In this episode, I talk with the founder of Open Books MD, Chere Cofer. In 2013 the FDA approved 1,423 drugs. While that’s an excellent thing for patients, it’s also a very daunting thing for physicians who need to figure out a way to keep up. That’s where medical sales reps come into play. Open Books MD is a digital platform that connects medical practices and the medical sales reps that call on them, for the purpose of creating and managing facetime interactions with the doctors.
Chere’s background as a pharmaceutical sales rep was where the idea for Open Books MD was formed. She then spent 18 months developing the product, and first launched in September 2017. She discusses an experience the company had with a failed launch of their premium product, and how they took customer feedback to rebuild.
Topics In This Episode
Size of the current team and positions to be filled
How a larger team would allow for faster growth
Failed launch of premium product, and the resulting rebuild
Important lessons learned
What is currently missing from the market and how Open Books MD will fill that void
Mike Kelly: Welcome to the Startup Competitors podcast. Today we have Chere Cofer, who's the founder and CEO of Open Books MD. Chere, welcome to the show.
Chere Cofer: Thank you, Mike. Thanks for having me.
Mike Kelly: All right. Maybe let's start with a quick pitch for Open Books MD.
Chere Cofer: Sure. So Open Books MD is a digital platform that connects medical practices and the medical sales reps that call on them for the purpose of creating and managing FaceTime interactions with the doctors.
Mike Kelly: Make that a little bit more tangible for me. Pretend like I don't know your industry. So when you say medical practices, maybe give a for instance and what does that, maybe what would be some of the reasons that we might be doing FaceTime and what does that experience look like?
Chere Cofer: So Open Books MD automates the workflow process for medical practices where they are trying to create and manage physician rep interactions. So think of this, you've got 75 to 100 medical reps at a call on a medical practice at any given time. There is no systematic way to actually manage the traffic that comes and goes. Doctors are already time-poor and so Open Books MD helps solve that problem for the medical practices, but also brings a lot of value for the medical reps as well.
Mike Kelly: Got it. Super helpful. So if I'm a medical practice, what is my user experience with the software? What does that look like? Am I scheduling, like what, do I set up the workflow, am I using workflows out of the box? What does that feel like?
Chere Cofer: So as a medical practice, you have a digital rep book that you have the ability to release all of the pre-slotted doctor appointment times to the field and that makes a process that would typically take five to six hours, multiple interruptions and patient care, several phone calls to the medical practice, complete in about five to 10 minutes.
Chere Cofer: So it's a really quick automation of a workflow practice that they have been doing every single day with no real systematic way of doing it.
Mike Kelly: Yeah. Awesome. Let's switch over to current status. So any vanity metrics you can share for somebody who's listening to kind of understand where you're at on that journey? It can be anything from size of the team, number of customers, whatever you're open to sharing.
Chere Cofer: Okay, perfect. So right now the team is actually very small. I have one person that's working on marketing, a marketing manager, a CFO, two developers, and myself. I am not with a co-founder unfortunately, but I do have advisors.
Mike Kelly: That's okay.
Chere Cofer: Right? So that helps out when I need some extra input or advice. We currently have about 15 medical practices on our platform and about 500 medical reps that are using the platform on a daily basis. We are pre-revenue. We've made one attempt to launch our premium version that failed and we are currently in relaunch mode.
Mike Kelly: All right, well you can't throw that out there and not have me dig in to that.
Chere Cofer: I know. I knew it was gonna happen.
Mike Kelly: Yeah, so let's hear about a failed launch. Why don't you set that up and just talk a little bit about what happened?
Chere Cofer: So we thought that we'd built a really cool platform based on customer feedback, based on domain expertise from myself and a lot of input actually from the medical practices of what they really wanted in a product like this. But then once we built the product, not only for the medical practices but the medical reps, and launched the premium version which was done at 3:00 AM Poland time, nobody bought and it was dead silence. And it stayed that way for two weeks straight. It stayed that way.
