Launching a startup business is a risky move for any entrepreneur. But there are cases where those risks pay off. Jason Krantz is the CEO of Definitive Healthcare. Jason founded Definitive Healthcare ten years ago, and in September of 2021, it IPO’d on the NASDAQ Exchange and is expected to finish the year with revenue of over $160 million. In this episode, he sits down with J.R. Lowry to share how he successfully broke through the competitive health industry, growing his startup business to 700 employees. Jason shares his vast experience as a serial entrepreneur investing in business focused on data and analytics. Plus, he gives important reminders and valuable advice for entrepreneurs looking to start up their own companies. Tune in and gain insights that will help you grow your business.
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Jason Krantz, CEO of Definitive Healthcare
On Founding, Investing In, Selling, And Taking Public Businesses Focused On Data And Analytics
Each of us has a unique career story to tell. For some of us, our careers are like rocket launches. For the rest of us, our stories are more like a game of Chutes and Ladders with advances and setbacks along the way, either way, we all learned countless lessons during our careers. My goal with this show is to bring on a variety of guests who will share their stories and learnings. This show is part of a broader investment that I and others are making in career development, primarily through a company called PathWise.io, which was started with the belief that we all need to own our careers but that most of us struggle with how best to do that.
What PathWise is really about is aiming to provide comprehensive career and professional development events, insights, tools, and exercises all backed by a group of leading coaches and other career management experts to help you take control of your career. I'm delighted to welcome Jason Krantz, who I have known since we both worked together at McKinsey back in the late 1990s. He is the Founder and CEO of Definitive Healthcare, a provider of data and analytics to healthcare providers, biopharma firms, and medical device manufacturers, among others.
He founded Definitive Healthcare in September 2010, it IPO-ed on the NASDAQ exchange. It expects to finish 2021 with revenue over $160 million and has a market cap of about $4.7 billion and roughly 550 employees. Jason is a serial entrepreneur. He started his first company Infinata, another provider of market intelligence to the farm industry while he was a second-year student at Harvard Business School.
Along with Infinata and Definitive Health, he was also a founding investor in two other companies, Energy Acuity and Xtelligent, both of which have since been sold. He was on the board of RainKing, which was also sold. Jason has an accomplished and enviable twenty-plus-year track record of success as both an entrepreneur and an investor. Jason, welcome. It’s great to have you.
Thanks. It’s great to be here.
First, congratulations on Definitive’s IPO. That's a milestone to which a lot of entrepreneurs aspire. You had been at it for years leading up to that moment. It must have felt like a huge accomplishment for you and your team.
It was pretty surreal. If you would have asked me in 2010, when I started Definitive Healthcare, whether we would ever go public, I would have said, “Absolutely no chance.” I would have said that a couple of years ago as well. It was a pretty surreal moment but something that every entrepreneur in their wildest dreams would love to aspire to.
What drove the decision? Was it just markets up, market timing or was there something more specific to what you are doing in your own situation?
There's a huge amount of advantages to being public that we are seeing. Two big ones for us were access to capital. To the extent that we want to be opportunistic with acquisitions, it's good to have access to that capital. We are finding a real opportunity for hiring great talent. It's a real motivator for people to come in. It raised the visibility of the company overall. It was great for business. Market timing was conducive to having a proper IPO.
It’s a huge seal of approval in terms of how the markets, financiers, potential employees look at you when you become that public company. What was it like to go through that process? I know the filing, the roadshow, lining up the bankers, and all of that. How was that experience for you?
It was busy. There are a lot more moving parts than I would have ever expected. There's a tremendous amount of work just setting the organization up to be a public company, financial work, processes, and compliance, all important stuff that will pay off as a company long-term but it's a lot of work to get there. We did it in a pretty short timeframe but it was accelerated along the way. You are doing roadshows and talking to investors all the time and it's exciting. It is high stakes.
As I think about the experience overall, the day of the IPO, you go up and give a little bit of a speech before you ring the bell. I tend to not get nervous at all talking to big crowds and all my employees. Public speaking does not bother me. I have never been more nervous in my life. That sums up the whole year and the experience. There was so much work getting to that point.
