business, Entrepreneurship, marketing, Startups

A Former GE and Aetna Exec and Current Healthcare CEO On: Obstacles in the Healthcare industry, GE’s struggles and securing venture capital funding

Ben Bulkley has had a long career in a variety of sectors. He started out as an engineer and worked in transportation before holding positions as an advisor, founder and senior executive of companies in healthcare and venture capital. Recently I caught up with him to get a better sense of how he ended up where he is and what he’s learned along the way. Below is a transcript of our conversation.


Matt Sexton: You started your career at GE in the transportation area. How did you end up in healthcare and what was that transition like?

Ben Bulkley: My boss in GE Transportation (he was CEO of a joint venture company) moved to GE Medical and he invited me to join him. Transportation and healthcare are two different worlds – biggest difference is the commitment to reliability and safety in transportation and not so much in healthcare.


MS: GE has hit a rough patch the last few years, between replacing Jeff Immelt as CEO and planning to sell off GE Digital, a division they have invested heavily in. Did you see any of this coming and what do you think it means for GE’s future?

BB: I didn’t predict it, but am not surprised. I had a closer look at one of the assets being sold from GE Healthcare and was surprised by the poor performance.


MS: As a healthcare executive, what do you view as the biggest obstacles facing the healthcare industry today? Is it equal access to high quality care or the continually rising rates?

BB: Biggest obstacles are the policies which encourage consumption and an over-reliance of the medical model… fee for-service and a supply chain indexed to prime movers of price (providers and pharma). If our goal is health, then we are deeply over-invested in the medical model crowding out investments that improve health more effectively (food security, transportation, living wages, safety, access to healthy spaces, exercise, reducing risky behaviors)…


MS: How far away do you think we are from enacting universal healthcare in the U.S.? What do you think the major impediments are?

BB: I don’t think we will have universal healthcare because of the political distortions in the narrative.


MS: You’ve held executive positions (CEO, COO, VP, etc) at both Fortune 500 companies and start-ups. What’s more exciting to you and how do the challenges differ between building and scaling a business from scratch and creating or growing a division within an established company?

BB: Each offers a different kind of challenge. To me it is all about moving health and healthcare in a more favorable direction (per above).


MS: Securing funding from venture capital firms and angel investors is something you have a great deal of experience with. Is there such a thing as perfecting a pitch, and is there a rhyme or reason to what gets funding and what doesn’t? Some pitches are better than other, none are perfect.

BB: Yes, there is good reason for what gets funded: value creation (some kind of advantage is generated), probability of success, strength of management.


MS: Was there ever a company or idea you were personally involved in that you felt sure would be successful but failed (or vice versa)?

BB: None. Fluidnet, the infusion pump business, is taking longer than we expected but that is more an engineering problem than a bad idea.


MS: When it comes to your personal investing, what are the biggest factors you look at before investing in a company?

BB: Who I hire to manage it for me.


MS: From a leadership perspective, what have some of your biggest lessons been in terms of effectively managing people and walking the fine line between motivation and micro-management? Was there any advice given to you when you first started down the management track?

BB: Big question. Your self-awareness is the key. Never stop learning. Stretch yourself.


MS: When hiring an employee or investing in a new business, how easy is it to see through a “blow-hard” or someone who may present well but lacks authenticity or integrity?

BB: Some are easy, some are very difficult. It’s the difficult one’s who matter. I do my own reference checks because of this.


MS: Having accomplished a lot in business, are there any specific milestones that you’re still working towards?  What would it take you to retire?

BB: I hope I can keep working until I drop. Active mind is a healthy mind.


MS: Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk, Ben. Good luck with everything in the future.


business, marketing

SEO and Negative Keywords

When it comes to search engine optimization (SEO) a lot of time and effort is put into what keywords that companies and brands want their websites to show up for. Whether it be software, sporting goods or cleaning supplies, every industry has specific keywords that are necessary to show up for in order to be successful in that niche. Showing up for these keywords can be vital, especially if you have an online-only business and/or are just opening up shop and don’t have the luxury of word of mouth to galvanize your brand.

