Julia Cheek. Photo Courtesy of Whitney Martin
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!
3 Min Read
"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.
Find A Need And Fill It
I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.
Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.
Have Working Capital And Credit
There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.
I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.
Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.
My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.
Know Your Product Thoroughly
I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?
My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.
My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!
More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.
Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth
I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.
I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.
Delegate From The Bottom Up
I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.
In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.