That ringing the bell moment, so many people would love to be up in that position where you hit that milestone and you get to ring the bell at NASDAQ or the New York Stock Exchange. It’s a keystone moment if you will.
[bctt tweet="Data businesses are highly scalable. You get to solve interesting problems that can have a meaningful impact on the world." via="no"]
It was pretty special. We had 50 employees out from all different parts of the company. My family was there. A lot of the board is there and the people that have been along for the journey. It was great to experience that with them.
Go back to the beginning, what led you to start Definitive in the first place and how did it build on your early experience with Infinata?
My first company Infinata, which I started back in 2000 was a similar company. We provided a subscription service accessing data on every clinical trial and investigational drug globally. When I sold that in 2007 and spent a few years transitioning to the new owner, I was looking around for my next data business. I love data businesses. They are highly scalable. You get to solve interesting problems that can have a meaningful impact on the world. I looked at a variety of different industries but I kept coming back to healthcare.
Healthcare is a great industry to have a data business in because it's huge, first of all. It's almost 20% of our GDP. It’s highly complex, so you have all of these different constituencies that want something different out of the market. In order to sell, understand and compete in the healthcare market, you need to understand the whole ecosystem. Personally, I like solving difficult problems and helping transform an industry that frankly has some challenges. It was the perfect industry for us to go start and attack.
We are going to go back to Infinata at some point here but how did you approach the second startup? What was similar and what was different? Certainly, you had a lot more experience under your belt at that point.
I was definitely able to shortcut a lot of things. Going through my first business, you make a lot of mistakes along the way and as you start your second one, you are able to avoid a lot of those things. You quickly figure out where to focus your attention and what is noise. When you are starting a company up and you have limited people and resources to work with, having that very singular focus on what's most important pays off as you are trying to build a business.
How early in the process did you decide to raise venture funding for Definitive?
For Definitive, I had an exit before. I actually self-financed the company until 2015. At which point, we brought on our first institutional investor, Spectrum Equity. We had gotten to the point where we were a certain size. I wanted to take it to the next level. I wanted to become a $100 million company at that point and have access to more capital as well as the strategic vision that these types of organizations can help bring to the table about how to scale and what it takes to get there. It was the right time for us as a company.
How did you choose the venture partners that you picked? As you mentioned, it was 4 to 5 years in. You have been at it for a while and financed it yourself. What were you looking for from a venture partner at that point?
I have been very careful to choose venture partners and I have had an amazing experience. We've now got three institutional investors, Spectrum Equity, before the IPO, 22C, and Advent International. They have all been spectacular partners. What I look for is they need to understand my space and bring all those skills together to help me scale the business and get to the next level. There are a lot of companies that can do that and there's a lot of capital. Capital is the easy part.
What I look for when I think about my institutional partners is who has alignment on what I'm trying to accomplish? Who do I trust as people and who do I want to sit in the boardroom with and have discussions where you don't need to hide anything? You can be very open about the opportunities as well as the challenges of the business and feel like you have a partner that can help you take it to the next level. Doing a lot of CEO references of other companies that they have invested in, all of that was very important to me as I was thinking about, “Who was going to be my partner? Who's going to be by my side as we continue to grow this business?”
You have worked with venture capital firms a few times in your career. What advice do you have for newer entrepreneurs in terms of developing a constructive working relationship with them?
Once you pick the grant partner, the most important thing is to find somebody that you are comfortable with. Once they become part of your business, my advice is, they want to help and maybe, more importantly, they are going to help. It’s important to start to establish what are the best ways that they can be helpful to the organization? Where can they lean in and put forth effort in areas where maybe you have a weakness or you have less resources? For example, with Definitive Healthcare, our partners have been amazing in helping us access capital markets. Both from a debt standpoint as well as during the IPO process, they have a fantastic context there.
They have done a million of these types of deals and that has been incredibly helpful. The other area that I have seen a huge amount of benefit from is accessing their networks. These companies, especially the bigger ones, have Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with essentially everybody. If you want to talk to a CEO or somebody that you think could be helpful for a partnership or advice, I find that it is a great place to lean in with them.
When did you first realize that Definitive had the potential to be on a bigger trajectory than Infinata?
