Jeff Spanbauer of Relevate Health

An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Jeff Spanbauer (co-founder and Chairman of the Board) of Relevate Health, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of Relevate Health – what problem were you trying to solve and why?

Healthcare is local, but back in 2007, pharmaceutical brand marketers focused on one-size-fits-all marketing, relying on their sales force to “localize” the message. In fact, a typical brand had 6x performance variation between their highest performing market and their lowest performing market, which wasn’t just based on sales rep performance. This variation problem translated into millions of dollars of missed revenue and then millions of dollars of wasted marketing spend in the wrong markets for every product.

Through my P&G and Pfizer experience, it was clear that there was an opportunity to improve this through data-driven marketing. One of the first things we did was develop and patent a process to segment markets using data that we could then apply to any brand to help solve this problem. In addition, we created tactics that allowed for locally, relevant content to be included in the marketing. This was a novel idea for pharma that allowed us to provide a new, differentiated service as the foundation of Relevate Health.

What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?

We were fortunate that J&J, AstraZenca, and Sanofi hired us within a month of starting the company. That then created a problem for us – we had to hire people and build a company to support the work we had sold. As manufacturer trained executives, we had a good understanding of what the client wanted and needed. However, we didn’t know how to run a marketing agency.

A few big hurdles we overcame included:

  • How to scale a company from 2 employees to 200: This required figuring out many things on the fly, like what each function should do, what systems and processes were needed to ensure a high-quality deliverable, and even how to recruit great talent without having a well-known company name. In 2015, we hired an outside consultant who helped us implement an operating system called Gazelles. Having an expert on the team to guide us through the process quarterly created a rhythm, plus buy-in from our executive team that really moved the business forward.
  • Concentration of clients: When we founded the company, our former Pfizer colleagues were reluctant to hire us because they knew we were a startup working out of our basements. But by 2009, we had built a nice business with a team numbering about 25 colleagues. That year, Pfizer restructured to be more locally focused and hired us. We quickly grew to 80 people, primarily due to the influx of work from Pfizer. From 2009-2011, we were ~80% concentrated with Pfizer work, and in some ways, that allowed us to do great work for them due to our focus. However, in 2012, Pfizer restructured due to one of their drugs going generic, reducing their spend with us significantly. That then required a layoff at our firm. That was one of the hardest days of my life. I had to tell colleagues that we had to let them go because I didn’t do a good job of diversifying our business.
  • Personal growth: As we scaled the company, my role changed. I started as a salesperson (like every good entrepreneur), then moved to build our client service team, then worked on innovation, then became COO, then President, then CEO, and now Chairman. At each level, I had to learn new skills, but more importantly, I had to learn about myself. What got me to each level wasn’t the skill I needed to be successful in the next. For example, I enjoyed being the office jokester, but when I was CEO, I had to be more serious. I had a new “power” that I didn’t necessarily realize, but the people working for me sure felt it. One of the tools I used was the Enneagram. This really helped me  learn that my greatest strength could also be my biggest weakness. I am still working on myself today and have plenty of personal growth still to do.
What does the future hold for Relevate Health?

Relevate Health has emerged from being a niche player focused on regional marketing into a leader in healthcare professional (HCP) engagement. We market to about 1.4M doctors, nurses, and pharmacists on a regular basis. To be successful in the future, we are investing in data and analytics to ensure we continue to have strong capabilities and are able to deploy the right message to the right HCP through the right channel at the right time. This requires a lot of data, content capabilities, and automation through technology, machine learning, and eventually artificial intelligence. We plan on continuing to grow to support more brands in the life sciences industry.

What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Cincinnati?

I think this is the best time in history to start a business and Cincinnati has embraced that by creating an ecosystem to support tech entrepreneurs. We have many ways for entrepreneurs to connect, share, and learn from each other. One group I am part of is EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organization), a forum of 8 business owners. We are able to learn from each, grow together and support one another. I would recommend every startup leader find a peer group to join.

What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Focus on the customer need and selling as you start your business – getting paying customers is the best way to learn and prove your model. In addition, work on yourself – as your business grows, you will need to as well.


For more exclusive interviews, see our full Profile of a Founder series