Eric Kinariwala is the founder and CEO of Capsule is a healthcare technology business rebuilding the pharmacy from the inside out. The company has raised so far $270 million from Thrive Capital, Glade Brook, the Virgin Group, and Sound Ventures.
In this episode you will learn:
- Ways to build a powerful network
- How to incubate powerful ideas
- Disrupting outdated markets
- Fundraising from the most powerful investors
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FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:
Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello, everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we’re going to be learning a thing or two about pharmacy and inefficiencies of pharmacies. So, without further ado, Eric, welcome aboard from Capsule. How’s it going?
Eric Kinariwala: It’s fantastic, Alejandro. Thanks for having me on.
Alejandro: How do you spell your last name again because I always have issues with last names.
Eric Kinariwala: Sure, it’s K-i-n-a-r-i-w-a-l-a.
Alejandro: And how do you say it?
Eric Kinariwala: Ki-nar-i-wa-la.
Alejandro: Kinariwala. I love it. Look, my wife has even given up calling my name. She calls me Ally. So, no more Alejandro. I deal with it every day. So, it’s okay. Eric, I wanted to do a little bit of walk through memory lane with you. You went to Wharton to do your undergrad, I believe. Then you went to Stanford to do your MBA. Not bad at all. I want to ask you here: how helpful would you say has been the network that you’ve built from these schools in order to really get things going and leverage it?
Eric Kinariwala: It’s been tremendous. I think I’ve had the really good fortune of being able to go to the two best business schools in the world. They both were at different points in my life, and I think were really helpful for different things. As an undergrad, I got really great fundamentals around business and finance and obviously met just a ton of really smart people. I graduated in 2005, not quite at the peak of the financial bubble, but pretty close. So, my network from there has primarily been in the financial services, consulting, banking kinds of industries. Then four years later, I decided to move out to California in the heart of Silicon Valley and go to business school at Stanford. That network has also been tremendous, really broad: entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, folks that are doing a lot of different interesting things. I think it’s been really powerful to be able to draw that network for advice, for support, for recruiting, for talent, for a whole bunch of different things. Just a really tremendous experience.
Alejandro: That’s amazing. By the way, just out of curiosity because sometimes I lecture at Wharton. Did you take the class of a Professor Tyler Wry?
Eric Kinariwala: I don’t think so. No. What did he teach?
Alejandro: I think it’s entrepreneurship. Perhaps he was listening to this episode, and he might get mad if I didn’t ask the question. So, anyhow, Eric, let me ask you this: you went to Bain. That was your first job. You were an analyst there. What kind of work were you really doing while you were at Bain?
Eric Kinariwala: I worked at Bain Capital in Boston right after graduating from college and worked in one of their hedge fund groups investing across a whole bunch of different things, investing in retail companies, and healthcare companies, and technology companies. But really the foundational experience there was really being able to blend this incredible framework around strategy and markets, and what makes a good business model, and what are good businesses and bad businesses, and how do you evaluate management teams, and what are effective management teams and structures? All the great things that the folks at McKinsey and Bain and BCG have developed over 20, 30, 40 years. All of that DNA, knowledge, and process is what Bain Capital has been founded on. I got to combine that with actually learning how to invest and putting my money where my mouth was. I thought that combination was really, really powerful. It wasn’t just let’s make a PowerPoint deck and recommend something. It was let’s do the analysis. Let’s really understand what’s going on, and then let’s see if we’re right. Let’s get really tight feedback loops with what the markets are telling us whether we’ve made the right judgment call or not. I think that combination was pretty rare to have just right out of college. I’m super grateful. Just an amazingly run organization.
Alejandro: I can’t even imagine that, for example, for you being able to see all these different businesses and see, like you were saying, like what separated the good businesses from the bad businesses? What kind of patterns did you recognize there?
Eric Kinariwala: I think the best pattern that has stuck with me is just that great teams create great businesses. That is one. I think two is that great markets create big opportunities. For me, I think I’m fortunate that Capsule hopefully has both of those things, and I think that’s a lesson that just has stuck with me from early in my career that it’s a lot about a great team, great market, and laser-focus on whoever your customer is and continuing to deliver value time after time after time. There can be no good business that’s sustainable if you’re not satisfying your consumer, you’re not an attractive market, and you don’t have exceptional people operating the business.