The truth of Definitive Healthcare is when I started it, it was supposed to be a lifestyle business of 5 to 10 employees. It would keep me busy and make some money. That was the original plan. There was a moment, probably about two years, in where we started adding sales reps and realized very quickly that I didn't need to be involved in deals anymore to get them done. That was the moment where I said, “This is a big market, a highly scalable product that we have built, where we have something new and disruptive that nobody has seen before. It demos very well.”
People understood instantly the ROI that they can get from it. It was then about, “How do we start scaling this quickly? How do we make sure that we build a fantastic commercial organization to take advantage of that?” That was when it clicked, where I said, “This thing could scale far beyond what Infinata did.”
You talked about the fact that you didn't need to be personally involved in the sales process anymore. A lot of companies and founders go through that period where they hit another level of size and have to manage differently. What else did you need to do to help the company scale? What did you have to keep doing and do differently?
That moment was probably the hardest moment in Definitive Healthcare. At 100 employees, I was involved in every single decision and everything that happened at the company of any importance. At that point, I realized that if we were to continue to get to the next level, I needed to give up that control, which is very difficult for founders to do.
I started trusting that my executive team started to trust them and say, “Let's sit down and set forth a shared vision of what we are trying to accomplish. Let's set very clear KPIs. I'm giving you the accountability. I'm giving you the freedom to run this how you want as long as we are going along with these KPIs and this vision of where we are trying to head as a company.” That was difficult.
[bctt tweet="You have to really believe that things are going to go in the right direction otherwise, you give up." via="no"]
It took a lot of willpower and a lot of trial and error to figure out how do I give up that control? We’ve then got to 125 employees and I thought I had it all figured out. I was like, “I have given up that control. This is great. It's working. We are going to get to the next level.” You hit 200 employees and now those people that you gave up all that control to need to do the same thing to the people. It goes on and on but that's one of the hardest things about scaling is building the organization for scale. That means I can't be involved in everything and that's uncomfortable at first but once you do and you figure it out, it's also one of the most rewarding parts of growing a company.
I read a book by Larry Bossidy way back in the day and it still sticks with me. He was the CEO of AlliedSignal for many years. He said, “The role of a leader is ultimately to do three things, to set direction, to manage the talent, and to organize the management processes of the company.” If you think about it, it's a simple message and it scales because if you've got the right people, you've got the right direction and you've got the right processes in place on a day-to-day basis, you don't have to be involved in everything anymore. A lot of people, whether they are entrepreneurs or managers of small groups that are all of a sudden pressed into something bigger struggle with that letting go and realizing that what they need to do is orchestrate more than actually do.
I still struggle with it. It’s difficult.
We all have a little bit of the doer in us that wants to dive in and be in the weeds because it's fun, be in the thick of it, be the hero and all of that. You grew up in Wisconsin. Did you see yourself being an entrepreneur when you were a kid?
My dad was a small business owner, which I think you start to see and you see a lot of the benefits that go along with that. In my first job, I was twelve years old. I started mowing lawns and what I quickly realized is I could make a lot more money if I didn't mow lawns myself. I started getting friends and I would get the job and friends would mow the lawn at an hourly wage. I would make a difference from that. It has been in my blood since the beginning that I always wanted to be an entrepreneur.
That’s where you and I differ. I mowed lawns, too. I started when I was eleven. I was miserable doing it at first because I was a small kid, the lawnmower was hard to push around and I’ve never got to the point of being smart enough to hire other kids to do the work. I kept doing it all the way through high school until I went off to college. You went to BC. Did BC prepare you for what you have done since then?
It gave the foundation for sure. My major is at Boston College. I was a double major in Finance and Computer Science. I'm not a developer. I'm not a coder but the skills you would get from a Computer Science degree are pretty amazing to be able to start to be dangerous enough to understand how it works and understand technology. Back then, I was class of ‘95 at Boston College. Technology was far less mainstream than it is now.
We didn't have our own computers, for starters. You would borrow computers from the school. I remember at the Higgins Hall at Boston College, there was a small Computer Science room in the basement of the furthest building away from anything. It had no prominence. There were twelve people in this program overall. I would be down there at 2:00 in the morning trying to figure out code, get help from people that knew what they were doing. It does provide a great foundation to understand the logic and the analytics. Finance is a good background to start a company.
