For my whole life, I’ve been blessed to get advice from really smart, caring people but when I think about #AdviceThatSticks, Bill Donaldson comes to mind. Bill Donaldson is famous. He served as chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), chairman and CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, CEO of Aetna, was dean and professor of management studies at Yale. This is a mere sampling of the successes that grace his resume. But notably for me, he was a college buddy of my dad’s, which presented the highly-unique privilege and opportunity of gaining face-time with Bill during a particularly important time in my life: when I was a budding entrepreneur and looking to share my idea, my vision, and of course ask for money.
It was the late ‘90s when I approached Bill to support by dream of building a national women’s health birthing clinic. I remember it vividly how I passionately extoled the virtues of episodic risk on maternity care, celebrated how women can be pregnant and not be sick and that a health forward, positive, feminine experience of maternity care would not only generate great joy, but great savings and in return, great profit for anyone who was part of the team who could bring it all to life. Donaldson listened, giving me lots of delicious, encouraging eye contact.
And then, he said “Johnny, I’m not going to invest in your women’s’ health company,” – he referenced certain restrictions due to his position which wouldn’t make it possible. He went onto tell me that he didn’t believe my idea would work, but in lieu of giving the financial support (let alone the overall confidence from him I was so desperate for), he wanted to offer advice, if I’d be open to. I gritted my teeth, swallowed hard, clenched my hands – I was crying and screaming on the inside, running to my car already – I said, “Oh… thank you, Bill. I’d love your advice.” He said “Johnny, while your business probably won’t work, continue to go after it with all the passion you’ve shown me here today, that way when lady luck knocks with another way of using all of your work, you’ll open the door.” At which point, he opened the door…and showed me out.
I of course thought, whatever. I’m going to prove you wrong. I didn’t pull back at all on trying to build the greatest women’s health/global budget/mid-wife centric solution to answer all the woes of maternity care. And slowly, I ran it into the ground. It seemed that the harder I tried, the deeper the rut.
Then, came was the day I met with a venture capitalist from Dallas who I was sure would be the breakthrough I needed to raise a third round of angel money. I pitched my heart out (in one of our birthing rooms no less) – how could he say “no?” I laid out my vision, the plan, the opportunity – he interrupted me. I heard “Jonathan, you’re a great guy and you’re doing incredible work here, but I don’t think it’s going to pan out. I don’t think that doctors are ready to help mid-wives succeed like you envision and I don’t think you’re going to be able to make money by getting enough women to take a chance on your new way…. But your system, that athenanet, is just terrific. In fact, I’d be willing to give you $11 million dollars for a license.”
I said “What’s athenanet?”
Lady luck had knocked.
This guy wanted to invest in the website, the processes, the rules engine that we built to make our clinics operate better, faster, smarter. Whether I realized it at the time, that advice from Bill was filed away in my mind and because of it, I was more open to the pivot I needed to take. I’ve tried to carry that advice on throughout my career and personal life and while I don’t give out advice much myself, the #AdviceThatSticks should be passed on. So, do what you love, and believe in, but be open to opportunity. When lady luck knocks, make sure you hear it and are prepared to answer the door. Because I was willing to, that little website called athenaNet has grown into athenahealth – a national network that today supports and connects 80K providers, 81 million unique patient records, and processes more than 5b data transactions every year. The work of the company I built is different, but the mission to make healthcare work as it should hasn’t changed. In part, I have that advice to thank.