Episode 62

A Silicon Alley Success Story

with Sina Chehrazi
Episode hosted by: Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.

March 28, 2023

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Sina Chehrazi
Founder and CEO, Nayya

Sina Chehrazi is an entrepreneur and business executive with experience across the various stages of the entrepreneurial process. Sina serves as the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Nayya, a platform that uses AI and data science to personalize the way people choose and use their benefits.



Best case scenario is you're in a room where you're the best at nothing. That’s the goal.



Dr. Gary Bisbee: Good morning, Sina, and welcome.

Sina Chehrazi: Good morning. How are you, Gary? It’s wonderful to be here.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: I think we both agree that leadership is fundamental to a successful venture. Let’s drop back in your life. What did young Sina think about leadership?

Sina Chehrazi: Sure. So candidly growing up and being able to watch different leaders in my life, whether they were sports leaders or business leaders or anything else, . I had such a different, impression than I do today. They were infallible and perfect and knew everything. They were different if you will. And being able to lead Nayya on this journey and grow up with the company I, you start to realize that leaders. Just like the rest of us with their own flaws and oversights and challenges and abilities. And I can say that growing up I was always enchanted by leadership. And now being an adult it’s one of the greatest gifts one can be given, but it comes with a lot of responsibility as well.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Looking at it today versus when you were a younger person. What are the main skills to a successful leader? Do you.

Sina Chehrazi: In my view and in my experience, the most important quality of a leader is to be genuine. To be genuine in your approach, genuine in working with others, genuine in sharing your thoughts and your answers. There are so many different ways to be a leader and to succeed. But for me, really the common denominator is how genuine are you being with yourself, with your customers, with your team, and everyone around you.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Well said. Nayya is in the healthcare business, generally speaking. We’ll get into that in more depth in a moment, but I know your father was a surgeon. Did that kind of set the seeds here for your interest in healthcare?

Sina Chehrazi: Yeah. Absolutely. Even if I didn’t realize it at the time. I grew up, my, my father was, and actually still is a very passionate neurosurgeon who just can’t quite let brain surgery go. And I I thought it was normal as a kid, coming down in my pajamas or whatever it might be. And there’d be note cards on the kitchen counter that would say, Dr. Chehrazi, thank you for saving my life for or thank you for caring. And as I got a little older, I started to realize that was not just like normal life and I was shocked. I remember sitting in this sort of swivel chairs at the nurses station waiting for him while he’d do rounds and or sitting shotgun when we were driving back home from the hospital or around town and he was on calls. It really affected me. Just how painful healthcare is and it’s painful when you’re sick or when something unexpected has happened to you. It’s also really painful when you’re healthy and it’s painful for patients. It’s also really painful for providers and, all of these experiences around healthcare as like a an innocent bystander if you would really just they impacted.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: So in terms of education, got your mba, you pursued a law degree. Why did you pursue the law degree?

Sina Chehrazi: The real story is because I couldn’t become a doctor and I had to do second best in, in Persian culture. But the longer version is, I was always so intrigued about how many different ways there are to think about a problem, how many different Arguments can be made around what is the truth and what is accurate. And I went into law school not entirely sure whether it was something that I wanted to, law was something I wanted to practice. , but I knew that in this world it’s turning faster and faster than ever before with bigger and more complex challenges than ever before. I felt that getting my law degree would give me the training to be able to see both sides of an issue and also think critically about how we can improve in this case healthcare, in, in the.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: I know as an entrepreneur there. Many times that I wished I was a lawyer, in terms of reading contracts and structuring deals and so on. Have you found your background in law to be helpful as you’ve grown

Sina Chehrazi: As a startup, as an innovator you are growing, you are challenging the status quo and as a lawyer, your role is to mitigate risk. Through documentation and the like. And so as time goes on it’s funny, as the company gets bigger and bigger there is just a lot of administrative work and reading that has to happen. And it’s not just, filings like it might be as a lawyer, but how do you actually read. Something at pace and get to the core of it. And and they make sure you learn how to do that when they kill you with torts and contracts and property law textbooks. And so I’m so grateful that I was able to have that opportunity.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: We’ve referred Tonia several times. Again, can you describe Nayya for us please?