However, one tactic rarely mentioned (or mentioned far less often than I would like) is the implementation of negative keywords. Quite simply, adding negative keywords to your SEO strategy makes it impossible for your brand to show up for the particular keywords that you select. Much like how the software company wouldn’t want to show up for keywords consistent with the cleaning supplies industry and vice versa.

Once you know what keywords to target regularly (i.e. what you actually want to show up for) you will be able to reverse engineer and set up negative keywords. There is no limit on how many you can set up, and you don’t have to bid on them like regular keywords, since you are actively trying NOT to show up for them. Google Adwords, or whoever you use for your SEO, will simply take you out of the running for these keywords.

The bonus of this is that anyone coming from the wrong places clicking/engaging with your ads will no longer be targeted. Since these people were never real customers anyway, the wittling down will likely improve your conversion rates. It may sound counter intuitive, but once this happens, it will help to ensure that a higher percentage of your engagement are legitimate consumers of whatever it is that you’re putting out there, thus more thoroughly refining your target audience. The longer you have negative keywords in play, the better equipped you will be to catch other keywords that you are still actively showing up for but shouldn’t be. It should also help to give you a better picture of how your real keywords and ads are performing.

business, Entrepreneurship, marketing, Startups

My Interview with an MIT Sloan School Alum, and How MIT Changed Everything

Bruce Baron is a successful Boston-area entrepreneur that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few times while I was a lowly intern. VoiceFriend is located in the Boston area and was designed to allow seniors in various living situations (senior living, skilled nursing, hospice) to be more social as a result of their technology, which reminds and notifies them of events, as well as alerting seniors, staff and families of emergencies. The company was founded in 2006, but Bruce didn’t become involved until later.

What is your company’s mission?  To enable Healthcare providers to improve outcomes at a lower cost.

When and how did you become involved with VoiceFriend?  In 2010 I invested in VoiceFriend.  In 2011, I became the CEO.

Explain the product/services you provide. Web based Solutions for healthcare providers.

What area did your funding come from? (VC, federal grant, research center, etc.) and were any of the following present in funding: gov, philanthropy, anchor institutions (schools, hospitals, etc),  intermediary institutions (NGO’s).  Funding has come from the Founders, an Angel investor and the CEO.

Talk about some of the challenges you’ve faced as well as tradeoffs you’ve had to make in building a startup. Was the accessibility of funding for scale a challenge?  Funding is always a challenge. Not just the capital, but the right capital coming from sources in which you are strategically aligned.  Major challenge is the risk vs. reward.  Salary is much lower than a mature business would offer, but the upside is far greater.

What are opportunities VoiceFriend has had or future opportunities? These can be elements that enabled growth or any other support (financial or otherwise) that have helped you succeed. Can also answer as it relates to you personally (Opportunities you’ve had in life by being an entrepreneur).  My past success in business enabled me to build a nest egg that offered me the opportunity to take on a risk that otherwise I would not be able to do.

How do you define success for VoiceFriend or of how you do business in general?

Revenue growth and client acquisitions are the key metrics we monitor as a measure of success.

Who are the beneficiaries of your success and what does that look like?  Seniors, healthcare providers employees and shareholders are all beneficiaries.

Was there ever a goal in terms of the number of rooms or facilities (senior, hospice, etc.) that you wanted VoiceFriend to be in? Yes, they are all part of our business plan.

I was absolutely blown away by the impact MIT founders have had on Massachusetts’ economy. 6,900 MIT alumni companies with worldwide sales of $164B are located in MA and represent 26% of sales of MA companies. What about your education there prepared you to be an entrepreneur?  Incredible stat!  Tactics and strategy, interactions inside and outside the classroom.


business, marketing, social media

Utilizing Paid Social Media

Social media has been a buzzword for quite some time now in the digital landscape, but paid social is a newer concept. Everyone wants to know what they should be doing on the social platforms, and which ones they should or shouldn’t be using. I like to distill it down.

