Interview with Heidi Jannenga, PT, Co-founder of WebPT - May 2014

The following is not original material. This interview is reproduced with permission from Cinema, a former Twitter personality & blogger who left the social media world. The reproduction is intended to preserve & share Cinema's insightful interviews.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Heidi Jannenga, PT, Co-Founder & COO of WebPT. I find her transition from a Physical Therapist to founder of a company – thriving in the young and growing sector of HealthCare Electronic Medical Records – nothing short of fascinating. This is a truly remarkable story & interview. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. You can find her on twitter @HeidiJannenga and also connect with WebPT @WebPT

Your career has undergone a transformation over the last 8 years. What challenges did you have to overcome to allow this to happen? (Read the full story on WebPT’s inception here and here)

Most of us get into PT because we want to help people. That instant reward and gratification of seeing patients get better and improve under my care was exhilarating. That’s the reason I became a physical therapist. So, shifting my focus away from the day­-to-­day, hands-­on, direct patient care was definitely a challenge, and a major life change—both mentally and physically.  It took me about a year to get comfortable with the idea that my “need” to help people could still be fulfilled by helping my peers and my profession evolve. Plus, I could still help patients—even more patients—not through direct patient care, but by helping to educate and influence my colleagues. As for the physical part of it, I honestly never thought the day would come when I would have a desk job. We did just get a treadmill desk installed at the office, so I’m not ready to completely give up being on my feet for a good chunk of the day.

As a leader, the transformation from clinic director to business owner was a new and completely different challenge. Guiding my company through multiple transitions, including taking in a round of funding in 2010, really opened my eyes to a whole new business world I was unfamiliar with prior to launching WebPT. I sometimes think of it as getting your MBA through on-­the-­job training—except the stakes are high, because it’s your business and livelihood on the line with each and every decision, not to mention the livelihoods of our employees. Although I’m not traditionally a risk taker,  I now see myself as an entrepreneur. I have embraced the fact that we have made and will continue to make a few mistakes along the way, but that’s OK. It’s a tough pill to swallow when you are a perfectionist, but this is all part of the learning process—and my evolution as a person and as a business owner.

One of the challenges many start-ups face is keeping a low overhead while gathering the right personnel. How did you accomplish this in the early years of WebPT?

For the first few years, we all wore a lot of hats. And when I say “we all” I mean the three of us, really. I was the HR department, the accounting team, the lead salesperson, the entire marketing crew, and the PT subject matter expert—so, pretty much anything that needed to be done. Oh, and at this time I was still working full­-time as a multi-­site clinic director, overseeing a staff of 45. My then-boyfriend, now-­husband Brad created the software technology, but in the early days he was also our desktop support, customer service rep, system administrator, product manager, and user ­interface designer. He even taught our first employee, Matt, HTML so he could help us build the first WebPT website. We hired Matt to do sales, but like all of us, he believed in the vision, possessed an entrepreneurial spirit, understood why we did things the way that we did them, and pitched in wherever needed.

Hiring the right people and, of course, creating a product that meets the needs of our customers allowed us to bootstrap the company for four years before even considering outside funding. We have always hired for spirit and culture—true A-­players—over a stacked resume. The mantra “hire slow and fire fast” is something that we have abided by since our company’s inception. In taking our time to ensure we’re truly hiring the right people—people who truly share in our  vision—we’ve allowed for innovation to happen organically. Ultimately, when you’re a startup, you don’t have much to bargain with, so people really have to believe in what you’re doing, in what the company is going to achieve. And when people buy in like that and show that kind of loyalty, amazing things can happen.

I have enjoyed the responsiveness of WebPT on Twitter. How important is social media to WebPT and the world of Physical Therapy in general?

We pride ourselves on being forward thinking and innovative, so embracing social media is very important to us as a company and to the world of physical therapy in general. You have to be responsive. We want to be in the conversation, and that means engaging with the community, not speaking at them or selling to them. We are a business, so we obviously leverage social media for marketing purposes, but our social media team is actually part of the PR department, and if you follow our Twitter account, you know we don’t do a whole lot of direct selling.