You went to McKinsey, a classic post-college choice. What led you to consulting? What other options were you thinking about?
I was deciding between consulting and investment banking. The benefits of both of those jobs are you get exposed to a lot of smart people. You get exposed to CEOs. You need to learn communication and analytical skills. You also get exposed to a lot of industries. That's a real benefit as you are coming out of college. McKinsey, as I think about how that prepared me for building Definitive Healthcare when you are a McKinsey analyst, you spend a lot of time analyzing data, a lot of late nights.
Back then, we use things like Microsoft Access and programs that hardly are used for data analytics now but that's what we are using to crunch huge amounts of data and figure out how do you codify this into something that people can use to make decisions every day? That’s really what the businesses I have built are all about is taking huge amounts of information, putting data science on top of it, creating new insights and analytics, so people can make decisions to grow their business more quickly.
You then went off to Harvard Business School. For you, how did you think about the decision to attend business school and invest the time and money to get an MBA?
I probably was not nearly as thoughtful about it as I should have been given how expensive MBAs are. It was something I was going to do. I don't know that I put a lot of thought into it. Getting into Harvard too was something that I wasn't expecting. That was something that absolutely once I get in, I had to go do that.
What possessed you in your second year at Harvard that you could start your own company? What gave you the confidence and conviction to do that?
It was 2000 at the time. The year 2000 might have been the craziest year ever. That was the beginning of dot-com as you know. In my class at HBS, either everybody had a startup idea or they were going to join a small startup that was going to be the next Amazon. As it turned out, people were turning away the jobs from Goldman Sachs. That was not interesting. It was all about startups.
I always wanted to start my own business. I’ve got caught up in this. I came up with an idea of, “How can we take data from our clients and do the type of analytics that you would do at a McKinsey or at a bank and create a software package to allow people to make decisions.” I sat off to start doing it. It was a fortunate time. People were willing to make bets on very young companies and entrepreneurs in this case. I raised a seed round of financing and signed up our first six-figure client before I graduated. That was like, “This is what I'm going to go do.”
Looking back, a lot of first-time entrepreneurs make a lot of mistakes. What were the mistakes that you look back and chuckle about now?
2000 was probably the single best year to ever start a company, followed by probably the four worst years ever to try to build a company. At the time, the mantra was, “How do you get big, fast?” It was funny because nobody made money in dot-com companies back then. The metric became, “How many employees can you have?” Do the math, no revenues and lots of employees, it doesn't work very well. The mistake that I initially made was we started hiring people, including people that were not mission-critical to what we were trying to accomplish.
We should have focused all of our efforts on, “How do we make a great product that we can sell tomorrow versus trying to build infrastructure that you might need if you become a 200-person company?” We skipped a few steps along the way but it was the time when I have learned more than I have ever learned. We couldn't raise any more financing.
The Series A just dried up entirely in 2001. We bootstrapped the company over the next seven years. We never raised any more financing and essentially, we figured out how to make money the old-fashioned way, which is to have more revenues than expenses. That lesson that I learned has paid off many times over the next many years but there were some dark days.
Every small company goes through those dark days and every founder goes through those periods of questioning, whether they are throwing away their life on something that's never going to go anywhere. You were starting a family at that time as well. It's a grueling existence. How did you make that balance work for yourself and your family?
I had an amazing wife who took on a fair amount of burden of all of that, which I appreciate greatly. I try to keep stuff in perspective. I tried to come home at a normal hour, 5:00-5:30. I spend time with the kids. Luckily, young kids tend to go to bed early and if I had work to do, I would do it well to the night. It was, “How do you manage around and take a lot of the pain on yourself and make sure that it doesn't impact the family?”
I do remember my wife teases me still. There was a moment where I’ve got into bed at 9:00 or something. I was tired and had a book, and within a minute, my face was down in the book, dead asleep. It’s all about how you manage family and keep it in perspective because business is important and I love what I do but the family is more important.
You mentioned you sold Infinata in 2007. What drove that decision process at the time?
