Episode 50

Test Your Assumptions

with Ben Albert

October 25, 2022

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Ben Albert
Co-founder and CEO, Upfront Healthcare Services, Inc.

Ben is the Co-Founder and CEO of Upfront Healthcare Services, Inc.. Prior to launching Upfront, Ben was the Founder and CEO of Care Team Connect, which was acquired by The Advisory Board Company in 2013. Ben also served as an Entrepreneur in Residence and Operating Partner within the Strategic Investments Division of Cambia Health Solutions. Ben received a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University and an MBA in Entrepreneurship from the University of Illinois Chicago.



It doesn't really matter what payment model a patient is being supported by. All patients need to be guided and navigated to the care that they need.



[00:00:00] Nathan Bays: Ben, welcome so much to day zero. We’re happy to have you here. You’ve worked at companies big and small, you’ve built companies, you’ve sold them to large companies, and you’ve had just a fascinating experience throughout the healthcare ecosystem.

[00:00:12] Ben Albert: Thanks a lot for having.

[00:00:13] Nathan Bays: Did you grow up in a family of entrepreneurs or, did you always know that you wanted to start businesses and start healthcare technology businesses, talk to us about the evolution of your founder story.

[00:00:24] Ben Albert: Yeah, absolutely. So I did grow up in a family of entrepreneurs, actually, not that I thought I wanted to be an entrepreneur. Back then, but I grew up in a family where my grandfather’s father, I guess that would be my great-grandfather, had started a paper business actually. And then eventually my dad took that over and ran a paper company. And through that experience, I just saw him working really hard to build that business and grow that business. It wasn’t a business I was necessarily all that interested in, per se, but it certainly was I did. A great seat at watching how to build the business from him.

[00:01:06] Nathan Bays: Did you immediately pivot into thinking about healthcare or tell us a little bit about the bridge from, from college to thinking about, starting companies in the healthcare.

[00:01:14] Ben Albert: I went into broadcasting actually, so I had a radio show. I was the broadcaster for the hockey team at Western Michigan University while also studying. Business, but definitely did not focus on healthcare that time. In fact, after college, I I took a job as a broadcaster in Canton, Ohio for a year for a minor league baseball team. But that was a startup team in a new league, which I really got the startup bug there. I saw what was happening and how cool that was, and what it was to bring something new to market.

[00:01:48] Nathan Bays: So you had the job at a consulting firm. That’s when you were first exposed to healthcare. Why make the jump to your first company, which was Care Team Connect. Tell us a little bit about that and what was the impetus for that? Jump. And how did you become interested in building a technology company? Obviously there were lots of different opportunities in healthcare. You had exposure from the consulting level, but why healthcare? Why starting the company? And then, why in the technology space?

[00:02:13] Ben Albert: So there were a few stops between starting my own company and joining the consulting organization. After I was working at the consulting company, we ended up building a technology solution for Tufts University Medical Center for helping them train graduate medical education students and tracking their work hours and seeing how they worked and how much effort they put in. And. The institution got paid in order to support graduate medical education and all the reporting they needed to do. So through that work I got the bug in healthcare of just seeing how under automated the whole healthcare ecosystem was just through that experience. And from that company I jumped over to a company called Patient Keeper, where they gave, it was a venture backed startup at the time where they gave me an opportunity to move out to Boston and run operations and watch that company grow, be a part of a fantastic team at Patient Keeper to really invest deeper in healthcare. And at that time it was a profession. I had also gotten my MBA in entrepreneurship and I knew it was something I wanted to do, but after a number of years at Patient Keep. , that’s when I left to start Care Team Connect, and that was the confluence of a couple things. My grandfather had a couple of strokes and I had seen how the community was so fragmented around him in order to try and help him get care and where to get care and how to get care, and how to manage his care and how the family had to communicate about his. To stay organized with it. And I was in Boston, my dad was in Chicago and my grandfather in Florida and it was a mess and a patient keeper, we were doing good work on the inpatient side, but that’s where I said, something’s gotta happen to help coordinate care in the community. And thus, I left patient keeper to start Care Team connect, and that set me off on that journey to support care manage. For patients in the community, between visits, if you will. That was the foundation for care, team connect.

[00:04:08] Nathan Bays: So what was it like taking the leap?

