Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. That means this is a place where people who are aspiring to build incredible businesses and often actually are building incredible businesses come to listen to interviews with other top performers and they go to Mixergy.com to get courses taught by those entrepreneurs too.
In this interview, I’ve got maybe the antidote to the kind of email I get from time to time, including one that I got this morning. A member told me, “Andrew, I want to start a new company, but I don’t know how to program. I’m not a developer. Is that going to be a problem? It seems like lately you’ve been interviewing people who are all developers.”
Well, the antidote is in this interview because today you’re about to meet a woman who created a genetics company and to my knowledge, Adina, you’re not a geneticist, right?
Adina: Nor a computer programmer.
Adina: I mean… Sorry. I was just saying I know like a tiny, tiny bit, but not much.
Andrew: No. It’s definitely not your background. We’re going to talk about how you built it up. Her name is Adina Mangubat. How did I do with your last name?
Adina: Good. Great.
Andrew: Good. The company is Spiral Genetics. Let me read this to you and then I’m going to admit something to you and the audience. Spiral Genetics, according to my researcher, is a bioinformatics company that provides proprietary analytics software for the decision of genomic structural variants. I have to be honest with you. I don’t know what that means.
I’ve read so many articles about you. The best one is from a site called Xconomy. But even after reading that I couldn’t understand it. Every other article, I believe, is written by people who don’t understand what the business is either and they still feel there’s some magic here so instead what they do is they focus on your age or they focus on how you love coffee–that’s no exaggeration–or they focus on how much money you raised. But there’s no explanation of what the business does.
Andrew: No explanation of what the business does. So, let me do a quick read for my sponsor and then I’m going to ask you what is this company and then we’ll talk about how you built it up and got it to a place where people like it so much and are in such admiration that they just want to write about you even though they don’t fully get it.
My sponsors for this interview are two companies that I’ll tell you guys all about later. One is BrandBucket–if you need a new logo and company name and everything you need to get started with a company, go to BrandBucket.com/Mixergy, they’ll give you your whole brand. And if you need a developer, by now you should know, go to Toptal.com/Mixergy. Later on I’ll tell you guys why.
But Adina, how do you–can you explain to me like I’m a four year old because I feel like I am a four year old when I read about your business–what does Spiral Genetics do?
Adina: Totally. So, most basic level, we make software for analyzing DNA for medical research.
Adina: So, basically there are a lot of people in the world that are starting to sequence large numbers of genomes. So, your genome, your DNA–it’s the three billion base pairs that makeup basically the code of who you are. It’s your blueprint, basically. There are a lot of people in the world that are all trying to sequence genomes with the purpose of trying to figure out what is it that’s unique about you or unique about people that have a particular disease.
Andrew: What does it mean to sequence my DNA?
Adina: Sequence your DNA? So, your DNA is composed of basically four base pairs, amino acids, As, Gs, Cs, and Ts. So, to sequence it means to read all of your genomes.
Andrew: Got it.
Adina: From the very beginning to the very end.
Andrew: So, today we can read my DNA, but it takes a lot of processing power to understand what that even means.
Andrew: And just because you see what my DNA is doesn’t mean you know what it means and the doctor wouldn’t know what it means either. So, you created software that will analyze my DNA once it’s sequenced.
Andrew: Got it. Why do you guys use the word sequence as opposed to read the DNA or something?
Adina: I think that every industry has a particular terminology for various things. I guess if you asked somebody that looks at pathology slides, they’re not going to say, “I looked at the pathology slide.” They’ll said, “I examined,” or, “I analyzed.” Everybody’s got specialized terminology. Computer science has that too.
Andrew: You what? Even airlines. I was recently on–I know you’re at the airport today. I was recently on a bunch of flights. I noticed every freaking flight attendant and captain will say, “At this time,” instead of, “Now.” So, “At this time, we’re going to be bringing drinks around. At this time, we ask you to put your laptops away.” Never, “Please put your laptops away now.”
All right. Let’s talk about how you built this up as a person who didn’t study this, who didn’t spend 10, 20 years in this industry. In fact, you’re someone who got a degree in what or you were going for a degree in what?
Adina: I got my degree in psychology, Bachelor of Science.
Andrew: Psychology. And then instead, you fell in love with entrepreneurship. What got you to follow up with entrepreneurship?
Adina: Well, I was involved with two companies while I was in college. I was involved in companies that made basically home automation technology. So, you could control your lights and your sound system with your cell phone, that kind of thing. Then I was involved in another company that did basically smart grid technology.
That’s where I kind of got really infected with the entrepreneurial bug. Here I was like super young, trying of building these companies. It was obvious to me that every single person really mattered. Even the intern actually matters in a startup. You can see the dial move.
Andrew: Was there something you did that moved the dial for one of these two startups?
Adina: I think that in both of them. In my very first one, I was an intern to start. I didn’t know–for them, I basically made multimedia marketing materials and training materials, like video and all of that kind of thing. But that was 100 percent necessary for training all of their customers how to use this product and training all their installers how to use this product.
I’m like a 20-something person in the middle of college and I was still able to contribute to this company that was trying to install this stuff in people’s houses and in the Trump Tower. That was really cool. So, it was just kind of neat the impact of every single person. I think that sometimes gets lost in larger companies.
Andrew: I took two entrepreneurship classes in college. I fell in love with one of them especially. One of the things I liked about it was the professor said, “I’m going to ask you all to write business plans. But in the real world, copying is okay. So, if you guys want to copy someone else’s business plan from a previous class, go ahead and do it. That’s the way the real world works. Understand that I’m going to be asking you questions but if you can’t answer because someone else wrote your whole business plan, then just like in the real world, you’re going to fail and I’m not going to have sympathy for you.”
Sure enough, he was like that throughout the class. That’s what I loved about it. It was Professor Craig Boice at NYU. What’s one example that you liked in entrepreneurship class that helped turn you around?
Adina: Well, I also had kind of a similar professor. His name is Alan Leong. For him, I think that his amazing talent is really giving permission to people because I think that for a lot of us when we’re in the middle of school, the two acceptable options up until, I guess, relatively recently have been like, “Okay, you’re going to either a) get a job at a big corporate thing and work your way up, or b) go to grad school or something and get a higher level degree and education.” Those were kind of the two options that I thought were really available to me.
