People 04 December 2017
One peek at Julia Cheek's path, and you can see she was bound for something big right from the start. But it's hard to imagine anyone could have foreseen how dramatic her rise or how vital her work would truly be. But dramatic and vital it is. Julie Cheek is the CEO and Founder of EverlyWell, “the next-generation health testing platform empowering consumers to order, self-collect, and understand lab tests."
To date, EverlyWell has raised $5 M, making it one of the fastest-growing consumer healthcare startups in recent history. With seventeen employees and thousands of customers around the country, in just one year after launching in beta, EverlyWell has reached millions in sales.
CIO Magazine named Cheek “the number one female entrepreneur to watch" for 2017. No wonder. Prior to founding EverlyWell, Cheek served as the Vice President of Corporate Development and Strategy at MoneyGram International where she the youngest VP in the company, and that's not the half of it.
Photo Courtesy of EverlyWell
Originally from Dallas, Cheek earned her degrees in Economics and Psychology at Vanderbilt University, summa cum laude, naturally. In March of 2016, she relocated to Austin to build EverlyWell, relying on her background in strategy and operations. “I ran corporate strategy for a public company; earned my MBA from Harvard Business School where I graduated as a Baker Scholar; and started my career in consulting," Cheek explains.
Having the opportunity to attend the schools she attended was an important part of her success, Cheek says. “I've been very fortunate to get access to some of the best educational institutions in the world. I was introduced to my first investor by my college roommate. And, as I mentioned earlier, my exposure to entrepreneurship and my classmates at Harvard made me realize that I wanted to start a company. Being around incredible people that were bringing their ideas to life was a big part of determining my own career and life path. You have to surround yourself with people that you can look up to and that can push you to be better."
Success is in Cheek's blood. She says she's always excelled academically and been extremely driven at whatever she set my mind to. “I'm an only child, and both my parents are lawyers. Since I was eight years old, I showed horses and was a competitive equestrian. I sort of always 'marched to the beat of my own drum,' if you will. I retired at 25 from showing horses and finished as a multiple world champion."
Julia Cheek on Shark Tank
"I always graduated at the top of my class from high school, college, and business school. It's a natural ambition that's hard to explain, and not something I always viewed positively. My parents actually discouraged me from taking so many honors classes in high school because they wanted me to have some fun. That work ethic continued into my 20s and now in my early 30s. I think to have a strong sense of self and never-give-up work ethic are two key traits to entrepreneurship." says Cheek.
Cheek's reasons for starting EverlyWell are extremely personal. “After personally having a really bad experience with very expensive lab testing that resulted in little explanation from my doctors, I knew there had to be a better way – especially since managing biomarkers is a top contributor to preventing chronic disease."
Along with a few other passionate people, Cheek launched Everlywell “to redesign lab testing to be convenient and meaningful." She was confident she could make such an endeavor work.
“In the beginning, I wasn't necessarily inclined to take the startup route, but my exposure to entrepreneurship and my classmates at Harvard Business School made me realize that it was possible. For me, I didn't realize that entrepreneurship could be a career path and that someone like me could do it. But being around incredible people that were bringing their ideas to life, made me think, 'I have to try this!'"
Cheek says witnessing the inefficiencies in the healthcare system and seeing how consumers were moving towards taking control of their personal health, as well as having faith that the market was ready, made her realize she had to take the leap. “I knew that if I didn't at least try, that I would regret that decision for the rest of my life. I was super passionate about the idea and solution, but I also looked at the market forces and believed this could actually work."
As one would likely imagine, starting EverlyWell has been equal parts rewarding and challenging. But, Cheek says, she can't imagine erasing one minute of the experience. “I think one year at a startup is equivalent to five years in the corporate world. I've had to become an expert in every function and grow the company and team at a very fast pace."
Because of the nature of what EverlyWell does, launching it did have its unique challenges, Cheek explains. “When you're a startup you want to be disruptive and transformative, but in our case, we are working with people's health and their data. So, there is a level of discipline you have to have from day one that you simply cannot compromise."
Photo Courtesy of EverlyWell
Taking on such a challenging pursuit might be an unexpected from some. Not so for Cheek. She says that she doesn't think a person who knows her was surprised. “My friends say my husband and I are the most risk-tolerant couple they know. He's also an entrepreneur. I also think very, very few people understand what it takes to build a company from scratch, even if you've watched it as an investor or early employee. You really have to be a founder to understand - something I know now.