Chere Cofer: And so, it was a quick lesson that A: We needed to give our customers a lot more heads up notice time in terms of we're gonna start charging, this is how much it's going to be. We'd already gotten the feedback that this is a valuable tool and they were already using it, but because it had been free they didn't want to start paying for it.
Mike Kelly: Right.
Chere Cofer: And so therein lied the problem.
Chere Cofer: So with the new relaunch, we're gonna look at giving them quite a bit more time in terms of notice and then maybe even a trial period to get them started. So I think it's just that shift, the mind shift of, "I didn't have to pay for this before, now you're asking me to?" Even though it's a nominal amount.
Mike Kelly: And then who pays for it, the medical practice or the reps who are on the platform?
Chere Cofer: Right, good question, so medical practices are free. Our only ask of them is to adopt Open Books MD as their sole way of dealing with the pharmaceutical industry as far as rep interactions. We make money by selling packages to the pharmaceutical companies by way of the pharmaceutical sales reps. And it's a totally optional sale, but we currently have a free basic version and then a premium version that further automates a lot of their work flow process.
Mike Kelly: So it's interesting, when you're doing marketing then are you trying to get medical offices on board because they're free and then they can drive up adoption, right? So if you want to get slotted in, go for an account here and we're happy to get you in.
Chere Cofer: Exactly.
Mike Kelly: Perfect. To get that buyer, what kind of marketing has been effective for you to date?
Chere Cofer: Interesting question because that's been the hardest part of this whole journey. So healthcare in general can be a little bit slow to adopt new technology, and the best way that I have, the success that we've had was really to just go by word of mouth and referrals. We've got reps that are in these medical practices on a daily basis, they will share our platform with them. Or share the platform with another medical colleague from a different medical practice.
Chere Cofer: And so, it's really been based on leads from our current customer base and that's really proven to be the most successful for now. We know that that's not scalable long term, so we are working on a marketing program that's going to help us shorten that sales cycle and do it a lot more efficiently.
Mike Kelly: And we were talking just before we kicked off the podcast, you've been at this since 2014, is that about right?
Chere Cofer: The idea was born in 2014. It took about 18 months to actually build the platform so it was a really long build-out and we actually launched in September of 2017.
Mike Kelly: Okay. And then so, September 2017 you launched, you tried the first failed premium version. What was the time frame on that?
Chere Cofer: Well, actually that's when we launched our MVP. So that was just our minimum viable product in the market, that we ran for about a year and gained really valuable feedback from our customers in terms of what looks good for the next build-out and that was the premium. That actually just happened last summer, so summer of 2018 and then we tried our launch in January of 2019.
Mike Kelly: This is fresh. Sorry.
Chere Cofer: Very fresh. Yes.
Mike Kelly: Well, I appreciate you sharing it.
Mike Kelly: Okay, so when you think of competitors in this space, who comes to mind?
Chere Cofer: So the type of competitor that would potentially be a competitor is someone like Calendly. There are other competitors that are in the marketplace that do what we do, but there are subtle nuances that I think will ultimately differentiate us from our competitors. They have similar platforms that are specifically designed to help medical practices manage the rep flow that come in and out of their medical practices.
Chere Cofer: But again, I think that our platform has a very slight nuance of a difference that is gonna make a difference to medical practices choosing us over the competitor.
Mike Kelly: Do you have any, and you don't have to answer any of this, I'm just curious. Because one of the things that I can see as a differentiator for me as a medical practice, because I know so much about medical practices.
Chere Cofer: Right.
Mike Kelly: I've never, I have no idea what I'm talking about. But intuitively one of the things that I feel like could be of value is some sort of ability for the doctors to on their side, the people in the medical practice potentially be able to rate their interactions with reps.
Mike Kelly: And maybe the reps can see that, maybe they can't but as a doctor or medical practice, that would give me some visibility into who is gonna be, where's my time gonna be best spent. And maybe even leveraging that to figure out where should I spend my time in terms of which reps should I see or not see or whatever the case may be. Do you do that type of interaction?
