Home People How WebMD Founder Jeff Arnold Diagnosed Digital Healthcare

How WebMD Founder Jeff Arnold Diagnosed Digital Healthcare

by Kristyn Back

Many know and love Jeff Arnold as “the WebMD guy,” a designation proclaimed throughout last week’s TiE Entrepreneurship Gala. The evening included a fireside chat with Arnold fielding questions from CNN’s Sanjay Gupta M.D., on everything from the healthcare connoisseur’s mega venture, Sharecare, to the early days of his EKG company (when he answered 2 am phone calls in his boxers).

As the discussion kicked off, we wondered, could Sharecare transform our cell phones into the ultimate healing powerhouse? Did the serial entrepreneur really get to exchange conversations between modern legends like Steve Jobs? And why after all these years, has he kept Georgia on his mind?

Arnold and Gupta dove deep into how healthcare’s gone digital, so we’ve highlighted segments of their discussion. We hope you’re left as optimistic about the future of healthcare as we are (and enjoy the good memories and laughs along the way).

SG: You talk about how your father-in-law gave you a loan, but Meg [your wife] is a nurse as well. There was a whole interest in healthcare from the very beginning, was it partly because of that?

JA: Meg was at Emory Nursing School and I had a job detailing pharmaceuticals. She was working the graveyard shift and I’d go over and have breakfast with her because I was going into work as she was getting off. I met a doctor who educated me that people with heart problems are like taking your car to the mechanic and saying, ‘my car is making a noise.’

To make a long story short, he was like, “I can teach you how to read EKG’s.” So I went over to his house at night and learned how. I quit my job, borrowed some money and Meg being in nursing school was the most qualified medical person I knew. When it was all said and done, we were treating about 60,000 patients a year, but it was a great way to get into healthcare. I learned early on not to get too enamored with technology – which I love – but it’s all about how you build relationships and get compliance. If you get compliance, you get results. If you get results, you get used more often and your business grows and you have better outcomes.

SG: How old were you at this point?

JA: I was 24, maybe 23.

SG: I’m curious, you show a bit of a rationale for healthcare. How did you know what to do at that age? Who were the people you were talking to providing you guidance?

JA: Looking back now it was probably risky. Not really financially risky because I didn’t really have anything to lose because I spent Meg’s dad’s money. But we knew we could make it up with grandkids and stuff.

So we had an apartment and we had four computers lined up across our bedroom and patients would call all night long. I’d get up and literally be in my boxers answering the phone. They would be transmitting their EKG and I was making the call to either go back to bed or call 911. Looking back, they probably thought they were calling into the Cleveland Clinic.

SG: Instead it’s some guy in his boxers, 24 years old.

JA: Yeah, it was pretty risky and the stakes were high. Failure wasn’t an option.

SG: At that point you always have obstacles. You have things that are not going to be the most encouraging if the business is growing or not growing. How do you decide from an early age how long you’re going to stick with something? What were the dimensions that got you to say, ‘this is my idea that I’m sticking with it?’

JA: There was only one time I gave up on an idea. You get into it and before you know it, you’re so deep in, truly failure is not an option. You borrow your girlfriend’s dad’s money, you convince your best friend to quit their job, you have physicians who’ve entrusted their patients to you so you’ve got to make it work.

WebMD was challenging because we went from 2 to 6 thousand people in 18 months. I was 28 and when it got that big there were a lot of things I didn’t know how to do like insurance plans and things like that. So you have to bring in other people.

One of the businesses we had was during a time when I was thinking of something fun to do and I was like, ‘well the music industry would be fun.’ We tapped into this idea of putting these little mini CDs into the lids of drinks. This was before iTunes and I was like wow, McDonald’s sells 500 million drinks a month. You can get the CD and you open it up into a digital player. So we patented the idea and sell 50 million of these things, everything from Elvis to Britney Spears. One day I’m in Jimmy Iovine’s office – he’s worked with the Beatles and been on American Idol – and I’m pitching him saying, “this is the future of music, this is distribution.” So he calls Steve Jobs on the phone, explaining the idea, and he’s like yeah I already have an idea for that, it’s called iTunes. So I gave up on that one.

SG: So you’re not even 30 and you’ve got this unbelievable market cap on your company. How paved is that for you? Have you been keeping in between the lanes in your life? Are you able to manage all that and people coming at you from all different directions? You’re trying to navigate what’s important, what’s not important. Just beside the pragmatic, your life now, what was it like?

