“Sleep Smart, Work Smart” Words of Wisdom with Stephanie Tilenius, CEO of Vida Health

“We’re at a tipping point — we’re living on borrowed time and spending so much of our national GDP on health care. Vida is a true calling for me. The problem we’re tackling speaks to me deeply and I only hope that my background and skills can serve the millions of people dealing with chronic physical and mental health conditions. Let’s work together to eradicate chronic disease.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Tilenius, CEO of Vida Health. Vida Health is a digital therapeutic that helps individuals overcome chronic disease. Before starting Vida, Stephanie was the VP of Global Commerce and Payments at Google. Before that, she was SVP of eBay Marketplace where she ran eBay and a VP at PayPal where she built PayPal Merchant Services from the ground up into a multi-billion dollar business.

What is your “backstory”?

I started Vida because I simply couldn’t sit around any longer and let chronic disease take over the country, our health care system, and my own family. My father had four chronic conditions — obesity, diabetes, heart diseases, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. My brothers and I struggled to care for him. What he really needed was continuous, day-to-day care, but that was and continues to be elusive in our current system.

I started Vida to solve that problem and to provide a scalable way to reach people suffering from chronic physical and mental health diseases. We spend $3.4 trillion on health care, that is the same size of Germany’s GDP! Wages are flat as healthcare costs are growing faster than inflation.

From a professional standpoint, I’ve spent my entire career building consumer-facing and enterprise products from the ground up that scale to millions. I spent time at Google, eBay and Paypal building new products like PayPal’s Merchant Services (which is to this day PayPal’s fastest growing business) and Google Wallet and Google Shopping Express. Throughout my career, I always put the consumer first and built platforms leveraging new technologies to solve big problems. Why isn’t our healthcare experience as easy as shopping on Amazon?

I believe technology is going to transform health care into a continuous, proactive, predictive system. That’s what’s needed to combat chronic disease, one of our biggest challenges as a country. Everything will be mobile — you’ll have all of your data and the advice from experts in your pockets. In fact, digital therapeutics, I believe, will be part of the common fabric of healthcare, prescribed and reimbursed like drugs are today.

About 40% all adults in the United States — 117 million people — have one or more chronic health conditions, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease. In addition, 1 in 4 people have a mental health condition. If you have both diabetes and a mental health condition, your cost to the healthcare system is 4 times more expensive.

We’re at a tipping point — we’re living on borrowed time and spending so much of our national GDP on health care. Vida is a true calling for me. The problem we’re tackling speaks to me deeply and I only hope that my background and skills can serve the millions of people dealing with chronic physical and mental health conditions. Let’s work together to eradicate chronic disease.

Can you share the funniest story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Well, as a health-oriented company we try to give our employees ways to stay active throughout the day. We started holding team plank challenges during the day to get us out of our desks and get the blood flowing. I had a hard time holding a plank for more than a minute while others in the office were still going at 5 or 6 minutes. Then we switched to wall sits and I held it for 5 minutes!

Then I took the 23andme test and found out that I have the muscle twitch of elite power-athletes… clearly I am massively under-delivering on that and of course it probably doesn’t apply to my core abs.

So how exactly does your company help people?

Thanks for asking! Vida is the first horizontal digital therapeutic. We help individuals overcome chronic disease, once and for all. A horizontal approach is relatively new, so let me explain what I mean.

In the thousands of cases we’ve seen of individuals struggling with chronic diseases, it’s rare that a person is dealing with a single disease state. They usually have multiple conditions and symptoms that span both mental and physical aspects. A good example is Jason, one of our users who struggled with a fatty liver, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, prediabetes and obesity.

Each factor of one disease was exacerbating the other, creating a vicious cycle. The only way to truly treat these complex conditions is to get to the heart of the matter, the root cause of the diseases which is different for each individual. That’s where Vida comes in.

We provide evidenced-based clinical programs administered by our team of expert health coaches. It’s all delivered via our mobile app so that it fits seamlessly into day-to-day life. Our AI platform enables our coaches to administer truly unique plans, tailored to individual goals.

We demonstrate success with real health outcomes. Jason, for instance, has lost 60 pounds, has no more signs of a fatty liver or pre-diabetes, and his blood pressure is the best it’s ever been. His doctors have cut his medication in half.