[00:04:10] Ben Albert: It was scary, exciting something I definitely wanted to do. I was super passionate about it and still am, have not lost that passion to this day. I still feel that energy every day. It’s a different kind of, Then remember at the time just going to a conference with a booth and a banner. We didn’t really even have a corporate entity. My wife is a great graphic designer. She designed some screenshots for me of this new platform and went there with a couple of folks and just presented and were able to do really well there. And you can’t really capture that excitement again of that first time getting out there. But that’s where I really, clicked in to say this opportu. Is real. This opportunity has significant benefit to it to support patients and to make an impact socially while also driving economic benefit for all those involved. And that’s when I got the bug for the entrepreneurship spirit there.

[00:05:06] Nathan Bays: That’s cool. So did you have a co-founder at Care team?

[00:05:10] Ben Albert: I did actually his name is Jim Wills and he was the initial co-founder of that business.

[00:05:17] Nathan Bays: Tell us a little bit how you think about, co-founders and that experience.

[00:05:21] Ben Albert: So co-founders. Can be fantastic and if the skill sets align. I have a co-founder at Upfront today. Her name’s Carrie Klowski. We met in business school. We’ve worked for together for 20 plus years and Carrie and I have really learned how to work together as a team. To help build businesses, to make an impact on patients, to make an impact on our clients. And when you’re in sync and you both share the same goals and all those things you read, and textbooks are true, that you can link arms and drive the company forward together as co founders and you know your roles. It can be a great thing when it’s murky and people aren’t really as clearly aligned in where the business needs to go and how it’s operating. Co-founders are a big challenge.

[00:06:11] Nathan Bays: Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. So tell us about Care Team Connect and just the evolution of. Of that business, it was, a successful business that had a very successful exit.

[00:06:22] Ben Albert: Sure. The company, as I mentioned, was founded based on a personal experience combined with having some professional experience in healthcare and thinking through how do you really help the patients that can’t help themselves, and how do you help those around the patient, whether that be clinicians, home care, skilled, non-skilled, what they used to call non-skilled workers, but home. Folks and how do you help them all stay on the same page to support the patient so the patient isn’t going to the emergency room unnecessarily, so the patient isn’t technically utilizing resources that they shouldn’t be using because for the benefit of the patient, they don’t need to do that. And so that’s what the foundation for that business was. It took a couple pivots to figure out exactly the right product, market fit, if you will. We initially started that business focused on the home care. And thinking that’s the place where patients transitioned out of the hospital too. And they were court supposedly coordinating care for patients out of the home care universe, if you will. And so from there, we grew quickly and ultimately found a great partner in the advisory board who acquired us. And we joined forces with the advisory board after about five.

[00:07:39] Nathan Bays: What was it like selling? Your company selling your baby, you’d put all this time and energy in, some of the kind of the decision points around, the sale. Obviously as you referenced a great partner on the acquisition, but how did you get to the point where you felt like it was the right opportunity? Robert had opportunity.

[00:07:55] Ben Albert: You wanna be data driven when making those decisions and less emotional about your baby, so to speak, and really look at what’s in the best interest of the company, What’s in the best interest of all the employees who are working in the company, Who is the partner you’d be joining forces with, and how would that benefit the business overall? And what is the market opportunity ahead of you and what’s the competitive landscape? At that time, the population health world was very uncertain. You, it was believe, my belief, that we needed to be part of a bigger platform to truly leverage what we had built to scale the company in such a complicated marketplace. And so therefore, the advisory board was a great partner for us because culturally it was an excellent fit. Because product wise, we fit right into the. And ultimately that’s where we felt it would best benefit the company. All the employees and the shareholders for the company as well.

[00:08:55] Nathan Bays: Exciting. And then you decided to do it again with up front.