Chere Cofer: Not yet. It's a really good idea. It's something that is kind of on the long term roadmap to figure out if there is a possibility of a possible rating system, whether it be on the rep side or on the medical-
Mike Kelly: That could work the other way too, yeah.
Chere Cofer: Right, exactly. But it's a slippery slope and so, it's a very fine line to walk and how to roll that out where we keep both sides of the platform happy, we've not figured that out just yet. But it's definitely something that has been thought about and it's a good idea.
Mike Kelly: I'd love to hear maybe some of those other differentiators long-term as you think about this market and the space. Are you open to talking a little bit about the product roadmap and what you think maybe six, 12, 24 months, what you think are some of the things that you guys can do to really innovate in the space relative to some of those other competitors?
Chere Cofer: So one of the things that we thought about, Mike, was making Open Books MD a one stop shop. So not only do reps want the ability to schedule their FaceTime interactions in one place, but it'd be really cool if they could actually also coordinate with the caterers that provide the food for the lunch and services all in the same one stop shop.
Chere Cofer: And so that's one of the things that we have on our roadmap potentially for 12 months down the road is to start to market to the local caterers and have them be a part of the platform so that there's a transparency between these three industries that work together every single day but there's no transparency or coordination between them.
Mike Kelly: Yeah. So currently have a two sided marketplace and you have some strategies for how you're unrolling that, right? With ideally, it sounds like, correct me if I'm wrong, the ideal way is that if you can get the reps to pay for the platform then they're taking it into each of the doctors offices that they're visiting, correct?
Chere Cofer: Exactly, yes.
Mike Kelly: Medical practices that they're visiting. Talk a little bit about that in a three sided marketplace. So as you start to bring on caterers, I'd love your thoughts on ... in any marketplace situation you have a chicken and egg problem, right?
Chere Cofer: Exactly.
Mike Kelly: So how do you get marketing or how do you get caterers to want to come on the platform without those transactions happening? How do you get those transactions to happen without having caterers onboard? I'd love your thoughts around how you think you're gonna tackle that kind of chicken and egg problem which is a classic problem in any marketplace startup.
Chere Cofer: Absolutely. So we are lucky because we have such a large rep base. Every time we onboard a medical practice, we onboard about 75 to 150 reps. So that being said, the user base or the audience for the caterers is already there. They just don't know how to get in front of them. And so that's what Open Books MD would provide them is a foot in the door to a very niche part of the market, but a very profitable one.
Mike Kelly: Nice. All right, so as you reflect on your journey all the way back in 2014, I would love your thoughts or reflections on the community that you've been a part of or communities that you've been a part of and how you've figured some of this out along the way. I just made some assumptions there. This is your first startup?
Chere Cofer: It's my first startup and you're absolutely right. Yep.
Mike Kelly: I know personally that can be a very daunting thing and I'm sure you're constantly learning still, but I'd love maybe what are some of those key inflection points that you can remember along the way where either it was a resource, which could be a human, it could be a group, it could be a book, whatever that is, that really changed the way that you think about your job as the entrepreneur and what you're trying to do. I mean, anything you're willing to share over the last four years now, right? Little over four years on this journey.
Chere Cofer: Absolutely. So I have to give a huge thanks to the Startup Ladies in Indianapolis. I wouldn't be where I am today without the encouragement, education and connections that that organization has provided for me. There were a lot of things that I went into this venture, into this journey, not knowing, and I had no idea that there were gonna be so many other like-minded women put in my space that would actually show me the things that I didn't know and help me fail quickly and recover and that's made all the difference in the world.
Chere Cofer: And so a lot of the progress that I feel that I've made in the past four years has really been because of the community that was established through the Startup Ladies and the wonderful connections I've made there.
Mike Kelly: If you had to reflect on the two biggest things that you've had to learn, or one to three, I shouldn't say two. Kind of the biggest one to three things that you've learned over the last four years, what would those be?
Chere Cofer: The first one is to keep going. Every time that I get to a place where I just think this isn't gonna work, I think back to an advisor that just said, "Chere, keep going." The other thing is that you have to fail quickly and you have to recover quickly. If you make a mistake, it's all good. I mean, it's gonna happen. It's really the way that you respond to it and how, the information that you take away from that fail.
