February 17, 2022
[00:00:06] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Dan Brillman joined the Air Force to fly jets. Upon returning from a deployment to the Middle East and while in business school, he found that veterans who he served with were asking him for help with their social services needs. And he soon learned of the linkage between social and health services. Dan realized that services like housing, mental health, and employment that were supposed to help veterans were highly fragmented. Dan soon founded a company, Unite Us, to employ technology to connect veterans to social and health services. He and a co-founder and fellow service member, Taylor Justice, expanded Unite Us from serving veterans to the total population. As CEO of Unite Us, Dan wants to redefine the word, care. He envisions a future where human services are underscored by trust and given the same importance and funding as traditional health services. Unite Us has grown exponentially with networks in 45 states and over 1000 employees that serve hundreds of users. A high point of Dan’s entrepreneurial journey came when Unite Us scaled to the point where its teams were executing independently with expertise greater than Dan and Taylor’s own knowledge. For future entrepreneurs, dan advises, being comfortable with the uncomfortable. You won’t always have all the information, but success follows determination and relentless focus on your vision.
Good morning, Dan. And welcome.
[00:01:39] Dan Brillman: Thanks for having me, Gary.
[00:01:41] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: We’re pleased to have you at this microphone. This show, of course, is about leadership and you’re a leader as the founder and CEO of Unite Us, an exciting company that’s making an important difference in coordinating healthcare, social services. Our plan today is to learn more about you as a leader and an entrepreneur. And we’ve found in our past interviews that if we can learn about the background of our guests, that really allows us to better understand the decisions that they make as leader. So with that said, let’s kick off with, Dan, what was life like growing up for you?
[00:02:23] Dan Brillman: Yeah. Well, I’ll take you through my journey from kind of the starting point to almost where Unite Us started because I think we’ll talk a lot about that today. But, I grew up in Philadelphia and my parents both actually in the medical community. So my father is an oral surgeon, my mother occupational therapist. And a lot of my growing up was spending a lot of time with my mother. She was an entrepreneur and built her own practice actually out of our own home. So our basement had employees and accountants and stuff. I would go on all her calls to nursing homes and things like that. Athletics was always a big passion of mine. So I was always working in teams. I played ice hockey and lacrosse. I spent a lot of time volunteering. That was a big thing that my parents taught me and learning what’s happening outside of the bubble that I lived in, which was athletics and things like that. And then I went on to Yale. I played lacrosse and spent four years there. It was a great experience. Did some investing and learning about entrepreneurship and then entrepreneurial society. Left there, went to financial consulting. Didn’t love it. Didn’t think I wanted to be in finance, maybe in the long-term and I had a little bit of a squirrely career change into the Air Force. And so I joined the military. I always wanted to be part of the military. I always wanted to fly. I got that passion at Yale actually, got my license there at the local airport. And I’ve been in the military now for 15 years. So I’m still in, I’m a major. And I have been a pilot for the first 13 years. I do some investing for the DOD now on their side called Defense Innovation Unit. And after my second deployment to the Middle East, went to Columbia Business School, where the idea of Unite Us got started and business school obviously was a great experience for me. Really thinking about, how do I broaden my skillsets and learned a lot, obviously, being a leader in the military as well. And that’s where Unite Us was also kind of born.
[00:04:13] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, we appreciate your service as a military pilot. So well done there. Let me go back a little bit. What did the young Dan think about leadership? Back in maybe your high school days, what were you thinking about in terms of leadership then?
[00:04:29] Dan Brillman: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, I, I don’t think in high school people think about, how do I become a leader? Maybe that is in some people’s heads, but I think a lot of it was setting examples for others. It was always about sticking up for what you think is right, even when no one’s looking or no one can step up that way. We always had something on our stairs in our house that was “do one good deed every day and people will follow”. Those types of themes was always kind of what stuck with me, as when no one wanted to stick up for something, I kind of was the person that did that. But I never said, that’s because I’m a leader. It was always kind of doing what you thought was right for yourself, or your people around you, for the world. That was really how I thought about leadership growing up. Changed a little bit in the military, right, when you get put in positions of leadership. But for sure, in the early days it was about the themes.
