How did a former news reporter launch a video company that brings its programming directly into waiting rooms?
Shradha Agarwal is the co-founder of ContextMedia, a suite of digital healthcare networks delivering condition-specific programs at point-of-care in all 50 states.
Shradha Agarwal, ContextMedia
Shradha Agarwal is the co-founder of ContextMedia which is a suite of digital healthcare networks delivering condition-specific program at point-of-care in all 50 states.
Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I am the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart, and I’m trying something a little bit new with advertising here. I’ll tell you about it later.
Basically, Scott Edward Walker of Walker Corporate Law is my sponsor, but instead of playing the ad at the beginning of the interview the way I have been up until now, I’ll find a way to work it into the conversation here or talk to you about him later. And this interview that he is sponsoring is about how a former news reporter launched a video company that brings programming directly into waiting rooms, directly to the people who want to watch it. Shradha Agarwal, that is so unprofessional. I should clearly be able to pronounce your name. I apologize.
Shradha: Shradha Agarwal.
Andrew: Shradha Agarwal. Why am I having such an issue here? I’m going to leave it…
Shradha: It’s a rare name. It’s difficult to say and it’s not an easy name.
Andrew: You know what? It’s not difficult to say. You’re being generous. It’s easy to say. There’s something in my head that tells me you’re going to screw it up and then I screw it up. You are the co-founder of Context Media which is a suite of digital healthcare networks delivery condition specific programs at point of care in all 50 states. Did I get that right?
Andrew: Alright. And thank you for coming on here.
Shradha: Thank you for having me.
Andrew: One of the things we talked about before we started recording is how when you went to school, you weren’t like other kids. What was your experience like?
Shradha: You know, in some ways I probably was a lot like other kids and probably my result of that was different. I was very bored by just reading text books, learning what the text books said and then repeating it on a test. I wanted to truly know why we were learning what we were learning. How I could apply that information. What was the world going to gain from me knowing this? How could it change or improve the world around me?
So I was one of those annoying kids who was just always bored in class and did a couple of things because of that boredom. One was ask a lot of questions of all of my teachers. And they got very annoyed. They thought I was either questioning their authority or I was just being a rebellious truant. They would send me on punishment rounds and ask me to either go around the lap or go stand in the sun or stand outside of the classroom. And I didn’t know which one was better, being excused by the teacher to not have to attend the class or being in the class, but being bored.
The other thing that lead to was me just starting things outside of the classroom that I was able to use to express some of that curiosity and some of those questions and being able to figure it out on my own. Fortunately I had parents that were very supportive for a large part in that as well. But I don’t think they quite recognized how bored I truly was in school.
Andrew: And so one of those side projects was a library wasn’t it?
Shradha: It was. I was in fourth grade and by that time, I had already read through all of the books that my dad had in his library. He is also someone who loves knowing a little bit about a lot of things. So I think, one, I received my curiosity because of him, but, two, thankfully, he encouraged that curiosity and shared all his books with me. But at the point that I read all of those, I needed more books. And I only had so much of a monthly allowance and I couldn’t keep buying books fast enough because I was just reading a book a day at that point. And so I needed to find new sources of income. First thing I did of course is ask my parents for an increase. Didn’t work.
Two, I started to look around and see what are other resources, avenues, what are people doing around me? And it was not as common for kids to be making money because making money was something that grownups did in my world. And so I was really coming from a place where I just needed more books. I didn’t really care for the money so much, but I recognized that I needed to figure out some way to get to the resource to get to the outcome. And when I looked around, I was like, “Okay, I have these great books that I really enjoy reading. Maybe I’m not the only one bored in class. Maybe my friends don’t like their books either and they would prefer reading the books that I’m reading.”
So I went to class and I packed some of my dad’s books into my backpack and started marketing them. Started saying, “Did you guys know why Saturn has rings around it? Did you guys know the stars don’t twinkle beyond the atmosphere of the earth?” I started asking them all these questions that got them really intrigued and they would say, “Well, tell me more.” I would say, “Hold on. I don’t have time to explain it, but if you borrow this book from me for 50 [??] a day, you can read all about it.
That’s how I started marketing the book, started lending out my books, started becoming a pretty big library that ended up not just being in my class, but other sections of my class as well, other [??] classrooms. Soon my class teacher found out and she didn’t like the fact that I was distracting my classmates with more interesting books because she thought that they should be focusing on academic school curriculum. Not these fun books that had nothing to do with what they were learning in the classroom. I felt the opposite way, so I made it a secret underground book club that survived for a couple of years. Once we got to high school, we had access to a library.
Andrew: Unbelievable. How many books in this underground library?
Shradha: At one point, almost two hundred.
Andrew: Wow. So what is it about books that interested you? Most kids I feel had to be forced to read books in school. What was it about you that you were drawn to books?
Shradha: I think what I realized more recently as well, speaking with an artist is that books more so than other forms, give my imagination a pathway to really be able to visualize the way things can be, not just the way that things are. Because when I read a book, I really start to imagine the situations and imagine the actors and the characters and the protagonist and the antagonist and be able to understand the psychology and why someone is doing what they’re doing and not just what’s being done.
I also found just an avenue where there was no limit to how much I could learn. There was no structure. I could skip a chapter. I could pick up a book that I liked. I could drop the book if I didn’t like it. I liked the freedom of learning those things that interested me.