Alan’s entire thing was like, “No, that’s not the case at all. You actually have many options. There’s at least one more, which is you can start your own thing. You can blaze your own path.” His whole thing, he’s got basically one phrase that he uses pretty continuously, which is no air guitar. What that means for him is, “I don’t want you to do one of those business plan case things where you’re just making a business that you have no intention of really doing.” He was like, “I want you to pick something that you’re really passionate about, that you want to get on stage and just rock out to.”
So, it was that kind of combination of permission, like you have this entire other option and this encouragement to go with, “Please do something that you’re irrationally passionate about.” I think that was one of the biggest gifts that Alan gave, in addition to amazing support and help throughout the process.
Andrew: What a great phrase. I’m going to use that too–no air guitar. We’re really playing for real here. So, in your entrepreneurship class, you came across a microbiologist who pitched what?
Adina: A genetics analysis company. This is Becky Drees, our first cofounder and chief scientist. Becky and I were kind of having discussion about–I was involved in these two other companies. They were cool. I liked the fact that I could have real impact. But for me, neither one of them really kind of like hit the level of impact that I was really looking for. I really wanted something that I could walk away from at some point and say, “Yeah, I’ve made a massive impact on humanity.”
There were a lot of options in terms of what I could have worked on, but I would say part of the reason why I was really drawn to Becky’s idea, Becky’s story initially was that I was kind of looking at my own life and looking at the people in my life and how they were affected by disease.
I kind of learned at a pretty young age. My grandfather passed away from lung cancer when I was like 12 or 13. It didn’t matter that my dad was a doctor. It didn’t matter that we are in Seattle, one of the best places in the world for cancer treatment. It didn’t matter, all that stuff. Eventually, they just didn’t know what to give him.
So, it was like wow, disease is something that profoundly affects all of us. It doesn’t stop there. Grandma got dementia. Diabetes runs in my family. When you look at all of that world, you kind of sit there and say, “Why don’t we have better answers to this thing?” Becky’s answer was, “Well, it’s because we don’t understand what’s happening in our bodies. We don’t have any idea of what’s happening in the blueprint level of you are. How are you going to fix the machine if you don’t know what’s going on under the hood?”
So, she just had this idea for a genetic analysis company and I was just really, really drawn to and fascinated by its potential and what it could really create. So, that’s why we joined forces and won a business plan competition. In 2009, we kind of looked at each other and said, “Do you want to give this a real go?” The answer was yes.
Andrew: Wow. What did you win in the business plan competition?
Adina: Mostly the satisfaction of knowing we succeeded. It was a lot of, I guess, prizes. I think that we got like free incorporation or something like that.
Andrew: I see.
Adina: It was 2009. So, they didn’t have massive donations like they had in the past. It was not the most economically lean time of all time at that time.
Andrew: What an amazing mission too, to be able to help people that have these diseases by solving them in ways that aren’t possible today, but you can imagine are possible.
Adina: Yeah. That for me the coolest thing. So, we kind of talked at the beginning like we make software for analyzing DNA. But if you do searches for other companies that do software for analyzing DNA, there are going to be tons of them. So, what our specific focus was and is, “Okay, what happens when this really gets to scale?”
When we started the company in 2009, only a couple hundred people in the world were having their DNA sequenced, like a couple hundred, maybe a thousand. So, if you think about it, you’re not really going to find anything with that kind of level of information. If you just compare you and me, we’re going to differ by three million genetic changes. So, if I have 100 people that have a thing and 100 people that don’t have a thing. You can’t find the needle in the haystack. For gosh sakes, if you look at Netflix recommendations, they’re looking at a span of like 20,000 factors, like 20,000 movies. They need like hundreds of thousands of people to get reasonable movie recommendations.
So, if you’re going to find stuff in a genome, you have to have a lot more data than that. So, all of our focus is like, “Okay, how do we build this stuff for scale? What are the unique challenges that are going to come up when you get to the place where the cost of sequencing has dropped significantly?”
So, when we started, it was like $100,000 to sequence one person. In 2014, it dropped down to $1,000. So, like two orders of magnitude down. Then all of a sudden, boom, There was tons of sequencing happening. So, now the world capacity is about half a million people that are having their genome sequenced for both research and clinical–
Andrew: So, half a million people know what their genetic makeup is today?
Adina: Have their genetic code. It doesn’t mean that they know what it means yet. But they have their genome sequenced or are having their genome sequenced.
Andrew: I see. So, the difference is like having an encyclopedia in Spanish and knowing how to convert that in Spanish so we can read it.
Andrew: A bunch of people walk around with a foreign language DNA system and they just need it translated into something that’s meaningful that tells them how likely they are to get certain illnesses and what it means for their future.
Andrew: I know I’ve over-simplified.
Adina: There’s a lot of complexity to the whole problem too. You would think, “I would read your DNA. I’m going to start at the beginning and go to the end.” That’s kind of what they did during the human genome project to a certain extent. They kind of tried to produce this schematic or what do humans kind of look like? But in order to do that, it took like ten years and like several billion dollars.
In order to get throughput and cost reduction, they’ve actually gotten to this place where they basically take your DNA and they chop it up into two tiny pieces. So, you’ve got 3 billion, chop it into like 150 base pairs and you read all of those. You have no information about where that piece came from in the overall scope of your genome.
So, it’s kind of like the worst jigsaw puzzle of your entire life and then you have a box that doesn’t actually match because while it’s human, it’s not actually you. So, good luck trying to put that sucker back together.
Andrew: So, right now, we have a really good idea, a really good cofounder and a big vision for the future and then something bad happens, which we’ll get to in a moment. But first, I should talk about my first sponsor.
The company is BrandBucket. If you’re starting a new product, starting a new business, starting a new website, starting a side thing for your current business, one of the hardest, most annoying challenges is, “What do I name it? How do I get the logo for it? How do I get a brand up and running, one that explains to people what we’re about so that they instantly can understand it?”
Well, if you’re like me, you can spend–I don’t know how many weeks I spent trying to find the name Mixergy. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s the best name possible. But it was the only one I could think of after months and months of looking. I finally just said I have to go with something. For a long time I was actually going with a temporary name. It was called Circle of 5 Events. Really, it takes forever to do it and then you have to find the .com that goes along with or another domain that makes sense. It’s a waste of time and a waste of momentum when you’re starting your business.
