On Thursday 14th April Smedvig Capital held an evening in conversation with Pablo Graiver and Keith Lovell, CEO and CFO of patient-focused technology company TrialReach. Founded in 2008, TrialReach connects patients and researchers to drive medical science forward. It has raised almost $20m in venture capital and grown to become a leading player in the digital health sector.
CEO Pablo is a seasoned entrepreneur who has built high-scale businesses in the online retail, travel, mobile, media and health sectors. His past firms include Kelkoo.com, Kayak.com and Value Click. In 2008 he founded TrialReach.
CFO Keith has more than 20 years’ experience of financial and commercial management, ranging from small entrepreneurial enterprises to large blue chip companies. Prior to TrialReach Keith spent over nine years at Shazam as CFO and a member of the executive team that grew the business from a small start up to a global mobile media brand.
Serial Entrepreneur and professional speaker Philip de Lisle compered the conversation with Pablo and Keith focusing on their extensive experience of scaling up a start up. Below is a short excerpt from the evening’s conservation:
Where do you start when you’re trying to scale up a business?
Pablo: You have to start way before you actually want to scale up the business. You need to think about the problem that you’re trying to address, and keep yourself in check with the question, ‘Am I solving this problem?’ From that core problem you draw your plan: it’s about the technologies, the people and the business model you will be operating. When I was at Kelkoo in 2000 we were a small company in Madrid with around 12 people. We met another small company in Paris and we had to decide whether to compete or merge. We decided to merge and then we were 20 people with a great idea and some tech that we wanted to build. Suddenly 3-4 months later we were 125 people with 35M Euro in the bank and offices in 5 countries. That’s not something that’s healthy or easy to replicate but it’s an example of what happens when something really accelerates and you can’t really plan it, when to scale to that speed. I don’t think there’s a recipe for where you start, but you have to be very clear about what you’re trying to do and always check that the elements you’re addressing are solving that initial problem.
What is the biggest challenge?
Pablo: In hindsight, for TrialReach, the timing at the beginning was a bit early, although now it seems like being early was actually a good thing. We were talking to the market and very few people understood what we were trying to do. The industry didn’t understand, the customers didn’t understand, and neither did the investors. I think now the market has changed and the industry is much more sophisticated and digital health as a sector is robust and flourishing, which is great for us. But in the beginning it was very hard to articulate our idea in a way that the market could understand.
How do you create and foster the right culture?
Keith: It’s easier if you have a really identifiable mission about what you’re doing. Shazam was easy because we had music. Music is something everyone can buy in to and be passionate about, so it was quite simple to have a fun, easy going culture. With TrialReach it is more about the fact that we are attempting to do something meaningful, we want to transform the way clinical trials are being carried out. We’re trying to bring together Pharma companies and patients, two sides of what should be the same equation, to advance together in a way that they haven’t done before.
Pablo: I think culture varies from one company to another. It’s essentially what we’re doing, how we behaving, and natural things that happen when they are not forced. It comes from clearly identifying the values of the company and what it is trying to do and then identifying people who feel they are passionate about that and want to participate in it.
You have a lot of experience with VC money, so the first question is, does it help or hinder? And secondly, what does it bring with it?
Keith: It can be either. Hopefully if you do it right it’s a help. VCs obviously have a time and place and it’s not just about VC money it’s about having the right VC. I think the most important thing is to make sure you’re getting the right people for your business. All VCs provide money but also important is the experience, contacts and potentially the name that’s attached. After that it comes down to who’s actually getting involved in the business and also, if you’re dealing with the right VC, that they’re joining the business in the right way.
Pablo: I agree with Keith, it could be both, or either. I think the key thing is to try to understand what the plan is and what the investment you’re asking for is going to fund. Then try to communicate that as openly and transparently as possible. Even if it’s not the best plan, if it’s the right investor it will create a great synergy.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Pablo: In 1999 I went to New York for the first or second edition of the Internet World Conference. I went to meet the founder of a company called Linkshire which was one of the most important affiliate marketing companies of the time. I was explaining my idea to this guy and he looked at me and said ‘it’s all about the execution in end hey?’ It’s a very small piece of advice but when you’re in starts ups and you’re building a business, you realise all your plans and ideas come down to how persistent you are, how much you actually get done and how well you do it. The quality and speed of your decisions and how you implement them is all that matters.