Andrew: I used to like reading books in school because I felt they gave me super powers. That if I could read a book on persuasion, like Cialdini’s book “Influence,” I felt like I had the ability to persuade anybody. If I could read a book about how to win friends and influence people, suddenly I had this super power. I could take someone who’s a stranger and turn them into a friend. Do you feel any of that?
Shradha: You know, I don’t think I have any super powers. So for the number of books I’ve read, I wish those were really turning into super powers. I do think that they absolutely made me feel empowered and I really enjoyed that aspect of it. It made me take ownership of what I wanted to do, what interested me. It gave me the freedom to choose. It gave me the judgment of an interesting book versus not. Those that really had depth of content, those not. So I really enjoyed all of those aspects of it.
Andrew: And then you become a reporter. Why a reporter?
Shradha: So I actually went through a little bit of a path. The library then ended up being a science fair which then became a science club.
Andrew: That you launched.
Shradha: That I launched.
Shradha: Again, I was not happy just reading about experiments and what an outcome of an experiment should be. I wanted to test it out on my own and I wanted to make my own mistakes. Because I really think that all mistakes are truly the greatest lessons in life. And so I started a science fair which became a science club. Which survives still today in my high school. Started a high school newspaper.
That’s when I recognized that what I really enjoyed doing is being able to bring information to people that empowers them. Just like books did for me. To give them the right tools for them to really take ownership of the paths they choose in life. And through tracing back those things that had most interested me, journalism was one of those avenues that I felt that I would really enjoy.
So I applied for a journalism program, went to school in the Chicago land area, became a news reporter, and then I recognized that what I enjoyed was not just bringing information to people, but really bringing it at the right time, right place where they can act upon it. Because it’s one thing to have information and have a lot of knowledge. It’s another to execute upon that knowledge.
And that became my moment of crystallization when it was great that I was able to bring information to people’s households, be their eyes and ears out in the field, but they couldn’t do much with that information. And I wanted to apply that skill set and that experience that I had had with education and information to doing it in a slightly different environment.
Andrew: So why start a company as opposed to going and find a company that can hire you to do that?
Shradha: I think that probably comes from my life long [??] and independence and I wanted to build something with my co-founding team, which is a great team as well. We all wanted to create something that we could really shape with our vision, and that’s what. . . As a child I had an imagination and I wanted to work hard to make that imaginative idea a reality. That’s what inspired us in college to take this concept, this vision, and really own it and execute upon it versus serve someone else in their vision, because when I have a vision, I want to make it come true.
Andrew: And the original idea came from an article that you were working on about what? I see you’re nodding. You know the one.
Shradha: Yes, so in college, what we started was something called [??] business review. We were noticing around us an anxiety to graduate from school and go into fields that were really making an impact. We didn’t want to choose between a nonprofit and for profit. We didn’t want to volunteer one gift a week and feel good about it six days of the week. We really wanted our work, which we all spend so many hours doing, to make a difference.
Having observed that around me, I recognized a need for a media outlet that highlighted people who were really combining business models and industries that were doing well while doing good. So that’s what the magazine focused on, how can our generation make a difference while making a profitable, sustainable, scalable solution?
Andrew: And you launched the magazine, too.
Andrew: So let me ask you something. I’m imagining that the audience is going to be watching and listening to this and saying, “I don’t really relate to this person. Everything she did worked out well, even back in school. I’m not like that, and this is too intimidating.” Was it the way that I just described it, where everything just worked out?
Shradha: It wasn’t. It’s easy for us to talk about this [??] and have hindsight lessons, but in those moments of building a company, we’ve made several mistakes along the. . .
Andrew: What about before that? I want to talk about the issues with the business, but what about before? Were you the kid who was launching Library and it worked, and then a science fair and it worked, and this, and everything just took off and it was all easy?
Shradha: It was not. I can definitely talk through some of the process of doing it as well. It took a lot of persistence. For the science fair, I went to the school principal. She absolutely refused. I went back again, and then again, and then again, trying to understand what were the reasons that she was saying no.
Andrew: Yeah. Why would someone say no to a science fair? You weren’t saying, “Hey, can we all smoke pot in your living room?”
Shradha: I only wanted to understand why someone is saying what they’re saying. What’s truly the core reason? It was something that I was just not ready to give up on. So I kept going, and she told me that my physics really did not like me.
I said, “Wow. Why?” She said, “Well, she thinks that you’re just asking too many questions and not respectful.” And so I said, “Well, that’s not the case. I’ll clarify that, but two, what do we need to get the science fair done, because here’s my vision.”
She like, “Well, come back to me with a plan.” So I went back, worked on a plan, talked to my friend, as well. “What would you find helpful?” So it was a lot of understanding all the different stakeholders and what is a solution that can play to each person’s needs. Then I went back to the principal, and she still said no.
I said, “OK. Now why no?” She said, “Well, you know, our labs. There’s only so many hours available and the teachers are already committed. We don’t want to compromise high school education for middle school education. Those kids need these resources more, they’re going to apply to college soon.”
So I said, “OK. What if we did this on a weekend?” There really was a lot of not taking no for a no and staying on course when I believed something would be helpful. But there were also a lot of reasons why I got almost suspended from school a couple of times for doing things that were just against the rules.
Andrew: What did you do that was against the rules and got you almost suspended?
Shradha: I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this. One of the things that I did as a fundraiser in school was a buy henna for my friends. Our school was very strict. We had a school uniform. We had to keep our nails clean, shoes shined, all of those things.
