Thom Van Every trained at the University of Birmingham Medical School and graduated in 1995. He worked as a junior doctor in London, Jersey and Cape Town before specialising in Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
He was awarded his MRCOG in 2000 and then left full time clinical medicine to study an MBA at London Business School. After his MBA he worked for Deloitte Consulting before setting up DrThom.com and co-founding a private medical insurance company called PatientChoice.
DrThom was purchased by the national pharmacy chain Lloydspharmacy in 2011, where Thom is now Medical Director, with responsibility for their online doctor service (www.lloydspharmacy.com/doctor). PatientChoice was sold to Westfield Health in the same year. Thom also sits on the healthcare panel of several venture capital companies. He remains very interested in disruptive innovations that improve the delivery of healthcare.
I set up DrThom in my living room while working in a sexual health clinic in London. I was a Senior House Officer (SHO) doing Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the time. The idea came from the observation that patients seeking sexual health care found it hard to access a clinic during the day and embarrassing when they got there. I wondered if we could improve the service for patients by removing the need for a face-to-face consultation and instead put it online.
Setting out on my own was an iterative process. I wasn’t a full time SHO one day and a full time entrepreneur the next. Instead the idea was developed as a hobby and then over time at business school into a more developed plan. Even after business school it remained a hobby for several years, but a hobby that just kept growing and growing until it was clear that it needed fulltime commitment to make it work.
Did you have any experience of business or entrepreneurship prior to starting your own company?
My very first business was selling golf balls back to players who had hit them into my parents’ garden! I was about 7 or 8yrs old and our house backed onto a golf course and the practice fairway. Players were always hitting balls over and keen to buy balls cheaply to refill their stocks. They were less interested in the lemonade I also tried to sell them!
Before starting DrThom as a proper business I helped set up a private medical insurance company. That was around 2003. Through contacts I was introduced to an insurance broker who needed help on the medical side to develop a series of products. We raised some money from private investors and set up the business. We made many, many mistakes on the way but finally the business was bought last year which is great. In fact I feel that many of the lessons learnt from that business helped to make DrThom a success as I had more experience by then.
You have an MBA from London Business School. How has that helped you in your business?
I found doing the MBA very helpful. It really helped me to appreciate the variety of tools and approaches that you can use to solve business problems. Coming from a medical background there were huge gaps in my knowledge. The MBA filled those gaps. I also focused on several of the entrepreneurial electives offered on the course and these helped a great deal.
Did you have any mentors or role models?
Yes. I have been fortunate to have several mentors to whom I can turn for advice. I also admire all sorts of people who take well-informed but significant risk to really branch out of their traditional career path and achieve something great.
I have always been fortunate to come across helpful mentors both in my medical and business life. I have never had a conscious strategy of cultivating mentors but I have never hestitated to seek advice from those around me. From a clinical perspective try and seek out the views of ‘big picture’ senior colleagues who you sense would be supportive of you and provide encouragement if you decide to take a less traditional medical path. Outside of the medical world it is always worth seeking out entrepreneurs who have ‘done it’ before. These mentors always have a long list of mistakes they made and that you can avoid, and if you take their often good advice they are more willing to want to invest their money in your idea!
How do you feel those mentors have been most helpful?
My mentors have been very helpful for giving advice, funding and contacts. They have also all emphasized to me the value of execution, not just ideas. Many people have ideas for a business- and many will mull over the idea for years. But very few can execute the idea in a way that generates significant value.
Did you have a co-founder?
I founded the company myself but one of my brothers joined the company when we raised our first significant round of finance. He became focused on the commercial side , I become focused on the medical side.
So what was your strategy for building a team?
The basic premise was ‘get the best people you can’. I think we were very lucky to find, be able to attract and to galvanise very competent people to execute and develop the business. My brother and I worked hard to ‘infect’ those around us with enthusiasm for the project.
What have been the toughest hurdles you’ve had to overcome?
The toughest hurdles have definitely been around regulatory barriers to offering online medical care. Our environment is I think a text-book example of disruptive innovation being hampered by regulation , and worse, the ‘establishment’ trying to use regulation to protect the status quo.
If you were starting out now, would you do anything differently?
I think I would have focused on marketing our services purely online rather than anywhere else, and worked harder to get better at Search Engine Marketing much earlier in our development.
What do you see as the greatest opportunities for healthcare entrepreneurs over the next few years?
There seems to be increasing volumes of outcome-related healthcare data available to providers and interested parties. I think there are great opportunities to harness insights from this data to drive better care.
What tips would you offer budding medic entrepreneurs?
There is rarely a perfect moment to launch your entrepreneurial idea and you never have perfect information. But we are so lucky that we can do locums and earn income while developing our plans. Don’t delay!
Describe the entrepreneurial journey in one sentence
A running race of unknown distance.
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