After the 2008 recession and the realization that the glory days of Wall Street were over, Zoe Barry, began looking for an economically-resistant career opportunity.
“Healthcare as an industry is very ripe for disruption. It’s a very reactive versus proactive industry, so there’s tons of opportunity. It’s very hard to execute in healthcare, but it’s much more recession proof,” she says.
Zoe recounts a personal story that fueled her desire to disrupt a highly inefficient industry. Now CEO of ZappRx, Zoe is uncomplicating the way specialty prescriptions are ordered.
Take us back to your “aha!” moment when your business idea came to you?
My younger brother was diagnosed with severe epilepsy and he was having seizures that were starting to critically impact his health and well being. He was five years old started to develop a stutter and short-term memory loss. My mom was teaching him how to read – by instructing him how to pronounce a “c” sound + “at” = “cat” and he’d practice it over and over again until he knew how to read the word “cat”… and he’d wake up the next morning having no recollection of remembering it, so it was just devastating.
We took him to three different doctors – a pediatrician, a neurologist, and a pediatric neurologist – and each of these specialists had a three month wait times so it took nine months before he could get to the pediatric neurologist. And then once he was diagnosed, it took an additional nine months to get him on therapy because it was a complicated medication regimens and there was no pediatric dosing for the drugs… And during this whole process — which took about a year and a half — the doctors were very clear that he was at high risk of having a seizure that would have a permanent impact on his health.
So I became very interested in the flow of products, funds, and services in healthcare, and wondered: why is it so hard to get patients on medication and what does it actually take to write a prescription?
I began peeling back the onion and realized that it’s really challenging to write a prescription. But why is it? Why are these complicated drugs so hard to write for?
It’s really because when you get diagnosed with a rare disease, the cost of therapy to treat that is usually very expensive, so the insurance companies require a lot of information to cover the cost of that drug.
So my “aha!” moment came from a personal experience, and then when I realized it was not something that was unique to my family, I saw that there was a market opportunity and threw myself into it full-time.
Did you always see yourself as an entrepreneur?
Absolutely. I had a friend say recently, “Ever since I’ve known you, since you were 12 years old, you wanted to do one thing in life and that was run your own company. You used to have all these crazy ideas about business centers and it’s so great to see you living that out.”
I was always peddling something as a child, but I didn’t have a word for it – like entrepreneur or startup – at the time. But I did always want to run my own company, build something and put it in the market, have customers, and be responsible for that.
How did you transition from having a full-time job and moonlighting as an entrepreneur to making your side hustle a new full-time gig?
I was working at Athena Health and before that I was an analyst at a hedge fund. When I graduated from college in 2007 (before the recession) everyone was going to Wall Street and that was the thing to do… but I realized very quickly that the glory days of Wall Street were over.
I thought it’d be great to have a more recession-proof job and figured healthcare is more recession proof… but as I wore my analyst hat, I thought there’s so much inefficiency in healthcare, I could find a problem (getting a prescription written) and solve that problem (by automating the process).
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned?
The best lesson I’ve learned is to get started. Just go out and do it.
I see a big difference between male entrepreneurs and female entrepreneurs, and investors have even told me this as well — women are much less likely to just go out and build their company, cut ties with former employers, and be okay with having instability in their career.
Women will often have a list of 10 questions that they need answered and think, when I have the answers to these questions, I’ll go out and raise funding and start my company… But the reality is you’ll always have those ten questions and you keep reiterating off of them.
So my biggest lesson I’ve learned is to just get started because that question list is going to evolve, and when you run a company, there are always things that you don’t know. The whole point is to get investors involved to help you solve those problems, not to come to the table with all of your questions answered.
When selecting your first employee, which position did you fill? (e.g. app developer, designer, marketing expert, etc…)
CTO. I’m a full-founder. I founded the company in 2012 and raised 160 thousand dollars in friends and family financing and poured all of it into the company. I hired a contracting company to build an MVP (minimal viable product). Then I really needed to bring the tech in house, so the most important hire was the CTO. And I worked very closely with Atlas Venture to bring in more tech talent. And 50% of my tech talent came straight from Google.
How did you test/determine your business’s “sweet spot” that is its core audience and particular market?
We went out and spoke with a lot doctors and pharmacies. It was like an anthropology project.
We now have a product manager who goes and sits with a doctor to understand the what their workflow is like. Then we would track this over many different practices and track what was the same and/or what was unique about each practice. Then compare it to the pharmacy side.
Once we understood what they were doing, we’d have to look at the clinical info is that’s critical to this prescription, and build a technology tool around this.
Lean startup methodology is what the tech world usually calls it. Know your user, talk to your user, sit with your user — that’s essentially it.
What was your approach to scaling your business?
We started with orphan conditions because they were ultra-low volume — like eight doctors that treat 60 percent of the patients and there were only two or three pharmacy that fill those drugs. And so it was very tight iterations because you could talk with users that represented a huge chunk of the market.
Then from the orphan market, we moved into larger markets. We’re rolling out rheumatology and MS platforms, and now we’re beginning to partner with current market players. I call them bookends — so the provider side is one bookend and the pharmacy side is another bookend.
But essentially we started with individual practices and moved on to bigger key players in the industry.
What’s your best advice for attracting funders?
Competition makes the heart grow fonder.
You want to get as many investors around the table as possible. Investors are risk averse even though they’re investing in startups. But they like to see that other people are on board. So getting that first investor across the line is often challenging.
Investors are very brand-sensitive. They want to see that other people of their same caliber are involved with the company. I got backed by Atlas Ventures because I had done so much work on the MVP, had come so far, and then told them I didn’t need money.
I told them I had other investors around the table who I was talking to, so I don’t really need money right now, but if it’s a really good deal and could bring a lot of value to the company, I’ll consider it.
I worked very closely with Atlas and they saw that I was very coachable, that I was making progress, and it helped them frame their thesis as to whether or not they wanted to invest in me. Eventually they came to me with a term sheet, we negotiated terms and the rest is history.
How did you find your mentor?
Jeremy Levin is the former CEO of Teva, which is a 55 billion-dollar market cap company. He had reached out to Atlas and said I’m trying to get involved with some of these accelerators and could you put me in touch with someone on your team that could connect me to these accelerators.
One of my investors said sure, I’ll connect you to Zoe, the CEO of ZappRx. So I go meet him for coffee, and don’t Google him beforehand because I just know that he’s a guy who’s trying to get connected to accelerators.
I met him in New York, we sat down for coffee and I just started going into my opinions, then sharing more about ZappRX… Then I ask, ‘So what do you do?.’
He started sharing more about his background (which was incredibly impressive). I shared my thoughts about the industry and then he shared his thoughts about the industry… I wasn’t trying to pitch him and he wasn’t trying to pitch me — we were just having real candid conversation.
I felt very comfortable sharing with him: here’s what I’m doing really well, here’s what I’m struggling with, and here’s what I need help on. And he was so willing to give his perspective and advice, and it provided a lot of trust.
Jeremy is someone that can help me answer big problems and small problems alike, and that’s very important in a mentor. I found him through honest conversation.
Connect with Zoe Barry’s ZappRX