[00:05:20] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, you mentioned your parents. In fact, your mother is an entrepreneur, but do you think that your parents influenced your leadership style as it is today?
[00:05:30] Dan Brillman: Absolutely. Watching, especially my mother, watching her leadership style. My father built his own practice and had employees. Watching the interactions between them, their employees, even my mother would take me to the customer meetings when she was closing deals with nursing homes and stuff. Really, I think I learned a lot there. Can I point to every situation? Probably not. But I learned so much. Thre’s very big similarities. My mother had several hundred employees. I still ask her about questions, as we’re growing. She was building a service business and we’re a technology business, but there’s a lot of the same themes as you’re a leader of an organization and the same things happen as you continue to grow. So very influential. The big thing that I always captured was servant leadership. It wasn’t micro-managing. It was building leaders, some leaders, especially that are servant leaders, thrive off of other people succeeding. And that is what I learned a lot from my mother and building. People that I still talk to that are her friends that were her employees just tell me how great of a leader my mother was. And they’re talking about that 30, 40 years after they worked for her.
[00:06:38] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, I’m curious about your mother. Very cool that you went out on calls with her and visited nursing homes and whatnot. Was she doing that to acquaint you with entrepreneurship or leadership?
[00:06:49] Dan Brillman: I mean, she would say she would take full credit for that. Of course. I think it was my mother, raising three boys and running a company like that, and my father working for. She got it done. She showed to get it done, to multitask, to still always make sure that she took care of her kids and also, grw a company like that. I think she did it on purpose. And so she always, every time I talked to her, she’s like, how’s the business? What’s going on over here? Did you make that change yet? And how can I help you? It’s pretty good. She’s kind of retired. So it’s really cool to see. And, I would say she definitely did that on purpose and she saw something in that for me in the future.
[00:07:27] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, good for her. Give her our best, even though we haven’t met her. But let’s drop back to Columbia Business School when the idea of Unite Us was formed. Can you share how that worked, Dan?
[00:07:39] Dan Brillman: Yeah. Yeah. Some of these things are timing, right, ultimately, and personal experiences. You hear from a lot of founders why they start things and they see a problem. They get really either pissed about it, or they see a big opportunity, want to fix that stuff. So, for me, I got back from deployments in the Middle East. Veterans that I served with overseas started calling me about all their health and social service issues. It wasn’t because I’m an expert. I knew nothing about either, really, either of those in practice and how to get them these services. It’s because they trusted me. And it’s because, maybe I had a couple of Ivy League degrees and they thought I could solve their problems. And it wasn’t just one need. It was, how do I get access to the VA? I have housing issues, employment issues, mental health issues, all at the same time. I had no idea how to help them, like literally no idea. So what I did, this was 2010, 2011. I started trying to help them. And so what was available? What was in the market? I thought this was all figured out, honestly. Like I literally thought all this stuff, veterans getting access to whatever they needed was there. But it was so fragmented. It was the VA, it was the non VA and people are citizens and they’re not eligible for the VA now. And so what I had to do, I looked up resources on the internet and I started calling organizations around the country to try to help veterans that I served with. It was very frustrating. They all worked individually. They all had their own mission. They did one service, housing, employment, and they would say, I can’t help them, but call my friend down the street, they might be able to help. So they were giving me like kind of offline referrals to these organizations and no one knew what would ever happen. And so I became very frustrated and like an entrepreneur does, I started like studying it and I wrote a paper about it in my second year. And that paper around the fragmentation of medical government services like benefits and social services, and how technology could tie that all together, got into the hands of the Dean and then venture capitalists. And that’s how kind of the story started and met my co-founder at the same time, working on that from that same angle.
[00:09:38] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah, that’s just a great story. And as I mentioned earlier, you’ve made such an impact already in coordinating healthcare and social services. It’s really amazing in the relatively short time that Unite Us has existed. But can you describe Unite Us for us now for those that may not be familiar with it?