Sina Chehrazi: Nayya is a software and data company that works for. Employees for everyday people, and it helps them with choosing the right benefits for themselves, their families. It helps them with using the right benefit at the right time the rest of the year. And it does that as the world turns proactively, 365 days a year. We were started in 2019 and over the last four years we’ve been able to grow to serve about a hundred leading employers. And we are approaching this year a million lives that we will serve when it comes to helping people choose and use their different health health related benefit.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: So you’re located in Manhattan. We frequently think about entrepreneurs being in Silicone Valley. How has Manhattan worked out? Is that a good place to start a company?

Sina Chehrazi: It’s, the world is just changing so fast. Even as an innovator, it’s just even four years ago compared to today, partially because of the pandemic. Don’t wanna give the pandemic too much credit for anything good, but you can see talent has moved. And the popular story is that talent tech talent has moved to rural areas and emerging hubs in Denver and Austin and Miami, and that’s absolutely true. But but the Tex scene in New York or Silicon Alley as we call. Has never been more boisterous. There’s just an incredible amount of young, talented people who wanna change the world through code, through product management, through go to market, and. Even really in the last 24 months, we’ve seen such a resurgence and certain to new levels we haven’t seen before of really excited talented tech talent in New York and we’re very proud to be made in New York. We also have team members across the country. But having our headquarters of one place, having a community, which is what we refer to our office as where everyone can come together and. Has been a real big source of pride for us, and I would recommend it to any others who are looking to innovate and build something new.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Most founded companies evolve over time, and sometimes when they’re successful, they don’t look anything like what they were thinking about when they started, which isn’t the case with Nayya. But I know you have evolved. Can you describe. Seen of the evolution over the last four years of Nayya and its products and services.

Sina Chehrazi: Absolutely, and if I could do it in one sentence, it would be meet the market where it is today. Not where you think it should be. So really early on, Nayya means renewal or a new approach. And we were designing the structure for the company and we said, why is this so painful for people? Why is picking all these different insurance plans? Why is using them? Why is this so painful for people? And everybody had a different answer, but my answer is and it’s somewhat nuanced, but all of the data that matters in healthcare, Lives together in exactly zero places today in 2023. Can you believe it? I If we think about internet companies two have built just a, I’ll reveal my biases here, but an unconscionable amount of value. They built what I call closed consumer DA data loops, the cookie. Hey, you like this blue shirt? You may like this blue hat. You like this season of white lotus. You might like something else. You read this article on Google News. They’re tracking and they understand you across your entire digital world, and because of that, they can say, Hey, you’d be interested in this, or We, you should buy this or anything else. It’s proactive, it’s personalized, it’s easy when you, when it gets to the real world, healthcare, retirement, all the sort of stogy industries that are desperately in need of innovation. As I said, that data lifts together in exactly zero places. And if you don’t understand someone across their health, Across their wealth life. How can you personalize? How can you consumerize, how can you engage? So in the early days, we spent all of our time just saying, let’s get all the data in the same place. Let’s connect people’s claims information. Let’s connect their rx, let’s connect their financial accounts. And then we’re gonna let the world of developers build all these cool consumer applications that can consumerize healthcare. unfortunately after we did all the hard yards of pulling all that data and connect connectivity together most developers were like, we don’t even know what to do with all of this. We don’t, we can’t even, we don’t have the workflows for it. That was that was a dark month on the entrepreneurial journey and I said, gosh we better, pivot at least a little bit or we’re gonna run outta money. And that’s when we started developing software applications that could sit on top of our data and help people. And, hey, you and your family have spent $7,462 outta pocket on healthcare in the last year. Your mortgages as follows the prescriptions you take are trending in this cost. Okay? Pick this plan. Pick this plan. Pick this one. Don’t pick this one. Here’s the data to show you why. And then the rest of the year, let’s make sure we are following through the right way all the way until next year’s plan selection. Let’s learn from that too. And once we built that, that software layer that sits on top the consumer experience, that was when everything changed very quickly.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Healthcare is famously silo. And you’re really working, I believe, Sena with employers, with health insurers, with providers. How do you, how are you able to make that transition and appeal to each of those three camps?