There isn’t a wrong way to use social media. The bare minimum is definitely to have an account, and post with decent frequency across your channels. Obviously that isn’t enough, but it’s a start. If you have a good digital presence and post with regularity, but find yourself stuck from an engagement perspective, either in terms of raw numbers (likes, comments) or in your followers, it may be a good time to start looking at boosting your posts or initiating paid social media campaigns.

It is important to note that you don’t need to be struggling or even stagnating to use paid social media. You can think of it much like you think of any other campaign you may use; at its core it is advertising. Campaigns will look different on different platforms. Facebook gives you more opportunities to sponsor and boost posts, while Linkedin has a more robust ad campaign manager. Both give you all of the aforementioned options, however. Twitter also has all of these options, but is used mainly to sponsor and boost your posts or your account (from my understanding). As a disclaimer, my experience in paid social is from Linkedin and Facebook, not Twitter.

For a sponsored post, you may want to ask yourself some questions. What is it that you’re trying to promote? Is it something that people will be interested in and want to see? Are you solving a particular problem or posing a thought-provoking question? It’s important to consider how people will be interacting with your post, like sparking conversation and debate, or shedding light on a product offering. Another important facet: is it a one-off or a series? In other words, is what you’re saying a stand-alone post or could it be a string of posts? If it’s the latter an ad campaign may be more effective.

Ad campaigns follow more of an over-arching structure. You have a daily/weekly/monthly budget that you oversee, and pay less or more depending on how your target audience receives you. If the ads have a high click-through rate, you may be more open to opening up your budget, while low engagement may send you back to the drawing board to create more compelling content. At the very least, it should get you to re-consider where your prospects were missing you. Were they not relating to the message, or simply not seeing it? Maybe your target demo (for something like an event) is in a particular state, or people interested in a product could be in a specific industry, like engineering. You could refine this by targeting (at least on Linkedin) by job title or skillset.

It’s also important to note the differences in terms of word count when switching between platform and campaign. On Facebook and Linkedin, a sponsored post can be very lengthy. Meanwhile, a sponsored post on Twitter is still a slave to the (newly enlarged) 280 characters.

An ad campaign is even more limiting. On Linkedin, the headline for an ad campaign is 25 characters, while the description itself allots a whopping 75 characters. If you can say less and get your point across to draw people to a product or website, go for it. Otherwise I would stay away from an ad campaign, as the tiny logo and text requirements are too much to overcome if you have poor brand visibility and even poorer descriptive skills.

That said, you may be able to satisfy the word count without sacrificing, while displaying a clear messaging strategy that is suitable for 4 or 5 ads. Ads can be switched out or run against each other, as long as you have one campaign running, only one ad (the one performing the best at that time) will display.

Who knows if I’ve described your current (or potential) social media strategy, but hopefully you’ll be able to take a tidbit from here and apply it whenever you get the inkling to go the paid route.

business, marketing

Papa John’s and Crisis Management

The Papa John’s controversy won’t seem to die. The initial shock came when founder and CEO John Schnatter was found to have used a racial slur (it starts with n) on a racial sensitivity call. Immediately, the pizza giant went to work on distancing themselves from Schnatter.  They started by removing Papa John from all marketing materials and advertisements going forward. He was removed as CEO and resigned from his chairman position, although he remains on the board. Then the company took it a step further by terminating his office space at Papa John’s headquarters.


When all seemed said and done, Papa John fired back. His lawyers were quoted as saying he would not “go quietly into the night”. Papa John’s responded swiftly with a “poison pill” policy. Essentially, it would prevent Schnatter from gaining majority ownership of the company, as he currently owns 30%.

This post is a long time in the making. Sure, I’m busy and had a few days where I meant to post this. But the reality is, shit kept hitting the fan. When Schnatter was removed from advertisements and marketing materials, or no longer the public face of the company, I thought that would be it. Then the office was taken away. Then the lawyers and Papa John had their say. Then the poison pill. Each step in the process I thought would be the last we’d hear publicly from Papa John’s for a while, but the hits kept coming.