[00:09:56] Dan Brillman: Sure. Obviously we’re a much bigger company with many different products now, but ultimately we’re the mesh between health and social care. So in a world toda,y in 2021, where the lines of care is broadening, we’re the mesh that connects all of these organizations from healthcare, government, and social services together, so that ultimately the client in need needing all these different services doesn’t have to access them individually and in a fragmented way. And so the way we do that is we build these coordinated networks across states, across the country now, and in over 45 states, that tie these organizations together, to allow them to securely communicate with each other around that shared client and, most importantly, solve a need. They can prove that the client got the services outside the four walls of the organization, which no one could ever know because they were all in their own systems doing their own thing individually, but never knew that. So that’s our flagship product, the platform. Hundreds of thousands of users from healthcare government, social services. Part of that work is who builds the network. And so what is a network? And so we focus on two things, quality and accountability. So when someone joins our network and organization, from a housing organization to a hospital, they’re going to be accountable because they’re part of a system where everyone is connected around that client` so the client doesn’t have a navigate themselves. And part of that work is actually building the network ourselves with our customers and our partners and communities. And so we have over 300 people on the ground, across the country, part of our thousand person company, that are engaging and building and managing this network with the community so that we hire locally, they understand the community, what organizations need to be on to meet the demand, get those organizations on our platform to communicate with each other, work with them around data and reporting, elevating them to the next level of coordination, which really didn’t exist before us. As we’ve grown as a company, that flagship product has continued to grow in its practice, but also we’ve added new products on top of that from predictive analytics to actually helping with a staff of social workers to enroll people in our own network, and then to a payments product that actually reimburses these services for the services that they provide that improve people’s health and lower healthcare costs.
[00:12:03] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Dan, we’re not running a recruiting company here, but what kind of background does the community engagement people have, just to kind of level set there?
[00:12:12] Dan Brillman: Yeah, it’s a great question. They come from all different backgrounds, but we see a lot coming from nonprofit community building. We see them coming from the community health side of hospitals. A lot study on the MPH side, in public health. And they want to make a big dent, and big impact in the industry. And this is the way for them to do that. So, typically, if their career path was to go work for an organization, a single organization, to help improve health, they can do that at scale with thousands of organizations and work across the whole ecosystem with Unite Us.
[00:12:45] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Obviously you need to have a business model. Who are the actual buyers of the service?
[00:12:51] Dan Brillman: Yeah. So, we are split between health plans, health systems, and governments, which range from obviously state, city, county governments as well. And so they are purchasing our products, obviously in very similar ways, in the sense of, we’re obviously a SAS business. So a software as a service. Obviously we provide tons of support underlying that as we talked about on the community engagement side. And so, we’re split really a third. We also work with HIEs. We work with very well capitalized non-profits as well, that really want to bring the whole community together. But really where we see a lot of that on the business model side is payers, providers, and governments.
[00:13:28] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: So you brought not only the process, but you brought the technology to bear, which my guess is, 10 years ago when you started the company, was probably a pretty foreign concept. At that point, is there general receptivity now to the fact that you’ve got this high quality technology infrastructure that’s driving all of this?
[00:13:50] Dan Brillman: Yeah. So, I always tell the story. When we built our first network 10 years ago, what did that look like? All of us as people, we were using technology very differently. We were maybe on the iPhone two or three. It was a very different world. And so the adoption of EMR, as you think about that on the medical side, was very different. The adoption of just software as a service was very different than it is today. And so when we built our first network, it was here in New York City. It was with 35 organizations focused on the veteran population. We’ve obviously expanded to all Medicaid, Medicare, and so forth. And we had to get them to agree to work together on a technology system, right? And so that was our first feat to do that. And then we had to get them to agree on what data are they actually securely sharing? What is an outcome? When a hospital VA hospital refers to a housing organization or a housing organization refers to the employment agency, what do they want to receive back and close the loop? How do they want to receive that data? Not read through thousands of notes. They had to agree on a standard. So that network, that 35 organizations in your city, is now almost, I think, over a thousand. That’s our longest standing network was our first one. But it’s grown obviously rapidly. The last three or four years, the world with COVID, especially, I’m sure we’ll talk about that more, has basically shined a light on the lack of infrastructure to support the growing needs of people. And so the adoption rate obviously is very different than it was 10 years ago. But we had to start there and we had to start with the right problem to solve. What we saw in the market was what I was doing. I was looking at what the resources out there were, but no one was connected to actually coordinate and solve and prove that people ever got services. So, the last three years, like obviously very different than 10 years ago when we had to really convince. Now, do we still need to do that? Of course. We are changing the way people behave in their jobs. And so, it takes change management. It takes them understanding. It takes multiple conversations and that’s okay. We are willing to do that. We are building a generational change on how we actually receive care and we define care very differently in our world. And so we’re willing to obviously make that bet for generational change.