From weight loss, diabetes, high blood pressure, mental health, obesity and more, we’re helping people transform their health.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Vida is the obvious manifestation — I think digital therapeutics has the potential to impact hundreds of millions of lives and spark massive savings in our healthcare system.

Aside from that, I’m passionate about helping entrepreneurs and women in particular. I’m part of a fund called Rivet Ventures that invests in women-led markets. I work with other established entrepreneurs to provide advice that I hope helps other female leaders grow and learn from my own journey — the good, bad, and ugly — because I think it’s important to present a realistic view of what it’s actually like as a woman in technology.

Within Vida, we pride ourselves on equal pay between men and women at the same level and we’re constantly diversifying our workforce, especially on our technical team. In an effort to increase the number of women technologists at our company, we partnered with the Duke Technology Scholars Program, or DTech, and had the privilege of working with two stellar Duke Scholars.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why.

1. Sleep Smart, Work Smart — At this stage in my career, I don’t think Arianna Huffington could be more right about sleep. As a founder and CEO, you have to be fully present in each meeting, every single day. You have to be able to multi-task, compartmentalize, and apply mental acuity to every single thing you do. I’m constantly on.

I wish someone told me 20 years ago that the best way to go fast is to slow down, get the sleep you need, and take care of yourself. Today, I try to get at least 7 hours a sleep a night. It’s not always possible, but there is a definite correlation between how much sleep I get and how present, productive, and fast I can be.

2. Hire builders and do your due diligence — In my previous jobs, I was always good at reference checks. But I didn’t fully realize just how important it is to do your complete due diligence on new hires at a startup. When you bring someone onboard in a big company, there’s an established culture and most new hires assimilate to that fairly quickly. But at a startup, every single person is going to have a huge impact on the organization culturally. You have to make sure that each new hire you bring on holds values consistent with the culture you want to build and has a complementary set of skills and can hit the ground running.

I personally do 6 reference checks for everyone I hire. For Vida specifically, we’re looking for builders for every position. We place a bigger emphasis on certain traits like grit, ambition, and creativity than I think bigger companies do.

Another thing I’ve started doing as a part of our diligence process is figuring out how to test for “grit” in an interview. I think we’re getting pretty close to the right formula, and I’m proud of the hard-working, high-impact, highly effective team we’ve built as a result.

3. Always raise more capital than you think you need, especially in digital health — In big industries like healthcare, growing a startup always takes longer than you think. It requires more enterprise product development and sales than you think you need.

When we started fundraising for Vida, we had a very specific choice to make. In the last round, we decided to take more capital than we needed. Instead of profitability, we’re focused on growth. That doesn’t mean we don’t focus on positive gross margins and the right financial architecture. It means we have the potential to build a global category leader and we have to raise the capital we need to win in the long run.

4. Build relationships with investors well in advance of needing money — I knew this intuitively and had heard it from other entrepreneurs, but now I have first hand experience.

I met my investors years before they invested in Vida. I interacted with most of them for multiple years and both sides were ready when I came to them with my pitch for Vida.

Knowing your investors allows you to be strategic and deliberate about who you take money from. The VC/startup relationship is like a marriage. It’s always a good idea to date before you put a ring on it.

5. Consumer and enterprise sales inform each other — I had for a long time been building consumer products, which has served me well at Vida since end-users are always consumers. I also built an enterprise sales team inside PayPal selling PayPal Merchant Services to small and large businesses. But I wish I’d known right off the bat how different enterprise sales in healthcare are.

Whereas on the consumer side, an iterative, minimal viable product approach works best, enterprise buyers in healthcare want to see a strong, fully built out products and real health outcomes from clinical studies before they buy. We were fortunate to start a large clinical study early, I can’t overemphasize the importance of this.

While enterprise sales in healthcare are inherently different, what I’ve learned is that having a consumer background is incredibly important. At the end of the day, the person using our product is a consumer. If we just listened to what our enterprise customers said, we might not get it right. We test with consumers first and foremost and then use that feedback to improve our product experience for enterprise customers.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.

I’d love to meet Oprah Winfrey. She’s a change agent who cares deeply about doing the right thing. I’ve always been inspired by the way she uses her platform to bring to light important social, political, and economic issues.

I’d also love to meet Al Gore because I really believe we’re facing an “Inconvenient Truth” moment in health care. I’d love to sit down with the two of them to talk about how we can create a consumer health movement in this country to get people to open their eyes to what’s happening to their individual health and that of our entire healthcare system.