One time I used a henna that did not rub off in a certain number of days, and so, all of my classmates show up to school with henna on their hands, which is against our school uniform policy. Being the one that actually enable this, I was the one who was on the verge of being suspended, and I made a deal with the principal, and said I’ll help out in this way and I’ll do these extra assignments and all of these other things.
I did have a track record of being rebellious, but rebellious with a cause, and because of that reputation, I think I was preconceived by a lot of people as just a troublemaker. And they didn’t quite understand why I wanted to do the things I wanted to and I didn’t always have the audience to explain.
Andrew: I see, oh, that’s cool. Did you charge them for the henna or was this just a fun thing?
Shradha: It was a fundraiser so I did charge them…
Andrew: A fundraiser, oh, way to go.
Shradha: …which was worse because I made money for a science club, but all my classmates showed up breaking school.
Andrew: Alright, so now you get this idea. You said “we” and “we” is your co-founder and you, Rishi.
Andrew: How did you connect?
Shradha: Sure, so, Rishi was a transfer student from Harvard to Northwestern. His family is around the Chicago area, and through common friends we got to know each other. I was a rare combination of studying economics and journalism and someone who had a science background who was very interested in media and the power of information. And because of that combination I’d become involved with a lot of different initiatives on campus, and someone recommended that we meet up because of the business idea he had around the magazine.
We chatted about it, we got connected on it. He is…the reason we are such good compliments, and this was back in 2007, and now in 2013 we’re still business partners, is because we complement each other really well. He is someone who has a very big picture of vision and I’m someone who really believes in execution. Even through all the examples through school I’m someone who really believes in persistence, and persevering, and patience.
It doesn’t come just from persistence; it’s a combination of being patient and not getting frustrated with it. Of course there were moments that I was. And so because of that shared passion for his vision we ended up working together launching the magazine and then launching the company. Now we also have our own angel investment fund.
Andrew: Really? The two of you together now.
Andrew: Alright, so the magazine launched and then Context Media launched as a result of what you learned from the magazine.
Shradha: Exactly. It actually was a combination of the magazine and what we started on campus called the Institute for Student Business Education – a very fancy word for the idea that we just don’t just want to learn from quotes. We want to learn by doing. And it was an experiential learning organization that helped our classmates launch businesses, co-opt and consult for other student groups on campus, market or recruit for other student groups on campus, so really be able to try out all the different functions to figure out what excites us, what truly calls…what is our calling, instead of choosing a career path that career services told us we should be doing.
Andrew: Alright, I want to hear about the transition but I need to do a quick plug here and since you come from a media background I’d love to hear your feedback about whether this is working or not. I’m trying to weave the ad from Walker Corporate Law into my interview here in a way that doesn’t disrupt the interview, and in a way that gives the guy a benefit for doing this. So here’s what I came up with. I found a way to do this. Check this out. I can actually put his website right in here, this is Scott Edward Walker, the…
Shradha: Oh, that’s cool.
Andrew: … [??] lawyer. Not bad, right, that this technology actually works?
Shradha: That’s great.
Andrew: Then I thought, alright, I put this in there. People aren’t going to trust me because I said it’s an advertisement which means that I get paid and so I thought, what if I show this? See if this works. Look at that. All the testimonials from people who, I think, start-up entrepreneurs know. Do you know these guys, or am I just assuming that everyone knows them? That’s the image, overlay, scale that image.
Shradha: I’m trying to…
Andrew: Mark Suster here. We’ve got Jason Calicanis, Neil Patel.
Shradha: A lot of familiar names here.
Shradha: Lots of familiar names on here.
Andrew: Alright, and they are all…
Shradha: Neil is from the Chicago area.
Shradha: Neil Patel is either from the Chicago or the New York area.
Andrew: He is…actually he’s all over. Just when I thought he was living in Southern California like me he moved to Seattle for some reason. Then I think he’s here, then I think he’s in New York, he’s…I don’t know. Then Jason Calicanis is very much LA, Nick is now San Francisco, all over. Anyway, all these people really like Scott Edward Walker because he is the entrepreneur’s lawyer. Alright, here’s my thinking. I don’t think that the way that I did this was a killer, but I think it’s an improvement over the way I did it before. I just have to keep working at the sponsor, this ad. But the images are pretty cool, don’t you think?
Shradha: Yes, I think it’s really cool that you can pull up the website and show the testimonials because you’re right: Show, not tell.
Andrew: Right. Alright, I’ll keep working on it. We’ll come up with a way to do it. The issue was, I was running pre-roll and I thought that the first thing people should see is the interview, not the set of ads. How do we make it work? How do we improve it? We’re figuring it out right here in real time.
Shradha: Right, and this makes it more memorable as well.
Shradha: Because you finally, because people are probably stopped doing everything else they’re doing to hear you and so you [??] And so you have their full attention.
Andrew: [??] Oh just because I said I’m playing with this new technology. All right. All right, we’ll keep improving it.
So, you’re also in this phase. You then, I guess your dad’s a physician, right?
Shradha: My co-founders dad is a physician.
Andrew: Oh Reishe’s [SP] father is a physician. Okay. And so how did his understanding of what his father’s work life was like help shape this vision?
Shradha: Sure, so one we were fortunate that my dad’s an accountant, and his dad’s an endocrinologist, neither of our dad’s asked us to follow their career which is very common with Asia parents, and they gave us the full flexibility to really explore what excites us.
