Borrowing Money From Mom to Start a Tech Company: AlexAnndra Ontra

Borrowing Money From Mom to Start a Tech Company: AlexAnndra Ontra

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My guest for Episode #87 of the My Favorite Mistake podcast is AlexAnndra Ontra.  As President and co-founder of Shufflrr, AlexAnndra is blazing a trail in the emerging new discipline of presentation management. 

The technology she helped create is already powering the presentation strategies of hundreds of Fortune-level companies, helping them save millions of dollars by transforming humble PowerPoint slides into invaluable business assets. Shufflrr visualizes your company's content so you can find, see, read through, that one great slide or file when you need it.

Alex is also the co-author of the book Presentation Management: The New Strategy for Enterprise Content.

In today's episode Alex shares her “favorite mistake,” which was borrowing money from her mother to start a tech company. When the great recession hit, she couldn't make the payments, which weighed on her heavily. She couldn’t just quit and move on — she stuck with it and the company is thriving now.

Other topics and questions:

  • What's it like starting a business with a sibling?
  • Mistakes speakers make with presentations?
  • Mistakes companies make in managing presentation slides?

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  • Video of the episode (partial)
  • How to subscribe
  • Full transcript

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Automated Transcript (Likely Contains Mistakes)

Mark Graban (0s):
Episode 87, AlexAnndra Ontra, president, and co-founder of Shufflrr.

AlexAnndra Ontra (7s):
My favorite mistake or my biggest mistake or my hardest mistake? I think they're all intertwined.

Mark Graban (19s):
This is My Favorite Mistake. In this podcast, you'll hear business leaders and other really interesting people talking about their favorite mistakes because we all make mistakes, but what matters is learning from our mistakes instead of repeating them over and over again. So this is the place for honest reflection and conversation, personal growth and professional success. Visit our website at myfavoritemistakepodcast.com. For show notes, links to AlexAnndra's profile and company, and a whole lot more, go to markgraban.com/mistake87. Please follow rate and review. If you liked the episode, please share it with a friend or a colleague on social media.

Mark Graban (1m 3s):
As always, Thanks for listening. And now here's our episode. Again, our guest today is AlexAnndra Ontra. She is president and co-founder of a company called Shufflrr. AlexAnndra is blazing a trail in the emerging new discipline of presentation management. So we'll have a chance to talk about that today. I do a lot of presentations and there are challenges that I I can think of. And it'll be good to hear about what larger companies are, are, are doing what problems they're solving with this technology. Shufflrr visualizes your company's content, so you can find, see and read through and, and, and get that one great slide or file when you need it.

Mark Graban (1m 45s):
So that's a, I think an interesting challenge and reason for being, but AlexAnndra, first off, thank you for being here as a guest. How are you?

AlexAnndra Ontra (1m 53s):
I'm great. Thanks. Nice to be here, Mark.

Mark Graban (1m 56s):
So we'll have a chance to talk about presentations and the company, but we'd like to dive right in. As I know, you've heard from listening to some other episodes, thinking back, AlexAnndra, what would you say is your favorite mistake?

AlexAnndra Ontra (2m 10s):
My favorite mistake or my biggest mistake or my hardest mistake? I think they're all intertwined. I would have to say it was borrowing money from my mother to start and fund a technology company.

Mark Graban (2m 28s):
Oh, wow. Call us, call us about that. Why, what happened? Why, why, why did you think that was the Mo why did it turn out to be, yeah,

AlexAnndra Ontra (2m 35s):
It turned out to be a mistake. Initially it was a mistake because we did this in about, you know, we we've been in my, I should just allow my brother is my co-founding partner and business partner. And you know, when we started back in 2002 doing presentation technology, we had a consulting business software and services doing high-end presentation. And we also designed, wrote animated the presentations. It was, you know, soup to nuts, full service, and you know, like any new business starting out, we needed funds.

AlexAnndra Ontra (3m 15s):
And so we took a loan from our mother and things were going swimmingly and we paid her interest monthly. So it worked well for her because she was retired. So this way she had a nice monthly income. Everybody was happy. And then, you know, the great recession hit the market crashed and, and we just had Redding everywhere and, you know, clients were leaving. I was paying to go to work. I had no money to pay her back and it weighed really heavily on me. And, but I couldn't, I couldn't leave. I couldn't just quit because it was my mother's money.

