If you’re like most people, you have probably had a handful of experiences in your life where someone you may not have known before came in and single-handedly redefined what matters to you. That person inspired you, convinced you, and motivated you to take action. Maybe you’ve even been that person to others. Over the course of my life I discovered: Everybody has the potential to be the decisive game changer for others, if they’re at the right place at the right time and given the tools to inspire.
I always like to joke about “Brenda Snow’s groupies,” but really, I’m not looking for people who follow me blindly but rather try to educate, inspire, and motivate people to find out what’s right for them. At the beginning of my own story, I was a single mom, extremely sick, and unable to look after myself, let alone my little daughter, with no real prospect for improvement and no idea what to do. One day my daughter—two of them due to my vision symptoms—came up to the foot of my bed and asked: “Mommy, are you going to die?” At that point, I would have given anything for someone to tell me that everything was going to be alright. Someone who had experienced the same challenges and was knowledgeable about my mysterious neurological symptoms and about my options. I wanted to meet a patient who was going through, or had gone through, the same. The way things were, that was never going to happen.
I eventually found my way through the medical maze, learning I had MS and that new treatments were emerging that could help me get better. I got on treatment and got better, but I couldn’t let go of that thought: What if patients like myself weren’t left in the dark? What if drug companies realized that they could only gain from connecting patients and connecting with patients? That was when the grand vision emerged.
That vision was not quantitative: I didn’t imagine a company with several hundred employees. I didn’t envision millions of patients around the world who are influenced by that company. What I envisioned was much simpler: I’ll tell a few people how they can create more value for their customers. And I’ll tell others how their experiences can come to life for others in a way that changes their audience’s life. That vision, however modest, was grand in my opinion, and it ended up having disproportionate outcomes. Here’s why.
Make the Vision Work for Others
You may have a great idea but if nobody’s paying you to act on it, your work will remain a labor of love. There’s nothing wrong with that. Volunteers create I don’t know how many billions of dollars worth of value for our economy every year. And if I had just pursued my labor of love, I would have changed the lives of, perhaps, a few dozen patients and maybe a handful of biopharma execs. But to multiply that effect, I needed the grand vision to grow dynamically. That was only possible by demonstrating the value proposition: The patient side of the value chain was obvious—I experienced the void of information and inspiration firsthand. The industry side also became increasingly obvious, as patients became more empowered in their treatment decisions. For any business, pharma included, creating value for the customer is by definition a sound business decision—considering that in many cases that customer is a highly informed, highly connected individual whose treatment costs six to seven digit figures over a lifetime.
So that’s what I did. First, I knocked on the door of that company that made the drug I received for my MS. Pharma companies aren’t known to appreciate random sick people rocking up at their headquarters, but I got a foot in the door and conducted the first patient advisory board in MS back in 1997. Subsequently, people saw how much potential there was in this idea and joined me on this journey. I joined forces with my wonderful business partner Corbin Wood, and as a team, we added one client after the other, the next dozen patients after the dozen we had just added—and that’s where it became dynamic and we could watch our baby grow, year after year. This, of course, was only possible because innovative biopharma companies decided to take a leap of faith and allow for the authentic patient voice to be heard within and without corporate walls. Their success proved them right and motivated others to also commit to patient centricity—a concept that has since gone mainstream.
Growing your grand vision exponentially is wonderful, but don’t get tempted to compromise on who you are or what you stand for. As Warren Buffett said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” And it’s not even about anyone asking you to sell your soul (if they ask, decline). Authenticity is more at risk when you’re prepared to take shortcuts: Going for celebrity spokespeople instead of taking the time to look for people the audience is going to identify with; taking in people with a rushed checklist instead of careful screening; using sub-par equipment or inadequately trained staff; recruiting patients for a one-off video shoot never to be seen again; or writing a narrative for the patients instead of with them. I’ve always felt that anything that would require you to become fake isn’t worth it. And I’m convinced that only authenticity allowed me to build the company that changed the lives of more patients worldwide than anybody else.
Of course, it’s rewarding to grow business. Even more rewarding—growing impact. The “grand” vision was really modest compared to what happened in reality. There’s now a multi-faceted, full-service patient engagement company that employs 250 people, capable of changing millions of lives from American pharma executives to European engineers; Japanese students to Australian nurses; Middle Eastern adventurers to South American doctors. That’s real-world impact, and that’s what grows business—because biopharmaceutical companies understand that their reputation and position in the marketplace hinges on the impact they make on the lives on patients and caregivers.