Chere Cofer: And I think the third thing is to be a good listener, just to really pay attention to what your customers are saying, what they really want, how much they're willing to pay, what's gonna matter, what's not gonna matter. And I think at the end of the day, all three of those combined, at least you're set up for success. I don't know if I will be but at least it gives you a good headstart.
Mike Kelly: When you listen to customers, how do you do that? Is that normally one on one interviews, are you sending surveys, are you looking at blog files to see what they're clicking on, what they're not clicking on? I'd love your thoughts around how you do that.
Chere Cofer: Yes, so we're actually doing surveys. We do one on one, we're trying to do focus groups. I mean, there's a number of different ways that we're trying to get the information that we need. It's difficult because you've got, again, you've got two different sides of a platform that you have to cater to and you have to have a really good balance of the two. And so, while one side may really want this one particular feature, that may throw things off for the medical practice.
Chere Cofer: And so it's a balancing act, but at the end of the day I think the ongoing communication and really being sensitive to the feedback that you do get and not being defensive about it and trying to protect your baby, I think that's where things start to morph into the right product for the right customer.
Mike Kelly: What's the biggest thing you're learning now, that you're in the middle of learning right now that you think is gonna be critical to setting up success in the future?
Chere Cofer: I need a team. I need a team.
Mike Kelly: Oh, look at that.
Chere Cofer: Right, I need a team. I need my own tribe. So it's hard to do everything when you are everything to the business. The problem with a business like Open Books MD is that it's such a niche product. It's very specific and so the way that I understand the business based on my own background would be very different from someone coming into the business that's never worked in the pharma industry or medical sales.
Chere Cofer: And so it's hard for me to feel that comfort level to delegate some of the chores and tasks and so forth. But the truth of the matter is, at the end of the day to move forward, to be successful, it's going to be about the team that I put together and so that's actually one of the next steps on the roadmap.
Mike Kelly: Nice. What are some of the specific roles you're looking to fill right now?
Chere Cofer: I go back and forth on this one, Mike. I don't know about the co-founder part. Some people say you need one, some people say you're good just the way you are but-
Mike Kelly: It is highly dependent on you.
Chere Cofer: It's highly dependent on me.
Mike Kelly: And there is no right answer.
Chere Cofer: That's what I get all the time. So I would love to hire a VP of sales. I would love to have someone that can just be my operations point. Beyond that, a lot of the other roles are outsourced right now but there needs to be someone in a position that can kind of glue all of it together, keep it all running together.
Mike Kelly: Nice. You already talked a little bit about the roadmap and some of the things that you think will drive growth growing forward. I'd love thoughts on do you see any emerging technologies or trends in the marketplace that you think you'll be able to take advantage of in the coming years?
Chere Cofer: I would love to figure out a way ... I know this is doable, but I've not figured it out just yet. But to integrate with Slack, whereby using Slack would create just a viral effect within the medical community, of putting Open Books MD in front of other medical practices that are using Slack to communicate. If there was some integration between the two, that's not a paid for marketing strategy. So I'd love to figure out a way to do that.
Chere Cofer: I've also thought about the option of potentially partnering with an EMR system to be part of their suite of services. So if that EMR service has 800 medical practices that they're working with, Open Books MD could just be a value-add for those practices to use since it's a free service to them.
Chere Cofer: So there's a couple different ways that we're thinking about strategy to get more customers, more penetration into the marketplace. Not really sure which is gonna be the first step, but I think both of those have some potential.
Mike Kelly: Nice. So you just mentioned when we were talking about talent and your background, I think I gleaned from there that you were a rep at one point?
Chere Cofer: Exactly.
Mike Kelly: Pharmaceutical sales?
Chere Cofer: Yes.
Mike Kelly: So talk to me about how you got here. A little bit about your background and how you recognized this is a problem and in particular maybe a problem that you thought you wanted to solve.