AlexAnndra Ontra (3m 56s):
You know, I didn't want to be the kid that squander her mother's money. And, you know, especially, you know, with tech companies, Silicon valley, it's try really hard. And if you fail, okay, you can start another company. And having a bunch of startups tends to be a badge of honor. Unfortunately for me, that wasn't a badge I could wear. I just, I couldn't do it. And at one point she even said, you know, Alex, if this is too hard, we'll work something out, you know, go get a job, go do something else. And, and we'll figure it out. So she, she gave me, you know, the, the, okay, you know, she released me essentially, but I just thought to myself the best way to pay her back is to keep building this company.

AlexAnndra Ontra (4m 43s):
So we stuck with it. And, you know, here we are, another 10 years later, 20 years later doing the same thing and we have Shufflrr and it's thriving. And it's, it's, it's actually, it's really exciting. It's probably for me after doing this for 20 years of one of the most exciting periods of our, of our journey. Wow. Wow.

Mark Graban (5m 5s):
So when you were looking at starting the company originally, I mean, did, did you pursue some of the traditional ways of getting funded? It sounds like you had a single angel investor in your end, your mom. I mean, what else did you consider at the time

AlexAnndra Ontra (5m 23s):
We did, we, you know, we pitched like angel, you know, we went to those pitching events and we talked to various VC and angel investors. And, and, and the interesting thing is, you know, they, they have a formula which works for them and it's usually invest in 10 companies, one or two, we'll knock it out of the park and the other ones where we can shut down because we've made our money back and we've given our investors a return. So that, that works for him for those other eight companies. If you're the founder, who's put your blood, sweat and tears into it. You're, you're, you're left with nothing and you have to start over and starting over is never a bad thing.

AlexAnndra Ontra (6m 4s):
It's gives you endless possibility, but we took the other approach. And, and also what kept us going was that, you know, even though we didn't have that hockey stick traject trajectory, that investors look for, we, we had steady growth, you know, some days when it was really hard. And I was like, oh, you know, we're, we're running at a loss, we're losing money. And then, and then we would get ESPN as a customer, or we would get scripts networks as a customer. And I would think to myself, okay, that'll get us through. But if these companies want to use our product, if they want to use Schaeffler, if they want to use PBT share, that was the precursor to Shufflrr, then, then we're doing something, right.

AlexAnndra Ontra (6m 51s):
So it's just, you know, we ended up building the company, old school, one, one client at a time, and we constantly tweaked our service based on, on their feedback and their input, and then telling us what would they needed. So we ended up with a much stronger product. We have more equity in our business. And, you know, we're kind of leading the category, presentation management, one client at a time over a very long time steady

Mark Graban (7m 25s):
Growth. I mean, I mean, you know, the companies with these, you know, these hyper growth, billion dollar valuations are called unicorns for a reason. Right. I mean, they're rare and not everybody can be a unicorn, even if I don't know what percentage of startup founders think they're going to be. It's that rude awakening. Right. I think they're going to be,

AlexAnndra Ontra (7m 50s):
Or 1% become that. I don't know what the, the, the percentages, but it's pretty low.

Mark Graban (7m 59s):
So the company not only survived, it's thriving. You're still talking to mom.

AlexAnndra Ontra (8m 9s):
Well, she passed away, but still oh, okay.

2 (8m 13s):
Okay. I'm sorry. Well,

AlexAnndra Ontra (8m 16s):
You were, you were,

Mark Graban (8m 17s):
I'm sorry. It's all good. You were on good terms with her. You, you got past those challenges

AlexAnndra Ontra (8m 26s):
And a big source of support. Yeah. I mean,

Mark Graban (8m 34s):
It makes me wonder, you know, when you think of that kind of Silicon valley model of, you know, the, the, the past failures being a badge of honor, and I've heard some people say, I don't know how common this is. Well, you know, I don't want to invest in someone who hasn't failed before. I want, you know, they, they learned lessons with someone else's money and these different things here. I

AlexAnndra Ontra (8m 55s):
Have a big problem with, I think it's disrespectful to squander other people's money. It's hard to earn a dollar. You gotta respect it.