"As for support, Cheek had that on every front. Perhaps that's what kept her from ever seriously considering giving up. “I am constantly evaluating if we have the right products, right business model, and right approach - but that means tweaking or shifting direction, not giving up. It has never crossed my mind. That being said, I work 24/7 and hope at some point I'll be able to find some balance. The response from our customers and our team keeps me going. For example, we had one customer that utilized our Vitamin D and inflammation test after experiencing inflammation and fatigue. Through this, she learned her hs-CRP was abnormal, and after visiting her physician, found out that she had Thyroid cancer, and she was then able to go into treatment and is now in remission."
That's not to say that she doesn't get criticized. “I get it all the time," Cheek says, “from employees, from potential investors, from media. Most people don't compliment the boss. I've learned to take what's valuable and let go of the rest. If I worried about 99 percent of people thinking the company wouldn't work, then I wouldn't have started the company. It's a bit counter to the idea of entrepreneurship in and of itself. I can't worry about being liked. I want to be respected, valued, thoughtful, and fair."
It would be difficult to talk about challenges Cheek faced and not wonder how the Theranos debacle affected Cheek and her work. Cheek explains, that, “It's definitely a topic that came up while I was raising funds back in late 2015/early 2016. EverlyWell works with some of the most well-respected and fully-certified partner labs and has not created any new testing method. We utilize only existing, technologies, and our labs are both internally and third-party validated through regular proficiency testing."
The most recent and exciting chapter in Cheek's story is her major Shark Tank win, which is as remarkable as it is inspiring. Cheek says she is a big fan of the show and has been watching it for years. One of her investors, Halle Tecco (the founder of Rock Health) and one of her board members suggested she apply for the show, seeing her as the perfect fit – so she did.
The twenty-page application took about fifteen to twenty hours to complete, Cheek says. And, she continues, “there is an extremely low probability that you will even make it airing. But I was really committed and felt like the audience for Shark Tank is where I wanted to tell our story. We have a consumer product, and people don't even know that this option exists for lab testing. We know that our brand and consumer education is incredibly important to our growth, so it was really a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to pitch the sharks for an investment.
You get one shot to tell the story to the sharks and to America. I put a ton of pressure on myself to be sure I could tell the story of EverlyWell in the best light - and ideally get a deal from a shark." Needless to say, Cheek describes being on the show as nothing short of nerve-wracking. As for the result? Well, Cheek says, “We're extremely excited to be partnering with Lori. Her investment will help us roll out an additional twelve plus tests next year. We'll also be announcing several big partnerships, that will all make our at-home health tests even more accessible and affordable for our consumers."
Ask Cheek what she would say to others looking for investors of the grand kind she would advise anyone to choose their investors wisely. “As CEO of EverlyWell, I've been through a few funding rounds, and I've experienced firsthand how difficult the process can be. One of my top pieces of advice for raising your first round of funding is choosing the right type of investor for your business.
Pick your investors the same way you would pick your employees: look for someone who is a fit for both a skill set and cultural perspective. Know exactly why you want to work with them and why they should fund you. You need to know how it fits in with their portfolio and vision - and you want to vet them as much as they vet you. You can waste a lot of time talking to great VCs or angels who just structurally or philosophically don't fit with your company."
Cheek hopes other women will see her success as something they can have to. There's plenty of room for greatness, and here's what she hopes that every woman knows. “Being a female founder can be particularly challenging, but it can also be amazing. I would love for women to know that starting your own company can be amazing and rewarding, and it can be the best career path in the world. I really want to encourage other women to build the life and the business you want."
Cheek's Top Three Keys to Success
1. You know your business better than anyone else. Listen to feedback from advisors and investors, but ultimately remember that you know your business best, and you are the one building it with your team! If you hear a consistent theme, figure out how to address it. But if you take every piece of feedback seriously, you'll never be able to move forward. You have to have a healthy amount of confidence in your business and path forward to be able to stay focused and incorporate advice sparingly.
2. Hold your principles. “It's easier to hold your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold them 98 percent of the time" —Clayton Christensen, one of my professors from business school. To me, this holds true in life and in entrepreneurship. As a founder, you set the standard for the company and the team. You'll make a lot of mistakes, but doing the right thing—in any type of situation—is critical to building respect and being proud of your own actions.
3. Your business is your #1 priority. I am a pretty transparent person, so when asked how I maintain a work-life balance - the reality is that I don't -- and I do not have a goal to achieve that balance. At this stage, my business is a 24/7 job, and from every founder I've talked to, that does not get any better with time and scale - the challenges are just different!
Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.
When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.
2016: What rules?
Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.
Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.
And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.
And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?
Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.
Digital policies for 2020 and beyond
While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.
Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy
Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:
- If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
- While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
- If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
- Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
- Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?
Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.
Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply
The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:
- Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
- Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
- Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
- Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
- Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
- Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
- Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
- Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.
Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles
Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.