Crisis communications is tricky these days. Today, it seems as though you can never punish an individual, an organization, or anything too much. The public will always lash out at your decision (or lack thereof) and you’ll really never get hit with negative PR for going overboard in your ruling. We are a society that loves to build up and break successful people down, which has only been exacerbated by the proliferation of social media. But I still have to believe there is a better way to handle such matters. And no, I’m not making light of the word Schnatter used. He deserved to have something happen to him, and Papa John’s had to act or be deemed a company that condones racism.

To me, once Schnatter was no longer the public face of the company he founded, and he resigned as chairman, I think the public was ready to move on. Sue me, but I no longer cared about the Papa John’s ordeal. Then I would arrive at my desk the next morning to find on social media that it wasn’t over. Each day, more news. When Schnatter was booted out of the office, that was a little far in my opinion. He was already going to be in the background from here on out, both publicly and from a tactical standpoint. However, I wasn’t bent out of shape about it. Don’t want to deal with TV crews camped outside your headquarters? That’s fine. But then the “poison pill” came into effect and the controversy went from another media maelstrom to an all-out war.

Regardless of your view on office politics, this is the part that you could keep private. Alerting the media that you are intent on doing everything in your power to make sure your founder never becomes the majority owner again is a strong stance, and one that the company’s brand didn’t need, much less the shareholders. The stock plunged even further after this most recent announcement. Kicking out Schnatter entirely would’ve been controversial even in private, but not unprecedented.

At best, the latter stages of Papa John’s war against Schnatter presents itself as protecting their interests. At worst, it looks like a knee-jerk reaction to please the public. My problem with this tendency to do the latter is that it is disingenuous and underscores the reason for the initial punishment. Think of it this way. You miss a friend or family member’s birthday party that you didn’t really want to attend anyway. Instead of allowing them to vent to you, you cut them off. “Oh my god, I’m so stupid. I’m the worst person in the world. I can’t believe how terrible I feel.” You keep spewing the sorry spiel, and effectively tire them out by relentlessly reminding them that you have a conscience, and not so subtly telling them to take it easy on you. They respond in kind, probably by doing just that; still trying to let you have it a little, but going decidedly easier on you than they would’ve had you said nothing at all.

I understand the rationale for these efforts. We will do anything we can to avoid being a punchline in 2018. It has become routine for major companies to be in the headlines for the wrong reasons, and often times the brand can take a bigger hit than any individual. In a case such as Papa John’s, where the brand and the person are literally intertwined, it is integral to do more than put mere “distance” between you and the face of your company.

However, I think the most underrated part of all of this is something Papa John’s and many others have totally missed the boat on in recent missteps. Don’t be afraid to disappear. If Papa John’s had nipped the Schnatter thing with all of its fireworks from the get-go, the story would’ve lasted the typical three days to a full business week. It really would’ve been old news. The public would’ve forgotten about it, and no one would be blasting the pizza joint or Schnatter at this point. But they refused to let the story die by insisting on controlling the message, which you can never do in an age where everyone has a megaphone.

A few weeks, maybe a month could go by, then Papa John’s could make a come-back. Maybe something along the lines of the Domino’s campaign a few years back where they basically told everyone that they know their pizza sucks so they made it better. If they chose to go this route, it would at least give the perception that they went back to the drawing board and did some honest introspection. They could claim to be a changed company, minus the dead weight and racism (Schnatter) while using it as momentum in a last-ditch effort to reclaim their pizza glory over market leaders Domino’s and Pizza Hut. Papa John’s lost their exclusive NFL contract to the latter shortly after the season ended.

All of this is a long way of saying, less really can be more, especially in crisis communications. Take some time, formulate your message and stick with it. You don’t have to beat your company up, the public will do that for you. The only problem with companies is that, like people, we always overestimate how much others think about us, and underestimate how short people’s attention spans are.