When Julia Cheek founded Everlywell in June 2015, she was, by her own estimation, "perhaps the least qualified person to start a health care startup." And yet, as her Austin-based at-home lab testing company approaches its fifth anniversary, she finds herself overseeing a staff of about 100 people, providing home tests for allergies, food sensitivities, thyroid conditions, and, as of May 2020, Covid-19. The company raised $50 million in its last round of funding and was listed at No. 3 on the Inc. 5000 regional ranking for Texas this year.
In an Inc. Real Talk: Business Reboot livestream, Cheek, 36, spoke with Inc. editor-at-large Tom Foster and took questions from viewers. Their conversation ranged from helping her team cope with quarantine to making big decisions. Here are some highlights.
Think Big and Think Fast
In May, Cheek and her board decided to give away $1 million to labs across the U.S. to help them develop a working test for Covid-19. For a startup still counting every dime, it wasn't an easy check to write. However, Cheek says they made the decision quickly. "It took about an hour," she says. "It was one of the fastest and easiest decisions made in the history of the company."
She knew that funding those labs would speed up development of an at-home test. She also had to make decisions internally to offset that cost while doing everything possible to maintain head count. That meant scaling back every discretionary dollar her team could find--Goodbye, office coffee!--in order to do the right thing and keep her team. "I wanted to protect as many jobs as possible," she says.
"It was the right decision made at the right time," she says now. A month later, she's hiring.
Look Out for Your People
When asked how she deals with the challenges of running a company from home (with a new baby) as well as while witnessing the protests in the streets, Cheek was quick to stress the importance of making sure her colleagues are able to cope. "I worry like a mom about every one of our team members," she says. That means asking herself how her team is doing all the time and asking herself how she can make their days better. Sometimes that means encouraging them to disconnect from Zoom or other digital platforms and take care of themselves. "Our primary focus is: What does every employee need for their mental health?" she says.
As for her own self care, she's been developing wellness routines, including taking many meetings while walking and doing her best to separate her home workspace from the rest of her house.
The Funding Challenge
Cheek spoke at length about the difficulties she encountered while seeking funding as a female founder, despite the fact that she went to Harvard Business School and had a strong network.
"It was hard for me," she says. "So you can imagine how hard it is for people of color, especially women of color. I heard a lot of noes. What I learned is that it only takes one yes." Among those yeses was one on-air boost from Shark Tank's Lori Greiner, which doubled Everlywell's sales overnight.
Ultimately, Cheek says, people need to talk about funding obstacles openly and honestly and encourage entrepreneurs and investors to confront their biases. "It's important that founders hear stories and become part of the solution," she says.