[00:15:57] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah, this is definitely a generational issue. And you’re really out in front on this, which leads to the question, we’ve kind of covered the last 10 years. What is the next 10 years gonna look like? When we get together and have an interview at the end of this decade, where do you think things will be at that point Dan?
[00:16:15] Dan Brillman: Yeah, it’s a great question. The last 10 years has been continuing to elevate that social care. The smaller H and HHS is just as important as the big H. The next 10 years is around, how do we align incentives that way? 10 years from now, I want to look at housing as the same way we look at a knee surgery, right? If someone doesn’t have housing, they’re not going to be able to take care of themselves medically. So of course, when we look at costs, these are the things we want that to be a standard. So for 10 years from now, I don’t want to look at housing any differently as part of your care than a knee surgery. And how we get there is really important because ultimately it’s going to not look like what it looks like today. When we talk about the word “care”, it’s not going to just be coming from the medical setting. It’s going to be coming from the community. And I’m sure Gary, as you’ve had guests on this show, “care” is moving outside of the traditional “I go to the doctor”, “I go to the hospital”. It is, “what’s close to me”. Everyone lives within a mile of a pharmacy and a CVS. I can get care closer to me. I can get it in my home. I can get it virtually and that should be no different from how we receive social care. And we’ve integrated health and social care.
[00:17:25] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah. Well, the brilliance of what you’re doing, of course, is all that movement outside the hospital and so on, unless it’s coordinated, unless there’s some kind of data infrastructure, it really is not possible to measure quality and impose any kind of accountability on it. So good for Unite Us. You mentioned COVID, of course which you can just look at what you’re doing and think, yes, on one hand, it just pointed out all the gaps. On the other hand, gosh, it has to be pretty tough for you to operate in that kind of environment. So how did things go the last couple of years under COVID?
[00:18:03] Dan Brillman: Yeah. So as I mentioned, I think it really showed us that there was a lack of infrastructure. And everyone noticed that, right? Every consumer, so us, me and you, we turn on the news, it’s about vaccines. It’s about eviction. It’s about social isolation, right? It’s about food insecurity. We’re not talking about knee surgeries and things like that. Like this is what we look at every day as consumers. On the government side and on the health plan side, we got very far away from us as consumers. We weren’t going to our doctor. It was very hard to do that. And so what did that take? The community. So you needed infrastructure. People were still showing up to food pantries. People still needed housing. Needs only got exacerbated by the pandemic. So for us, we had to adapt too. We had a lot of community engagement sessions. We bring partners together to talk about this work before we launch in a community or in a county. We had to start doing that virtually. And we had to adapt to that as well. And so that was a big practice that we had to change. And obviously it worked well. Some things went a lot faster. Sometimes you lose a little bit of the relationship, which is really important to how you coordinate trust. We move at the speed of trust, but we still got it done and we went really fast, which is good. And we also grew as a company. And I think more people wanted, demanded this product. They said, why the heck do we not have this? There’s a pandemic going on. We need this right now. So we had to adapt to move a lot faster. Our work statewide in North Carolina, we finished six months in advance because people needed help. And so we had to do it as fast as we possibly could, and everyone was ready to take on that mission.