But there’s an alternative. It’s one that I heard of from a past interviewee. He just went to a website called BrandBucket and he just searched for it the way you would if you’re looking for a relationship online. You’d go on a dating site and you’d look to see who’s available. Or if you’re looking to buy new shoes, you shouldn’t have to invent the shoe before you buy it. You shouldn’t have to invent the brand before you get it. You should just go and have a readymade brand, complete with the domain, complete with the name, complete with the logo, complete with everything.
So, that’s what BrandBucket is all about. As I said, one of my past interviewees, the founder of Envato, a hugely successful company first told me about it. Now, if you want to, you could just go to BrandBucket.com, if you actually go to BrandBucket.com/Mixergy, they’ll give you something I’ll tell you about in a moment.
Regardless, you go to their site and you can click around and see a bunch of different options. You’re not committed. You don’t have to register or give your email address before you can see it. So, if you’re curious or just spending a night with a glass of wine or whiskey or I don’t know, maybe you’re a pot smoker. I’m not. I don’t know if that’s what you do with pot. But whatever it is, when you’re in your relaxed moment, go to BrandBucket.com/Mixergy and see the options.
I’m looking here and I can see Educationally as a website and a domain and a logo and all that set up for me. That would have been possibly a better name than Mixergy. I see if you’re running an intern company. There’s something called Internly. There’s FoldMark. There’s Sitio. Actually, I don’t love that one. I do see Fundsly. I see LaunchBloom. I see tons of domains, FunChimp–all of them available. If you’re interested, you can buy them, if you’re not, you can just be inspired by them.
Go to BrandBucket.com/Mixergy. Remember I told you about that company Envato? They’re huge for giving people templates for a whole design of your website or for code of your website or video images or so on. Well, because Envato told me about BrandBucket for the first time, if you sign up for BrandBucket, BrandBucket will give you a $75 credit for Envato. That means that you can get your brand BrandBucket and from Envato for $75, you can get the whole design of your site.
It really is a great opportunity for you. They’re here with us at Mixergy for a limited time. All you have to do is go to BrandBucket.com/Mixergy. That will tell them that when you buy, you should get the extra $75. As I said, you don’t have to buy anything. You can just scroll through it, be inspired. My guess is you might decide you don’t want to waste time and just buy a fully customized brand name and domain and everything you need–BrandBucket.com/Mixergy.
Adina, I told you before the interview started that some guests like me to talk to them during the sponsorship message, but I got so carried away with it I didn’t even engage you. How did that feel to just sit there for like 90 seconds or 120 seconds while I yacked?
Adina: Well, as a psychology major, I was kind of looking at the structure of the pitch, etc. I was like, “Hmm… Is that a good pitch?”
Andrew: What did you see? Be open with me. What did you see in that pitch as a psychology major?
Adina: I would say that in some places, I definitely saw things that would really resonate. I think that for me over time, what I’ve seen is that the things that really resonate with people are things that people can really relate to and kind of see their own shoes in when you see a personal story.
I would say that for me, I was like, “I get that. I get the process of having to go through and try and figure it all out.” I liked the part about you trying to figure out your domain. That was the part where I was like, “I can relate to that.” I was in that headspace of like, “Hmm… Does that really work? Does that not work?”
Andrew: The one thing that I made sure to include in there is something I learned from Robert Cialdini, which is if there is a real limited time on it and a real scarcity, you have to tell people about it because it’s a selling point. So, these guys really are only with Mixergy for three sponsorship messages. So, I figured, “Let’s just let everyone know.” You’ve got an opportunity now and then it goes away.
23AndMe changed the way you were thinking about what your product was going to be. Why?
Adina: Well, in the beginning we were kind of thinking that we were going to go down the route of like personal information because there was a lot of questions that I had about my background and my genome, etc. But 23AndMe came out with like full force. They were backed in many ways by essentially Google, the wife of Sergey Brin started it. So, obviously extremely well-connected people that will have way more funding than Becky and I, who were basically two ladies in a garage.
So, at that point, it was like, “Okay, there’s a lot of space within genomic analysis. So, how do you really–what is the largest impact we can really make?” At that point, we hadn’t really come to the scale decision yet. It wasn’t until we got our third cofounder, Jeremy, who’s our chief technology officer, that we really made that realization.
Becky had come up with an algorithm that she thought would make an improvement for increasing the statistical power and reducing the overall cost for rare disease studies. So, if the kid has a rare disease, what they’ll do is they’ll sequence the mother and the father and the child to figure out what’s going on.
So, we had this idea and we were looking for something that could be our chief technology officer and actually code this thing up. Jeremy, this is one part of the overall stack of things you have to do if you’re analyzing a genome. So, Jeremy kind of started it and went to look at the state of the art and what were all of the other tools that were out there as a computer scientist. It was like, “Whoa, none of this stuff is going to scale at all.”
At that time, a lot of it was kind of scripts that had been kind of hacked together by like generations of grad students to try and like get this information. At that time, it made sense. If you’re only running a couple hundred genomes a year, it’s okay if it takes you a week to process.
Andrew: And that’s what it took, a week to process, a week to understand what was there?
Adina: A week to get a basic list of genetic variations.
Andrew: Wow. Okay.
Adina: That was it. That was fine. At that time, in order to read your DNA, sequence your DNA, it would take you 30 days to generate a whole human genome. So, 30 days to read it, 7 days to analyze it, totally fine. We were like, “No, no, no. This is totally going to change.”
If you look at Moore’s Law versus the Carlson Law or Venture Law, it depends on who you ask, but both of those are essentially the sequencing laws. It’s like Moore’s Law and then like sequencing, like super, super steep. So, Moore’s is like every 18 months. Sequencing is like maybe 12.
So, you could see that the technology was going to accelerate at an extremely rapid rate. We were like, “Okay, there are going to be scale issues here.” That’s when we made that major pivot and focus and we were like, “How do we really make this happen.”
Andrew: I don’t want to assume that I understand. I want to make sure I do by asking you. What you’re saying is you say that reading and–reading what was in people’s DNA was going to happen faster and faster and faster, dramatically faster.
Andrew: So, it really won’t make sense to analyze that DNA over seven days if it’s going to take less than seven days to actually read it, right?
Andrew: So, you said, “That’s where we need to focus. How do we shorten that seven-day period so that it takes people a lot less time to understand what’s going on with their DNA now that they can read it faster?”
