Founder Interview – Neil van Heerden – CMO at FMO
This week we had the opportunity to chat with Neil van Heerden, CMO of Fairmed Online (FMO) one of Asia’s hottest digital healthcare startups.
On the cusp of launching its first ad campaigns, FMO is a far cry from the classic startup stereotype. No scruffy college kids here – the founding partners are all highly experienced individuals, each bringing to the table C-suite titles earned over no less than two decades of corporate experience with multi-national corporations. Unsurprisingly, this group has all the funding and support they need to forge forward.
Expat Born and Raised
Neil van Heerden was literally born an expat, which he views as lucky, because he’s always enjoyed living abroad and experiencing different cultures.
Born in the US to South African diplomat parents, and educated by his father to maintain a lively interest in world news and events, Neil eventually chose to study Political-Science and Philosophy, with a view towards launching a career in journalism.
After university Neil traveled to Germany for what was planned as a six month journalism internship, but ended up being a twelve year stay that defined his professional development and career. Early on during his internships Neil came to realize he enjoyed working in client-facing roles that provided an opportunity for strategic thinking, and so he gradually moved from journalism, via PR, on to marketing-and-sales positions.
Inspired by Change
When asked what inspires him Neil shares: “I find inspiration in people, organisations and movements that make us fundamentally question the way we see the world around us. To my understanding these are the greatest accomplishments of people like Mandela, Ghandi, Branson and Elon Musk, companies such as Apple & Tesla, and movements like the Mindfulness movement.”
Perhaps motivated by a desire to leave his own mark on the world, Neil decided In his early thirties it was time to formally consolidate the experience and knowledge he’d gained professionally. He completed an Executive MBA at London Business School and soon after began feeling Asia offered challenges and opportunities he was interested in. He joined AMEX in Germany on the understanding that the company would later support his move to Singapore.
Neil views the insights and experience he gained working within AMEX’s B2B merchant division, and later leading the company’s merchant services efforts in Thailand, as fundamental to his perceptions regarding business management & leadership, and in particular the importance of ensuring value for all the stakeholders one deals with.
Luck through Sport
After 11 years at AMEX Neil started feeling that despite the comfort of his corporate environment he wanted to experience being an entrepreneur, and mastering his own destiny. “I was particularly interested in finding or creating an opportunity that revolved around my lifelong passion for healthy-living, sports, and wellness” he shares. It was at this point that a brief conversation with a long-term friend and fellow triathlete, changed his life forever.
We often overlook the role luck plays in our lives, despite the fact that in many, if not most cases, it’s the single most important influence on our choices. In Neil’s case lady luck’s saw fit to put him in touch with Matthias, COO for Fairmed Online, just as he was pondering what to do next with his life.
It was Matthias who in turn introduced Neil to FMO, and its founder – Philipp Graf von Hardenberg, the highly respected and experienced President of the Thanyapura Health & Sports Resort. As the three men grew closer, and Neil became gradually more enamored with the concept, he started consulting with friends and family to hear what they thought of his idea of leaving AMEX and joining a startup: “it’s likely I’d have made the transition anyway, because I know my kids are ultimately inspired by the choices I make, and I believe you can’t expect them to take risks, unless you provide an example. But my dad’s immediate endorsement of the idea really paved the way for the transition.”
Healthcare Is Ripe for Disruption
When asked what was the source of the appeal of the Fairmed Online concept Neil replies: “All of us share an understanding that the new accessibility of healthcare information, and subsequent public realization that this industry is often in the hands of just a few global corporations, is leading people to question the system we’re accustomed to, and rightfully so. Not only is it outdated, but it’s also having a hard time delivering on its promises – just look at the daily Obamacare news! As an optimist I’d say it’s a confusing system. As a pessimist I’d say it’s downright suspicious…”
Establishing a Value Based Strategy
Neil’s feels his contribution to FMO has mostly been his extensive experience with the strategic structuring of value: “AMEX was a great school for learning that. It’s simply world-class at creating value for its customers and stakeholders alike. Their methodology looks at articulating value based pricing, as opposed to cost base pricing for example.”
Neil feels having a strategy for choosing partners is critical as well – “They’re key to determining how successful Fairmed is at meeting its goal of becoming a world class healthcare provider”. He adds: “You don’t become premium just by saying so. You have to earn that distinction in your client’s minds. It’s critical that we identify and articulate the value we bring to our clients and stakeholders.”
Specifically he mentions factors like the attention invested in the selection of Dr’s Fairmed works with: “We invest a lot of effort in screening for truly world acclaimed physicians. We look not only at their years of experience but also at how well published they are and how they’re regarded by their peers”. Neil also feels a lot of attention must be invested in how the offer is packaged: “We’re dealing with knowledge and data that’s far from trivial. Part of our effort must be dedicated to making it accessible to our clients in a language they can understand and is free of medical jargon”.
Creating a New Paradigm? Educate Your Audience…
We asked Neil how he sees FMO making a difference. He replies: “People are increasingly waking up to the fact that they must take responsibility for their own health and lifestyles. Until recently people generally accepted whatever their Dr. or healthcare provider said as nearly sacrosanct. However, we’re now seeing a steadily growing portion of the population starting to question the options and solutions they’re being offered. FMO gives people the advice they’re looking for in a transparent and neutral manner without medical jargon or ulterior motive. In a world where we know for a fact Dr.s are routinely over-treating patients, that commitment to impartiality offers great value and peace of mind.”
When probed regarding the challenges Fairmed is facing Neil shares: “It’s an oddity of human nature that while people will spend days reading through specs before buying a robot vacuum, they’ll pop pills into their mouth without a second thought. Our biggest challenge, and part of the aforementioned complexity, is educating people about the value of obtaining an unbiased second medical opinion. We’re perhaps early adopters in this respect, and it’s on us to awaken the public to the necessity and benefits of this service.”
We ask Neil how he sees FMO handling this issue and he replies: “In my opinion it’s all about being very receptive and open when listening to our clients. Last week for example we had some serious partners from China asking us about direct video-conferencing with our doctors, so we’re now incorporating that as an option for our product development plan. To be successful in any ecosystem you have to create long-lasting value for people & partners. It’s all about the long play. Of course we have costs, and we’re conscious of that, but when it comes to our strategy, we think of value first.”
Hindsight is always 20/20 and so we ask Neil, from the vantage point of being nearly a year in, what he would have done differently: “I think we started out wanting to be too much for too many people – wanting to solve too many problems. Given how wide open the intersection of technology and healthcare is at the moment, we’ll probably make this error again somewhere along the line. But with the healthcare industry booming and new solutions and technologies coming on the market almost every day, it’s a real challenge maintaining focus and not heading down too many rabbit holes. We really need to be clear on what we stand for and maintain our course. It’s a process…”
There’s a Lot to be Said for Stuff That Keeps You Awake at Night
As we finish off the interview we ask Neil for his tips for anyone, who like himself, is looking to leave the security of working for a large corporation in order to join or setup a startup – “I always believed that it’s better to regret the things you’ve done, over those you didn’t do. I’m not advocating that people go on flights-of-fancy without assessing the risks at hand, but ultimately there’s a rationality to the decision, and there’s a lot to be said for the things that keep you awake at night for the right reasons.”