Alejandro: Right. Then after this, your next job was Perry Capital. This was more like a hedge fund type of structure. What were you doing there?
Eric Kinariwala: I was there, and I was also investing in retail companies, healthcare companies, and technology companies and with a different lens. Where Bane Capital was very markets, very like industry focused, very business-model focused. What I learned at Perry was more being in the markets day-to-day, how price and evaluation of different things work. I got a really front-row seat to probably what was the greatest set of investment opportunities in the last 75 years since the great depression in 2008. Obviously, super painful financially for everybody, but from a learning standpoint, which is an incredible place to be able to see what happens when all of the rule book gets thrown out of the windows, and when there’s no pattern to match because nobody had lived through a financial cycle like that since The Great Depression. That was a really empowering thing for me being in my mid-20s to really appreciate that at that moment even people, CEOs of large banks didn’t know what was going to happen next. It was a very interesting, empowering equalizer feeling that maybe it’s not all about the experience that matters. It can be about other things. Age isn’t a proxy for skill and that there are different ways of doing that. I think that was a really empowering thing to be young and see what can happen when the traditional way of doing things just gets upended.
Alejandro: Got it. Obviously, I was going to talk now about Capsule and how the idea came about, but I always think of ideas as buses that they come and go. In this case, for you, you decided to get into that bus when the idea of Capsule came to you. Those ideas take time to incubate and to process them. Walk us through how that experience was for you. How did that happen?
Eric Kinariwala: I had moved to London after business school, and I moved back to New York, and I was living on the Lower East Side, at Rivington and Essex in the lower side of Manhattan. I woke up one day with this crazy headache. I called my doctor. He asked me some questions, and he said, “You have a sinus infection. I’ll write you a prescription. Go pick it up at the pharmacy.” I said, “Perfect.” As I walked to my corner pharmacy for folks that live in New York, at Delancey and Orchard. Everything that could go wrong with the pharmacy went wrong. I had this pounding headache, and I can’t find the pharmacy. It’s in the basement of this store. The escalator is broken, and my mobile phone isn’t working. There are 40 people in line ahead of me, and my head is still exploding. I wait in line to get to the counter. I ask the pharmacist for the prescription, and she tells me they’re out of stock. I’m like, “It’s January. It’s a Z-pak. Why don’t you have it?” This whole series of headaches. I ended up going home with no medication in hand and going to bed. I woke up the next morning, and I had this moment like, “What is going on? How could the experience of getting something so simple as a Z-pak be so terrible and broken that I wasn’t even able to get it? How is there a pharmacy on every street corner in America, and is this happening to the millions and tens of millions of Americans who go to the pharmacy way more often than I do?” So, I just started digging in. I very quickly realized that my headache was actually millions of Americans’ headaches with the pharmacy, and the pharmacy is actually the most frequent interaction in the entire healthcare system. The pharmacy is the second largest category of retail. It’s 350 billion dollars. There are 70,000 stores. That was just a crazy realization for me. That, combined with the fact that I just viscerally understood how broken the system was. I had this compelling pull that this was something that I had to make better. That’s the origin of Capsule.
Alejandro: Got it. Obviously, at that point when you had that encounter, you perhaps started to do some research, to speak with people. What was that process until the moment you said, “I’m going to go for this.”?