Chere Cofer: This is an interesting statistic that a lot of people probably don't know. In 2013, the FDA approved 1,423 drugs. And so, while that's an excellent thing for patients, it's also a very daunting thing for physicians who need to figure out a way to keep up. And so that's where their medical sales reps come into play.
Chere Cofer: But at the same time, their number one priority is to manage patient care. And so how do you fit in learning about all these new products, listening to 75 to 150 reps with their message on an ongoing basis without a system that helps you manage all of that noise?
Chere Cofer: So that's really kind of how Open Books was born. With my history in medical sales, I realize that there is a major pain point between medical practices and medical reps. Medical reps have a job to do. They are paid to get in front of the doctor and educate the doctor on the products that they represent.
Chere Cofer: On the flip side, the doctors have a job to do as well and that's patient care. And so, while they both need each other, there needed to be something in the middle that kind of managed and simplified those interactions. So that's how Open Books MD was born.
Mike Kelly: Got it. Are there direct competitors in this space? So not like Calendly, which is a general purpose, like how you facilitate getting people booked on a calender, but other solutions specific to the pharmaceutical rep space for facilitating these types of bookings?
Chere Cofer: There are. There are direct competitors currently.
Mike Kelly: All right. And when you look at those, or when you look at that market, what do you see that's missing?
Chere Cofer: What do I see that is missing? Well-
Mike Kelly: And I'm particularly asking that now and not before based on your experience, right? So you were in this and so conceivably you might have interacted with one or two of those existing solutions. Like for you as a potential user, what was either broken or missing in those experiences that made you think there is clearly a better way? We can do this better.
Chere Cofer: So I think that's where Open Books is gonna be different.
Mike Kelly: Perfect. Are you bootstrapped or venture backed?
Chere Cofer: Bootstrapped all the way. So we are right now preparing to fundraise. I took a chance and said that I think I can do, I can get this business so far down the road on my own.
Mike Kelly: Yeah, yeah.
Chere Cofer: Yeah, and so I took a chance to do that and to, hopefully it'll pay off in the long run, to actually have a product that already has product market fit, potentially already will have revenue, that'll already have customers. I think that will be a lot more attractive and put me in a much better position when I raise money. So I took the chance to try to bootstrap up front.
Mike Kelly: And when you look at this market, how big do you think this opportunity is?
Chere Cofer: That's a great question and that one is ... We kind of have gone back and forth about this, but if you look at the medical pharmaceutical sales vertical on the platform, that has anywhere from I'd say five to nine million dollars in revenue potential. But the real money, in my opinion, is gonna come in for the caterers. There is somewhere in the ballpark of 630,000 restaurant caterers in the U.S. And if you could just tap into five percent of those and create a subscription base model for that vertical, I think that really has the potential of tapping into almost a three billion dollar market.
Mike Kelly: Nice. Once you've established that I guess initial market, so medical practices, caterers, and reps, do you see any transferable markets that may not be in medical at all where you feel like this could easily extend into that market and you can leverage a lot of what you already know and do, just with updated branding?
Chere Cofer: It's a great question. I've gotten it several times and I have not been able to identify another industry that could actually use this product. But at the same time, I do think that as time goes on, I might come across something that kind of like puts a light bulb moment out there.
Chere Cofer: Right now, I don't know where else it would fit but it's definitely something that I have on my mind. It's on my radar.
Mike Kelly: All right. Well, maybe somebody listening will reach out to you and say-
Chere Cofer: That would be wonderful.
Mike Kelly: "I want this for-
Chere Cofer: That would be great. Yes.
Mike Kelly: "I'm a manufacturing rep and I want this to be able to facilitate-
Chere Cofer: Exactly.
Mike Kelly: My meetings with my clients."
Chere Cofer: For sure.
Mike Kelly: All right. If people would like to get in touch with you or to learn more about the product, how can they do that?
Chere Cofer: Www.openbooksmd.com or feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear from you.
Mike Kelly: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
Chere Cofer: Thanks, Mike. It's been a pleasure.