[00:19:36] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, this is a good place to ask the question. During most of Unite Us’ life, it was organic growth. Last year you made two acquisitions, Carrot Health, and NowPow. Was that due in part to just this super demand coming out of COVID or what was the rationale for those acquisitions, Dan?
[00:19:54] Dan Brillman: Yeah. So our vision in the last couple of years, as our customers demand obviously more of us, as we solve more problems, they think of us as strategic partners, we need to be the best in class in everything that we do. And so when we start investing in predictive analytics, we said, what is the best way to become best in class in that? So, Carrot Health was the fastest growing company in this work, deeply embedded with a lot of health plans, understanding risk in general. And how do we actually get proactive and solve a housing need before it is a housing emergency? And also, looking back at, how do we look together at medical utilization and social care utilization together? No one’s ever looking at that. And so combining that was a huge asset for us and allowed us to be best in class in our analytics work. And so that became a very clear objective for us. We knew them for many years, have been working with them because, what would happen is customers would say, hey, we want to work with Carrot Health. We want to work with you. You guys work together so that we can predict the needs and then we can go solve them through Unite Us. And we’re like, well, why wouldn’t we just do both together? And so for NowPow, they’ve been in the market even longer than us. And they started out actually in the medical setting, founded by Stacy Lindau and Rachel Kohler, working with a lot of providers and academic medical centers. We started out in the community getting organizations, working together from the community and then bringing healthcare in. So they became very good on the workflow side of providers. Marrying those two things together was what the market really wanted. And it also kind of alleviated, as we built the networks, we were starting to overlap with each other. We’re both very good companies and trying to do this work. They also became very good at building high quality, kind of the resource guides that I was telling you about on the outside that consumers can search. And so as our goal to become an end to end product, that asset that they built, an amazing asset with the provider workflows and everything, added to our capabilities as very deep in communities around focused on outcomes. Like marrying that was really what the market wanted as well.
[00:21:54] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Turning to you as an entrepreneur for a moment, any entrepreneur has highs and lows in the business. Can you give us an example of each and how you dealt with it?
[00:22:04] Dan Brillman: Oh, man. There’s so many. So when you’re almost decade in in this work, it’s so many. So the highs, like what really drives me as an entrepreneur is when I am not involved in things that are executed, that I have built a team that is actually smarter than me, that knows what to do and can go execute on those things. That is what my highs are. And that’s what brings me to work every day. And so building teams that can execute and that can scale with you are the biggest highs that I have. Those are so, just so exciting. They are the ones that are changing the minds of organizations and payers and providers. They’re the ones showing them that they obviously are not doing this themselves because it takes a lot of education. And that is no problem, but they’re doing that, not me anymore as a thousand person company. The lows are, I think we’ve always been several years ahead of the market. People thought we were crazy years ago. What the heck are you doing? Or, investors years ago would say, isn’t this already figured out? Someone’s already doing this. And so some investors have changed their mantra to say, I’m only investing in things where I think this should already be there, but it’s not. And so the lows are, when decisions were made by some customers we were trying to sell to years ago. It’s almost like losing deals, but not for the reasons that, because we weren’t the best product. It was because they weren’t ready yet. And that’s really frustrating. Those are low points that Taylor, my co-founder, and I always remember. I’ll tell you the good part of that, the silver lining is, they’re now customers. But, there was five years of innovation that stopped us. There were people that needed help. We could’ve gotten them help. There are people that could have been better off. And so those are low points that like still hurt me deeply. But, that’s what keeps us energized as entrepreneurs.
[00:23:50] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah, no, that’s a motivation too, isn’t it? If you had not founded Unite Us, what do you think you’d be doing now, Dan?
[00:23:58] Dan Brillman: Oh, my gosh. That’s a great question. It’s so funny, in business school, part of me went to business school because I went into the Air Force and I was in finance for a few years. But my peers were continuing to grow their careers in industry. And I was obviously serving my country and continuing to do that. So I think I needed to broaden my skills to go back into almost finance. So I was thinking about going into investment banking. I was thinking about going into finance. So, I don’t know what I would honestly be doing. Now that I’m an entrepreneur, it’s very difficult to say what I would be doing. My guess is I would have ended up probably continuing to be in venture, where I had a stint there after business school, which is kind of how we incubated Unite Us. So that’s probably what I would be doing. And, I partially do that as an entrepreneur now. I’ve learned so many lessons as an entrepreneur that I pay it forward. So I talk to serie seed, series A companies about their journey. And it’s mostly not like what to do. It’s mostly what not to do, which, you know, most of the lessons learned.