We did have a very keen understanding from personal experiences of the healthcare space, never knowing as kids we would end up in the healthcare space. For me the experiences were very personal. I have family members who [??] and passed away from diabetes related complications, and Reishe similarly with but also with his father being a diabetes specialist, he had seen the passion with which is father spends time with his patients explaining to them the importance of nutrition, the importance of exercising, the importance of having a positive outlook, the importance of owning the condition instead of diabetes owning you, and having grown up around that he had seen that it takes a lot of time.
Some people end up spending hours in the waiting room. So when they get the opportunity with a physician it’s a great conversation, they’re also having to wait a long time.
When we started talking to other physicians, we recognized that it really was people falling into different caps [??]. Some would make the patients wait long, but take the time to walk through everything with the patient, and some felt that it’s not right to make the patients wait, so they felt very restrained by time, and they would have about a 10-15 minute visit with the patient, and there still was wait time. Shorter wait times, but they didn’t always get to explore parts of the conditional management that they wished that they did.
Andrew: What about this, did you also say a lot of patients have to wait at these doctors’ offices for a long time? Captive audience, if we can give them something that’s useful for them, we can get something that will help us build a business which is we give them information about their issue, they give us their attention.
Shradha: It was interesting. I think that’s when iPads had just been launched, and because of which we recognize that people cannot be really captive in today’s day and age anymore. You really need to give them something that they want. So our inspiration was flipped off that model saying that we have a number of people here who want information about their condition, who trust their physician for this information, yes they can go home and Google but it’s not the same as them hearing from their physician.
It’s a different level of comfort in all of the tips, all of the advice that is coming from the trusted professional. And so we wanted to make sure that we were providing media in a full mechanism. One that the consumer wants information, not in a push mechanism when it’s convenient for a media company to operate and push out information. And that’s what inspired us, having observed all of the media opportunities, media technology, and understanding that we truly could deliver information at the right time, and at the right place.
Right time, because they’re thinking about their healthcare, it’s a resolution moment. If you tell me New Year’s Eve ” Hey you need to eat better, I’m not going to care. I’m going to go ahead and enjoy my dinner that night.” If you tell me New Year’s Day ” Hey, you should be exercising twice a week,” I’ll listen to it a lot more attentively. It’s a resolution moment.
Andrew: I see, just 24 hours makes a huge difference.
Shradha: Yes, it absolutely does, and the doctor’s office people are thinking about their health. They’re thinking about how to live a better life. They’re thinking through all the challenges living with a chronic condition like diabetes, like rheumatoid arthritis. They’re thinking through all the questions they want to ask the physician.
Andrew: I get all that, then what about the business part of it? Where did you imagine the money was going to come from that?
Shradha: So we hadn’t quite yet figured that model out. We wanted to just make sure that this product was truly needed in the marketplace. So we had physicians in the Midwest area test the product summer, and asked them to give us feedback from the patients, as well as their own comments on it.
Andrew: How did you get those doctors?
Shradha: It was a lot of online Google search to find endocrinologists in the area. We focused on launching specifically to the diabetes market. Having gone through personal experience with having understood the importance of nutrition and exercise and the limitation on physician’s time in that market. So we Google a lot of physicians. Asked physicians for referring us to their friends as well. Definitely one of our early advisers, very helpful, was Richie’s dad as well. And so through those networks, we were able to call maybe a few hundred and finally get about 50 to agree to experiment our product.
Andrew: I see. So some cold calls, some referrals from friends, some friends of friends.
Shradha: Yes. A lot of driving around. A lot of selling. A lot of no’s. But again, asking why not?
Andrew: I see. And then to get the TV’s, where did you guys get those?
Shradha: So we borrowed Richie’s mom’s car, went to Wal-Mart, picked up some TV’s, picked up some DVD players at the time, because we couldn’t invest in licensing more superior technology. I had access to the editing suites given that I was in the broadcast journalism program and some content online. So it was a very packed truly minimum viable product that we just wanted to first establish, there truly is a need in the marketplace.
Andrew: And who was doing the content creation?
Shradha: So I was putting together the content, but we were not doing the production on our own. We were receiving content from others who already had these videos. We told them what we were doing. We were testing this out. If it went well, it would go very well for them too. They would have more people watching their content and coming back to their website. So it was a combination of partnerships.
Andrew: What kind of content creator just gave it to you?
Shradha: So we had a company that had a television show on CNBC that were focused on living with diabetes.
Andrew: I see.
Shradha: We also had a medical association, JDRF, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, that had PSA’s on TV, public service announcements, sharing concerns about solutions for a fundraising for diabetes related causes. We reached out to anyone that we knew that had interest in educating people on diabetes.
Andrew: So the big reason for creating a minimum viable product is to get feedback from potential users. What did you learn?
Shradha: We learned that it was a lot harder to sell into physician offices. We also learned that physicians have a lot of opinions. They have, when you really get to engage them, they have a lot of opinions on how a product could be better. What we soon realized after making lots of mistakes and getting into deep conversations about product features is that what we really want to understand from them is what is their pinpoint. Their solutions may be great, but we should be the one’s coming up with the solutions, we should just help them realize what their pinpoints are.
Andrew: Can you give me an example? This is a really important distinction to make and it took me a long time to understand it. I think it wasn’t until Paul Buchheit of Gmail, the founder of Gmail, talked to me about it that I started to get it.