Adina: Yes. That is definitely a major component of it. The other major component is if you think about it, if you’re dealing with a couple hundred genomes, you can basically gather all your data and batch it all up and then do your analysis and get your list of genetic changes relative to other people and then pair group A and group B and find something interesting and write a paper on it or develop a diagnostic on it or whatever and then put it in a can and move on.
But if you’re actually sequencing thousands of people, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, you can’t gather all of the samples into one little batch thing you run through a process. You’re going to have this continual iterative analysis process. So, we were kind of looking at it and we were like, “The entire paradigm with which people are thinking about genome analysis is going to have to actually change. It’s going to need to be like…”
It’s just kind of like what Hadoop did, right? There’s like the distribution. Hadoop is kind of like the first large scale batch side of the world. There have been a number of stream technologies that Google has put out. So, we were kind of looking at that kind of approach but for genomics.
Andrew: What are you doing in this whole period? I understand Jeremy–by the way, that guy’s got badass sideburns. I understand what Becky is doing. My question is as a psychologist in an environment like this, what’s your role?
Adina: Everything else.
Andrew: What is everything else at that point?
Adina: Everything else is figuring out how do you understand what the real market needs are, how do you put together a team–all of the other components.
Andrew: So, understanding what the market needs, what customers want. What did you do at that period when you’re still trying to figure out that business? What did you do? Do you have an example?
Adina: Interviewing a lot of people is the short. People always say, “Talk to your customers. Talk to your customers. Talk to your customers.” We did a lot of that.
Andrew: Which customer did you talk to in the beginning?
Adina: In the very beginning? There were a bunch of researchers at the University of Washington. So, Becky and I would buy them beer pretty regularly at one of the local pubs at the U-Dub and we would just ask them tons of questions.
Andrew: You just email them and say, “Hey, can I get you a drink? I’m working on this company that I can use your feedback on?”
Adina: Yeah. I think at that time Becky knew one of those people. So, she was kind of able to get us initially in and then it was like, “Okay, can you invite the rest of your friends so we can ask you question.” That’s the very earliest beginnings of it all.
Andrew: Do you have a couple of go-to questions that were especially helpful for understanding what they needed?
Adina: Not really. I would say that it was more of like trying to understand their process and how they were thinking about the problem and what they were hoping to achieve in the future and what they thought was going to be–there were a couple. What do you think the future of DNA analysis is going to look like in two, three or four years? How do you think it’s going to change?
At that point, it was all crystal ball work. It’s 2009. It costs $100,000 to sequence one person. It’s taking 30 days. For a lot of people, they thought the idea of $1,000 for a genome and people doing hundreds of thousands like in the near future was totally insane. It just didn’t look that feasible. There were going to have to be major technological advances in order for that to happen.
So, there was a certain amount of asking the customers what they thought and asking industry experts, etc. But eventually, I felt like we had enough information and evidence to try and make it happen. Ultimately, I think in a lot of these businesses, especially in emerging markets, you’re going to take your best guess. You’re going to put a stake in the ground. You’re going to bet the entire farm on it and hope that your timing is close enough.
Andrew: Your bet was prices are going to come down fast enough and speed of results is going to happen fast enough that we’re not going to run out of money.
Adina: And the volume.
Andrew: And the volume.
Adina: Volume, volume, volume–there are going to be tons of genomes at some point.
Andrew: You told our producer here at Mixergy you did it, you presented it and nobody cared. That’s what your launch was like, you said. What do you mean by that?
Adina: In the beginning, for sure. What we started out as was like, “Okay, people need scale.” We’re going to take all of these tools and we’re going to make them work for the cloud. The cloud seemed like a totally reasonable place to do it if you have continuously expanding needs for DNA analysis. The cloud seems like a totally reasonable place to do that.
So, we took all these open source tools that were super slow and rewrote that to work really, really quickly and put them in a cloud environment, etc. What people had said, “Yes, I think the speed is going to increase and we’re going to need faster analysis.” Ultimately, when it came down to it, they just didn’t care enough.
On top of it, I think that one of the compounding factors was that the NIH, which provides a huge percentage of the grants that fund a lot of this stuff, at some point was like, “Yeah, the cloud, we’re not sure about the whole security situation. So, you can’t put your data on the cloud.” And that just put a whole like–like talk about a monkey wrench or multiple monkey wrenches into the system.
Andrew: So, you were going to take someone’s genome, put it in the cloud where there are powerful computers that are going to analyze it and then bring it down and they said, “This cloud thing is not going to work.”
Andrew: That’s a huge part of your business. Another thing you told our producer is that one person’s genome is a huge file. How big is it?
Adina: It’s like 100 gigabytes.
Andrew: Okay. So, you have to send that into the cloud. You have to process it. So, when you find out you can’t do this in the cloud, what do you do as a business owner?
Adina: Well, we basically went back to the drawing board and we were like, “Okay, guys…” we went and talked to customers again. We went and talked to customers again and we were like, “What do you guys really need?” I think first timer mistake, for sure–par of what we made a big mistake on was we ask all these questions upfront, we got all our interviewing done, etc.
They’re like, “Okay, great, we have a total understanding of what you need. We’re going to go and build that and we’ll be right back in like nine months to a year.” We did that and in the meantime, the market just shifts right under you and the world is different.
Andrew: What’s the difference?
Adina: The difference, a lot of it was the regulatory market, for sure. There’s a lot of that. I think that was one of the biggest things we didn’t pay attention to.
Andrew: What’s a big regulatory change that happened in the nine months that you were incubating?
Adina: Well, like the NIH saying–
Andrew: Oh, that happened after you started with the cloud?
Adina: Oh yeah.
Andrew: Ah, so you come back and you say, “We’ve got this cloud solution,” and they say, “Well, we don’t like the cloud anymore.”
Adina: Exactly. Everybody was like, “Yeah, we totally believe that everything’s moving to the cloud, faster, lower expenses. We totally believe that’s going to work.” So, we’re like, “Great. We’re going to go build that.” When we got back, the NIH was like, “Yeah… Can’t do that.” And it was like, “Okay…” Eventually, they came down off of that kind of like initial scare and it was okay at some point.
