7wireVentures Presents: Top of the Ladder Featuring ConsejoSano Founder and CEO Abner Mason
7wireVentures spotlight of Abner Mason, Founder and CEO of ConsejoSano, and Founder and Co-Chair of HealthTech 4Medicaid.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Believe it or not, I wanted to be a minister.
One person who had a really profound effect on me as a kid was the minister of the church that my family belonged to. He was an incredible guy, but I was particularly impressed because he had a PhD from Boston University. I was raised in Durham, North Carolina in a lower income family. My minister had also come from a lower income family but, I saw how education was such an important part of what helped him achieve his goal. I think in hindsight, he really influenced my thinking because he was the person I looked up to. Naturally, I thought maybe I should be a minister like him.
What was your first job?
As a young kid, I spent time in the church but never worked there officially. I was an usher, in the choir, and participated in all the related church activities.
The job that was more defining for me career wise was my first job out of college. At Harvard, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. At the time, many companies came to campus to recruit. Everybody wanted to work for the investment banks. I hadn’t studied business and didn’t know much about consulting or investment banking. I went to one of the informational sessions and a company, Bain & Company, presented. I learned that it was a strategy consulting firm and interviewed with them. To my great surprise, they offered me a job!
This first job was as an associate consultant in the Boston office. This was the first time I learned about business. When you’re a consultant, the firm puts you through a mini business school training program. I learned how to analyze business based on the Bain approach. That one move shaped the remainder of my career. The truth is, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I had to get a job. I was lucky.
You have dedicated nearly a decade of your career working in healthcare. What motivates you about working in the industry?
Working in healthcare is a way that you can really impact people’s lives through a manner that has a long-term positive impact on them. Healthcare comes into play at what might be the most difficult, most challenging points in people’s lives. I really like the idea of being in an industry that has the ability to help make those low points a little better. In some ways, it’s sort of a double hit: you get to help people longer term and improve their health. But, if you build a great solution, you can also help people at the moment when they have these inevitable health care moments. And almost everyone has them at some point, either themselves or someone that they love or care about.
You recently started the organization HealthTech4Medicaid (HT4M) to drive Medicaid innovation in line with technology innovation. Can you share where you believe the greatest opportunity lies in Medicaid innovation?
Let’s start with a little background. I’m currently CEO of ConsejoSano, which is a patient engagement company. One of the big challenges that we’re trying to help our clients solve is that our country has become much more multicultural over the past three decades. We’re on a path of becoming a majority minority country. [Meanwhile,] healthcare is behind the curve and stuck three decades back in the way the system engages with the patients that it serves. What we’re trying to do at ConsejoSano is use technology to help bridge that gap. That there is a huge opportunity for Medicaid.
One of the reasons we at ConsejoSano focus so much on Medicaid is that it is a widespread program covering about 75 million low income people across the country. Half of the babies born in this country are born with Medicaid paying for their healthcare services. The future of Medicaid is a problem that is so important to the health of the country and for the future of the country. It is costly. State governments are struggling to pay for it. It’s also a joint federal state program. There are many challenges for the government when trying to balance the competing interests at the state level and also provide funding for Medicaid. From my perspective, to make Medicaid sustainable long term, we need to improve health outcomes. We need to make sure that we are innovating in a way that provides better outcomes for the people on it, but also looks out for the taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill for Medicaid. I believe that innovation will lower the cost dimension and will get better results.
“To make Medicaid sustainable long term, we need to improve health outcomes. We need to make sure that we are innovating in a way that provides better outcomes for the people on it, but also looks out for the taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill for Medicaid.”
What inspired you to cofound HealthTech4Medicaid?
There are many challenges when growing a business in the Medicaid sector. It’s crazy that I have had to experience such a difficult terrain while growing our business. I then thought to myself, I should share what I’m learning with other CEOs who are scaling a product in the Medicaid market. This is where the idea for HealthTech4Medicaid originated. I said to myself, I should reach out to other CEOs like me who are trying to build solutions and innovate. We should get to know each other. We should share best practices. We should partner when it makes sense. And, we should try to change the policy. That’s what HealthTech4Medicaid is all about.