Mark Graban (9m 5s):
Yeah. And you know, it makes me wonder, know, I'm curious your thoughts on this. And maybe there's no single model, but it makes me wonder if that, you know, sort of, you know, give up, wash your hands of it, move on to the next thing model. If that's too extreme to people give up too early, there's maybe the other extreme where people stick with something too long. I guess that's, that's a judgment call. Yes.

AlexAnndra Ontra (9m 27s):
It is a judgment call. And, and everybody's different. Every business is different. It is hard because if you're, if you have a business that's just dragging you down and it's not succeeding, then there's, that's a very good reason to shut it down and go do something else and free yourself and use your resources on something. That's going to be more productive that I wouldn't argue with that for us. It just, we always had enough interest from clients to reaffirm, you know, our business model, our product, what we were trying to do. So I just figured, you know, it's going to be easier to keep doing this and pay her back and, you know, meet my commitments, my obligations, then it will be to go quit and then just get a job in another company on somebody else's schedule on somebody else's terms.

AlexAnndra Ontra (10m 20s):
You know, you do get some autonomy when you have your own company, which is kind of nice.

Mark Graban (10m 25s):
Yeah. And to do the, the debt instead of giving equity to others makes a difference. So I guess that's one element of what happened. That wasn't a mistake perhaps,

AlexAnndra Ontra (10m 37s):
Right? Right. Because we did, we kept it. I mean, here we are 20 years later, you know, and, and I own 45% and my co-founding partner owns 45%. So we still own big piece of the business.

Mark Graban (10m 55s):
Now there's other rules of thumb or things that you hear, you know, don't borrow money from friends or family, or don't go into business with friends. Is that worked out, has, I mean, I've, I've had a guest before who talked about challenges of being starting, you know, being business partners with a spouse. I I've never talked to anyone about the sibling dynamic. How, how has that worked out

AlexAnndra Ontra (11m 21s):
Dynamic? There's a loaded word for us. It's worked out pretty well because James and I have very different skills. So he stays in his lane. I stay in mine. I he's got, you know, he's very good at software design and the overall strategy and the vision, the long-term vision for the growth of the company. And he's good at financials. I am better at operations and sales and client service. So we just stay in our own lane. We compliment each other

Mark Graban (11m 53s):
And, and correct me if I'm wrong or, you know, I think there's chance for you to elaborate on the story. You know, it sounds like you were doing consulting related to speaking and presentations and you saw an opportunity that turned into a technology company and that that's a different pathway than some entrepreneurs who say, well, I want to start a company and I don't know what, and they go research different things and then they decide, okay, well, here's my thing. It sounds like you ended up in a lane that was more of a passion and a thing that you were more willing to stay committed to funding aside. Is that fair to say,

AlexAnndra Ontra (12m 27s):
Well, it, it's funny because it brings us to our next biggest mistake. And it is how and why we started Schaeffler is when we were doing this consulting company, ABC stations was one of our first and, you know, obviously blue chip blue chip client. We wanted to impress them and serve them and keep their business. And we're at a meeting one day and one of the sales guys comes in and he just throws us a DVD down on the, on the conference table. And he said, my grandmother made a better presentation for our family reunion than the sales team has.

AlexAnndra Ontra (13m 10s):
And James and I were just sitting there like, oh my God, we are so screwed. And it, at that point, we just, we stopped doing consulting. We stopped doing design and, and writing and all those good things. And we just focused a hundred percent on the technology and decided, instead of doing a proprietary presentation software system that we had to keep building every day, we would offer the same benefits, but use the products that were already out there that people were already using. And that was, you know, PowerPoint video. At that point, there was YouTube and video.

AlexAnndra Ontra (13m 52s):
So video became democratized, Xcel word, PDF images. Everybody at that point was already familiar with building those files or using those files, or they all had systems that could support those files. So we were like, let's, let's make a system work for that. And you know, here it is 2010, 2011, or like let's put it in the cloud. And so that was a pivot point. Yeah. It hurt though, to hear that salesperson go, my grandmother made a better presentation than we have. And that was my job was to make their presentations. And I was like, oh man.