But by then, we had conversations with people and really more deeply understood what they were going to really need. The other thing is that frankly if it’s not as much of a defensible space as I would have wanted. There were other people that were like, “We can take open source tools and make them run faster, cheaper, and an interface on the cloud.”
So, we started asking questions like “Okay, what are things you literally can’t do right now with the genomes you’re trying to analyze?” What are the real problems? “From a scientific perspective, you can’t get answers because you can’t do blah.” And one of the things that they talked about were these things called structural variations. So, when you’re reading your little summaries of what Spiral does and it’s a structural variation, this is this part. So, I can explain this.
Andrew: Like to a ten-year old? I’ll take it.
Adina: Ten-year old. Okay. We can do this. Grandma totally gets this. So, if you were to compare you and me, we’re going to differ by a bunch of genetic differences, right? We can have a bunch of different types. So, I can have a single base pair change, like I have an A and you have a G at the same location on your chromosome 1, for example. I can also have like little chunks of DNA that you don’t have that I don’t have or that I have, for example. So, like ten base pairs that I don’t have that you have.
But then there can also be really large changes, like I’m just missing 50,000 base pairs or like you have 5,000 base pairs that are totally unique to you or your ancestral background or something like that. Remember how we talked about it’s a 150 base pair long chunk? If you only have 150 base pairs of context, if you have any change that is over 150 base pairs, it’s kind of hard to figure out what’s going on if you’re trying to line it up against a puzzle box. If your puzzle piece does not look anything like the puzzle box you have, where does it go?
So, they were having all of these challenges around how do we find, how do we see these larger changes that are not represented in this reference genome. It turns out those types of variations are incredibly important for tons of different disease areas. So, cancer–tons of structural variations, prostate cancer, they’re just rampant. Neurological conditions–autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s you name it, big structural variations. Cardio logical conditions like various types of hard disease, etc., lots of structural variations.
So, we’re able to see the small stuff, like the little changes, but we think it’s probably the big changes that are actually making a major difference here. That kind of makes sense. If you’re missing 50,000 base pairs, they probably code for something important. So, that’s going to cause all sorts of–
Andrew: So, instead of having to analyze the whole giant, 100 gigabyte file, they’re saying, “Look at these pieces that are smaller than the 100 gigabyte but are significantly different and that’s what you should be looking and that’s what you should be analyzing for.” Do I have that right?
Adina: They want both. They’re like, “Look, we want the whole 100 gigabyte file analyzed, but when we are analyzing our 100 gigabyte file, we’re not able to figure out some of these areas. There are big chunks of stuff that doesn’t match up anywhere and we literally throw it into the garbage and never look at it again. So, if you can incorporate all of the stuff from the garbage back into this whole hundred gigabyte situation, that would be really great because we think there’s important stuff in there.
Andrew: Got it. I see.
Adina: So, from an algorithmic perspective, crazy tricky because people have had techniques to try and get at this information before, but basically the technique, you can kind of think of it as, “Okay, we’re not going to use the puzzle box, we’re just going to compare all of the pieces against each other.”
If you’ve ever tried to do the puzzle without the puzzle box, it’s like computationally for your brain a total mess. It’s the same way for genomics. We had to figure out really clever ways to figure out what was happening on the box and not biasing all our results against that thing, if you will. Are you with me?
Andrew: Yeah. I know what you mean. I got this–when we moved to San Francisco–this big puzzle of San Francisco. Giant. I knew the area by then, but because I didn’t have the box for a day and on the box was a photo of what I was trying to put together, I couldn’t get even two pieces done that day. Then my wife came over and said, “Here’s where I put the box. I needed to get it out of the way.” Suddenly the whole thing made sense and I knew where pieces went. It didn’t make it easy, but it was at least possible. I see what you’re saying. So, that’s where you were.
Adina: Yeah. That’s the thing we basically started on making a solution for. So, that required a bunch of really brilliant engineering on Jeremy’s part where we figured out how to compress the data down into an incredibly small amount of space because if you can get it down small enough, if you can put a bunch of it into memory so all of a sudden your search feeds are better and also intelligent invoicing so we could know what was related to what.
So, we did all this work and then we came out and said, “Okay, Baylor College of Medicine, here’s our thing. What do you think?” So, they did this massive comparison study with our tool and basically every major other tool on the market that was trying to get at this large genetic structural variation kind of thing.
They found that we were able to see more with higher accuracy, like less false discoveries than anybody else’s tools. They were like, “Wow, your accuracy is incredible. How on earth did you do this? You’re obviously incredibly competent at bioinformatics. Here are all the other problems we are struggling with. Can you help us?”
All of a sudden, we were no longer this vendor trying to sell to these scientists. A lot of scientists kind of have this perception that, “Companies, they’re evil and they’re just trying to sell me stuff I don’t need.” All of a sudden we moved credibility status-wise from vendor to person and group that is actually contributing to science and solving problems the rest of us weren’t able to solve as effectively.
Andrew: Let me come back to that in a moment. That was a huge change for you and you overcame a problem that so many people listening to us have. First I should say that my second and final sponsor for this interview is a company called Toptal. Now I’m feeling like Adina you’re analyzing me. Here’s what I noticed about you, Adina–you have an incredible developer, incredible tech mind in Jeremy, right?
Andrew: One of the things I notice about really good developers, really good engineers is that you don’t have to tell them how to solve the problem. You deal with lower level people, you have to tell them, “Here’s how I need you to solve the problem. Here’s what I want to see. Show me every step of the way to make sure that what you’re doing is exactly what I have in mind.” Those are not the best developers. Those are like paying for hands.
The really solid engineers are the ones that you can say, “Here is the problem.” They understand the problem in many ways better than you and they can come up with unique solutions that you never could have because you don’t know the tools because you’re not an engineer. You don’t every day solve those problems. Is Jeremy the kind of person who just eats problems for breakfast, like he wants to work on big problems?
Adina: Oh yeah. This is a guy that reads math books for fun. That is his shindigs for sure.
Andrew: Right? Marco Arment, one of the developers that I really admire gave up a product called Peace, which was a huge success in the App Store. Peace allowed people to get rid of ads in Safari browser. He was the number one app. I think he was doing tens of thousands a month already. He said, “I’ve got to close this down.” He gave everyone back their money and he said, “It’s not a problem I want to spend my life solving. It’s basically a war of advertisers versus the ad blockers.” He said, “That’s not my problem.”
