Digital health CEOs look back with wisdom and ahead with measured optimism

Last week, Rock Health hosted the 11th annual Digital Health CEO Summit in San Francisco, where we gathered with 120 leading digital health CEOs and founders. We convened for a day full of reflective discussions, shared learnings, and experiences to connect with old and new friends across the industry.

This dynamic group of leaders reflected the full spectrum of digital health’s promise. From pre-seed to post-exit, all funding stages were represented. Nearly half of all attendees were first-time founders, and 64% of attendees joined us from outside of the Bay Area.

The day’s agenda was attendee-informed, and discussion topics included: maintaining partnerships in the midst of uncertainty, impactful fundraising approaches, population-centric product design, and building authentic trust within your team—especially during challenging circumstances. Throughout the day, conversations flowed from the larger panel discussions into the hallways as attendees reflected and swapped ideas. A few of the themes we heard throughout the day’s conversations were:

1. Know your buyer’s existential threat—AND showcase overlooked opportunities

In a panel on partnerships, CEOs busted the myth that selling to enterprise companies requires having a solution to a “top priority” problem—rather, they said, the bar is even higher. One noted that successfully selling to an enterprise requires solving an existential threat to that organization. Timing, warm intros, and really knowing your buyer matter. Remaining ruthlessly optimistic is also an important trait—especially when it comes to sales. One attendee emphasized that if you have “the mentality that your company is inevitable,” your buyers will notice and start coming to you.

What about startups who recognize opportunities before investors and partners do? In another conversation, attendees described continuing challenges for companies serving historically overlooked and underserved communities when closing partnerships. Some attendees noted how the term “niche” is often used to write off a population as too small of a market segment. As a result, fundraising founders still spend a disproportionate amount of time proving the needs (and market viability) of a given population. The reality is, many of these populations account for significant portions of the U.S. population that are in need of access to safe and equitable care. But across the day, leaders shared that they remain optimistic—and that alternative funding models exist that fit a wider range of business models.

2. Transparency requires context

The past few months have reminded the digital health ecosystem how essential trust is, yet also how easily it can be broken. In hard times it may be cathartic to share openly and seemingly transparently with teams in hopes of engendering confidence and deepening relationships. But attendees noted that context is necessary and required for balance. CEOs are positioned to set the tone for calm or concern, so each email, Slack message, and off-hand comment can carry a heftier weight in the eyes of the team than may have been intended.

Looking back, leaders recalled how “transparency without context is unkind.” The sweet spot is practicing a version of transparency that works for the parameters of need-to-know information unique to your team—and then practicing that with solid consistency.

3. Take time to be a human

Attendees also recognized that while ambitious goals are necessary, a founder’s mental health shouldn’t be neglected in the pursuit of their achievement. Attendees embraced vulnerability as they recalled moments when they chose to step back to care for their own physical, emotional, and/or mental well-being. Whether during a season of success or challenge, the reality was that these founders could neither celebrate nor solve problems while silently suffering.

Nurturing wellness can take various forms, as founders described moments of fully removing themselves for a time, honestly sharing where they were with the team, or rituals of exercise, meditation, and time with loved ones. Attendees reflected that while these actions took courage and moments of immense vulnerability, they found that their example led the way for their team to prioritize their own self-care.

Thank you to all our attendees for sharing their experiences and time—you all make this event one to look forward to every year. We would also like to extend a special thank you to our sponsors: Fenwick, American Medical Association, California Health Care Foundation, Russell Reynolds Associates, and Wharton San Francisco.

We look forward to bringing the digital health community together again at Rock Health Summit on September 27th in San Francisco. For more information about attending or sponsoring, reach out to us. To keep in touch with the team and stay updated on events, sign up for our mailing list here.