Eric Kinariwala: You know, it was pretty quick. I think that’s where my previous background as an investor getting really good at analyzing markets, and business models, and can we do that? So, I did three things basically. I said, 1) What are the actual problems? What actually is broken? And what I learned as I dug in and started speaking with other people who take prescriptions regularly, go to the pharmacy regularly, I learned that this problem was pervasive, that people hated waiting in line, that people frequently went to the pharmacy and their medication was out of stock. I learned that people don’t know the price of their medication until they pay for it, and they get to the pharmacy counter that it’s actually incredibly hard to get expert advice from a pharmacist. Then I started talking to other people who interact with the pharmacy: doctors, and people that work at health systems, and folks that work at pharmaceutical companies. I learned that they also have a headache with the pharmacy. So, it’s not just my headache, and it’s not just the millions of consumers who go to the pharmacy have headaches, but actually, everybody that touches the pharmacy, it causes a headache for. I set out to design what that magic pill would be. That’s the experience that we designed Capsule. The first thing was really deeply understanding the consumer problem and the problem that exists for other people that hush the pharmacy. The second thing was, obviously, understanding the regulatory environment. How would you actually build this? What technology do you need? What’s the product experience to solve these problems? How much money do you need to do that? Then the third and maybe the most important thing was what kind of team do I need to put together? Because I know that all successful companies are only as good as the teams they have. What kind of team do I need to put together to really be able to solve this problem in a very compelling way that millions of people will want to use something that is better? That was a three-step process. It took a couple of months to really get confident that I knew that this was a real problem for consumers, for doctors, and for everybody to understand the regulatory environment, to understand this is the product we should build, and this is how the regulations impact it, and this is how much capital it will take. Then to start identifying who would be the key team members? Who would be excellent at the early stage of building what is an incredibly complex business?
Alejandro: What was the founding team that you decided, “Hey, these are the people that I need,” and who did you get onboard to execute at the beginning?
Eric Kinariwala: We knew the business is going to be built around three pillars. It was always going to be built around a modern technology platform. It was going to be about an emotional resonate brand, and it was going to be about a pharmacy that treats you the way your mom would treat you. Right? Somebody that would always look after you. The first three people on the team were what I think is your model, ideal, prototypical pharmacist: warm, non-judgmental, engenders trust, looks out for you, and cares for you. The second person on the team was highly experienced technologist that had built training systems at banks in Switzerland and mobile apps for really kind of viral apps in New York. The third person was a woman who had spent her entire career in building incredibly engaging and powerful consumer brands. That was actually a really powerful early team to have for this business.
Alejandro: Got it. So, what ended up being the business model?
Eric Kinariwala: The business model today is—what we’ve done is we’ve built a pharmacy experience that’s “10x better” than what exists out there. What we offer today is a completely digital and seamless pharmacy experience for the consumer. You can use it in two ways. One is if you have a prescription already at another pharmacy. You can just download our app or go to our website. You can put in five pieces of information and Capsule becomes your pharmacy. From there, we offer free same-day delivery in tight two-hour windows all throughout New York City. You can chat or text with the pharmacist. You know the price of your medication in advance. You know why your doctor prescribed it. You can click into the website or the app and get drug details and information. It’s the only digital pharmacy that you can actually transact in from your phone that’s mobile first. That’s a hard thing to build to make that feel really, really easy. The team’s done really well. From a business model perspective, what we’ve done is we’ve said “Going to the actual pharmacy is awful. Why are there so many pharmacies? Why do they spend so much money on rent, and what happens if we actually didn’t have thousands and tens of thousands of stores, and we took all of the money that you invested in rent, and we put that back in hiring better people who can care for you better? We put that back into beautiful design. We put that back into technology to make the experience seamless. That’s exactly what we’ve done. As we inverted the business model, we’ve said we don’t need tens of thousands of stores. What we need are better people using better technology to look after people in a more thoughtful and better way.
Alejandro: Got it. Once you had already understood what you needed to be doing, you had the team; you knew their efficiencies. You got started with the business, and this was actually fairly recently. It was in 2016. Is that right?
Eric Kinariwala: Yes. We launched the business in 2016. In May of ’16 is when the first customer started using Capsule.
Alejandro: Got it. So, what were some of these early days like. What were some of the challenges that you guys were tackling?
Eric Kinariwala: Oh, my gosh. How long do we have? Every early-stage business is a series of challenges. You’re waking up every day, and you’re just knocking them down one by one by one. I would say in the early days, we were very lucky to have very strong word-of-mouth between consumers who have been learning about Capsule from their friends. But also, from a group of doctors who had learned about Capsule and realized how great it would be to share that with their patients. So, we had some pretty early flywheel going where doctors were telling their patients about it, and patients were telling their other doctors about it, and there was just really nice flywheel that had started forming. Some of the early challenges were making sure that we set the team up the right way. We were hiring people fast enough. Some of it was around making sure that we built the right operation software to let the business scale pretty fast. So, how do you go from the early days of the least, the most minimum-viable product that you want to launch with, and how do you make that more robust over time in what’s a pretty operationally-intensive business. I think those are probably two sets of big challenges in the early days.