Mark Graban (14m 31s):
So I want to make sure I understand from the story they were criticizing and sort of blaming not saying, Hey, we just hired you to help with this. They were saying basically they were unhappy with your work is that

AlexAnndra Ontra (14m 43s):
I think they were just saying they want something better and easier. It's kind of like, if my grandmother can do this, then so can we, it wasn't like you guys suck, although I guess you could read between the lines, but it, you know, they were realizing that there was a another opportunity. And therefore we realized that there was another opportunity. And if we didn't seize it, well, I wouldn't be here today and I wouldn't have paid my mother back. It's all related. Everything's related. One step always leads to the next,

Mark Graban (15m 15s):
All of you are related. I'd say not every, not everybody involved in Shufflrr you

AlexAnndra Ontra (15m 20s):
Could argue that's another mistake, but yeah,

Mark Graban (15m 22s):
It's, it's still, I mean, it's working.

AlexAnndra Ontra (15m 27s):
I mean, there it is working. Yeah. Yeah.

Mark Graban (15m 30s):
So I think, you know, maybe we can delve into, and I, and I, again, I have very personal interest in this as somebody who does a lot of speaking and I work a lot of times in a solo preneur model, but then I can also think of times when I've worked as part of corporate teams. So there's my own computer and my own drives and my own presentations. And I'm just going to throw this scenario at you and you can say, well, no, we don't deal with that. Or here's what other people do, you know, I have multiple presentations and I, and it's not just a small number of very consistent deck. So I'm taking slides from here and there. And even if it's a custom talk, sometimes I make updates.

Mark Graban (16m 12s):
And I end up with this, this proliferation of the same slide across different presentations. And nowadays I think while storage space is cheap, that's not a huge problem. But then sometimes it's the variation or the version of the slide where I make a mistake of like, oh, I'm now presenting the version of that slide. That's not the updated one that I wished was in the deck. Is that, is that something that, did you deal with that as a consultant or is that also a part from the

AlexAnndra Ontra (16m 41s):
Very beginning and it today we, we simplified it to just have simple slide updating. So when you have that, that one version of that slide, you have that master version when you override it and Shufflrr, it will push out to all of those variations and all of those different presentations. So if you misspelled the name AlexAnndra, as most people do, you would be able to fix it in one step instead of searching for the 20 different presentations where that name existed. And that's actually one of our, our biggest features is that slight updating back out into the PowerPoint files.

AlexAnndra Ontra (17m 23s):
Yep. Yeah. Do everybody's PowerPoint. It wouldn't be just yours and a company. If you have a hundred sales reps, a thousand sales reps, they've all used that slide 10, 20 times, all of those versions would get updated.

Mark Graban (17m 38s):
Okay. Cause, cause that seems like an even more powerful use case in terms of the quality of the work that's being delivered, cost savings, time savings, I mean, could see where that would be compelling.

AlexAnndra Ontra (17m 50s):
Right? Well, it gives consistency of brand. It gives consistency of message. If you're a marketing director and you know, in the corporate home office emphasis on the word home now, because that's where all working from and everybody's all over the place, you can, you can ensure that that update, that the new pricing information, the new product information, the legal disclosures, which in, you know, banking and pharmacy pharmaceuticals is so critical, all get pushed out and they get used. So you, you have that brand and message compliance.

Mark Graban (18m 24s):
And I, I can imagine, yeah, some of those presentation mistakes could be very costly on if you're out of compliance or if a salesperson showed a lower price to a customer and now they're holding you to that.

AlexAnndra Ontra (18m 40s):
Yeah.

Mark Graban (18m 40s):
I can see where those mistakes. So that's not, you're, you're trying to help companies prevent mistakes that might be driven by this proliferation or variation or lack of update with their slots. That's exactly right. And, and, and this is a form. This is a, a specific form, like a very specialized form of what some would call a content management system. Is that fair to say?

AlexAnndra Ontra (19m 7s):
Yeah, he could, you could call it content management for presentations. We just call it presentation management.

Mark Graban (19m 12s):
And, and is there, does this become a category of content management?

