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Kevin Keenahan: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO

It’s your responsibility to hit the milestones you set for yourself, no one is going to do it for you.

As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Keenahan

Kevin Keenahan, VP of Strategy and Innovation at Net Health, started in healthcare analytics nearly a decade ago when he co-founded and became the CEO of Tissue Analytics (TA). TA uses computer vision and AI to automatically measure wound outcomes and improve documentation efficiency in electronic medical record systems. In 2020, the company was acquired by Net Health, a Carlyle-backed electronic medical record and data analytics company. Prior to starting Tissue Analytics, Kevin trained as a biomedical engineer at Johns Hopkins University. He has spoken at the GSV Pioneer Summit, CES, and was given the Rising Star — Health Care Innovators Award by the Philadelphia Business Journal.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Absolutely! For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in how technology and medicine intersect, which made choosing Biomedical Engineering as my undergrad field of study at Johns Hopkins an easy one. And while I learned an immense amount of impactful knowledge while at Johns Hopkins, one of the most important events of my time there was meeting Josh Budman — who, spoiler, would eventually go on to be my co-founder at Tissue Analytics.

After finishing our undergrad, Josh and I stayed friends and both did our Master’s at the Center for Bioengineering Innovation & Design (CBID). CBID is truly an amazing program that gives young engineers the chance to rotate through real-world clinical environments shadowing some of the top doctors and thought leaders in the country.

It was during one of these rotations where Josh and I first had the opportunity to see how chronic wounds are treated. We got to see the painful processes that patients had to undergo — processes that were a pretty far cry from the glamorized, science-fiction level tech we had seen neurosurgeons and others use in past rotations.

For both of us, the experience changed the trajectory of our professional lives. We knew that there was an opportunity to make a real and impactful change for patients, providers, and the healthcare system as a whole.

Shortly after graduating, we started Tissue Analytics. Eight years later, here we are today after making a successful exit and passing the proverbial torch onto Net Health.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The fact that this question is so hard for me to answer is one that truly shows just how fortunate I was to have so much help along the way. The reason I say that is because, by only naming one person, I’d be excluding a few dozen more who were equally as impactful.

If I had to start somewhere, I’d certainly have to mention Elliot Menschik, MD, PhD, a healthcare investor and entrepreneur from Philadelphia, who was the Managing Partner for DreamIt Health. I met Elliot when Tissue Analytics joined the Dreamit Health cohort in Philadelphia back in the early days of the company. We met Elliot at a crucial point in the founding story of Tissue Analytics and it was truly invaluable to get his guidance, encouragement, and direction at such a pivotal point in our journey.

More specifically, he was one of the first to recognize the value that mobile wound imaging could bring to hospitals and drew parallels to the digitalization of radiological imaging. He encouraged us to engage with the right people within the healthcare industry early, and helped us to navigate the incredibly complex regulatory world of healthcare.

Other people I can’t forget to highlight include Jason Hardeback, Karen Griffith Gryga, David Kim, Roy Rosin — just a few of so many other amazing advisors and mentors integral to our success.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

A great question, and one our company knew firsthand. Tissue Analytics is based in Baltimore, a city that has struggled both with issues of race and social equity. I’ve seen the damage these inequities have done to our community and to people on a personal and a professional level.

But Baltimore is resilient and in a lot of ways is leading the national narrative on how to create more equitable cities and social programs. The city has done an incredible job of building and supporting initiatives that ensure an opportunity for those traditionally disenfranchised from business, but more specifically, tech careers. One group among many that’s worth mentioning is UpSurge Baltimore. UpSurge is working to expand inclusive entrepreneurship in Baltimore and is creating an innovation ecosystem that can benefit all residents. The organization is nurturing an inclusive entrepreneurship community in Baltimore and working to bring in like-minded founders, investors, customers, and partners to support local technology companies. I really appreciate their mindset and the work their doing to build a technology ecosystem that benefits all Baltimoreans. Hopefully we’ll see more cities adopt the model.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Sure. Aligning with organizations like UpSurge in Baltimore is an extremely important first step in the process. But it can go much further.

One thing that really stands out to me as a positive step is working hard to learn and follow best practices around hiring, training, and mentorship. It’s a great way to start seeing positive change that bridges the gap between technology and social equity.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a CEO does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

To properly answer this question, it’s important to point out that it depends heavily on the stage of the company. For early-stage companies, the two most important roles a CEO has to master are running the business and growing the business. That may sound like an over-simplified, non-answer, but in reality, it’s what it comes down to.

You are the one who needs to make sure bills are paid and the lights stay on, and it’s ultimately your responsibility to keep the company moving forward. You’re the person who has to set the vision for the company and do the supportive tasks like raising capital, hiring a team, firing people, selling products, refining the product — whatever it takes to make that vision a reality.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

One of the biggest myths is that, as the CEO, you’re the boss. Misguided or toxic leaders think they have the freedom to do whatever they want because “they’re in charge.” And while it’s true that you have a lot of freedom in that role and you are technically the “boss”, you also have ultimate responsibility for basically everything and everyone.

