Todd Cozzens is a partner with Sequoia Capital of Menlo Park, CA.
Tell me about yourself and the company.
My career after college was trying to win the gold medal in Olympics in sailing. I did that for about six or seven years almost full time. Somehow I got my way into selling medical devices for a company named Marquette Medical Systems. We were in the early dabblings of what we called patient data management, taking all the data from the devices and creating flowsheets for clinicians in high-acuity areas.
I worked my way through Marquette and eventually took the company public with the founder. As we approached the end of the 1990s, we were approached by GE to buy the company. It was a long negotiation with Jack Welch directly and Jeff Immelt, who was running healthcare at the time. We eventually did the deal.
Out of that, I understood that the next wave was not just the medical devices themselves, but what clinicians — especially those in the high-acuity areas — were going to do with all the data. Akin to where we are today, with all these doctors in general having EMRs and not understanding what to do with the data. That led to Picis, which was a technology that I had seen in my travels. Eventually I struck a deal with the technical founders of Picis and we got the first seed capital.
It was a great run with the company. We built it to the largest provider of electronic medical records for high-acuity care. We didn’t call it that at that time – it was emergency room, operating room, and ICU. Built that up to about a $175 million run rate, very profitable, with an acquisition and a couple of other things that we did to go after not just the clinical side, but the financial side of taking care of these very high-acuity, expensive patients.
We were about to take it public in 2010. That jibed with the Affordable Care Act being finalized and a lot of players in healthcare — like insurers and providers — wondering what their future was going to be under the change. UnitedHealth Group decided they didn’t want to be a managed care company for the rest of their existence and they had all kinds of underlying assets, so they decided to broaden their scope a bit. That’s when they started looking at provider-type technologies.
Their thesis about Picis was that the brick and mortar of existing hospitals was going to eventually just become big towers of ICU, operating room, and emergency care facilities as everything moved out of the hospital into other types of settings that are more accessible and more affordable. That proved to be true — it’s happening as we speak today. The day I joined United, I gave the reins of Picis to other managers and helped with the Optum brand and started their Accountable Care Solutions division, which we built up to a pretty big part of Optum within a short time.
A number of events happened leading up to my involvement with Sequoia. When I was raising money, I never saw Sequoia. From what I learned later, they took a hiatus from healthcare after biotech and other investments in the late 1980s. But they had gotten back into healthcare on the premise — this was before the Affordable Care Act – that no matter what happens to healthcare reform, 20 percent of GDP for healthcare is unsustainable and there will be enduring, disruptive companies that are going to help change the picture over the next 10 years. We had a number of companies that we knew or were involved with in common. I was asked to join full time in April 2012.
What role do investors play in the day-to-day operations and the strategy of a company?
It depends whether it’s an early-stage company or a late-stage growth company. For an early-stage company, the old adage used to be that the company had to be a bicycle ride from our office, which is adjacent to Stanford University. That’s because these young companies need support and they need help. They need mentoring and they need contacts. That was the best way we were able to help them. Plus Don Valentine, the founder of Sequoia, said, “You know, when I fly to Denver, I’m flying over 15 companies in Silicon Valley that I’m probably overlooking.” So in the early stage, there’s a lot more involvement.
In growth stage, it’s whatever you can contribute. To be a first-rate investor today, you’ve got to provide a lot of capabilities for your companies. Marketing support, hiring, what kind of systems should you have in place, etc. We’ve built up a pretty good support part of Sequoia that is dedicated to helping our founders grow their companies.
Is it tough as a passionate founder to have investors giving advice or issuing requirements?
I always found investors that had more than money, something about them that could be value-add to me. I had to be humble and willing to learn enough to take their advice and seek their advice on a regular basis.
For example, my first chairman was a guy named Bernard Giroud. He was president at the beginning of Intel Europe. He took Intel from a million to well over a billion in revenue. He knew everybody in the tech industry. He had seen every movie before. When I needed advice about expanding the sales force, product development, what type of people to hire, how to organize HR, finance, areas that I was less familiar with, he had great advice because he ran strategy directly for Noyce, who was the CEO of Intel and was very close to Andy Grove and the rest of the management there. He learned a lot, so taking some pages of out of his playbook was absolutely incredibly helpful to me.
As we grew the company, we attracted board members and sought board members that were going to be value-added, whether they worked for an investor or they didn’t. An interesting example is that when Bernard left Schroder Ventures, which became Permira, they put in a kid in his place that had no value add whatsoever. In fact, I thought his judgment was really off on some things. Once you have somebody like that on your board, it’s hard to work them off. It took us a while to do that.
Having a helpful, resourceful board is critical for a young founder. There’s just no way, as a young entrepreneur, that you have all the skills that it takes to build a company. Being a good listener is not a skill that goes readily with being a great CEO leader. You’ve got to learn how to do both.
How do you know when it’s time to have a conversation with the founder about taking a different role than CEO?
We see that fairly often, especially with the early-stage companies. In Silicon Valley, business models, entrepreneurship, and start-ups are at a level three generations ahead of any other place I’ve ever seen, just because of the amount of companies that are being built there now and the amount of talent that’s migrating there. Often you’ll see founders who are the technical guys who are great at building a product or they understand the consumer market or whatever, but they know and embrace bringing in a professional CEO to run the company. In healthcare, that is not often the case, because it’s often a physician founder who thinks they can do everything.
It comes naturally where you just realize that – I use this phrase even though it’s pejorative – “this person’s not going to get any taller.” In other words, they’ve reached the maximum of their skill set limit and it’s time to bring in somebody. I’ve been involved in situations where it’s been a rough ride to convince them. But I would say in almost all cases, eventually once you get through the pain and the hurdles of putting a new CEO in place, it works out.