Shradha: Sure. A couple of examples of that would be one physician asked us to dub our content in multiple languages. We thought that was great because now we could reach people in Spanish and reach people in Mandarin and other languages. But what we saw was that our mission was to really bring the right content at the right time and right place. Dubbing was not truly resonating with our audience.
We recognized that our audience was not captive. And we saw that just dubbing our recipes or dubbing our exercises was not really helping a different ethnic group because their lifestyle is very different. They needed information based on what they were eating. What their staple diet was. And so that was one thing that we learned after making a mistake. That we were compromising on quality and we were hence compromising on patient engagement with our media.
Andrew: So if I’m understanding you right, they come to you with a solution which is dub your product to different languages. And that’s the wrong thing to do to followup on their solution. What you want to understand is what’s the problem that they have. And the problem that they have is that some people in their waiting rooms don’t relate and don’t understand the content.
And what you need to do is go and understand that problem deeper and then realize, okay, it’s not just a matter of them not knowing the language, it’s that they don’t relate to the food that we’re talking about and the pen. I see. And that’s the distinction. You don’t want your users to give you solutions, you want them to help you understand the problem.
Shradha: Exactly. And for us a big part of it was they wanted a certain frequency on the media. Certain updates on the media. And for a while we really kept doing things because we were very focused on customer service. And we thought the way to serve our customer was to actually give them what they told us they wanted.
And what we realized through seeing lower engagement rates is that, and we wish we had learned this sooner and saved all the time, but we’re glad that we learned it by going the harder way because now when we get feedback, we’re very appreciative for the feedback, but we really dig into, “Well, tell us why you want this feature.” And then understand how better we can solve the problem with that or a different feature.
And one of the quotes I love is Henry Ford’s quote about if you ask people what they wanted, they would say faster horses. And that’s the problem that we ran into a lot and still run into. And so we’ve now learned to receive feedback as truly helpful, and we do that everyday. Our product is still changing and improving and growing everyday that we learn from our experience in the field. But we’ve now learned to ask the right questions and differentiate between what they’re sharing with us as their problems that we can solve versus what they think the solution to the problem is.
Andrew: Alright. So I’m understanding how the products are coming together. What about the revenue? What did you end up going with and how did you hit your revenue model?
Shradha: Sure. So after our pilot, we asked physicians what they would pay for the product and they said, “We don’t get reimbursed for education. We don’t have a budget to support this.” And for a while we really went through the soul searching experience and let’s do an advisory team around us as well. And people gave us mixed feedback. Some said, “Well, what you guys are doing really is actually a non-profit model.”
And because we truly believed to sustainably scale, we need a revenue model and we and our team should be focusing on things we do well. Which is media and product. Not get distracted by writing grants. Definitely there are models and industry where you need that support, but we weren’t convinced yet that that was the best route for us. And so when we really paused to think about the value we were generating, who are the people who are benefiting from this, what are the types of information people want to learn about, we recognized that the besides physicians and patients and besides nutrition and exercise, people also wanted to learn about solutions out in the market.
They wanted to know what are healthier foods that they can buy. They wanted to know promotions and gym memberships. They wanted to know what are devices that can help them track their health better. What are drugs, what is innovation, what is RMD [sp] doing to solve chronic conditions? We partnered with the industry partners, industry companies to have them advertise on our network, which became our revenue model.
Andrew: Through advertising. And the ads would be specifically focused on the issues you were bringing up.
Shradha: Exactly. One hundred percent focused on the condition and solutions for the condition that the patient is in that particular doctor’s waiting room to talk about.
Andrew: How did you start selling your first ads when you only had a few hundred doctor’s offices?
Shradha: It was a similar combination of just being persistent and looking to our network, looking to our partners to recommend people to speak with. We were all of 19 at the time. We looked all of 19 at the time. Healthcare and education are not as excited about innovation. They want to make sure that solutions are tried and tested and reliable and accurate. So we kept knocking on doors, kept making phone calls.
We finally were able to receive a meeting with one person who’s office literally across the street from us and we can now see it from this new office too. They said, “Okay, we’ll give you 15 minutes of our time.” It was with someone who felt bad that we had just been calling so much. 15 minutes turned into 60 minutes and they still said no. And we said, “Why not?” And they said, “Well, you just don’t have enough doctor’s offices. It’s too small of the scale for us to get distracted. And too small a dollar investment for us to care about it.”
So we asked them what would be a meaningful scale for them. They gave us a number. They said, “If you get to this number, come back and we can talk more.” It took us about a year to get to that number, but we did go back to them and said, “Here we are again.” They were a little bit surprised. They didn’t think that we would get there and come back. But they definitely honored there part of the commitment to get more information. Surprisingly that…
Andrew: Did they buy?
Shradha: …didn’t get us our first ad deal though. Our first ad deal happened because a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company was in the waiting room, waiting to speak with the doctor. They saw our platform and they said, “Wow. This is great. All these patients are looking at the screen and learning more about how to live healthier. This blood [??] meter really helps people measure their [??] and helps them live better. Why isn’t our product information up on the screen?
That person reported to their regional manager, district manager, VP, marketing VP and it ended up being someone that reached out to us to say, “Hey, we want to put our information up there.”
Andrew: Oh, wow. That person led to the first ad deal?
Andrew: Wow! How did you fund yourself when you were buying all these television sets, when you were driving around to doctors’ offices, when you were spending so much to get this thing going?
Shradha: Absolutely. Our bootstrapped for the most part. Still are. Early on, we were very fortunate to have advisors around us who really believed in us.
