What “Big Pharma” Can Learn from “Little Startups”

First things first, hello. If you’re a new reader to the blog, you probably don’t remember me, but if you’re a veteran, you just might. It’s me, Jonathan Richman, the original founder and author of Dose of Digital back for a guest posting. After a couple of years out of healthcare (and away from the blog) at a startup focused on the restaurant industry, I’m back in the healthcare business. I recently left the startup…turns out I missed you all and felt like there’s more I can contribute to the healthcare industry. More on what I’m up to at the end of this post…you want the content, not the gossip.

I spent the last 2.5 years at a great startup here in Cincinnati called Zipscene. Zipscene is a SaaS platform that enhances restaurant marketing through actionable data and insights. We started out with 11 people when I joined and are now close to 40 (with more to come). The company has added a bunch of major clients in that time including household names such as Firehouse Subs, Church’s Chicken, Hooters, and Potbelly. Point being, the company is doing well. For me, it was quite a learning experience and many of the lessons I learned will be helpful for all of you out there whether you’re at a giant pharma company or a local agency. So, that’s the point of this post: what “big pharma” can learn from “little startups.” I’m going to share some of the lessons I learned over the past few years…often the hard way. I’ve broken it down into 5 lessons:

You’re the Guy

Sell the Holes Not the Drill

Be One Page Ahead

Ideas are Cheap, Execution is Everything

Open Up the Innovation Table

PS: for those wondering what the picture of the house is all about, that’s where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built the first Apple computer.

You’re the Guy

I mean this in the east coast version of “guy” where “guy” means anyone…it’s gender neutral, so this applies to all of you. This is a pretty simple concept, but one that people at large companies seem to forget about. When you’re at a small startup, there isn’t a dedicated IT support staff or a person to make coffee or even put paper in the printer. You’re the guy. Here’s a simple way to look at it that I learned on my first day on the job: if you have to ask “who’s the guy?”, then you’re the guy. This creates an interesting dynamic where one of two things can happen. Either stuff doesn’t get done because no one is assigned to do it and no one has it in their job description OR someone just does it. At the best companies, big or small, everyone just does what needs to be done. No one needs to ask who is going to be “the guy” for the myriad of tasks that arise each day, someone just steps up and does it.

So, if you’re at any company (but more typical at a big one) and you find yourself asking “who’s the guy?”, then make sure that you either find the guy or take care of it yourself. Fine if you want to assign someone else as “the guy,” but don’t leave it undone. Sounds intuitive, but I’m shocked at how often I see this at larger companies.

Sell the Holes Not the Drill

This is a classic sales/marketing saying, but I’m not sure that everyone knows what it means. And don’t skip this one because you’re not officially in the sales or marketing department. EVERYONE is in sales…all day, everyday. Yes, if you have to convince other people in your life to do what you want and not what they want, congratulations, you’re in sales. That’s everyone.

First, what does this statement even mean for those not familiar. A little Sales 101…This is all about selling benefits and not features. For example, “Made with Splenda” is a feature, while “Great taste with zero calories so you won’t gain weight” might be the corresponding benefit. For drills and holes, the hole is the benefit, while the drill is just the feature. People buy benefits, not features. Ultimately, the person who bought the drill doesn’t really care what kind of drill it is or how many amps it is, they care that they get a hole where they want one. I don’t really want to buy the drill, I want to buy the holes it makes.

Why is this important? Chances are you’ve had to sell something internally or to a customer recently. If it was internal, maybe it was a new idea or convincing your boss that you need the giant budget you’ve laid out for the year. Well, if you’re selling the drill, you’re likely less successful than you should be. This is particularly important when it comes to technology. When we talk about new technology and are trying to sell it to others, people tend to almost ALWAYS talk about the drill. Like this:

  • The website is responsive.
  • The app is written in HTML5.
  • The database is unstructured, NoSQL.
  • We track 5,000 different user attributes and actions.
  • It’s got a battery life of 10 hours.
  • There’s a 99.95% uptime guarantee.

All drills. All features. These sound good, but no one is buying into your ideas if this is how you’re talking about it. First, no one likely understands what you’re saying. You do, but when it comes to talking tech, there are likely few people that know enough that they quickly understand your technology. Second, and related to the first, it all sounds about the same. It’s easy to copy features, which is why they don’t sell well. Finally, and most important, it really doesn’t tell me how my life is going to be better because of your product or service.

It’s got a battery life of 10 hours. So what? That means you won’t run out of juice while you’re crammed into the middle seat on your cross-country flight while you’re binge watching Breaking Bad.


Be One Page Ahead 

You know what you’ve got for a product or service. You also know where it’s good and where it’s bad. Hopefully, you have a sense of where it’s headed. That is, what improvements or enhancements are coming. It’s critically important that you be able to sell what you have now AND what you’ll have in the future. You need to be selling a bit ahead of your product. “A bit” is the key here. You don’t want to sell that you’ll be putting a man on Mars in 2 years when you’re selling a new skateboard today. But if you’re selling technology (internally or to a customer), you need to be ahead. You need to sell what you can build in a reasonable amount of time that people will be willing to wait for should you sufficiently excite them. Now that you’re an expert sales person (see previous tip), this should be no problem for you.

The balance is to not overpromise and be honest. You don’t want to sell something and have it crash and burn later when the customer figures out they won’t be taking selfies on the surface of Mars in 2016. At the same time, you don’t have to show all of your cards. People generally don’t want to know how the sausage is made (as they say). They just want to know that you’re going to be able to deliver it.