Alejandro: Got it. Also, with the folks that I speak with as well that are to a certain degree are in FinTech or healthcare, you also have to deal with the regulatory challenges. Right? What has been your experience? You already knew this from the investor side because you were investing in these kinds of businesses, but I guess more as an operator like how was the experience for you?
Eric Kinariwala: The business is, obviously, highly regulated by a number of different people through the U.S. kind of regulatory agencies. It’s something that we’ve done a good job I think in the early days of just weaving through the DNA and fabric of the company is to make sure that the regulatory piece of it is embedded. That was the early pharmacist that was on the team was well-versed in some of the regulatory items. I think we’re fortunate to have really good lawyers to make sure that we weren’t doing anything we weren’t supposed to do.
Alejandro: Got it. At what point did you guys say, “Okay. I think it’s time to start raising some money.”?
Eric Kinariwala: This business is interesting in that I had basically raised the money in May of ’15 to basically get started. If you think about what you need to get started in this business, you need to build a pharmacy. You need to sign a lease, and you need to construct your pharmacy, and you need to buy drugs, and you need to have inventory, you need to hire people, you need to build a brand. So, I had raised the first round concurrently with me really saying, “This is what I’m going to spend the next decade or more of my life doing. So, we had done that in May of ’15. We spent a year building out the rest of the team, the brand, the technology, the regulatory permits, everything. Then we launched the business in May of ’16.
Alejandro: Right now, how much have you guys raised in total that is publicly reported?
Eric Kinariwala: There’s 70 million dollars of capital into the business.
Alejandro: I saw that you guys have great folks like Thrive Capital, Sound Ventures, 7 Global Capital just to name a few. How did you meet these guys?
Eric Kinariwala: I know the Thrive guys who have been just wonderful partners for us from the very, very beginning. Over the couple of years before deciding to start Capsule, being in New York, and had just gotten introduced to them through a mutual friend, and had just really come to appreciate their perspective on both helping build and investing early in what I would call Emerging Iconic Brands. Things like Aries, Glossier, and Warby Parker, but also their knowledge of healthcare through Oscar and a number of other investments. The combination of the consumer brand, the healthcare experience, and then, obviously, talented recruiting is the whole thing in the early days. They have incredible networks that have been really helpful in building the team out here in New York. That’s how I got introduced to them, and they’ve been great. Then the Sound Venture guys, I had met through, again, mutual relationships and got to know Ashton. He’s super passionate about healthcare, and it just made sense. He’s been really, really thoughtful and supportive over the last several years as we scaled the business.
Alejandro: Got it. Obviously, you were coming as well from the past on the investors’ side, so I am sure that you had a clear idea of what was that ideal [22:40] investor that you wanted to have as part of your business? What were those nonnegotiables that you had in mind?
Eric Kinariwala: I think about everything in our company as needing to be aligned, starting with your values. I think about your values, and your objectives, and your strategy, and your tactics, and the metrics you measure all have to be in alignment. I think that’s super important. We evaluate the people we ask to join the team at Capsule. The people we ask to leave the team. If there’s not alignment around the values, nothing else works. I think your investors in your board are exactly the same way. If your investors don’t share your vision for the future, if they don’t share what you’re trying to do and how and why you operate, it’s a really tough road. That is the number one thing when we ask people to be partners of ours on the capital side is we want to make sure that we are always values-aligned and vision-aligned around what are we doing? Why are we doing it? How are we doing it? If those three things are in sync, I think it will be a really powerful partnership. If those things get misaligned, I think it can be a really challenging journey.
Alejandro: What about on the scaling side, and especially at the beginning to really kickstart things into high gear. Any fun growth hack strategies that you guys did? I mean, I know for a fact that I continue to see you guys on taxis here in New York City, so I’m just wondering like any initiatives that were fun to share?