Part of it was our university ecosystem, because we were still enrolled in school at the time. Part of it, we did odd jobs, swiping key fobs to reconfigure them at the start of each academic year. I was making money just doing odd jobs on campus as well.
Three was banks that one had to track our success, but weren’t ready to give us the loan, but we had credit card accounts and were buying a lot of equipment on credit cards.
Andrew: Wow, OK. You say mostly bootstrapped. Where does the little money that you have in the business come from?
Shradha: A lot of it was a very early advisory support, but a very small amount. Ever since 2007, we’ve focused on revenues.
Andrew: I see. We’re talking about $100,000 or so in investment in the business.
Shradha: [??], yes.
Andrew: Where are you guys now? What kind of revenue?
Shradha: We don’t share our revenue, but we’ve been doubling year over year since 2010. This year, we’re very excited about some new product launches as well, continuing into next year, where we’re seeing improvement of technology, which enables us to bring media in more powerful formats for patients.
Andrew: OK. Are you guys profitable?
Shradha: We are, and we have been since 2008.
Andrew: Wow. You keep on growing. You keep now getting more content, better content. How do you know that any of this works? How do you know that someone who’s actually sitting in that doctor’s office is getting any value out of what they’re watching?
Shradha: Right. Great questions. Going back to what I describe as the dual combination of passion for media, but also very analytics driven background. We apply that to our job as well. We measure and measure and measure everything. We measure customer satisfaction. We measure patient engagement. We measure patient retention.
We do intercept studies with them as patients are leaving their physician’s office, asking them questions such as, “Did you watch any media today? What did you watch? Where did you watch it? What did you learn? What are going live differently now? What did you speak with your physician about? What’s something you had always wished that you knew that you now know?”
We ask them a lot of questions and we quantify all this data. We also measure the effectiveness of our media by observing physician behavior change. Are they now focusing on conversations that they didn’t earlier? Are they now being able to have a two way dialog, where they’re answering questions with the patients while sharing information that they feel that that they need to.
Andrew: I see. You follow up this way. Then you can go back to the doctors and say, “Here. Our research shows that this is working.” The same thing for the advertisers.
Andrew: By the way, I was also looking here at the side monitor to see if we could figure out where the revenue was. You guys are at least doing a million dollars in sales?
Shradha: We’re doing about 20, 30 times that.
Andrew: I didn’t know if I should even ask that — 20, 30 times that. Here’s what we had in our research as the potential sub headline for this interview. “How did she build an eight figure business while still in her 20s?”
Andrew: So that’s accurate?
Andrew: You know what? To be honest with you, I was embarrassed to say that, because I thought, “No, this is way too soon. It’s only ads and she’s reaching one doctor’s office at a time.” Wow, that is right.
How did you reach enough doctors to get to that kind of revenue? I understand driving around in your car in the early days, but…
Shradha: My team. It all comes to having a great team. One of our biggest mistakes that we made throughout our company history was not recognizing the importance of surrounding ourselves with people who are invested in the mission as much, if not more, than we are. Who have as great a work ethic, who are passionate about this company and taking this somewhere. Who feel like they really own this?
And so that’s why we decided to keep this owner operated business, including our expanded team. We really do want to make sure that the upside of all the hard work is shared by those that are putting in the hard work. So we believe very strongly in our team being our family. And the mistake that we made is we didn’t hire soon enough. We didn’t hire the right people. We hired people off Craigslist and we’d hire people we could. We didn’t recognize that we needed people not to fill a role, but really to fill a vision. Because the role kept evolving in the [??]. People that we hired in year one, their job was very different in year two and year three.
And in 2009 there was a moment where we had no money left in the bank because we had commitments on paper, but the dollars had not yet been deposited. We didn’t have money to make payroll. We were at a sales conference in Florida and we were wondering what went wrong. It was one of those moments where, and this was early 2009, where the company could have not survived through that phase. So we were able to factor some of the payments and receive some dollars to keep going for those few weeks, but there was also a moment where we really paused and said well just when we were about to give up, let’s reflect back on why we got started in the first place.
And when we reviewed that, we realized that while we shared that passion initially, we had lost that passion along the way. And we couldn’t recognize for quite some time why. Is it that the product doesn’t excite us? Is it that the market doesn’t excite us? Is it that it’s gotten old and we just like the newness of the challenge and once it’s established we want to move on to the next thing? We recognized it was none of those things. We’re in the eighth year of our company and we’re still running this every day. What we realized is that the team around us did share our passion. They were coming to work to do a job and go home to their true passion. Whether that was skate boarding, whether that was knitting. Whatever their passion was, it was not this mission. And we looked around us to see how bigger organizations are built.
What are some things that people are doing and we saw that everyone has a lot of people and culture. And finally rectified that. In 2010 we built a brand new team, ground up. And we brought on people that really take ownership of the mission and work very hard every day to recognize how can we reach that lofty goal of inspiring every single person to live a healthier life.
Andrew: You know what? That is huge. You’re saying, how do you inspire people, how do you find someone to do a very basic job that…Give me a basic job at the company. I’m trying to think of one. What’s a basic job that I wouldn’t imagine that you could find someone to really feel passionate about it and about the mission.
Shradha: Packaging, packaging our equipment, packaging…
Andrew: Perfect. How do you get someone to be bought into your mission when what they’re doing is packaging the equipment to ship out?