[00:09:00] Ben Albert: Yeah. I didn’t think I would actually but it was in my blood apparently, and I’m the only one who didn’t think I would in my circle. At least. That’s the joke. Guess we’re all products of our previous experience, and this is a continuation of a mission really. And so at the advisory board, after acquisition, we did a great job collectively of adding more clients to the platform and growing. However, it was still a product that was focused on just the highest risk patients who needed care. and you look across the universe in the population health world or even the fee for service world, it doesn’t really matter what payment model a patient is being supported by. All patients need to be guided and navigated to the care that they need, not just those who trip some wire on some analytics platform. To say, Now you need to care, manage this patient and go follow this different process. So I left the advisory board, nothing from the advisory board side, really from this focus on how do you guide every patient to the care that they need, and started focusing my effort on that. And joined forces with one of our prior investors from the Care Team Connect days Echo Health Ventures now, but prior to that it was camia Health Solutions to research this and figure out if there was a way to automate and guide patients to, to care regardless of the payment model and truly what was in the best interest of the patient and the provider in support of that.

[00:10:38] Nathan Bays: Yeah, so contrast upfront, your current company with Care Team Connect and not necessarily from a product. Perspective, but just from a founding perspective, what did you do differently the second time? What did you learn?

[00:10:52] Ben Albert: This time around it was researched differently in terms of figuring out where to make the greatest impact. Didn’t want to build another point solution type of platform. It really needed to be a broad platform that could make a foundational change for our clients and for patients. So first, it was a broader mandate in my mind, if I was gonna go back and do this again, and also making sure you had the right partners as you go into a very competitive space. In terms of patient engagement, so to speak. And so bringing along the right partner and co-founder and Carrie Koslowski and have in great financial sponsors to support it, those things came together in such a way that it just made sense to go after this because it, you could make such an impact on patients. Entrepreneurship to me is all about assumptions. You’re gonna make a bunch of assumptions about a business that you wanna start and grow. How much early success you gain is based on how those assumptions play out, and if those assumptions weren’t accurate, which oftentimes they aren’t, how do you use data to evaluate what assumptions were off and what you need to change about the business and what new assu assumptions you need to make and how you look at.

[00:12:22] Nathan Bays: Yeah, so you’ve mentioned the importance of data, at several points in the discussion and certainly not asking you to re, to reveal any kind of, trade secrets. But, are there certain aspects of certain data points you look to that you think are really key metrics in that assessment that are, at least in your business, are very, valuable and ones that you really.

[00:12:43] Ben Albert: I don’t know if it’s unique to be as focused on data initially. I think it might be, the idea is important. Of course, the data is more important in terms of validating that idea. I think what’s different is being really objective about it and not falling in love with your idea too soon. And the data can keep you grounded in that. You can get excited a lot about a lot of things as an entrepreneur, but where do you want to apply your. And how do you want to make the greatest impact? That to me, you need to follow the data in order to support that. And each business, the data is different. So there isn’t a trade secret or anything that you could state there other than the foundation for me is the financial model. And when you color code the financial model and you look at the assumptions that you tweak in the financial model to determine the value and the creation of this business. The ones that drive the biggest impact overall are the ones to really evaluate and understand as, as deeply as you possibly can objectively by using experience and through data to understand, and then that you have such command of those core, core metrics. Frankly drive the rest of the business and it focuses you on the right things initially to hope. And even then you may not be right, but at least you’ve isolated what feels like this massive challenge down to a few sets of things that you can at least focus on to, to bring a business to market and hopefully,

[00:14:28] Nathan Bays: You just made an acquisition at up front, so congratulations for that. I think I’m correct in saying that this is the first acquisition that you’ve made. At. At one of the companies that you were running, pre-sale, there may an acquisitions you were involved with at the advisory board, but one of the companies pre being sold. So tell us a little bit about that process.

[00:14:48] Ben Albert: It starts with the mission of this company, which is to help every patient get the care that they need. and how do you do that? You do that by making sure you communicate well with every patient, and you’re using the right communication for the right person, whether that means a text message, an email, phone call, and you’re using the right language when you’re talking to them and you’re making it super easy for them to get the access to the care that they need by integrating on the back end. We acquired patient. because it fits so cleanly within the strategy. And they shared the vision for how that communication and trust at the front end of the process is so important in order to engage patients and guide them to care. And then on the back end, you have to make that access to care convenient and frictionless. But the strategic fit was just right there. It didn’t take a lot of math or data to actually validate that. It was pretty obvious to us both that these companies belonged together and that together we can make a much greater impact on patients and thus drive a greater ROI for our clients and solve one of the key challenges in healthcare, which is how do you truly engage people to help them get the access to the care they need? And that was the foundation for it. And then our board stepped up and their board stepped up and said, Yeah, we. What you guys are trying to do here with this business and these two businesses. And we, they supported it as well, but it took all of that coming together, teams, board, strategy, culture, in order to, to support the transaction and move forward. Because you’re right to private venture back companies coming together is a really challenging thing to pull off. And it takes a lot of collaboration on both sides to make it.