So far, we’ve had about 40 or 50 CEOs of big companies from across the country who have joined. We’re only about 18 months old. Rock Health awarded us as the Nonprofit of the Year for 2020. So, I feel like we are making some progress with what we have built. I’m proud of what we have done.
You have transitioned from leadership roles in the not for profit sector and government to CEO of a high-growth start-up. What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced while leading an early-stage company?
I think the biggest challenge is having patience with the slow pace of revenue growth in the very early stages of growing a young healthcare company. Healthcare unlike other industries such as direct-to-consumer has very different sales cycles, especially if you will be working with health plans. In our case, health plans are our major clients. Sales cycles with large multi-national plans are easily 18 to 24 months. In the beginning when you are building a solution, building a team, and incur the associated costs, you need to have patience when acquiring your first customers during that 18-24-month time period. It feels like a long time. These long sales cycles are often what kills most healthcare businesses. As a founder, you really need to find investors who understand how long sales will take initially and not be unreasonable in their expectations about when you will start to generate revenue. We’ve been fortunate with our investors; they understand healthcare and are realistic in their expectations. As an entrepreneur, you, your team and your investors need to have alignment and understand the nuances of healthcare. That’s why this industry is a big challenge.
If you’re just about generating quick returns, I would tell anybody, don’t pick healthcare. It is much easier if all you want to do is just make money. Healthcare entrepreneurs have a different set of values that animate you. I think this is what a lot of healthcare people have in common. They share this view that, it is more difficult, but it’s worth it because we’re trying to improve people’s lives. It’s worth the challenges and can be a very profitable and scalable business with patience in overcoming those challenges.
What is your superpower?
That’s a funny question.
I think it is encouraging individuals to appreciate and bring forward their differences.
I learned early on when I left North Carolina and learned about a different way of living. I had to go to prep school and boarding school in Massachusetts. This for me was a diametrically opposite way of living. I learned early on that everybody’s different and it’s the differences that really makes the world better. These differences make life more enjoyable. If you can encourage those differences, as opposed to just tolerating difference, you can bring out people’s best ideas, passions and commitment that would not come forward otherwise. What I found with my team it that people are just incredible if you let them be incredible. You have to be willing to celebrate difference and encourage it.
What would you want to do if you were not working in healthcare?
I love residential real estate. I love the idea of being a development leader in real estate. I really like the process of picking a property that maybe doesn’t look so great and determining a new design for it. I like the process of flushing out the new design, working through with contracts, getting that work done, and then finally flipping it! I find that very enjoyable.
While I’m not doing much of that now, I’ve done probably, 12 projects in the past and just loved it. It’s both creative and frustrating and nerve wracking. I enjoy all of it.
What book are you reading right now?
I’m not just saying this because 7wire gave it to me at the CEO Summit, but I’m reading Recruit Rockstars by Jeff Hyman. The reason is that we are raising our Series B right now. From this investment, we’ll be growing the team and for the first time, we’re going to be hiring new leadership roles. I want to get the hiring right and can continue to hire rock stars.
What is one piece of advice you would give our readers?
I didn’t realize how important it was to have people in your corner who could help you through the inevitable difficult times when you’re building a company. Sometimes people are tempted to take any money to fund the company and think one dollar is one dollar. I know that is totally wrong. Your success as an early stage CEO is so tied to the people who are your investors and your advisors. You need to pick them almost like a marriage. You’re going to be with these people for four or five years, sometimes longer. You will have low points and you want people who, when you are having those low points and when the inevitable problems happen, will run to you to help as opposed to standing back or running away.
“Your success as an early stage CEO is so tied to the people who are your investors and your advisors. You will have low points and you want people who, when you are having those low points and when the inevitable problems happen, will run to you to help as opposed to standing back or running away.”
My advice is, choose wisely because the difference between success and failure as an entrepreneur can be the people you choose to have as your investors and your advisors. I’ve been very lucky with that.people in your corner who could help you through the inevitable difficult times when you’re building a company. Sometimes people are tempted to take any money to fund the company and think one dollar is one dollar. I know that is totally wrong. Your success as an early stage CEO is so tied to the people who are your investors and your advisors. You need to pick them almost like a marriage. You’re going to be with these people for four or five years, sometimes longer. You will have low points and you want people who, when you are having those low points and when the inevitable problems happen, will run to you to help as opposed to standing back or running away.