Eric Kinariwala: Yeah. The out-of-home is super fun for us, and it’s really fun for the team. It makes our business come to life, and it makes it really tangible. It also happens to have the nice primary benefit of being highly effective for our business in creating credibility, awareness, and trust. Medication is something you put in your body and your kid’s body. It has to always come from a place that is super high trust. That’s our number one lens when we look at growing the business. That’s why we think things like out-of-home advertising, things like doctors being evangelists for Capsule, recommending to their patients are the best ways of learning about Capsule. I don’t know if there’s been a growth hack, but I think we’ve been really thoughtful about how we’ve constructed the brand, and how we’ve made people aware of what Capsule is, and how it works, and how you use it. And you’re right. I’m glad that you see it on taxis everywhere. That means you’re remembering it.
Alejandro: Yes, for sure. How many employees do you guys have now, Eric?
Eric Kinariwala: The team is just a little bit larger than 250 full-time. Everyone is here in New York City.
Alejandro: Everyone in New York City.
Eric Kinariwala: Everyone’s in New York City.
Alejandro: Really cool. So, you started in 2016, and now you have all these 250 employees. That’s really, really impressive. I guess as well as founders, you tend to change from cycle to cycle, the business. I would ask you here, how would you say, for example, yourself, your management, and your leadership skills or style have changed over time to really have added to the growth of the business?
Eric Kinariwala: It’s been a learning; it’s been an evolution; it’s been a journey, and it’s been a really meaningful and fun process to involve myself along with the business evolving. I think the biggest difference is probably, and this is unfortunately not something that I made up, but it’s something that certainly resonates with me, which is when you go from working in the business to working on the business, that transition is super hard for founders, at least founders that are peers of mind. We had that conversation around you always need to at some point say “I’m not the guy making all the product decisions, and I’m not the person doing everything to just kind of brute-force get the thing off the ground.” You have to start thinking about how do you design the organization to enable other people to do their best work and be successful. Thinking about and implementing designing the communication architecture of your organization. What does org design look like? Do I have the right people and executives in the right places? How do I find them? How do I recruit them? How do I motivate them? How do I incentivize them so that they can produce excellent results over time? I think that role sort of shifts from the person making sure that you have product-market fit, and that consumers really want it and driving that early growth to shifting to making sure that there’s clarity and alignment through your entire company and organization around what is our vision? What is our mission? What are our goals? And making sure that every person that joins the company, that’s at the company, has a deep sense of clarity around what the company is trying to do, why we’re trying to do it, and how we’re going to do it.
Alejandro: Makes sense. To this end, I wanted to follow up and ask: what have you learned from being able to onboard people so quickly, and also in a way in which you can guard your culture, and at the same time embrace it without any impact?
Eric Kinariwala: We try to be very, very deliberate about how we onboard people. We have a very structured onboarding process where all of the senior executives at the company spend time with, once a month when people join the company, we make sure there’s exposure to all the senior leaders in the company, and that there’s pretty deep conversation around how every part of the organization works, no matter who you are or what function you’re in. So, if you’re in engineering, we think it’s super important that you still understand the brand, and what the brand means, and what a brand is even if you’ve never been exposed to that or you may not directly day-to-day be working on that. We think that’s how you get the best results is where everyone has a lot of context and shared consciousness around what is the business and what are the goals? We put together a really structured onboarding process. We’re pretty big on making and encouraging people to read before they join Capsule to give them context on what’s an incredibly complex industry and to share some of our values and some books that we think highlight those values. So, I send everybody that starts at Capsule three books. I send them The Checklist Manifesto. I send them a book called On Wings of Eagles, and we send them a book by Danny Meyer called Setting the Table. Four books. The last one is called Who written by a guy named Dan Smart. Those four books are highlighting different parts of our culture and things that will enable us to be successful. That’s all part of the onboarding process and the culture that we’re building and have built here.