[00:16:41] Nathan Bays: So shifting gears just a little bit you’re a repeat founder of healthcare technology companies. I think that puts you in a pretty small group and you’ve been, successful at both. When you think about, what it takes to found a successful. Technology software company in the healthcare space serving healthcare clients what are some of the key what I would call, let’s call them challenges.

[00:17:05] Ben Albert: In healthcare, you have to be patient. The sales cycles are such that you have to. You can’t force things to happen. You have to have all the basics covered. The ROI has to be there, the clinical value has to be there. The patient value has to be there. You really have to have a very full value proposition to build the business and a platform selling into health systems and healthcare in particular, I think. you have to know that going in, that you’re not gonna defy gravity. The sales cycle is the sales cycle, and you need to fund yourself and organize yourself in the early days of the business so that you know that the first wave of potential clients, nine months, 12 months in, you may not have gotten it right and you’re gonna need a whole nother wave for nine to 12 months to learn from that first experience to then figure out the right product market. And make sure your solution is providing the value to the right problems that the clients in healthcare want to solve. So you can’t rush it at all, and you need to get the right investors involved who are gonna be patient with you and have the faith that you’re going to figure it out, who aren’t gonna rush you to make decisions too soon in order to solve one problem, but then create a more macro problem for the. Long term. So those are a couple of things that you just learn and then you have to love it.

[00:18:33] Nathan Bays: Yeah that’s fantastic. Let me ask you, as we wrap up here, a couple of questions. First, it’s the first week of October here is we’re chatting. It’s obviously been a roller coaster year for venture back companies, private markets you’ve defied gravity in that sense for sure. But would love just, your take on the cycle of the markets that we’re in now from a private, venture back perspective and how you’re coping with that, how you’re talking to your team about that, how the conversations you’re having with your board about that and what that means. Would love to hear your take.

[00:19:05] Ben Albert: My take is now is not the time to slow down when we’ve got a platform. Is creating value, it’s helping patients. The data supports the amount of help it’s providing. The ROI is there for our clients. We can’t let the macro environment the financing environment dictate. The strategy of the business just as if it was booming and multiples were crazy, and valuations were really high. We didn’t raise a ton of money during that time either. The strategy is the strategy, and so regardless of the macro economy, we are executing against what we believe is the right strategy for the business. Spending too much time worried about what the valuations are and how that’s going to impact our business today when it frankly doesn’t. Today. What matters today is that we keep growing and keep building and keep staying focused on the things we can control. Then the outcomes are gonna be there.

[00:20:06] Nathan Bays: So the final question, Ben I’ll ask you before we wrap of all of your. Entrepreneurial experiences not life experiences to be clear, but entrepreneurial associated with one of your companies. Is there one that stands out, to you either because it was, such a great experience, such a disaster, worst meeting, Is there something that really stands out?

[00:20:25] Ben Albert: There are a handful. of experiences I’d say that really stand out. I think when starting that first company and finally launching it as we touched on earlier just the feeling that you get when you start it, that anxiety. That doesn’t go away for those first couple years that stands out. That, and the first time is when you really get that anxiety. I remember that all too well. And it’s not for everybody at that time. That’s one that stands out from a more professional side. But I think the the other piece is, I suppose when it relates to upfront, it, When you figure it out, like you’re not tricking yourself anymore into believing because you have to do that at the beginning. You trick yourself a little bit into believing that this is really the thing. But then in, in this case, when Kerry and I sat down after we really won some of our first big contracts and we were delivering on the contracts and the clients were expanding, we were like, Wow, we’re really doing this is delivering on the. Those are the moments that I love that you can just, if you can, buy the time to take that step back and look at the body of work and how it’s creating value, that’s why you do it. That to me is what this is all about.

[00:21:46] Nathan Bays: Ben, thank you so much for the time. Congratulations on all your success, but most recently, up front.

[00:21:52] Ben Albert: Great. Thanks so much for having me. It’s been a lot of fun.

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