AlexAnndra Ontra (19m 18s):
Yeah. Yeah. It overlaps it overlaps. It works with your CRM. It works with your sales enablement. It works with your content library. The difference is that all the files that are in the system are already formatted as a slide, searchable, visual, and ready to present. So when you have a 300 slide PowerPoint, you can, you can search and zoom into, you know, slide two or slide 85, and then you can drag and drop it into your tray and use it in a new presentation. Same with PDF video, word Excel. Every file.

AlexAnndra Ontra (19m 57s):
When you click on it is formatted as a slide. So you can use it immediately. You can present directly from Schaeffler. You could send it as a link to a customer, or you can drag and drop it and repurpose it into your own custom presentation. So it's like content ready to go productive content. Yeah. You've, you've

Mark Graban (20m 17s):
Jogged my memory. I don't know if you've ever had the chance to see the late Stephen Covey from Seven Habits fame. Did you ever have a chance to see him give a presentation?

AlexAnndra Ontra (20m 25s):
The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People?

Mark Graban (20m 27s):
Yeah.

AlexAnndra Ontra (20m 27s):
Yes. I'm not super familiar, but yeah. Yeah. I know what you're referring to.

Mark Graban (20m 32s):
So I saw him give a talk and it was at a, at a conference and it was, it was dubbed a quote unquote fireside chat, but it could have just as well been a keynote talk. We just, you know, but maybe because it was a little bit more of this fireside chat, if I remember right. He was taking questions from people. And so he had a lot of PowerPoint and he had an assistant in the back of the room and Steven, Dr. Covey would call out, you know, he'd be talking and you'd say, bring up number 37 and boom, the slide would magically appear behind him and yup. Or he would sometimes refer to them by number.

Mark Graban (21m 14s):
He would sometimes refer to them as the such-and-such slide and I've never seen anyone do that. And so at the end, I had a chance to go back and talk to the assistant who was working for him. And there was this huge laminated sheet of paper. Like if you ever seen football coach, when they have the big lamp, the big giant laminated play card that they pulled up in front of them. Well, this was like six sheets of paper that way, all laminated together. And, and I asked him about this and he said, yeah, th that, that was his master list of all the slides. And he said, sometimes Dr. Covey would call a certain slide number 37, and sometimes he would call it the purple slide.

Mark Graban (21m 55s):
I'm just making that up. And so he had all this cross referencing, and I think that was a very specialized skill where you couldn't just throw me in there and try to keep up with Dr. Covey. But in a way, I mean, like that was maybe a very customized and or manual way of addressing the situation in a way that Shufflrr tries to address

AlexAnndra Ontra (22m 19s):
It's the presentation follows the conversation, able to pull up a slide on it on a whim based on, based on what somebody else is saying based on what somebody's asking you and in Shufflrr because we have visual search and because you can present directly from Shufflrr, we can easily in the library, somebody could type in Mark Graban and pull up, you know, the slide that has your bio, or, you know, more, more, more business use case. There is a ad comms when they do their FDA approvals, which are getting a lot of publicity right now with the COVID drugs, you know, rushing through approvals.

AlexAnndra Ontra (23m 2s):
Usually pharmaceutical companies have like thousands and thousands and thousands of slides and white papers and clinical studies and video testimonials from people who were in the test group and, and all of this data. And, you know, they go and they sit in front of this FDA commission of 10 people and they, they give a 20 minute presentation. So there's your linear presentation. And then they, and then, you know, there's two days of, of just hot seat Q&A. And so, you know, the doctors and the experts are in the front of the room, and then they just, you know, when, when, when somebody asks them a question, they type it in and they can pull up the slide so they can pull up that data to the detail and it's, and I think it's a more effective way to present because nobody wants to be on the receiving end of a slideshow.

AlexAnndra Ontra (23m 59s):
It's like, it's, it's just, it's, it's, you know, it's slide after slide and people are talking and they're talking at you and you're looking at charts and bullet points and, and it's very like active and passive. And the more interactive, I think it is, is more engaging, especially in sales, because you always, you you're gonna have a better sale. You're gonna have a better meeting if you're, if you're when your is talking and your customer, can't talk when you're talking, because that's impolite. And so if you're talking at them and you're just reading slides and you're relying on these slides, then you're not really engaging.

