Roughly 3.6M patients end up missing an appointment each year because of an unfortunate dearth of viable and available transportation options. For some, transport might be too costly. For others, it may prove unreliable. Circulation is looking to change this, offering a new means of making one’s appointment on time and with up to 70 percent in savings. Circulation is a digital transportation platform providing patients with a fairly-priced, reliable Non-Emergency Medical Transportation (NEMT).
Circulation’s CEO and Co-Founder, Robin Heffernan, discusses her company below, giving us insight into how she is changing the healthcare world for the better.
1. Have you always wanted to start your own company?
I imagine that some people are born to start companies. These people seem to have a feeling in their guts that drives them to be entrepreneurs and start companies. I honestly do not believe that describes me. I think I am a person of passion and I like to move quickly from idea to execution. I was well trained in school, then in critical thinking while a consultant, and then in the dynamics of funding in the venture capital world. My simple desire to start companies and make them successful is to fill critical needs in the market. Clearly, the early success of Circulation reaffirms that there is an unmet need and we have a way to help meet it.
2. What did you do before starting Circulation?
My background is varied, and the different perspectives have proved immensely helpful to me. I studied the sciences during my degrees at Harvard. As a PhD candidate, I also worked closely with NASA and many leaders in global climate change. The rigor in thinking helped me hone great core skills that I continue to use today. Likewise, I enjoyed the teaming and building solutions with a diversity of people and thought. I did not mesh well with the time cycles of research and heavy focus on grant funding.
My desire to work on hard problems with smart people brought me to management consulting. I got a crash course in business and found that my internal wiring aligned well with markets and market forces. I loved the fundamental apprentice model and I learned a lot very quickly. I switched from consulting to Venture Capital because I wanted to build something and to run something but, in all honesty, it was also opportunistic and an example of being in the right place at the right time. I’m very happy I made the switch and Flybridge Venture Capital offered a great mix of new company incubation and early stage investing. It was useful for me to see how investors selected companies and how successful businesses navigated growth and various exit scenarios.
3. Was it hard to start a business like this?
Building businesses is part evolution and part disruption. Many people will tell you “a good idea is only a good idea, not a successful business,” and this is very true. Every day the team continues to flesh out ideas, adjust direction, and execute. I don’t know any successful entrepreneur who ended up where he/she started. Building a great business takes a diversity of strong talent. The most challenging part of my role is to keep the team strong and to keep us aligned on what we want to accomplish in the marketplace as a team – while leveraging everyone’s individual talents and perspectives. There is no one superstar and I would be worried if there was. For me, this team dynamic is the most important and the most difficult.
Circulation’s CEO and Co-Founder, Robin Heffernan
4. Was it difficult to find partners or were companies willing?
There are many types of partners in my mind (e.g. financial, business, advisory). Circulation has been very well received by all of these partner types. Our Series A funding was over-subscribed and we have some excellent, experienced investors including traditional Venture Capital firms as well as six top-tier Strategics. Likewise, we have grown quickly from three pilot clients to over 60 Clients in our first year of operations. For us, the partnerships have been quite additive. Both investors and clients have helped us build better solutions and have steered us in the direction of additional market needs. These partnerships make us better and we cannot spend enough time listening to our partners as they are huge assets for us.
5. What are some plans you have for Circulation in the future?
Circulation is young and the capabilities we provide to healthcare are desperately needed. There will be much to do in meeting the intense healthcare market demand for logistics and transportation. As we succeed in this effort, the delivery of healthcare will improve and we believe we will be a major component of this improvement. My belief is that we can help to improve healthcare in many more ways that are fundamentally related to how we think at Circulation and the tools we have developed. At the core of Circulation is the exchange of goods and services which supports a fundamental shift in how consumers consume healthcare. This creates a marketplace that reacts to the natural forces of free markets. The healthcare industry will prosper no matter what. Our belief is that healthcare will be better as the consumer gets more involved and the free market forces come to the fore. We are a far distance away from that, but disruption in healthcare is only a matter of time and the consumer will disrupt how healthcare is delivered and more importantly consumed.