[bctt tweet="Never play out of a position of fear. If you’re just worried about what can go wrong, you’ll never do anything. You’ll never accomplish anything." via="no"]
It was time. We were still growing at a pretty fast rate. We are growing at 30% to 40% per year. It was a much smaller company than Definitive Healthcare but for us to get to the next level, we needed to be associated with a bigger organization with a larger commercial sales force. That product was a bit more of a tuck-in product than a big business in its own right. That was the time. People were tired. It was some hard years, as I mentioned. As the market heated in 2007, it was hard to monetize for our investors and the founders.
You did well getting out when you did. You avoided the economic crisis that followed in the year after that. You then shifted gears. I know you started Definitive with the idea that it was going to be a lifestyle business. You were doing some investing at the time. How did your prior work as an entrepreneur translate into helping you as an investor in the roles that you played with Xtelligent and Energy Acuity?
First of all, those are both highly data-oriented businesses. A lot of my experience in how to build a data-oriented, media business, came to fruition there. A lot of it is working with the CEOs that started those businesses, the founders. Working with them and helping them figure out where to spend their time. Helping them believe that you can go make this into a company. There's a path to get there and you need to follow that path. You need to trust that path.
It's hard starting a company. A lot of things go wrong and you have to believe that things are going to go in the right direction. Otherwise, you give up. Spend a lot of time with them and sharing stories of what I found when I was trying to start the company and some roadblocks that I had. Helping them avoid those roadblocks as they were building the company was helpful to grow in those companies quickly.
I’m going to fast forward. A lot of people tell me that they haven't still figured out what they want to do with their professional lives. It sounds like if I go back to Jason Krantz’s landscaping service in your teenage years, you had that entrepreneurial dream from early on and it was just a matter of figuring out what it was going to be for or what the particular direction is. Do you still feel you have had that strong sense of what you wanted to do all the way through or have you questioned it along the way?
I have loved what I have done. I love being an entrepreneur. When I was in Boston College, I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur but I had no idea what it would be and the world has changed a tremendous amount. This is a perfect niche for me. I love technology. I love to figure out how to apply technology in useful ways. I love data and analytics, both of my first businesses in pharmaceuticals, as well as Definitive Healthcare. It's an important spot where you feel you can have an impact beyond just creating a business. I have certainly never looked back at this point.
It’s great to have had that strong sense of purpose and clarity all the way through. Most people can’t say that. Who do you think has helped you the most along the way? When you look back and think, you don't necessarily have to name names but it would be great to get a sense of how did they help you develop as a person and as a professional along the course of your career so far?
My father has been a big influence on me from a business standpoint, for sure. An incredibly pragmatic person, which you need to be as an entrepreneur, as well as a believer in me, and always pro-take a risk. If you believe in something, go do it. Don't look back or don't question your decision. He has been an important influence. My wife has been a huge influence both in terms of providing me the freedom to do this type of thing as well as again, being that believer and that support system when things go sideways, which they ultimately do.
The other is the almost 700 employees of Definitive Healthcare. Not to sound hokey on it but the amount that I have learned from these employees over time is remarkable. Once I’ve got to that point where you start giving up control and people start doing stuff on their own, that's the point when you start learning and you say, “That’s something remarkable. I would have not thought of that on my own.” You start applying that to other parts of your business. I learned from them every day and I’m lucky to work with the great people that are around me.
You are raising what I feel is an important point and distinguishes people who are stronger leaders from people who are less strong. They realize they don't have to have all the answers and that they can learn from people around them. I have seen some people. I can remember having a personal experience working alongside a sixteen-year-old and setting up something that my son was doing.
She was so awesome working the front desk of this particular event that my son was doing. I would never have been able to do it as well as she did. I was probably 45 at the time and she's gone on to do some interesting things, even in the early part of her career. You realize that everybody's got their strengths and what your strength needs to be is figuring out what those strengths are and getting as much out of them as possible. You have talked about the influence of your father but did anything else shape how you have carried out your professional life?
From a values standpoint, I have always tried to treat everybody around me how I would want to be treated. I have approached everything by trying to be transparent and upfront. I'm not the type of person that's going to go look at technicalities, illegal documents to try to “gotcha” people. I want to go in good deals that everybody wins in. I want my employees to win. I want them to feel good about what they are doing. That pays off over time. You build up a huge amount of trust capital with employees, partners and customers. Focus on that.
