The Underdog Story
What it means to be part of a startup that no one really talked about in a city that talks about startups
November 19th, 2014 is a date that only a few people will remember. As a matter of fact, to most people it was just another day. But that day means a lot to our healthcare startup in a healthcare city that never really got the attention it deserved. This is my tale of change:healthcare.
How it All Began
I passed through Nashville briefly in 2004 on my way to San Francisco. In what I would one day understand to be a normal thing for him, an unassuming and kind man reached out to me for lunch and to talk about my business, completely out of the blue. Little did I know how much of an effect that meeting would have on my life.
You see, I'm not a businessman. I was a kid who had started a handful of startups when technology companies and publications didn’t really exist to help you understand what that meant. I had never had a lunch meeting. I didn't even drink coffee. But since this man was so nice to reach out to me to talk about my new business, I figured I should crawl out of my shy hole and meet with him. The meeting was at a local meat and three (something I had to learn about as well) and we talked about the city, podcasting and each others lives. We had a genuinely good time. We left each other that day and things started to change for the both of us.
I left Nashville abruptly for San Francisco for almost 5 years and that same man who asked me to meet in Nashville kept in touch. He would email articles from time to time and give me a call out of the blue just to tell me the kinds of things he was working on, and to get updates from San Francisco. When he was in town, he even stopped in to see me. Somewhere along the line I found out something bad had happened. Both his parents had died in a very short time period. I was heartbroken as I knew he obviously was, but he stood up in the darkness and promised them he would do something to fix the problems that he, a long time healthcare veteran, had in caring for his parents at the end of their life and into their death. Without knowing it, Christopher Parks would eventually become the face of what I believe to be one of Nashville's most interesting startups, and an amazing friend and business partner.
The Story of the Nashville Tech Scene
I came back to Nashville in 2009 at the beck and call of Christopher, my offer letter to join change:healthcare invited me to “change the world”. How could I resist? When I arrived after living in the valley for almost 5 years, I was a little surprised how little technology actually existed in Nashville. But that’s what makes the valley what it is — you get so used to hearing about and playing with the next big thing, it becomes part of your everyday life before anyone else around the world has heard about it.
I tried to get involved in local meetups, podcamps, barcamps and nerd cocktail parties. I tried to use all the same technologies I had in San Francisco like Twitter and Foursquare. But it wasn't the same. For me, Nashville had a handful of people who really appreciated technology, who were trying to do a startup, and who loved to talk about it. But the adoption rate was quite low. The city, from top to bottom, did not understand how to support technology startups.
When I was the foursquare mayor of a pizza joint in SF, I got free beer and pizza every month. In Nashville I was the mayor of Pizza Hut and the server laughed at me instead of giving me my free breadsticks.
My foursquare experience was indicative of much of the tech scene in Nashville. It was trying, but mostley failing at mass adoption. The city needed startups to grow and to succeed. It was grasping at shiny objects, with good reason, and lifting them up. Our city needed to prove itself with a technology startup that was cool, meaningful and with national clients that people outside our world could believe in. Something that came from nothing and soared to great heights. We thought that could be us.
Some people got it. Our investors at change:healthcare bet on us time and again, in a space that was hard to bet on and with our methodology that was unorthodox and unlike Nashville. We worked the startup scene on behalf of our company, trying to prove that we could be the next cool technology to come out of the city. But, alas, we were in healthcare. And that could just not be cool. In Nashville, people always talk about needing exits, and that’s how you show that your city has a thriving startup scene. Someone has an idea, they grow it, they create a bunch of jobs, and then there is an event. We gave that to the city, and it went mostly unnoticed.
I'm not mad, just frustrated. People said “we need awesome startups”, and we gave them one. They said “we need investors in town to put their money where their mouths are”, and we found them and got them to do it. People said “we need someone to prove you can grow a business here”, and we went from 0 to 80 employees in 5 years. People said “we need startups to exit to prove we are a tech hub”, and we even did that selling to one of the largest claims processor in the country. But yet, I am still sad in some way.
We spent years deeply rooted in the Nashville tech scene. We attended events, we volunteered for others, we created new technology based companies that did amazing things, we raised money for multiple startups, we spoke on panels, we helped start the Jumpstart Foundry, we helped start the Nashville Software School. We did our part proving it was possible to have a successful tech startup in Nashville. So why am I sad?
I believe change:healthcare was the story everyone needed in Nashville. Through Christopher's immediate loss came an amazingly impactful business that went from idea to acquisition. But it spent its entire life as “just another healthcare startup” when it should have been lifted up as an example of what is possible in our city.
- we created a patented technology in a healthcare/music city
- we raised local money in a hard city to raise in
- we raised national money without being forced to relocate
- we built a company based on culture, not power
- we convinced the healthcare industry that there WAS another way
- we went from idea to impact to acquisition in a very short time
Maybe I was a little too optimistic about what our business would mean to Nashville. I always hoped people would use it as proof that their startup could make it too because we did. And maybe they will. Maybe a few years from now someone will pen an article like this one saying “thanks change:healthcare for showing us it was possible”. It’s not about ego, it’s about lifting up the next generation and letting them know that it is indeed possible.
I am a little older and a lot wiser now, but deep inside I am still that same shy guy that met with a dude in a city trying to find itself. If I did nothing more in my life than be a part of the change:healthcare story, I would die happy knowing that we made a difference. The exit was exciting — but I am more proud of the work than the money. We did things everyone including other startups, investors and insurance carriers told us was impossible. And we did it our way. Thank you, Christopher, for inviting me on your journey. You are an amazing man. Know that you are important to many of us. Now lets get on to the next one. I’m ready.