CEO and Shark Tank winner speaks at MSU

Faith Lifer
Staff Writer

Shark Tank winner and EverlyWell founder and CEO Julia Cheek encouraged future entrepreneurs at Mississippi State University Thursday afternoon.

Cheek spoke candidly to the crowd at McCool Hall, revealing how she came upon the idea for EverlyWell, the struggles she faced throughout the process and the advice she has for future entrepreneurs.

A Dallas native, Cheek graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2005 and went on to attend Harvard Business School from 2009 to 2011. After eight years in corporate America, Cheek left her job at Money gram to start EverlyWell, a platform for at-home, digitally-enabled health tests in July 2015.

Although Cheek knew she wanted to start a company after graduating from Harvard Business School in 2011, it took a health crisis in 2015 for her to find an idea worth the risk.

“I went to six different emergency rooms over the course of about five months because I had a ton of unexplainable symptoms and no doctors could figure out what was wrong with me,” Cheek said. “And then I would panic and I would feel like I needed to be in the ER.”

Yet Cheek’s diagnosis and cure were relatively simple.

“The reality of what was wrong with me was that as I was working 100 hours a week,” Cheek said. “I was severely anemic, vitamin D deficient, my cortisol was off and I had no B-12 or magnesium and I was just a shell of a person and it made me feel really, really sick.”

“But all of those things that I just said are actually not anything life-threatening,” Cheek continued. “They’re pretty easy to fix and they shouldn’t be that hard to figure out and they shouldn’t be that hard to detect.”

Although the cure was simple, the payments weren’t.

“I ended up paying not only for all these different doctors I saw but then I paid $2,500 out of pocket over a six-month period for a bunch of lab tests that no doctor reviewed with me,” Cheek said. “They never called me about the results and I didn’t know what they meant and I was hit with a huge bill that was really hard to pay.”

Cheek’s experience revealed a problem in the health care industry she wanted to fix.

“I started at this point thinking about this industry and how dissatisfied I was as a consumer,” Cheek said. “I started thinking about the fact that the tide was shifting in the health care industry toward consumer burden of cost.”

Especially when it comes to lab tests.

“If you go to a doctor and go to get a lab test done, you don’t know how much it’s going to cost, you don’t know if it’s covered and it’s likely to cost a few hundred dollars,” Cheek said.

But Cheek also noticed popular trends that might fix this lab testing model.

“I realized that there were a lot of trends happening that I felt could really disrupt lab testing and it was something that I felt passionate about, getting people access to cheap and effective tests,” Cheek said.

“Since Harvard, I had wanted to build a company, but it took me five years and then this health crisis to really find the idea that I felt like I could really work on for a decade,” Cheek added.

having the right idea was important to Cheek.

“As I went through that process a lot of what I had to think about was what was I willing to spend my time for a decade on,” Cheek said. “I wanted to have that idea that I knew I could be committed to and that I felt like could really change people’s lives.”

After finding an investor to fund the initial lab testing platform, Cheek and her team started their research.

“We started going around and talking to people and we found that $25 billion worth of tests were run a year for seven million actual tests,” Cheek said. “And we found that 80 percent of diagnoses use basic lab testing data.”

They also found out people don’t like lab testing.

“People hate lab testing,” Cheek said. “It’s annoying, it’s inconvenient, people don’t know what they mean and they’re expensive.”

“So we used all this to build out what is largely the (EverlyWell) platform today,” Cheek added. “The business model and the idea really hasn’t changed much, which is an at-home, affordable, convenient and digitally-enabled test.”

Essentially, the health test is ordered online, mailed to the consumer’s house, the consumer self- collects and results are available on the device in approximately three business days.

“Our goal is to make this a mass market shift in how you think about testing,” Cheek said.

The company is also 100 percent cash based.

“We work outside of insurance companies to be able to give people equal or more affordable pricing,” Cheek said.

But the journey wasn’t an easy one. Based on startup statistics, Cheek should have failed.

“(Statistics) would tell you that I would 100 percent have a chance for failure and there was no way that I was going to be able to succeed in starting this company,” Cheek said.

Cheek was a solo founder, a female founder and she had no technical background.

“I’ve never written a line of code, I have no health care experience, I have no entrepreneurial background,” Cheek explained. “And on a personal note, my husband had left his job a year earlier to start his own company and I was supposed to be supporting both of us while he went and started his company.”

Cheek said starting a company requires a positive attitude.

“It requires a certain amount of optimism and self-confidence and fearlessness to be able to take risks in the face of a lot of facts that are going against you,” Cheek said.

Cheek went on to land the largest deal for a female on Shark Tank in November 2017.

“And since Shark Tank last November we doubled overnight,” Cheek said. “We will do about $20 million in sales this year which is our second year on the market. We’re one of the fastest growing consumer health startups in the country.”

EverlyWell now has 15 employees with over 100,000 customers of over 30 health tests.

Cheek grounded her advice to future entrepreneurs on three themes she finds important. First, Cheek reminded the students to have integrity despite others’ opinions.

“It’s far more important that you care about how you live your life and what your morals are and you knowing how you made decisions along the way than what other people think of you,” Cheek said. “Only you know how ethical you are and your level of integrity. In the public, people aren’t going to know how you behave.”

“You’re the one who has to live with your life choices,” Cheek added. “In my opinion, what matters most is your opinion of yourself and not what other people think of you.”

Secondly, Cheek told the students the hardest but most important part of entrepreneurship is going from zero to one.

“Inertia really matters in entrepreneurship,” Cheek said. “The hardest part is going from zero to one. And that means from going to absolutely nothing to something.”

“That something can be your first sale, your first dollar—anything that represents something that shows that the company is a reality,” Cheek explained. “The very, very hardest thing to get through and the place where founders fail the most is going from zero to one and getting that inertia.”

Lastly, Cheek reminded the students they only need one yes.

“You actually only need one yes,” Cheek said. “And that’s an easier way to think about going about building a business than thinking about all the work that it’s going to take to get to that yes and all of the people that are going to tell you no.”

“You have to understand that you’re going to hear a lot of negatives and a lot of no’s and you can’t rely on other people to be the experts in your business,” Cheek concluded. “You’re going to have to be willing to take that risk.”