Shradha: Sure. So for us it was really important, one, have people who are already looking for a mission. People who wanted to take charge of their lives and make a difference. Well, we also recognized internally is that we really are one team moving in one direction to one destination. And while we all play our own individual roles in accomplishing that, we’re all pieces of the puzzle that completes that picture, no one team can do their job without the other team.
Member services cannot have high customer satisfaction levels if equipment is not getting there on time. They respect that an communicate that, the logistics team, so they know how important their role is. They know how important their role in that entire stream of activity is.
Andrew: Is the sun, by the way, getting in your face more and more as we talk? Do you want to try to angle the computer in a different direction?
Shradha: Yeah. Is that still good? No. That still good?
Andrew: Yeah, that’s better. Is that okay for you? It looks like it’s still in your eye a little bit.
Shradha: Much better, thank you. Because I was starting to make it hard to…
Andrew: Do you ever feel like, like a fraud saying that? To say to someone who’s boxing, “Here’s our big vision and you’re a part of it.” Do you ever in your head go, “They’re thinking I just need them to get the work done and that I’m just snowing them with this stuff.”?
Shradha: You know, what a great time to ask me that question because earlier this year we started to think that well, the first ten people, first 15 people, really feel this and we know it. We hang out with them outside of work. And they really are our family and their family becomes our expanded family. We do a lot of events where we invite everyone, get to know each other. We really do take time to become one team. Okay, you can do that with 10 people, 15 people, 35, 40 people.
What happens from there? How do you really get to know each person individually at that scale? And so we decided that for several reasons, we needed to really encapsulate our culture. So we charged our media team with going on and talking to people on camera within our company and building a culture video. And we decided that is one of those exercises that can help us uncover what people really feel about our culture.
Andrew: They themselves contribute to the culture video by creating their own videos.
Shradha: Yes. And so when I saw the final video put together, I started crying. And there were certain words that every single person used. One was passion, two was mission, three was hunger, four was service, five was family. And there were several other words, but those were the words that really stood out to me because we were wondering as founders. It’s great.
We talk about this and we share this with other entrepreneurs and in interviews and candidates when we want them to come join our team. But how true is it two years later or three years later? Does it really bleed through our DNA every single day? And having captured it on video from each individual themselves, really showed us that we’re on the right track. But what’s beautiful about it is that we have nothing to do with that.
We lighted a fire, but it’s getting contagious because of the people we have here. We don’t necessarily shape our culture. The people that we bring on to the team shaped the culture for the next 20. And then all of them collectively shaped it for the next 100. And that’s what’s so beautiful about this.
Andrew: Are you hiring right now? I might need to quit this and go work for you.
Shradha: We would love to have you join our team. We’re hiring all across the organization. We have positions in sales and services and IT and…
Andrew: Where is it? I’m imagining it’s on the website. I’m actually, frankly, I’m pretty married to Mixergy. Pretty, very married, but let me see. If I just context…
Andrew: Slash careers…
Shradha: Either career or talent.
Andrew: Oh, okay. There we go. Slash careers. Anyone who wants to go and check it out, they can go check it out. Contextmediainc.com/careers. Hey, you said something earlier that I don’t want to brush over. You used the word factoring. When an entrepreneur in a business like yours factors, doesn’t it mean that there’s a potential problem?
Shradha: We did. And we had to help with a lot of our clients our payments were coming through their advertising agencies and they were holding on to the money as long as they could. And we were not getting paid and being a business that’s very sensitive to cash flow because we’re buying equipment, we had to look back and see what are some of the challenges.
One aspect we haven’t yet talked about, two things, we actually started out as a team of three co-founders. That was another learning adventure for us along the way. Well, we realized at that point having one of those key moment where we paused and really took a look around, was that we were not all in it for the right reasons or for the right vision. Some of us…
Andrew: What was the other reason? What was the wrong reason?
Shradha: Sure. Some of us wanted to build this because we really saw a very powerful media company making an impact in people’s lives. Some of us thought it was great to be an entrepreneur, but let’s now go build the next thing. And building and starting is a very different type of thrill and executing day by day and looking for challenges when there’s no fire to put out. When the challenges are how do you make improvements to what you’re doing.
And how do you stay innovative and launch new products or features when you don’t have the urgency to do so. And so when we looked back at all of our processes, we realized that as a young company who thought that now rules is a good thing, that we don’t have a guidebook, that we don’t have, people are just lead by their instincts and their natural judgment. And we realized that there were certain things that we absolutely needed the right person to have the right judgment.
And we brought on board specific team members that have completely changed the way our business is done since. And we realize that the terms that we were signing contracts on, early on we could not dictate terms. We signed on whatever our advertisers would be okay with. And we soon realized that at some point we need to make sure that we have, we’re balancing short term gain with the long term vision and not running into problems where we need to factor.
Andrew: And factoring means someone owes you money, you go to factor right? That’s their title? And you say here’s the debt, you take it on, give me a share of upfront and it’s not a big piece, and you don’t get anymore.
Andrew: Right, Okay. And the reason that you did it is, part of it is you came close to bankruptcy a couple of times.
Andrew: Do you remember the scariest time?
Shradha: Yes, I very vividly remember like it was just a few weeks ago. This was the time when we were in Miami Florida for a sales conference signing on positions for our service, and we got a call from the office saying we have no money in the bank to run payroll, and we said what about this contract, and that contract?
Aren’t we supposed to be collecting all this money? They said yes, but they’re not ready to pay yet, and their terms give them 90 days. That’s when we realized why did we not think about 60 or 30 day terms initially, but also recognized that we didn’t have a lot of other ways to get money.