Sometimes the problem is that you have to bring in someone who can do it all. If you bring in somebody from outside of healthcare, that’s always tough. In some cases, because of time pressures, you bring in the wrong guy. That can be even worse. You see situations like Apple. They had to bring back Steve Jobs and it turned out to be great. In the intervening times, Steve had learned a lot.
It depends on the personality, what they’re open to reach beyond their own skill set. It takes a lot of work and a lot of involvement to make one of those transitions happen. It’s not something you can do with quarterly board meetings. You have to step up your involvement in the company a lot more in those situations.
In our DNA at Sequoia is the inherent trust in the founders we partner with and we have a track record of supporting them throughout the entire growth of the company. The majority of our founders make the transition from start-up to a much bigger company. In almost all cases where the company is struggling with scaling, the founders realize the company has outgrown their skills and they proactively reach out to us to find an execution-oriented leader as the company scales. In some cases, we need to convince the founder to bring on more talent mostly to augment them, and in pretty rare cases, to replace them.
What do you actually do as a board member?
My first inclination is to say to myself, is what I’m out about to say at this board meeting truly helpful and necessary for the CEO and management to run a better business, or are my own "CEO / operator / control freak" instincts taking over and forcing me to spew something out? It took me a while to adapt to that, but now I think have a very strong bond and trust with the CEOs and founders I work with.
I ask the same of fellow board members. Is their advice worthy, or do they just like to hear themselves talk? God knows management doesn’t need 45 different points of view from the board — they probably have enough internally. My colleagues at Sequoia are the best I’ve ever seen at being helpful, precise in their advice and not wasting words and time. I’ve learned a lot from them.
Having run board meetings, I pride myself as using the board for a very positive tool to help grow the company. It’s how you manage your board, how you handle the board meeting, and how you prepare people for the board meeting. As CEO, I worked on a package of materials that the board could look at to understand the pulse of the company before coming into the board meeting. Like presenting an ICU spreadsheet that the intensivist was used to looking at and could immediately assess the condition of the patient and what needed to be done — visually and the right information and not too much information. That took some time and I took a lot of advice from others on how to do that. What’s the package that you’re presenting? What are the main issues?
Trying to sell the board, trying to be anything but completely transparent is the wrong way to go, because eventually someone’s going to find out. Surprises are going to develop. Boards get twisted with companies when you miss expectations. You raise money at a very high valuation and you don’t perform to that valuation.
My advice to entrepreneurs is to prepare your boards really well for the board meetings. Some board members don’t like to even open up a PowerPoint until they either get on the plane to the board meeting or during the board meeting. Call those people prior to the board meeting – those might be people that just like to do things verbally. Walk them through it.
In the board meeting, try to get through the perfunctory issues as quickly as possible. The meat of the matter is the strategic issues that need to be discussed. Half of it’s getting the board to understand what your company is all about. Doing things like sending my board members to a local emergency room, Mount Sinai in New York or Mayo Clinic, to see how the product operates and what the user issues are. To really understand how the product is used is extremely helpful.
You can’t give your board too much information. At those board meetings, what are the top three tough issues that we have to tackle? What are the other issues for future growth? For example, you might have a company that is doing really well. Bookings are extremely important for a young company — it’s probably the most important metric to be watching, because it’s obviously the temperature on future performance. Bookings are trending really well, expense management’s been fantastic, and you’re already 10 percent EBITDA cash positive. You know, great. Should you be spending that 10 percent on expanding your sales force or developing that new product? Because things are going to tap out at the end of the quarter or at the end of the year. On the other hand, advising a company to run that close to the vest on cash is always a tough game to play.
Understand the business and the momentum of the product. If I’ve got a product out there that’s just absolutely lights out, has been turned into a “got to have” product, and I see that’s going to be there for the foreseeable future, I’ll do everything I can to encourage the operating team to focus on growth. Growth is scary for a young team. Getting all those bookings is a great thing, but executing on them and having satisfied customers on the other end so that cycle keeps continuing is not an easy task.
Most companies I see that have great bookings growth, a great product, and early success with customers seem to be the management teams that can handle the “what happens when the orders have to get installed” and are usually good at bringing on the right people, experts that have done it before on the operation side to execute, in most cases. But they need a lot of help and understanding then.
The other thing is how they look at talent. Are they the type of manager that wants just a lot of “yes” people around them, or do they want people that are going to push back, going to do the right thing? That’s another thing you’ve got to really be careful with with these boards.
What company characteristics are have the most impact on success?
Early on, figuring out whether this is a product or a company. By understanding the market size, the market potential that you have or is this a stepping stone to a larger market, is very, very critical. I see that in a lot of incubators. It’s great that there’s a lot of people that are taking that kind of risk with their careers and stepping out there in the cold, dark world to try to build these companies. But I wonder in many of the cases what have they done to really walk in the shoes of the people that are going to be using those products.
To me, the products that are born out of a natural need by customers or someone that’s experienced this in their family … I know a lot of great companies were built because, unfortunately, a family member had a bad experience and their life’s mission was, how are we going to fix that? But it’s really critical to understand what the market potential is. It might be just a great product that I might sell to another company, or is this going to be a company in itself with a big market potential? Those are the critical decisions that you’ve got to look at, both as the founder of those companies and the investors.
Do you have any final thoughts?
The idea of accelerating the move to value-based care will have a tremendous impact on healthcare. It’s going to require much more of an effort of employers putting pressure on the insurance companies and the government or CMS leading the way. We all know that when CMS sneezes, the rest of the world has a cold. Fee-for-service is still the crack cocaine of healthcare that people can’t get off. It’s going to take more than just a lot of evolution of different models, you know, shared savings plans, pilot programs by CMS. It’s going to take a real shift in the entire reimbursement system and it’s not going to come easy. But I think there’s the will there to make it happen.