[00:24:56] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: It’s probably too early to ask this question, but Unite Us is so successful. What do you think your legacy as an entrepreneur is going to be?
[00:25:05] Dan Brillman: Yeah, I think about this all the time with our co-founder and there’s obviously a bit, we’re continuing to grow quickly and lots of attention on the company from all different parts of the ecosystem. I am so geared towards making this last for generations. I want this to become a standard across the country and internationally. The same problems exist internationally. And I want this, if I could tie this to something, my children can benefit from, that there is an infrastructure like this. You don’t have to go through fragmented service delivery every time you want something that we haven’t experienced like we do when we’re shopping online now with our health and human services, no matter what it is, because we all have problems throughout our life and should be able to consume that because the supply does exist, it’s just not coordinated well. If my legacy can be my children can consume these types of services and we’re building a generational company that lasts for generations, like that’s what I want my legacy to be.
[00:25:57] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah. So we think about you as a leader of Unite Us, but the other point to be made, the broader point is exactly what you’re doing here, which is, social services is one silo. Healthcare was another silo. They weren’t going to get together because of what they’re doing. They’re getting together because of what you’re doing. So you’re actually leading both healthcare and social services in this country, which is very cool, Dan. Good job. This has been a terrific interview. Let me ask two more questions, if I could. One is, what advice do you. give for early stage entrepreneurs that come and knock on your door and say, Dan, what advice do you have for me?
[00:26:40] Dan Brillman: Yeah. So at the highest level, you gotta be comfortable with the uncomfortable. As you grow, the number of questions unanswered will continue to grow, but they will change and they will manifest itself differently. When you’re early stage, you don’t know all the answers, right? So it’s more about you’re selling the dream. We were building our first network. Did I know it was going to work everywhere across this country in 45 states and have five products on top of that and about a thousand employees and hundreds of thousands of users? I did not know that, 10 years ago, that we would be at this point today. There is a grind and you have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. You have to make decisions on the fly. You don’t always know if they’re right, but if you stick to the mission, which has not changed in 10 years, and you are so hell bent on making it happen, it will happen, but it will be uncomfortable.
[00:27:27] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Second question. For young up and coming leaders, not entrepreneurs, but leaders, could be social services, could be healthcare, what advice do you have for leaders in these fields, Dan?
[00:27:39] Dan Brillman: Yeah. I mean, specifically in healthcare as we, we touch so much more than healthcare, but nonetheless, I think anything we touch around health and social care. Rome was not built in a day. This stuff takes time. And I am so grateful. You think about our company’s trajectory. We started in 2013 and we were focused on the veteran population until about 2018. Building the right product, building the right story, building the right processes. And we were ahead of the market. And I’m thankful for that. I think if we started selling to payers and providers in 2013, we’d be broken. There was no way we would make it. We’d be too early. Wouldn’t be enough adoption. The market was, we had to build the right product, which is very hard, technology-wise, right? An interoperable product that sits in the hands of all these organizations that have never talked before electronically and securely. A lot of that is Rome wasn’t built in a day. It takes time. You have to be in front of your customers. You have to take feedback. You have to keep pushing what you think is right. And don’t let it be a shiny object that disappears the next day. And I think for us, social care could have been that way a couple of years ago, but we’ve been so steadfast in educating the market and showing ROI and showing reductions in cost so that they can pay social care, invest in social care. Governments now get it. It is part of the normal talk track around health equity now, but that didn’t happen overnight.
[00:28:59] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah. Dan, thanks again for a terrific interview. Keep up the great work at Unite Us. We’ll be following your progress.
[00:29:06] Dan Brillman: Thank you Gary, for having me. Much appreciated.