Sina Chehrazi: Yeah, healthcare is siloed, like you said it’s federated, it’s fragmented, it’s now verticalizing. It’s so complicated. I, what I share with our team, anytime someone new joins is you can’t even begin to solve for how we’re gonna improve healthcare if you don’t watch how the money flows. And that’s an unfortunate truth but it’s the truth. None. Nonetheless, at the core, all of these ecosystem partners you mentioned are tru. Trying to optimize for the consumer, for the end employee, for the end per person. The problem is that they’re just intermediated, even employers themselves are to a certain extent, intermediated. And so the way we’ve been able to solve for that is to learn how to speak consumer. To each of these ecosystem partners to to learn how to talk through the different journeys, the different challenges that these consumers go to go through to show how data can optimize and make that health plan experience, make that employer employment experience better. And then if you can speak consumer and speak data to these other ecosystem partners, usually, even if they’re not fast you’ll get some momentum to.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: What is the next steps? If we were to come back a year from now? Where would NAA be at that point?

Sina Chehrazi: In my incredibly biased opinion, we’ve become the best at helping employees with picking the right selection of plans for themselves. We’ve also done incredible work with helping them navigate all of their different benefits that, that they offer. And it’s not perfect yet, but we have a foundation today in 2023 as the world turns. We have now reached a new level of pain in this country. Starbucks is spending more money on health insurance than they are coffee beans. For every new vehicle that General Motors is manufacturing, there’s a higher cost of healthcare in that car than there is steel. ExxonMobil is gonna spend more on health benefits this year than global r and. This, cost has been rising for a while. That’s an old story, but just, even 10 years ago we weren’t talking about this level. It’s anti-competitive for us businesses and analytics has not taken hold yet.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: The exciting part about what you’re doing, I think, at least in my term, is you’re starting with the consumer. You’re collecting consumer specific data, and then from that you have your application and the information and so on. Does the senior executives of Starbucks and Ford and so on, do they understand how much they’re spending on healthcare, or do they see what you’re doing? Really important seems to me that they should be trying to put as much money in denial as they possibly can.

Sina Chehrazi: It’s, it, the shortest answer I could give is it’s changing very quickly and There are some reports that came out recently that I’m sure many have seen outta some of the large consulting houses that are seen an estimating increases of four to 10% over the next each year, for the next three years. Now, I think if we were to invite all the Fortune 500 CFOs and executives to New York and, lock them into Plaza and say, Hey, listen, let’s all talk about our joint problems. They would all have their own idiosyncratic business challenge. , but at the top three of every list is how do we manage this healthcare thing? But luckily, to your point, as long as you have the data, you can now start to drive those insights and I suspect this will be one of the largest most acute trends over the next three to five years is the justified incredulity of the US employer.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: What. Your go to market strategy, how do you think about.

Sina Chehrazi: So we have a dual go-to-market strategy for employers of 5,000 employees and above. We have what’s called like a direct a direct sales motion. These employers are so complex. Their schemes are so complex. It requires a highly consultative approach to be able help them start to understand where all the low hanging fruit is. And there’s a lot of low hanging fruit. The Chamber of Commerce came out with a report at the end of last year. The average large employers is getting a 53% return on investment on their benefit spend. So let’s just take a pause here. Let’s say you’re a1 thousand person company benchmark in, in the United States, you’re probably spending between 200 and 250 million a year. On benefits in these schemes. So almost a quarter of a billion dollars and now you’re getting a 53% roi. And what other parts of our business would we ever accept a 53% roi? I’m not sure. And that’s, there’s just a lot of low hanging fruit. And then for small, we do believe that, firmly that small businesses, small and medium size, have many of the same pain points. In that part, in that segment of the market, we do a lot of channel distribution through our really close partners like ADP as an example, who have done such an incredible job building a system of record for the employer.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: You know when you start a company, you’re always. Your first cu customer, how did you get your first customer?

Sina Chehrazi: Oh man, that’s a trip down memory lane. You know the they talk about the innovator’s dilemma and all that sort of thing. The. The way we got our first customer, and really it was customers because the minute we started that software pivot, it was, as I said, off to the races. Put on your hard hat and hold on for your dear life. Being really honest with people as a startup. One of our first customers was a 4,000 person, employer construction company in Kansas City, and it’s being really honest. I’m like, this is where we are. This is what we know, this is what we’ve done. This is what we don’t. . And I can’t commit to you that we’re gonna be perfect, but I can commit to you that you’re gonna occupy probably 70% of my mind share when I’m awake and another 70% when I’m sleeping. And so you’re able to move a lot more customers into that innovator bucket if you give them the confidence, the peace of knowing you know, what they’re investing in and you’re genuine with them. And that’s a lesson that you can learn, on day zero. And it’s one that will serve. Today a million.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: We’ve talked. I’s products and services and how that’s evolved. We’ve talked about your go-to-market strategy. What about Nayya in terms of its financing? How have the rounds financing rounds laid out over the last four years?