From a trait standpoint, it’s never playing out of a position of fear is important, especially as you are starting up a company. If you are worried about what can go wrong, you will never do anything. You will never accomplish anything. For me, failing, making decisions quick, taking risks, and having that, not always work out is fine. I'm okay with that. I would rather be running downhill at all times. Sometimes you fall and skin your knee a little bit but you still get to where you are going to go much quicker.
There is something people say about entrepreneurs, which is there is an element of hope that has to run through their blood because as you say if fear is running through your blood, you will stop and go do something safer.
My brother calls it irrational confidence.
It's true. What career lessons would you share with people who are reading?
Do what you love first and foremost. You work a huge amount of hours of your life. If you are not enjoying it, go do something else. I imagine the people that are reading this are go-getters and they are people that have good marketability up there. It's a great job market. There are people looking for great people like yourself, so go do something that you love.
Going along with that is taking risks and that doesn't have to mean starting your own business but figuring out ways to go out of your comfort zone and do things that maybe seem a little bit scary at first. It's more enjoyable. If you are trying to progress your career, you need to take those risks. Those are some of the things that are important.
It amazes me every day as we continue to find our way through the pandemic that the job market is so favorable to the employee at the moment. It’s crazy that we have gotten ourselves here. It’s a good time to be an employee, a tougher time to be an employer. How do you guys manage that? Do you see challenges in hiring and retaining people or as a growing company in a hot space, have you been relatively buffered from that?
It is the tightest job market I have ever seen, by far. We have managed pretty well though. We have historically had incredibly low attrition and had a small object this year but not too much. The thing that has been key for us is we've got a great culture. People want to be here. They make good friends. We have a good work-life balance. We are working on interesting problems, so they want to be part of this job. We give back to the community a lot, which people find important.
We try to focus on a lot of things that are beyond the paycheck that you get. That’s the biggest thing overall is how do you focus on that culture and make sure that people want to be here. The second is growth. We have 700 employees almost. We promoted over 100. If you want to continue to grow yourself as a person and grow within your career, you must be a fast-growing company because that's where you get the growth opportunities.
I said 550. You have grown significantly since what was in your public filings. Growth creates opportunities for people. A lot of the time, people leave either because they don't like the environment they are in. It sounds like you have created a strong culture or because they don't see an opportunity for growth. To me, this is one of the big advantages of being in a growing business is you do create career advancement opportunities for people that they are not going to have in a company that's not growing. Any podcasts that you listen to or books that you read that you would recommend?
I'm a biography guy. I like the old-school biographies for the most part. I have read Carnegie and Rockefeller. I like the Founding Fathers biographies. The Adams biography is fantastic. There's a Washington biography that's great. Some of the newer ones that I have read are Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Gates biographies. There's a lot to learn from their lives. I find them interesting characters in general. You get somewhere between a story and something you actually get value out of.
I'm sure some of it is expanded upon for purposes of the book but still, there are always some good lessons in there and things from history that still apply very well now and marry up against more of the contemporary learnings. Any final thoughts before we wrap?
No, this has been great. I appreciate the time. Good luck to all the readers. Go get it.
I appreciate that. That wraps up this third episode. I would like to thank my friend and guest, Jason Krantz, for joining me and sharing his awesome entrepreneurial career story and learnings. If you aspire to do something more or something different in your career, visit PathWise.io. If you would like regular career insights, you can sign up on the website for the newsletter. You can follow PathWise on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Goodbye, everybody. Take care.
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About Jason Krantz
Jason is the founder and CEO of Definitive Healthcare, a provider of data and analytics to healthcare providers, biopharma firms, and medical device manufacturers, among others. Jason founded Definitive Healthcare ten years ago and in September it IPO’d on the NASDAQ Exchange. It expects to finish 2021 with revenue of over $160 million, and currently has a market cap of over $4.7 billion and roughly 550 employees. Jason is a serial entrepreneur, starting his first company, Infinata, another provider of market intelligence to the pharma industry, while he was a second-year student at Harvard Business School. Along with Infinata and Definitive Health, Jason was a founding investor in two other companies – Energy Acuity and Xtelligent – both of which have since been sold. He was also on the board of RainKing, which was also sold. In sum, Jason has an accomplished and enviable 20+ track record of success as both an entrepreneur and investor.