I always thought about myself as being the one with the most bosses in the organization — my board members, investors, our employees, and the customers. Ultimately, the CEO is accountable to all of them.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I think growth expectations is one of the bigger misconceptions that first-time founders or young founders have when they start companies — and I experienced that too. The best companies grow at an extremely fast clip, which can really be a struggle to organize your company around, especially in a slow-moving market like healthcare. The amount of hustle and raw hard work it takes to sustain that rate of growth is, for lack of a better word, herculean.

As we talked about earlier, as a founder, it’s your responsibility to hit the milestones you set for yourself, no one is going to do it for you.

Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

You know, I don’t actually know the answer to that question. Entrepreneurship is an extremely wide spectrum and each type of business on that spectrum can be run very differently. A content creator is going to run their business very differently than someone who runs a storefront on main street or a small tech company. All are equally entrepreneurs, but I’d imagine the specific traits that predict success could be very different.

Probably the best advice I can give to someone looking to lead in a field is to do your due diligence. Find a mentor within your target industry or at least someone willing to share a few minutes of their time and insight.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?

As I mentioned earlier, a good CEO treats their employees like they are the bosses. While this doesn’t mean relinquishing the roles and responsibilities you’re in charge of, it does mean helping employees to feel empowered. Giving employees equity and a voice can result in happier employees and higher productivity. Early-stage companies can offer stock options and empower team members to participate in meaningful decisions.

To elaborate, businesses should treat employees like individuals — valuable human beings and not resources or commodities. One of the things that Net Health does that I was really impressed with is the creation of “Employee Resource Groups” or ERGs. ERGs function as specialized communities to support fellow employees and steer broader corporate discussions about important social issues.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I’ve been lucky to spend a good amount of time mentoring early-stage founders from a few universities across the country. Having started a company right out of grad school, I find I can be most helpful for early-stage student-run ventures. If there are any start-ups out there that would like to chat — feel free to find me on Linkedin!

Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. It’s likely you’ll fail. In fact, the statistics are not in a startup’s favor that they’ll even make it out of the first year, let alone see a financial return on their investment. But that shouldn’t be a reason not to try. Moreso, it should be an exercise on properly calibrating your expectations. Focus on metrics around personal growth, refining your product, growing your company, hiring good people and giving them opportunities, and fulfilling your mission. The bottom line is if you are looking to become rich quick, you should probably work at an established tech company. If you want to grow as a person and learn at a faster pace than you’d ever imagine, consider starting your own company.
  2. Start a company based on a problems-first and passion-priority approach. Starting a business because you want to make more money is a losing strategy. The same can be said for starting a business that isn’t centered around solving a real-world problem or need. When you lack passion about something, it makes getting through the obligatory challenges harder, and it makes getting others to buy in to your ideas near impossible. Find a problem you’re passionate about solving and work your butt off to make your vision a reality.
  3. The job is not easy. In fact, being a CEO is very, very hard. Expect long hours and to give blood, sweat, and tears to the cause, often without much of a thanks. And this is all before touching on the potential emotional toll on you, your family, and your friends. I’m not saying bearing the burden isn’t worth it, but don’t go into it thinking it’s going to be all rainbows and unicorns. Those great days and wins are there, but they take time and they’re not guaranteed.
  4. The risk of burnout is real for founders. Unfortunately, the mental health of founders isn’t something openly discussed that often. Generally, hard days are treated with a band aid and a quote about grinding hard and getting up earlier. This can be an unhealthy way to approach a serious issue. It’s extremely important to find someone to discuss and process the challenges you’re having. Maybe it’s a spouse, an old friend or someone on the board. Ideally, it’s someone who can relate to the challenges you’re having and isn’t scared to give you the bold, hard truth when you need it. For me, I’m extremely lucky to have an extraordinarily supportive spouse. Your company and your people need you — and you should know that you don’t have to do it alone.
  5. If you can, have a rockstar cofounder. Speaking of not going it alone, I can’t say enough about Josh Budman and how lucky I am to have him as a cofounder. Having a second person with a different yet complimentary set of skills is a priceless asset in the growth of a business. The one key I can say to keep at the forefront of working with a cofounder is to be in complete agreement about who is responsible for what areas. Strife kills a company, so it’s best for everyone when you have cofounders who complement each other’s skills and interests.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Thus far, I’ve spent most of my professional career in healthcare, but I have a passion for renewable energy as well. As the world moves toward the Paris Accords emission targets, I’m sure we’ll see huge breakthroughs in sustainable technology, specifically in the manufacturing and agriculture arenas. I’m certainly no expert in the space, but it’s really exciting to see very smart founders setting their sights on extremely important problems!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

William Gibson said, “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” I love that sentiment. It reminds us to have a bias towards action. We need to be proactive about making a positive change in the world and promoting the distribution of technology that makes people’s lives better.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’ve been fascinated with Dr. David Feinberg’s career recently. Dr. Feinberg recently joined as Cerner’s CEO and worked as an executive at Google and health systems like Geisinger previously. He’s worked at some of the highest-impact organizations in medicine and I’ve love to pick his brain on where he sees the healthIT space going. Having moved from Google to Cerner recently, I’d assume he’s just as excited as I am about electronic medical record companies!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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