Mark Graban (24m 39s):
Yeah. I mean, we can think of mistakes, speakers make, and I can think of, oh, I I'd like to think these are mistakes that I used to make and I've gotten past it. But you know, when you see people reading their slides, they're like, oh, that's disappointing because you could have just sent those slides out to us. And we could have just read them out by the pool. Right. Back in the day when we were at conferences at places that had pools or, or it was my, my, my favorite pet peeve is when somebody says, I know this slide is an eye chart, but, and then they acknowledged, like, they know it's a terrible slide, but they're using it anyway.

Mark Graban (25m 21s):
Yeah. They blow past it. Yeah. Hopefully they shared that with people after the fact. But so it goes with presentation, mistakes, any, anything else that comes to mind, you know, just back to your days of consulting and helping speakers that we should. Well, I was

AlexAnndra Ontra (25m 45s):
Just going to say to your point, when you said that slide is an eyesore, that we've become so reliant on those slides and in one of the biggest mistakes people, I think make presenting because, because it's comfortable and because it's easy is you do rely on the slide. You start to read the slide, you follow your slides. You know, originally PowerPoint was built as an outline. It was just support supposed to hit those key points. It's supposed to reinforce the speaker. You know, it's supposed to support the speaker, not the other way around. And, and I think, especially in corporate America, I think we forget that.

AlexAnndra Ontra (26m 25s):
And I think that is one of the biggest mistakes people make is like, you are the hero of your presentation, not your slides.

Mark Graban (26m 31s):
Okay. Yeah. And I think slides often are really effective when it's images or things that are supporting. Like, if you watch on the news that that image in that box that appears over the anchor person's shoulder is complimentary to what they're saying. And I think at least to me, I think good PowerPoint is complimentary. Like you said, complimentary to the speaker, not the other way around. Absolutely. So our guest today, again, has been AlexAnndra, AlexAnndra entre. You brought up the felling. So I'm going to ask, and I'm going to copy and paste into the show notes and the title.

Mark Graban (27m 15s):
So I don't misspell it. It's AlexAnndra with a capital A, in the middle and two Ns.

AlexAnndra Ontra (27m 20s):
So I'm sure people, like you said, April, because my mother's name was, and, and she had to put it into my name

Mark Graban (27m 31s):
And you're constantly having to correct people.

AlexAnndra Ontra (27m 34s):
I don't mind.

Mark Graban (27m 34s):
And I was looking at the spelling and then it became more difficult to say than it should have been, but I make mistakes like that all the time. Your

AlexAnndra Ontra (27m 48s):
Favorite mistake mispronounced

Mark Graban (27m 49s):
My most recent mistake. It's like you said, there are favorite. There are recent mistakes. They're our favorite mistakes. They're our biggest mistakes. And sometimes there's overlap, but thank you for sharing a favorite mistake story that, you know, I don't think at least it didn't turn out to be something you couldn't recover from. So thank you, Alex, for sharing the story of struggling through that. And I'm glad things are going better for you. And Shufflrr so again, Alex entre, president, and co-founder of Shufflrr, I'll put a link to the company in the show notes. It's the tech company names, spelling of SHUFFLRR.com.

Mark Graban (28m 36s):
And I hope you'll go and check that out. So Alex, thank you so much for being a guest. Really appreciate you being

AlexAnndra Ontra (28m 42s):
Here today. It was a pleasure. Thanks

Mark Graban (28m 45s):
Again to AlexAnndra for being a great guest today, to learn more about Shufflrr and everything that she and her company does. You can find links at markgraban.com/mistake87. And thanks to you for listening. I hope this podcast inspires you to pause and think about your own favorite mistake and how learning from mistakes shapes you personally and professionally. If you're a leader, what can you do to create a culture where it's safe for colleagues to talk openly about mistakes in the spirit of learning? Our website is myfavorite mistakepodcast.com. We'll see you next time. It would be a mistake if I didn't ask you to follow rate and review the podcast in Apple Podcasts or your favorite app, wherever you're listening to this now.

Mark Graban (29m 30s):
Thanks.


Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus. He is also a Senior Advisor and Director of Strategic Marketing with the healthcare advisory firm, Value Capture.