Sina Chehrazi: The, luckily there are a lot of people in Silicon Valley who are now aware of this challenge and and seeking to fund the future of healthcare in a way that. 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 years ago was not happening. On our end we ended up raising a pre-seed, a c a series A, a series B, and a series C, all in about four months, which sounds like a lot, but we were just focused on the growth. And what I’ve learned with with with, the Silicon Valley is that if you focus on the growth, the capital will follow. and what I’m most proud of in terms of the capital base we’ve put around the company is it’s bilingual. These are people who can speak healthcare and get their hands really dirty and then can also talk about lessons and patterns and experiences building software and other stodgy industries. And you put those two things together and it is, it can be a very deadly combin.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: What about the board of directors? How do you think Sina, about recruiting board members? What types of people do you want on the board?

Sina Chehrazi: As you’re building a venture you’re absolutely gonna have your venture capitalists who are gonna take board seats. In my personal view after the company gets to a certain point, you’re really gonna want to bring on X operators. People who have lived in the trenches, gotten the bloody noses, made the mistakes prevailed because they’re gonna understand not just your industry, not just what different businesses go through, but the idiosyncratic parts of a buil of company building in totally different ways. I’m super fortunate, our independent director is Frank Williams, who formerly led. The advisory board in Evolent Health and a lot of different companies, and I can actually think of very few people in my professional life who have had an impact on me in that way. In terms of growing, in terms of learning, in terms of listening, in terms of understanding an incredible independent board member can, in my opinion, change the entire CEO trajectory.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: The company really formed in 2019. Is that.

Sina Chehrazi: Yep.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: And then did you, at what point did you give up everything else you were doing and saying, I’m gonna be full-time with N.

Sina Chehrazi: It was it’s interesting. It was pretty much instantaneously. We, I think it’s become very fashionable. People call it side hustles are sort or that sort of thing. And I really try to discourage that. I know that’s controversial or anything else in 2023, but it’s so hard to build a business. It takes everything. You’ve got everything you’ve got. And for the majority you gotta just throw yourself into the abyss and know that halfway down you’ll grow wings.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: So first time CEO I would imagine. Looking back at the last four years, what have you learned about being a CEO?

Sina Chehrazi: Finding and investing in the right people and getting outta their way. I know people say it all the time, it’s company building stuff, and you can hear that 50 times or until you go blue into face, but. When you experience it, it’s a different. I There’s so many talented people out there that need and deserve to be invested in and empowered. You wanna surround yourself with p everyone with the people who are better than you. Best case scenario is you’re in a room where you’re pretty much the best at nothing. And that’s a goal.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Sina, do you view yourself as a purposeful or accidental entrepreneur?

Sina Chehrazi: Purposeful I wish I could say I of just fell into it, but there’s just this, I get to sit here and speak with you because of the sacrifices and the investments of a lot of other people and the people who, to whom much has been given much is expected. And we’ve got a world with a lot of challenges, a lot of problems, and a lot of improvements to be made. And success is not guaranteed. But I knew for a long time that I was gonna, and and change the status quo in the ways that I could and that I know how, so I’m living my dream in, in that respect. It’s a dream that sometimes can be glamorized and externally can be looked at a certain way. But net, I’m, I feel incredibly grateful that I get to do.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: This has been a great interview, Sina. Thank you for your time. One last question if I could. What advice would you give to a young person who came to you and said, Sina, I’m thinking about starting my own company. What advice would you give that person?

Sina Chehrazi: Obsess, obsess over the problem. The how might change the who will change. The why will titrate, but. If the problem is big enough and you feel like you understand it well enough, at least better than most others, everything else should work itself out. And don’t be afraid of failure. Courage comes in many forms. There are many more people who have done way more courageous things than I. And go for it. It’s the first step that’s the hardest and most often with some exceptions, based on life and situations and where you are. Most often the worst case scenario is you end up right back where you were right at the start. And the world needs you. That’s what I’d.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Good advice, Sina. Thank you. We appreciate your time today.

Sina Chehrazi: Thank you so much for having me, and congratulations on everything. Thank you, Gary.

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