The great developers like him, like Jeremy, want to work on really good problems and can come up with solutions that we as entrepreneurs can’t think of on our own. So, where do you find those really good developers? They’re not going to be found by Craigslist. You’re not going to have a headhunter just hand them over to you. At many cases, you might meet them at a tea event, the way Adina met Jeremy, right?
Andrew: That’s ideal. But how many tea events are you going to go to that are going to let you find your perfect developer? When you’re really in need of a developer, can you really start hunting from tea event to tea event? It takes forever.
Adina: It does.
Andrew: So, what do you do? You go to a company called Toptal, whose founders have this incredible network of developers. When I say Toptal, top talented–I’m not just saying that myself. This is Mark Andreessen, the world’s maybe best investor right now. He not only believed in them, not only accepted they have the best network of developers. He said, “I’m going to put my money where my mouth is.” And Andreessen Horowitz invested in Toptal.
So, what happens when you go to Toptal, they don’t sit you down for tea. They sit you down for a conversation, which will happen in probably minutes after you go to them and say you’re interested in hiring a developer. Then you get on the phone with them and you tell them exactly the problems you’re working on, exactly the kind of person you’re looking for and your culture, frankly, because you and I and Adina, we all have our quirks as entrepreneurs. We all have our ways of doing things.
Toptal takes it all, goes to their network and they find someone who’s going to be an absolute great fit. I was going to say perfect–no one is perfect. I love my wife. We’re not a perfect fit. There are always little problems. Everyone has problems. So, they’re going to find the closest thing to perfection they can. They introduce you to that person. And then you can get started often within days.
Now, I say they’re going to introduce you–that’s near as perfect as possible. That sounds like hype. That sounds like something you can’t believe until I tell you that if you’re not 100 parent satisfied, Toptal will give you your money back and they’ll still pay the developer.
So, they are willing to bank on it. They’re not saying, “Hey, you, Andrew’s listener, you should go and pay your money and risk that that they won’t find you the right person.” They’re taking the risk. All the risk is off you. They will, if they believe they can find you the right developer, they will take all the risk.
If you’re not 100 percent satisfied within two weeks, let them know and they will not charge you. If you are satisfied, after you pay for 80 developer hours, they will pay for the next 80 developer hours. I don’t think this makes economic sense for them. The only reason I can believe they’re doing it is because the Mixergy audience–it’s not the hugest audience on the planet, but it’s a very influential audience of entrepreneurs, especially in tech, and they believe and I think it’s true, that if they give you a good experience, you are going to be the people who become their evangelist.
So, they’re willing to give 80 free Toptal developer hours when you pay for 80. Of course, there is a two weeks free, 100 percent satisfaction. If you’re not happy, they will not charge you, but they will still pay the developer.
This, as far as I know, is their last spot at Mixergy. So, if you’re interested, write it down right now, share it with a friend while it’s still available. You can go to Toptal.com/Mixergy to get that great deal and to see a very handsome photo of me. It makes me wonder if I should shave my beard. I really like what they did with that photo. All right, Toptal.
All right, Adina, I’m pretty happy I didn’t get in my head about it. When you know that you’re being watched to some degree, you get in your own head and you go, “Don’t screw it up. Get it right.” Is there a psychological term for that, the observer syndrome or something?
Adina: I don’t know. I think that little voice, the, “Get it right,” is like our worst enemy. It really, really is.
Andrew: I do too. Why do you think? Help me understand what’s going on in my head when my voice goes, “Get it right,” and because it’s saying, “Get it right,” I get distracted by that voice and I screw things up.
Adina: Well, I mean, I could tell you what’s going on in my head. I can’t speak for yours. But I can tell you in my head, there’s a certain amount of survival mechanism. We’re always kind of like we typically are really worried about being judged. So, I’m sure that hearkens back to the caveman days where it’s like, “Okay, if they judge me as not being fit enough or blank, blank, blank enough,” then I’m not going to be included in the food run. There are a lot of social pressures for that.
The thing is that little voice is not ever going away, I think, for most of us. It’s going to be there probably for the rest of our lives. I guess for me it’s a question of what do you do with it. For me, as of late, I’ve been thanking it for sharing and then doing what I’m going to do instead because I think that if we listen to our own fears, etc., then we would never start companies.
There are so many things that if we let our fear run us would never be possible. I think that living in that place of possibility and going to the things that everybody says are impossible, that’s what is the seed of building something amazing, that irrational passion, as Alan says.
Andrew: As who says?
Adina: Alan, my professor.
Andrew: Professor. What’s one thing that your inner voice says that you have to thank for sharing and stop paying attention to?
Adina: I think that for me it’s really around, especially when I’m giving presentations to people, there’s been a lot of research that shows that actually if you are presenting on stage, the audience is actually rooting for you. They want you to win. They want to have a good talk. They want it for you. There’s like one dude in the audience maybe out of 100 that’s like, “I don’t want her to win.” But most people are.
Yet, a lot of times when I get up on stage, the first couple minutes, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, they’re going to eat me. I’m going to get booed off the stage. I’m going to forget everything I’m going to say and blah, blah, blah.” I have to thank that voice for sharing and say, “I know that people are really rooting for me. I know that if I’m just authentic for people and really share from a place of wanting to connect with other people, it’s going to work.” So, that’s the strategy that I have.
Andrew: I call those two voices my counter mind and my true mind. I want to get on stage and my counter mind says, “I’m not going to do as good as that other guy because he’s such a good storyteller. They’re waiting for me to fail because then they’ll have the story of how I failed.” That’s not true, but anything I try to do, my counter mind counters without paying attention to the reality of it.
Then my true mind is, “Oh, those people want a really good presentation. Frankly, those people care about the presentation. They all care about whether we can have a quiet conversation afterwards because they have something that they want to talk to me about and that’s why they came all this way, not for something they could watch online.” So, that’s true. How do I spend more time paying attention to that true part of my mind, the true mind as opposed to getting carried away with my counter mind, which can be a really yappy little beast in my head?
Adina: It’s just practice and being aware of it. I think the thing that is really amazing is a lot of times we’re not actually aware of the little voice. It takes conscious effort to be aware of the fact that we’re making stuff up that’s not actually real.