6. How do you think being a woman gives you an advantage and disadvantage as a CEO?
I was initially naïve about the difference between male and female CEOs. I thought it started and stopped at the genetic differences. I have never met a woman or man that I could not learn and benefit from. Yet, I now have come to learn that there are social differences in how men relate to men in contrast to how men relate to women. No matter what, there are more men running companies than women. There is a social dynamic of how men often relate outside of the business setting – the shared hobbies and activities beyond the specific business issues shared. Women may not always have this luxury of the overlapping activities. They may have a different set of hobbies or they may have different obligations, perhaps a greater role in the family dynamic or child rearing. All of this said, it is not an excuse for a difference, just something to be aware of and to recognize that some of the related issues may cause a variation in the amount of time or subjects shared amongst executives.
7. Were you expecting Circulation to be as successful as it has been?
My answer is yes and it is based on two items, not just my ego. First, the needs in healthcare. The market is evolving and has a tremendous amount of progress to be made. The reaction to a solution such as Circulation has been exciting and powerful. Second, I have a great team. This team has experience and intelligence – and, they have built a great working style which is hugely collaborative. This collaborative style is within the team and with clients. These ingredients make me proud of Circulation and confident of our continued success.
8. What do you do when you’re not running the company?
I love healthcare and I love business challenges. What we are doing at Circulation is challenging, unpredictable and extremely rewarding. My life outside of Circulation is equally rewarding but perhaps more simple. I have a husband and two younger children. When I am not at Circulation, I am with them. Raising children throws many curve balls. It also forces you to be diligent around prioritizing time and efforts. Being a mom has made me a better entrepreneur without question. I am also very fortunate that my family understands my love for Circulation and supports my endeavors 100 percent.
9. Who is your biggest inspiration?
Honestly, I don’t subscribe or follow an individual man or woman as a role model. I do find that I am a mosaic of many influences of people and beliefs. I have great friends, family and colleagues who influence me. I value individuals that are passionate and that lead by example. I also have a lot of respect for those who recognize that one person will never serve all needs and can piece together the strengths of many to create a greater whole.
10. We know you just closed an exciting $10M funding deal, how do you feel about that?
We do need the capital to help us accelerate our impact. We have huge plans for expansion and growth throughout the U.S. We already serve over 60 clients, across 1,000 top-tier hospitals, clinics, community centers and other health facilities. We continue to prove that Circulation can significantly increase patient satisfaction rates while simultaneously cutting ride costs by up to 70 percent – a clear benefit for our healthcare clients and their populations served. This success continues to create greater and greater demand in the markets we serve and we already have line of sight to hundreds of more clients.
"I love healthcare and I love business challenges. What we are doing at Circulation is challenging, unpredictable and extremely rewarding"
11. What is your greatest accomplishment with Circulation?
It has been a whirlwind. I am extremely proud of where we’ve taken Circulation and how there is a very strong market demand for what we offer. I love our team. This team has been assembled over a number of years and they are great to work with. What is really nice is that with our clients, we can see instant positive impact on patients, family members and caregivers – we are already changing healthcare.
12. What is advice you have for girls who aspire to start their own companies?
This is a great question and one which makes me think. My first piece of advice is to follow your passion. If you are passionate about what you do, it will be more fun and more rewarding. Also, work will not feel like work, it will be a pleasure which will most likely mean you will excel there too. Second, is the world is complicated and the complications are increasing. Recognize that everyone is juggling numerous priorities and demands on their time. Do not be embarrassed by other commitments, be proud of them. Also, look for ways to make everything work. This may mean working remotely or adjusting your daily work schedule. If you are open and over-communicate, then most will be supportive and work with you to make everything fit together and work. Lastly, be thoughtful. Many people do not spend the time to think of a better answer or a better approach. Don’t be afraid to expend the effort to create a great idea or set of thoughts.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.