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Graduating to the Little League

by Jonathan Bush, President & CEO

It's that time of year: Graduation looms, and students are searching for their next summer internship or full-time job.  New employees join athenaNation throughout the year, but I get particularly excited to meet the soon-to-be and new grads who fill our ranks each summer.  They're signing on to help athenahealth fix health care. They're potential entrepreneurs who may even disrupt us someday.  Their potential is limitless.  So as I observe this exciting season once again, here are a few pieces of advice for young grads worth hanging onto.

You've got a (potentially fancy) degree.  Now go get messy.

Go where the others ain’t.  Forget about your buddies who are going into venture capital. Try education, criminal justice, or healthcare.  There has been very little disruption in these places—probably because there are very few smart entrepreneurs willing to roll up their sleeves and get in there.  Once you find your sector, find something that you feel passionate about – both in nature and in social impact. 

Find the ‘underbelly opportunity’ in an industry ripe for disruption.  If you’ve got the guts and even a half-baked idea, you can make a killing out there.  Those who dig down through the morass of rules, paperwork, and bureaucratic obstacles can find new markets.  It’s possible also possible to make tons of money while improving the world around you.  Take health care; it’s like the wild west, and it’s time for a land grab.  There are entrepreneurs out there improving an ossified, calcified field—restoring humanity to an entire industry--while making millions doing stuff that the tech world saw years ago.

Prepare to fail, again and again.

Back In the 1990s, my friend Todd Park and I tried to re-imagine the birth experience and expenses in this country as the “Starbucks” of birthing centers. We hired credentialed and skilled midwives to provide a safe, comfortable customer experience for mothers. We tackled the low-hanging fruit and the glaring inefficiencies in the birthing process—and guess what?  Customers loved our service.  Births at our center resulted in C-sections 14% less often than the industry average. Our babies had 40% fewer days in NICU than the industry average.  And this was all of this for less than the cost of giving birth at a hospital. 

But we crashed and burned. Our biggest problem was the proof.  We didn’t have the data to prove to insurers how we generated savings.  We had a hell of a time even trying to get paid on time.  We were caught in the tangled knot of codes and regulations and outdated software.  So insurers stopped offering Athena on their plans, even though we provided a service that customers preferred over other options.

From that failure, and in a desire to help providers with the insane billing and practice management stuff that ultimately killed our business, athenahealth was born.  Through our own failure, we identified a market need that over 78,000 providers worldwide run their practice on every single day.

Company mission = personal mission.

How do you start a company with a mission?  It helps to have one, to start.  Have a mission that you can think about every day without feeling fake.  athenahealth wants to create a national health information backbone for this country.  That idea is compelling to me personally and really captures my imagination.  Once you have that vision, it’s easy to live the corporation you want to be.  We have all kinds of planning and strategic guidance frameworks to help athena stay true to its mission, but actually, the thing that drives us more than anything is our culture.  athenistas are teachers and learners who are in it for the mission.  Our employees have a sense of empowerment and purpose—and that sense of purpose eats strategy any day of the week.   

Always be teaching and learning.

athenahealth doesn’t look for ‘health care’ people.  We look for smarts, motivation, and mission-orientation. We teach the rest.  Health care is very manual, but when we focus on it with network-enabled services, the manual stuff melts away and the things we need people to do changes.  Health care is in a constant state of flux, and as a result, we need people who are flexible and can do what needs doing.  In fact, 30% of all athenistas change jobs every year! They bring the skill and the will; we supply the content and training.  Other good companies should--and will--offer the same trade.


Jonathan Bush is the President and CEO of athenahealth.

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Comments

Submitted by Kristin Salada - Monday, April 25, 2016

Great article, Jonathan. New grads - if your personal mission aligns with athena's, you're in for a challenging, rewarding ride!

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