It’s not like we get that kind of distinction when we’re young. It’s not like anybody comes up to us when you’re five and says, “You’ve got a little voice in your head. It’s going to make up a bunch of stuff about what’s happening which is not actually real,” but just so you know you can separate out what’s real and what you’re making up.
Nobody does that. We have to have like getting to an adult and reading various books or going to various programs or seminars or sharing with someone else in order to get that. I wish that they included that as something they get when we’re young. I think that would totally change the world, actually. Show me a generation of kids raised like that, unstoppable.
Andrew: Yeah. You’re right. We don’t even notice that it’s there. I for years thought–I wasn’t running. I thought running is for other people. I don’t know who, but it’s like for people who grew up with fully American families who understand what track meet is, for people who were athletes in fourth grade or something or who watch football–that’s who running is for. So, I didn’t run. I didn’t recognize that the reason I wasn’t running was that I had all these associations in my head that said, “Running isn’t for you. Running is for those other people, right?”
Andrew: It’s not until you realize it that then you can question it and it starts to go away.
Andrew: Back to your story. You did have a challenge in the real world. People did not take you seriously. That’s why you started to get things written up in the peer review process. That’s when you started to partner up. Can you talk a little bit more about the problem before you go back to telling us the solution you described before? Give an example of what you were not able to do because you weren’t taken seriously, because you guys were such outsiders.
Adina: Well, I think that honestly it really has to do with the depth of conversation that people are really willing to have with you. I think that especially in this industry, it is essentially a community of innovators. Scientists are on the forefront of discovery and doing things that have never been possible before, right? So, there’s a lot of, “I can do it by myself.” It takes a lot of trust for them to say, “Maybe you can really help me with that.”
I think that the depth of conversations that we were having that led us to the cloud route, etc., they weren’t really deep enough conversations in order to really get at what is going to be really valuable for this industry.
So, once we finally had that, once we had demonstrated that we really were contributing to science, that we were one of them, then they were willing to open up and tell us about all of their future problems they were going to have because we weren’t just some vendor trying to sell a thing, we were another scientist trying to contribute to humanity and scientific discovery. I think there’s that distinction.
It’s not unique to this particular industry. They call it consultative selling. You want to be a trusted advisor as you’re selling people, right? It’s the same deal here, just more science-y and with publications.
Andrew: What about selling to scientists? I know here I’m selling to entrepreneurs. They’re completely open-minded. I tell them about one of my sponsors or something I’m offering and there’s a good chance they’ll go buy it right away. It’s not a huge deal for them. What’s it like to sell to scientists?
Adina: Selling to scientists is a really interesting process. I think that one of the biggest things that I have learned is how to speak the language that is really going to resonate well with them. Scientists, their entire world is a lot about precision, like the accuracy with which you make your statements, etc.
So, hyperbole is 100 percent not acceptable in any way shape or form. You can’t just say, “I have the greatest thing since sliced bread. It’s going to be amazing.” That’s not going to be helpful to you in your conversation with scientists. They really want to understand the data. They want to see the information. They want to validate it themselves.
So, really learning about what’s important to them. What is the psychology of the person I’m really trying to talk to? How do I speak to them in a way that’s not going to be off-putting and build trust? That was definitely a learning process.
I was really fortunate in that I was able to hire somebody that came from both worlds, somebody that got his PhD in statistical genetics and sold for a company called Cousnyl, which provides genetic testing and screening for parents that are basically thinking about having kids. To get that combo situation, he’s like a mythical unicorn. They almost don’t exist.
But being able to bring those two worlds together and have them collide in such a beautiful way, I think that was incredibly helpful and impactful. So, a lot of it is to have the right hire to have the langue we needed to in order to sell to scientists.
Andrew: I see. You’re saying you just hired the right person who was then able to go through this process because that person had already gone through the process.
Adina: Yeah. There’s a lot of that and he was able to show me the ropes, to a certain extent. It’s not like I’m going to know how to caveat things appropriately in scientific language unless you get a lot of training in it. When you do a PhD, there’s tons of training in that because there are things you can say in a scientific paper and there are things you can’t. So, getting precise about your language that way, that’s an entire process.
So, I don’t think it was something I would have been able to do entirely by myself. I think that’s true for tons of things. I think that’s what is so beautiful about companies. They’re basically giant dreams that are totally un-accomplishable if you’re doing it by yourself. You have to get other people on board with your vision and all create this thing together. So, that’s what I love about companies personally. I love the bringing together of minds.
Andrew: When I had trouble getting my interviewees to open up, I hired a coach to go through my transcripts with me and figure out what worked for me and what I should try and then we’d come back and analyze it. The final step of this whole process was to document it. I created this Google Doc where I wrote the different techniques that worked and I explained how that worked.
Then when I hired a pre-interviewer, I was able to show the doc to the pre-interviewer, “Here’s what worked for me. Try it out,” so, that the knowledge isn’t just in my head but now he has it or she has it and now all the pre-interviewers are able to access this. Then when they find something that works, they contribute it back to me and we all get smarter.
I’m wondering, what’s your process? For us it’s just this Google Doc that we all make each other smarter as we figure things out about how to get guests to open up. What’s your process about learning from a sales person so that it’s not the sales person’s knowledge but it’s also your knowledge and it’s also your future team members’ knowledge. How do you knowledge share like that?
Adina: Frankly, it is experiential. I think there is a lot of complexity to selling to this particular group. There are a lot of things that are not necessarily intuitive in any way shape or form. In the beginning, it’s like, “Okay, we’re going to run you through the basic boot camp of the basic dos and don’ts but in order to get really nuanced at it and really dial it in, the only way to do it is to have people get paired up and trained up. I think that has been really effective.
It’s a somewhat long training process. I think that even somebody that’s really, really sharp that has had experience selling, either at the enterprise sales world or in the scientific world, it’s still a spin process because you’re either learning the computer science side of the world or you’re learning how to speak to scientists.
But I think that taking that time to get really, really solid on how to communicate with these people, I think that’s one of the keys that I think really separates why are companies having some much success. We really have a sales team that has been really focused on how to relate to these people and really understand their needs.
Andrew: So, the way you do it is by doing peer sales meetings so that the new person gets to watch. I feel like we should have done that here at Mixergy in addition to having this doc. The first time someone does a pre-interview, I should be doing it with them watching. Then the second time, they do it with me watching. Then the third time, they go and do it on their own without anyone’s attention. I can see all that working.