Ideas are Cheap, Execution is Everything

If there’s one thing that true about startups (and really all of life), it’s that ideas are worth nothing. You heard me right. Nothing…zero. Your idea for a company that’s the next Facebook is probably not going to amount to anything. Or your brilliant company concept that you describe as: “It’s ______ for _______.” That’s probably going to be nothing also. If you want ideas…I’ll give you all you want for free. I made this little startup idea generator called: “It’s BLANK for BLANK.” Generate all the ideas you want…you don’t even need to cut me in on it. Here’s one from the generator to get you started: “It’s eHarmony for Marine Fishing.” Go on…take it and run with it.

Even if your idea is actually brilliant and could change the world, it probably won’t be successful. The reason is that you probably won’t execute the idea properly. It’s the curse of every business in every industry. Everyone has an idea and knows what needs to be done, but no one knows how to actually get it done and no one wants to get down into the weeds and do it. If you’re just coming up with ideas, but giving no clear way to execute them, chances are that you’re just annoying people instead of inspiring them to follow you.

This shouldn’t dissuade you from coming up with great ideas, just be prepared to make the ideas come to life. That’s what we all get paid for at the end of the day. This is the most important lesson I learned working at a startup. You can have all the best ideas in the world and motivate clients to buy, but if you can’t bring it to life (in our case, actually write the software), then you’re dead. You need solid operations processes to bring your ideas to market. Not as sexy as the idea generation part, but way more important.

Open Up the Innovation Table

This should be one that EVERY company is doing, but they aren’t. Who owns innovation at your company? Oh…innovation…that’s the Senior Director, All Things Innovative. It’s awesome that you have one person dedicated to lead the charge. However, are you really unlocking the ideas from the rest of the company? One thing that a small company has going for it, is that literally everyone can sit at the same table. If you’re talking about coming up with innovative ideas, you can invite everyone to a single room and talk about it. You can’t literally do that a a big company, but you need to get close. Critical in this is a change in mindset. Your innovative ideas are locked up in the heads of everyone…even your junior people without fancy titles. They all should have an invitation to the table to discuss innovation. If you’re the Innovation Director, get out of your chair and literally and figuratively meet with everyone. Open up  the flood of ideas (and then see the tip above to bring it to life).

And with the content part of this post done…a little more about what I’m up to. As I mentioned, I left Zipscene last month to head out on my own. I founded Dose, a marketing firm focused on digital marketing consulting for the healthcare industry. You can find it online here.


The firm is focused on a few key areas: digital marketing strategy, data analysis and visualization, training and development, social media strategy, program execution, and idea generation. These are the areas that I’ve always seen healthcare companies struggle with. We’re working with both healthcare companies directly and their supporting agencies. So, if you know of (or you happen to be) someone who might need some of these services provided by industry veterans (who’ve seen the good, bad, and ugly), please get in contact (or email jmr at dosemarketing.com). Thanks for indulging me in this little plug…I hope to hear from you soon and seeing you more on the blog from time to time.

9 Responses to “What “Big Pharma” Can Learn from “Little Startups””

  1. Joe Cardilo July 15, 2014 at 9:31 am #

    Jon! Welcome back – Bill’s held it down while you were gone, but it’s nice to see your insights from Zipscene.

    I just did a year and a half in a startup and came a way with a lot of the stuff you mention here (and wrote a thing about sustainable growth you may find interesting – https://medium.com/p/1d6e1708b569). The execution part is what really draws the line, because, as you say, anyone can have a good idea but not many can execute on it.

    I think that has profound effects on measurement, too. Whether you’re engaged in sophisticated modeling or simply trying to get traction on a feature or product, almost none of your ideas of what will work mean anything until they’re in a real environment, being tested. It’s one of the most interesting challenges of pharma – balancing external and internal compliance with moving quickly enough to get insights that lead to innovation and dollars.

    • Jonathan Richman July 15, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

      Thanks, Joe. Good to be back. Thanks for sharing the article. You definitely hit the key part…it’s all talk until you can actually get it done in the real world. I actually think that pharma is pretty good here. They can execute pretty well, but often fail a bit further upstream by not expanding where they look for new ideas and what they’re willing to take risks against. As always, some are moving faster than others, but there’s much more left to be done.

  2. Debbie Donovan July 15, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    Welcome back–it’s great to have my favorite brain thinking about all the digital marketing loveliness that healthcare marketing has become. Secretly I knew you couldn’t stay away for long. I still reference the ShareThis how-to PDF and the Off-label request decision tree. Your legacy lives on. I am looking forward to more guest posts especially as it relates to the FDA guidelines issued while you were away. Bill did a fine job summarizing the ones from June. Cheers and yea for us DoD devotees. D2

    • Jonathan Richman July 15, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

      Thanks, Debbie. I appreciate the kind words. Indeed, I couldn’t stay away forever. There’s still too much to do and a lot of amazing technology up and coming that keeps my passion for the industry going. Looking forward to working on some new things once again.

  3. Bruce Grant July 15, 2014 at 4:28 pm #


  4. Steve Woodruff July 15, 2014 at 5:51 pm #

    Good to have you back, my friend. We missed you here in pharma-land.

    However, I feel compelled to give you back a “dose” of your own medicine…

    You wrote: ‘The firm is focused on a few key areas: digital marketing strategy, data analysis and visualization, training and development, social media strategy, program execution, and idea generation.’

    Nice drills; however…we need to hear the benefits! ;>}

  5. Fabio Gratton July 17, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

    I love your blogonovellas. Welcome back!


  1. What “Big Pharma” Can Learn from &l... - July 14, 2014

    [...] First things first, hello. If you’re a new reader to the blog, you probably don’t remember me, but if you’re a veteran, you just might. It’s me, Jonathan Richman, the original founder and author of Dose of Digital back for a guest posting.  [...]

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