JA: The EKG company wasn’t enough. It was going to take a collective IQ, combined wisdom to actually pull it off. Dotcom started to crash and it was a really interesting time. Thankfully we survived because we had a billion in revenue and two million in cash. But to see everyone flame out around you and see how quickly the sentiment changed, I knew I had a bullseye on my head. Here’s a 28-year-old guy that’s running a multi-billion dollar company so it was an interesting dynamic. I think it was always very positive and that’s the one really great thing about being in healthcare. Even when times are tough, maybe the market conditions have changed or maybe something doesn’t go the way you want it to, but it’s still a worthy mission. You look at the person that works on your right or the person that works on your left and ultimately, it’s about helping other people which helps you get through the good times and the bad.

SG: I think that sort of answered my next question, but in terms of these uncertain times we live in, we don’t know what’s going to happen with this political race. We don’t know what’s going to happen with the economy. We have concerns about terrorism and all sorts of things. How do you manage fear to get through that uncertainty?

JA: I just don’t operate with fear. I look at this current business and we are 5 years old and have 3300 employees now. I look at the phone and say, “this is the greatest healing device we’ve ever seen.” We all have it, this piece of glass in our pocket that’s got all this computing power, accelerometer, gps, social graphs. I don’t have 12 apps on my phone to manage my money and I’m not going to have 12 apps to manage my health and wellness. So how do you build a health profile like Amazon’s built your retail profile and do it in a way that is predictive, personalized, participatory, preventative, and private? Then allow others to connect to it with the theory that we are stronger together than apart. It’s amazing and that is a force, a gravity, that when you get an army behind you is very strong. 

I figure the election will take care of itself. Healthcare is broken and needs to get fixed. The time is now because the vessel we’ve been looking for to change healthcare has arrived and all of us have it with us right now. 

SG: We have a lot of Atlanta entrepreneurs in the audience right now. Let’s talk about Atlanta for a little bit. All of your companies have had a presence here. Obviously Sharecare and WebMD. What is it about Atlanta? You’re obviously from this area, you went to school here. What is it about Atlanta that has kept you here?

JA: I think Atlanta has a very loyal workforce. It’s a community that embraces the challenge. We have offices in Berlin, Brazil, Australia, Vermont, New York, all over the place. A lot of people who are here tonight are people I’ve worked with for over 20 years. We stick together through the goods times and the bads times. We stay on the mission to be successful. I’ve had offices out in Silicon Valley and you feel like everyone is always trying to poach your people. It’s always, what’s the next hot deal? It just doesn’t feel like the same sense of loyalty you get in the south.

SG: Is there a message you have for young entrepreneurs here in Atlanta who are starting companies, trying to get funding and want to do it here in their home city, their home state?

JA: I think there’s a formula that works everywhere and this market will mature. The formula starts with passion. There is just no substitute for passion. You’ve got to have passion. You’ve got to have a big idea. You’ve got to build a team with complementary skillsets. To get proof of concept fast and be willing to know that where you start is not where you’re going to end. And then you’ve got to scale.

SG: You talk in the Sharecare video about how the practitioners are going to be sellers and patients are going to be buyers. Why do I want to buy into Sharecare?

JA: I think healthcare is just really hard and confusing and fragmented and nobody is on the same page. As you meet with health plans and as you see employers going self-insured and as you meet with big hospital systems, they all have vendor fatigue. They can’t make sense of all these solutions. How do I stitch all of this together to see the complete picture of the person? And as for the consumer, they’re completely lost. They are getting mixed messages from the living room to the exam room and it’s been hard. Then all of a sudden this phone comes along and says, wow what if this could solve for interoperability? What if that could solve for altered personalization? What if a vessel came alongside that phone that’s trusted. That everybody could agree that this is the way that I could take care of myself and take care of others. I’m just very optimistic that we are on that journey. 

SG: So for a patient we are talking all aspects of their healthcare, doctors visits, insurance, medical records, things that might optimize them, improve their relationships? It sounds like an entire ecosystem.

JA: If you think about all your health in one place and then you break it down in your head into three pillars. One pillar is wellness. One pillar is how do I onboard the healthcare system? And the third is, how do I go from the other side to the every day? 

When you combine your wellness and your ability to manage your medical records, and onboard to the healthcare system to a vessel that other trusted third parties can connect to, I think we have an opportunity to see more progress on healthcare in the next 24 months than we saw in the last 24 years.

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