses, spaces and sleep.
capital recently spoke to Rees, the founder of Sofia healthto learn more about the business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome and the plans for the new year.
For the sake of clarity, the following interview has been condensed and edited slightly.
capital: You are both a military veteran with 20 years of service in the US Air Force and a commercial pilot. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what got you into the business world? (or answer: Can you tell us something about your background? What was your job before you started?
Rees: Before founding Sofia Health, I served in the Air Force for 20 years, both as a dedicated aero medical evacuation technician and as an officer who became a C-17 pilot. When I started my career, I expected to leave the military and pursue a career in medicine. But I discovered that the military is the perfect training ground for entrepreneurs. It gave me an elitist, one-of-a-kind education that provided fundamental fundamentals that I still use every day, especially in business operations. As a pilot, you have to rely especially on critical thinking, prepare for a variety of situations, and stay calm and task-oriented. All of these are incredible skills to get started in a new business.
When I decided to get into business, I saw this as an opportunity to bring together my business skills and interest in improving health care. Prior to founding Sofia Health, I co-founded another healthcare startup focused on giving patients access to their medical records. Like many first-time founders, I faced a bumpy road with lots of lessons and we eventually closed the company. From there I went to MIT for my MBA, where the idea for Sofia Health came about.
It’s daunting to start a startup during normal times, but running a healthcare company during a global pandemic requires an entirely different level of courage and motivation. What inspired you to bring Sofia Health to market?
Sofia Health was inspired by personal experiences: I suffered a neck injury while exercising and learned that my only treatment options were physical therapy or medication. Desperate for another solution, I began looking for alternatives to pain and eventually found myself on WebMD and Yelp for medical care. Overall, it was a difficult experience and opened my eyes to the challenges people face when they have chronic pain or psychological problems and are looking for alternative and holistic care.
During graduate school at MIT, I was able to do consumer research and testing. I started interviewing people with chronic illnesses and found that they all spent a lot of time looking for alternative solutions, just like me. An added complexity was that many had not yet been diagnosed and therefore struggled with symptoms and finding a provider to treat them.
The holistic health market is fragmented and there has been no association between symptoms and a provider’s performance. If you have a headache, such as a physical symptom, you may not be aware that it can be triggered by psychological factors such as stress. This fragmentation makes it difficult to find a doctor based on symptoms alone.
And for the holistic health practitioner, the matter is further complicated by the fact that titles can vary which can be confusing to the consumer. This is where I saw that we can make a real difference: Facilitating the connection between provider and customer, and being transparent about credentials, training, and provider philosophy.
Of course, we didn’t expect what would happen in 2020. I started working on Sofia Health in 2019 so the pandemic came at a critical time. COVID-19 has uncovered significant gaps in our health care system, highlighted differences in care, and increased the need for practitioners to move to virtual care as consumers move to home care solutions. Growing a business in a pandemic is a daunting endeavor, but the fact is, access to health and wellness professionals is more important today than ever. Far from detracting from our success, the pandemic actually added fuel to our fire. We’ve been able to make a huge difference for both consumers and practitioners, which has allowed us to move forward at full speed in the face of such a difficult year.
How do you decide what type of services to offer Sofia Health and who is the target audience? How are you recruiting doctors and specialists to provide services and how does this affect the greater shift towards telemedicine?
Sofia Health is intended to be a marketplace where consumers can meet vendors to find solutions to their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs. Health and wellness professionals ranging from doctors to naturopaths, functional medicine health coaches to holistic nutritionists come together on a single platform. This improves access to care and gives consumers the opportunity to choose the most appropriate provider, intervention and approach for them.
The move to telemedicine is part of a larger trend towards patient-centered care. Our holistic, non-isolated approach to health provides a solution for a wide audience and fulfills these needs for the consumer. People who come to our platform are often triggered by a chronic or autoimmune disease, the search for an alternative solution, or the desire for preventive health.
Today, our healthcare system is fragmented, incentives are misaligned, care is managed in silos, and patient experience is largely lacking. However, patients increasingly demand a better experience or seek solutions elsewhere. In terms of vendor growth, vendors often look to us in search of solutions to respond to these industry shifts and new consumer demands. You want to get in direct contact with consumers. Many also need a business structure – planning, billing – if they don’t belong to a large network or have technical acumen.
Overall, we see consumers taking control of their health, demanding technology for flexible scheduling and virtual visits, requesting visibility into services and prices, and a platform like Sofia Health enabling providers to deliver that experience.
How was the fundraising process before and since the start of the pandemic? After running the normal fundraising program in your first year of business, you recently decided not to run a fundraising round last fall. How was the thought process there?
When we were preparing to collect an initial seed, the pandemic was in full swing. Everything changed – the fundraising landscape, states that were banned, meetings that were transitioned to Zooming Calls. It was more difficult in the sense that traditional networks and meetings as we knew them were gone. We have still adjusted to this new normal, but continued to work on product and growth. As the world adjusted to life during a pandemic, providers and practitioners saw the value of Sofia Health and signed up. Our partnerships with organizations began to grow.
After a few months, I noticed that the fundraising process was constantly diverting attention away from clients, clients, and growth. It was also at this point that I realized that despite a pandemic, we had managed to make our way through and that we had a product and customers. With a lean team and an intense focus on our customers, we were able to bring Sofia Health to the market. So I decided to focus on traction and not get a check.
After we have gone through the initial ideas phase, I hope that we can minimize debt financing and continue to invest all funds back into Sofia Health. While this means slower growth, it preserves equity.
In retrospect, I think I had the same misunderstanding that many founders have: raising capital is a rite of passage and an indicator of your success. In fact, I found my success in the customers and providers we had on board and in the traction we were able to generate.
Beyond the current public health crisis, where do you see Sofia Health five years from now?
My vision for Sofia Health is to become the overall health and wellbeing goal and to contribute to a greater movement towards holistic health. an understanding that true health is a combination of physical, mental, and spiritual health.
A big part of our mission is to expand access to care. This approach to care is not just for the wealthy but for everyone. One aspect that we are passionate about as a company is our ability to connect individuals in underserved areas with providers. Our infrastructure enables us to support new businesses and, in turn, provide services to people who may not be able to afford them. We hope this will expand to many communities and we can’t wait to see how this benefits the future generation of health and wellness entrepreneurs.
Ultimately, we want to remove health silos and barriers, put individuals at the center of their care, and empower them to take control of their health. We hope that we can grow significantly and further balance the needs of providers and consumers.
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