So Miami is one of those cities that’s very long. So we walked all the way to downtown, like the South Beach Miami area and back, because the conference was Northern area of it, and it was probably an eight hour walk, and this is one of those things, that OK what do we do from here? Do we shut the company down? Do we let our employees know what’s happening here? Delaying peril was one option, but that would have not solved the problem in the long run, but it would only solve the problem for three days, and Bill did calculate that week.
We did pay one week later, but that wasn’t the answer. That was not, that was a bad end solution. It was not what truly we were looking for, and that’s when we did the soul searching. Why is it that we’re in this situation in the very first place, and we made a lot of changes to the team, to the processes, and to just having a more balanced vision for the long run as well as the short term.
My title now Chief Strategy Officer, is something new. It’s not what it used to be, and it’s because we wanted someone to be able to keep an eye out for the future while getting so involved in the day to day and surviving today, but making sure we were doing today what we need to survive tomorrow.
Andrew: I want to do a quick follow-up, and then I want to ask you about a personal question, and refer to people to a video that they might want to see, but frankly I want to see right now, but I’m not going to hit play because it’s going to distract me.
The message is if you want to follow-up to this interview there are two things that I suggest as follow-ups first. Eric Ries interview on Mixergy is one of the best ones that I ever did. I think that’s when people realized that they can start to take my interviewing style seriously.
Eric Ries was before he wrote the ” Lean Start-Up Book” just as his message was starting to get out there, he came on and he explained it in a way that was so good that I think if you watched this interview, and you’re saying ‘ really like how this company All Context Media launched with just a couple of TV sets, a handful of them and built up from there, and I like this minimum buyable product strategy.” if you want to learn how you can do it for yourself, you got to check out Eric Ries first interview on Mixergy.
I am like a little box in it, because I was still figuring out video at the time, but the content is spectacular. And the second thing we talked about is making cold calls, and talking to people, and making those early sales. That’s something that several entrepreneurs have said in Mixergy interviews, and I kept ignoring them until this guy Jamie Kennedy, who was a big fan kept emailing, and saying ” Don’t you notice what’s going on? Don’t you notice how many people are saying it?”
And I disagreed with him, and then we talked about it on the phone, and then he said ” Look, this is the way a lot of companies get their early sales. They make calls. You’re not talking about it, you’re not teaching it. I do it this way, I have a process, I’m very systemized, because I’m an engineer.” It’s all the things he said, and he offered to come and teach it.
I still highly recommend it even though it’s been months since he recorded it. Extremely relevant, you’ve got to go and watch Jamie Kennedy. Do a search on anywhere on Mixergy for Kennedy’s name, and you’ll see it.
Now it’s all available for you frankly on the site, and as part of Mixergy premium. If you’re not a premium member, go to Mixergypremium.com so that you can watch all of these and so many other programs.
All right, one last thing, and then I want to point out this video. Last personal thing, actually it’s not that personal. You travel a lot, how do you get to travel so much all over the world? I was looking at this list I think it’s Africa right? Asia? How do you get to travel and still run a company when so many of us entrepreneurs are struggling to show up every day and keep the thing going?
Shradha: A lot of my travels were actually while I was in school, because my parents wanted us to world [??] platform, not just our city or our community.
The first five years of the business were very intense. We had a toothbrush and a change of shirt at work. We had a blanket, we spent nights, and nights sleeping in the office on very comfortable couches, that’s one thing we knew we would need. So you definitely had several years of very intense start up days and nights where we haven’t remembered to eat or even shower every day because we were at our desks working. A lot of my recent travels have been work related. Our (?) conferences take us into (?) around the country and that’s helped me explore a lot of new places.
I do now take an evening or weekend to (?) for work to be able to explore and to really meet other entrepreneurs and part of some organizations for entrepreneurs that allows me a network of people and I love having that fresh perspective. Exactly the reason why (?) investing as well. Love the energy, the tenacity, the hunger of the startup days and that gets very contagious easily.
Andrew: Is that Jump Start Ventures that you use to invest in entrepreneurs?
Shradha: Yes. That’s the name of our fund.
Andrew: Okay, so much more that I didn’t get into. I’m going to have to end it at some point, but I can include and I wish I could more about how your dance enthusiasts once ran your own dance troop. Right?
Shradha: College. Yes.
Andrew: Speak five languages? All right, here’s what I’m going to say guys.
Shradha: One time I did.
Andrew: How many?
Shradha: One time I did. I don’t know if I remember many of them anymore.
Andrew: Oh really? Five languages and now you’re down to basically one like the rest of us.
Shradha: Got entrepreneurship and sales.
Andrew: All right. Thank you so much for doing this. Here’s the video that I was going to suggest people might want to watch after this. Apparently if we just go to contextmediainc.com/careers, we can see this . . . it’s actually much shorter than I imagine, the culture video. You guys edited down to 5 minutes 31 seconds.
Andrew: I got to pause it. I hit play too soon. It’s on there and that’s all your people talking about their experience with the company.
Shradha: Yes. It’s unscripted. This was about us (?) being involved. This was an initiative they took on.
Andrew: All right. I can see some photos in there. All right, anyone who wants to check out the company can go to it. Thank you so much for doing this interview with me.
Shradha: Thank you for having me on the show.
Andrew: Thanks. Thank you all for being a part of it. Bye, guys.
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