What advice do you have as someone who’s sold–this is like super-enterprise, I feel like, the organizations you’re selling to–selling to enterprise has been a challenge for me on Mixergy to teach that process because I’ve never done it. But I do bring other people who have. You’re selling to people who are more unique even than enterprise customers. What advice do you have based on that experience for anyone who’s selling to enterprise?
Adina: I would say that ultimately it’s really–I think it’s probably the psychologist-type in me speaking at this point, but for me it’s not so much about the specific types of words, but more about how do you relate to the people that are inside of them. In every single organization you’re going to have people that are super formal or super causal that are passionate about that or passionate about this.
It’s really a question of how do you identify what they really care about. What are they really passionate about? What are they really going to resonate with and be inspired by? It’s a conversation not of, “Here’s my stuff and here’s our technology and here are all the features,” but really it’s much more like selling a vision than it is anything else.
Andrew: A vision.
Adina: A vision, like how do you enroll these people in the vision or the possibility of something that they can create that they wouldn’t be able to create before? I will go out and be like, “How are you doing your studies now? What do you want to do? What if you could do blank, blank and blank? What if you could do a 1,000 person study and have it in a small enough file format that you can actually share it with your collaborators and be able to search through it extremely rapidly, like if you wanted to look at a million genetic variations over 1,000 people, you could do that in two days.”
For them, that is an amazingly exciting thing because right now, what it’s compared to is petabytes of data, huge files, and would take weeks or months to do that same kind of analysis. It’s just really kind of pain to like, “What could your life and your research look like and how can that impact other people?” That’s kind of the conversation that I have with our scientists.
So, you can apply that though in any conversation. With the people you’re talking to at enterprise, you mean what is the world that they’re trying to create and how can you help them create that.
Andrew: I know we’re running late. We said we’d be done by 11:30. We’re a little after. What time is your flight? How much more time do we have? Do we have a few more minutes?
Adina: I do have to run soon-ish. So, I can probably give you about five more minutes and then I have to run to the gate.
Andrew: Everyone’s talked to you about your funding. I see a lot of research and you told our producer that getting funding was a challenge because venture capitalists who invest in big data don’t really understand genomics. Venture capitalists who invest in genomics don’t understand big data. So, when you finally got to raise, it was incredibly validating in addition to being helpful to the business. I see other articles about how much you raised. What I don’t see is revenue. What kind of revenue are you guys doing?
Adina: It’s still pretty new. After making the realization that we needed the structuration technology, etc., just because you have like the first publication doesn’t mean that people are automatically going to buy it because they have to go through their testing process because that’s how scientists are. At this point, we are basically right about to close some of our largest deals–I guess if you haven’t had a lot of deals, they’re all going to be the largest deals–but they are quite substantial.
Andrew: Here’s what I see in my research. This is the research that we got. My research before we even invited you here, here’s what my team did. They said $3 million in funding, something like $300,000 to $500,000, I guess, in 2014, but we can’t seem to find any confirmation of that, so let’s not use it. Then I see another person saying, “The best we can see is $1 million revenue per year.” Does that sound right at all?
Adina: No. People are making stuff up on the internet.
Andrew: Interesting. Is it more or less?
Andrew: Interesting. If you close these deals are you going to hit $1 million a year?
Andrew: You are? Are you getting close to closing those deals?
Andrew: Can you say what your revenue is? It doesn’t feel like that’s a competitive advantage at this point.
Adina: No. Our revenue at this point is like in the low hundreds of thousands.
Adina: But any of the deals that we’re working on–so, countries are now starting to sequence large portions of their population. There are ten countries that are sequencing like 100,000 people are more. So, we’re working with three countries that are doing large sequencing projects. Any of those would just blow any of our predictive revenue numbers out of the water. So, we’re really, really excited for those.
Right now, they seem to all be moving forward really positively. It’s because we bring such a unique way of analyzing the DNA and enabling people to find things they wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise. So, we’re really excited. I think this next year is going to be insane.
Andrew: Do you know–oh, I see, this is someone who introduced us. It was a different podcast. I wanted to figure out if you hired a PR agency to introduce you to Mixergy. It looks like a different way.
Adina: No. I spoke at a summit in the UK called the GAP Summit. It’s basically to inspire young folks that are trying to move into–basically they’re getting their PhDs in some kind of biotechnology field. It’s to inspire them to create companies and go out into the field. One of your listeners, I guess, was a fan and recommended me and that’s how we got connected.
Andrew: I really do love now that everyone on the team is using the same CRM. So, I can keep track of everything they’ve done. I can see April telling everyone else on the team, “She’s awesome, fantastic interviewee.” She said this on August 6th. All the things that go back and forth including emails to you are recorded in here for me to see. I love data.
All right. The company is Spiral Genetics. I know you love data too. Would you before you go in one moment just swing your camera around so you get a sense of where you are? I just want to get…
Adina: It’s highly non-glamorous.
Andrew: There are people over there and you just felt comfortable talking to us. You’re at the airport lounge.
Andrew: What airline are you taking?
Adina: I’m taking Delta, but I’m in the United lounge because that’s what would allow me to book something if I wasn’t a member.
Andrew: So, you had to pay to come in just to do this interview with me?
Andrew: That’s what I thought. Thank you for doing that. Well, it’s so good to have you on here. I’m going to keep an eye on this. I hope this will not be the last time you come to do Mixergy. I hope everyone in the audience gets a chance to see you speak in person. You are a great interviewee. The website is SpiralGenetics.com.
I told you guys all about my two sponsors, BrandBucket–you know about BrandBucket. Let me tell you also if you’re not interested in working with them, check out their blog. They’re really good at telling you how to find a good brand for yourself. And of course there’s Toptal. One of the things I like about them is if you look at Toptal.com/Mixergy, you’re going to see an incredible landing page that is to be modeled. Don’t copy it, but model it–Toptal.com/Mixergy.
Finally, if you haven’t subscribed yet to the Mixergy podcast, you should. You’ll get every single interview directly delivered to your phone or other mobile device. I know we sell the older interviews, but if you want them all for free, just subscribe and they will come directly to you. If you like this interview, get the rest.
Adina, thank you so much for doing this interview.
Adina: Than you, Andrew. I appreciate all of your time. Great questions.
Andrew: Thank you. Thank you all for being a part of it. Bye, everyone.