Alejandro: Love it. You’re mentioning now the reading, and we were talking about before how you have been able to adapt yourself to the growth of the business as well because for you, obviously, this is the first rodeo, and it’s a steep learning curve regardless. But, obviously, the first business also is not easy. But I wanted to ask you here like what in your case like when you were about to make really solid, informed decisions about strategic initiatives or growth initiatives or whatever that was, what have been your typically go-to resources?
Eric Kinariwala: I assume you’re talking externally. Right?
Alejandro: It could be like people, maybe you’ve built a board of advisors or a board of directors, or maybe you have certain books that really help you. Whatever helped you, I guess.
Eric Kinariwala: Sure. I’d say there are three things. One is, and I encourage every founder when the company can afford it to get an executive coach. One is work with a coach. I think everybody needs an external perspective on their performance. Like Tiger Woods has a golf swing coach, and it is just so important to be able to get external feedback and perspective on the whole variety of challenges, but also managing your own psychology. That has been a really powerful tool that’s been productive for me. Two is, it’s kind of lame because every startup founder says this, but I do think the two best books that I’ve read like Ben Horowitz’s, The Hard Things about Hard Things is just like really, really true and always rings true. I think it’s just awesome and excellent. I go back often to there are two classes at Stanford that I took. One was with a professor, Joel Peterson, and the other with a guy named Jim Ellis, both very successful entrepreneurs and teach management and entrepreneurship classes. Those notes are always super helpful from a class called Managing Growing Enterprises, and the other one’s around Early Change Venture Back Businesses. Just some of the really tactical things that come up day-to-day in managing a relatively large team. Then the third is I lean on—I’m fortunate to have a really strong set of peers throughout my whole life, many of whom have been successful entrepreneurs. Others who are running companies at similar stages. Then we put just an awesome—the board we have here is really wonderful and has a ton of experience in investing in some of the best, fastest growing companies in the world. So, they have a lot of perspective as well between Thrive and a firm called Gladebrook Capital that’s another one of our capital partners.
Alejandro: Got it. So, where do you see Capsule in the future, Eric?
Eric Kinariwala: Capsule is positioned to be the hub of healthcare. The pharmacy is the most frequent thing you do in your health. People use the pharmacy five times more than they go to the doctor. What I always think about, what I always wonder is when I look at the home screen of my phone, and anyone’s phone, there’s everything else you do in your life on that home screen. There’s a map app, there’s a transport app, there’s a way to get a taxi, groceries, take photos, chat with your friends, but there’s no app on your phone and there’s no real estate on your phone devoted the most important thing in your and your family’s life and that’s your healthcare. It’s crazy that that doesn’t exist. That needs to be the go-to, high-trust brand that you go to get anything with your healthcare whether that’s your prescriptions, whether that’s seeing a doctor online, whether that’s booking an appointment, whether that’s buying non-prescription products. So, the vision for Capsule is to be the first choice when people think about their healthcare to be that hub, and to do that not only for consumers, but to help connect consumers with their doctors, with pharmaceutical companies, with hospitals, and with drug companies.
Alejandro: That’s amazing. If you, and I always ask this question to guest. If you could go back to the past and give yourself advice before launching a business. Let’s say you were on day one of Capsule, knowing what you know now, what one piece of advice would that be and why?
Eric Kinariwala: That’s a really good question. I think it would be to be more confident earlier. I think it’s a scary thing to start a company, and it’s a scary thing to take other people’s money, and it’s a scary thing to hire people who their livelihood depends often on the decisions you make. But I think that founders often underappreciate how much that they’ve rolled an idea over in their head. It’s like that, “You can become an expert in something if you think about it or practice and engage in it for 10,000 hours.” I think most founders get to that 10,000 hours very, very quickly. I think it’s trusting your intuition. Trusting your gut, and it’s moving fast and right based on those things, and to have the confidence to be aggressive when what you’re seeing in the business and the team and the momentum demands that and not just step around that. I think it’s just being fast and right.
Alejandro: That’s really cool. Eric, what is the best way for folks that are listening to reach out and say “Hi”?
Eric Kinariwala: I’m on Twitter @ekinariwala is probably the best way.
Alejandro: Okay, fantastic. Eric, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the DealMakers show. Thank you so much.
Eric Kinariwala: Thank you so much. Great to spend time with you.