Julia Cheek is disrupting an outdated facet of the medical industry that hasn’t had competition in years. After visiting half a dozen different doctors and spending thousands of dollars on lab tests in order to get an accurate diagnosis for chronic pain and fatigue, she knew something had to change.
Enter, Everlywell, a company that’s on a mission to make lab testing easier and more convenient with at-home collection kits that provide digital results in just days (not weeks). And it’s struck a chord. In just two years, Everlywell has experienced 300% year-over-year customer growth delivering tens of millions in sales to hundreds of thousands of people. After being “rejected for funding dozens of times” the company raised $50 million at the beginning of 2019 to continue expanding.
Ahead, we ask the founder and CEO all about disrupting the healthcare industry, including the mistakes she’s learned from along the way, and why she thinks now is the best time to be a female CEO (with kids in tow!).
CREATE & CULTIVATE: You started Everlywell to create a better solution for a problem you faced. Can you outline what that was and how you are hoping to solve it with Everlywell?
JULIA CHEEK: A few years ago, I was struggling with chronic pain and fatigue. I probably visited half a dozen different doctors to figure out what was wrong with me. Even with insurance, I paid thousands of dollars out of pocket for lab tests over the course of many months. Most of the time, I never even received my results. In the end, it turned out I had a simple but debilitating set of vitamin deficiencies and hormone issues. Once I had the right tests, I felt better within weeks.
My experience was frustrating, but I’m actually one of the lucky ones. Lab testing is a $25 billion dollar industry that leaves behind millions of people each year—especially people who are uninsured, lack access to transportation, live in rural communities, or have work schedules that make it difficult for them to visit the doctor. I wanted to modernize the lab testing experience to make it affordable and convenient for everyone, especially people who aren’t being served by the current system. That’s how I ended up starting Everlywell.
Can you recall some of the challenges you felt early on and how you turned that around/into an opportunity?
Some of the challenges I experienced are ones we all face: people lead busy, complicated lives. Almost everyone is short on time and money. It can be hard to be proactive about your health, especially when your symptoms are considered “vague” or difficult to diagnose. My challenges inspired me to create a better lab testing experience: one with clear, affordable prices and digital results; no waiting rooms, and no surprise bills. In 2019, you can get almost anything delivered to your door: eyeglasses, prescription medication, even personalized deodorant. We think lab testing should be just as convenient.
When you hit a bump or hurdle in your career, how do you find new roads and switch gears to find success?
Part of what I’ve learned as a founder is that you can’t be everywhere at once. I’ve worked hard to build an incredible team that I can rely on to handle any bump or hurdle that comes our way.
You have raised over $50 million for Everlywell, appeared on Shark Tank, and invested in companies yourself, so it’s safe to say you know a thing or two about funding a business. What is your best advice for small businesses looking to raise capital? What are the most common mistakes people make when raising money? Why?
When I first started Everlywell, I was rejected for funding dozens of times. I was a woman in a male-dominated industry and it was my first time founding a company. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I also knew I only needed one person to say “yes” to me. My advice to other founders: don’t get discouraged. Even if you hear “no” a hundred times, all it takes is the right person eventually saying “yes” to get your business off the ground.
You worked in the corporate world before going out on your own. What was the hardest part about starting your own company? And what was the most rewarding? Did you always see yourself becoming an entrepreneur? Why/why not?
I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I didn’t know what kind of company I wanted to start until I had my own frustrating health experience. What I experienced intimately was the frustration of not understanding what was going on with my body, feeling like my doctors were treating me like a number, and never knowing how much my doctor’s visits and lab tests were going to cost. I was inspired to start Everlywell because I know millions of other people have had similar experiences with lab testing, and I saw a clear opportunity to fix that.
What do you wish more people knew about your job? What are the biggest misconceptions?
Not everyone knows that I actually have two jobs—I’m a CEO and a mom! I just had my first baby a few weeks ago. I wish more people knew that it’s possible to give 110% to more than one thing in life. I do think things are changing for the better, though. Just in my industry, the CEOs of Ancestry.com and 23andMe are both moms. And here in Austin, where Everlywell is headquartered, the founders of companies like Bumble and Outdoor Voices recently announced they’re about to become moms too. I want other women out there to know it’s completely possible to change an industry while being a new parent. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding.
The healthcare industry has fierce competition and the at-home testing industry is not immune. How do you set your brand apart and fight through competitors?
Companies don’t decide if they’re disruptors: people do. Disruption happens when people use a service or buy a product that changes their life in some way… then they keep using it. We have customers tell us every day that being able to take affordable lab tests at home has helped them take control of their health and better understand their bodies. We don’t pay too much attention to our competitors because our customers tell us almost everything we need to know. That’s how we stay focused on building the best lab testing experience that we can.
You’ve achieved phenomenal success but that didn’t come without hard work and determination. What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned along the way and what have they taught you?
Founders are always up against a wall with hard decisions—starting a company is a roller coaster and it’s not possible to control every variable and situation life throws at you. But the one thing you can always control is your own actions. Being a good person wins every time.
What key traits do you need to succeed as an entrepreneur today? Why? What’s a piece of advice you’d give to women starting out in your fields? Why?
Being an entrepreneur means being inspired by a problem. Take a look at the world around you. What’s wrong? What’s outdated? What could be better? No matter what you’re building, that’s a good place to start.
Everlywell has grown significantly in the last three years. Why do you think it has been so successful? What advice can you share for other entrepreneurs reading this who want to achieve similar success?
Be laser-focused on tasks that help you get closer to your goal. If something doesn’t help you achieve your goal, don’t do it.
With success comes growth, which means you have to figure out how to scale while keeping the culture intact. How have you grown or fostered team dynamics over time? Are there particular meetings, tools, or practices you use to keep people on the same page?
Culture has to be a priority from day one because changing a culture is harder than building one. I always look for people who are transparent, motivated, and inspired by challenges.
What is the best advice you have been given? Or a favorite piece of #realtalk?
The best piece of advice I’ve ever received is to stay true to your principles 100% of the time because it’s actually easier than staying true to your principles 99% of the time. Building a business often means making hard decisions. There have been times when we could have done things in an easier way or a faster way. But we wanted to do things the right way—it’s what we owe our customers.
You’ve brought about so much change in a short time but what more can be done to make healthcare accessible to everyone? What changes do you hope to see in the health industry? Why?
How many times have you gone to the doctor and not known how much your bill was going to be afterward? The lack of price transparency in healthcare is a huge problem. In fact, almost half of Americans who are sick and injured don’t go to the doctor because they’re afraid of how much it will cost. People should never compromise their health because they don’t know how much they’re going to be billed for their lab test, their doctor’s visit—even their surgery. It’s a huge problem in America today, and one we’re trying to fix in the lab testing space.
What is the #1 book you always recommend? Why?
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz! It’s an honest look at the ups and downs of building a company. It makes the job a little less lonely to know that all of the best founders have gone through the same rollercoaster.