Personally, I was hesitant to join Twitter. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put myself out there like that, but our social media manager really encouraged me to test the waters, and I have to say, I am really happy I did. As for the world of physical therapy, social media can be huge. One of our challenges as private practice PTs is creating a unified front to accurately brand our profession in a concise and memorable way—a way that will resonate with the general public. Social media can help us combat that challenge. Through social, we can engage in meaningful conversation with other therapists, healthcare professionals, and—most importantly—consumers.

Congrats on making it on the list of 500 Fastest Growing companies in the US! “Company culture” is an integral part of a growing company. Tell us about WebPT’s culture.

Thank you! Making the Inc. 500 list of America’s Fastest Growing Companies is something we are incredibly proud to have accomplished. And you’re right, our company culture has been an integral part of our company and a catalyst for our growth and success. When Brad and I started this company, we intentionally set out to build a place that we would want to come to every day. We’ve always held ourselves accountable to a certain set of values, and those values served as the basis of our company culture. But we didn’t dictate our company’s culture. Instead, we held a massive company brainstorming session. There were about 40 of us at that time, and we met in our conference room and filled an entire whiteboard with words, phrases, and terms we  associated with who we wanted to be as a company, what we wanted to be known for, and the things WebPT employees considered most important when it came to their work environment.

We then boiled all of that down to our original six culture commitments. (Recently, we added two more to reflect our growing company, so now we have a total of eight.) These are the values that define our company and set the expectations for all of our employees. To stay agile, we promote autonomy at WebPT. When we need to make decisions, our teams know to vet the outcome  against our core commitments to ensure it’s consistent with our values. We hold each other  accountable for adhering to these commitments, and when we bring new people aboard the WebPT ship, it’s because they are rockstars not only at their jobs, but also in demonstrating these values. These core values are intimately intertwined throughout the entire company from interviews to performance reviews to strategic planning. I won’t go into detail here, but anyone interested can check out our actual Team Commitments here: WebPT Team Commitments.

How do you & your husband balance work & family life? Do you have unsaid (or said) rules to keep work from consuming your time together?

We get this question a lot, and it is most commonly followed by some version of “I could never work with my significant other.” I credit our differences as being what has made us successful—a balance of yin and yang. He is a risk taker; I am not. He sees the forest; I see the trees. He is the idea guy; I am the executor. Combine our individual strengths, and we’re a force to be reckoned with. We also started the company on equal footing. I didn’t know squat about building software and he didn’t know a CPT code from a talus. Our individual areas of expertise demanded mutual respect and didn’t allow or call for much overlap in our respective areas. It worked!

As for our working relationship, Brad and I did try to set some ground rules initially—like keeping work at work—but found it almost impossible to consistently stick to them. The key has been communication, especially setting aside time to simply talk as husband and wife, making work talk off limits. We go on occasional date nights and vacation together as a family, and since Ava (our amazing three­-year-­old daughter) was born, we adjusted our hours so we each get to spend time with her daily and make sure she’s a priority. I come to work later in the morning, after my daily breakfast with Ava, and Brad usually leaves a little early to get some father-­daughter time in the evenings. We also do a really good job sharing any sort of home chores. It has not always been easy, and as is the case with any relationship, it’s a constant work in progress. That being said, I am extremely grateful to have found a man who supports my goals and dreams and now also helps support my profession.

So to me, the word balance is misleading. There are days when I wish I spent more time at home with Ava, and there are days I wish I had more time for work. What’s important is that it all evens out in the end. Brad and I are also partial to that saying “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” We truly love what we do! That’s not to say it isn’t a challenge to achieve that balance you talk about, but it’s certainly a lot easier when you are passionate about your work.

Every founder & CEO seems to have a daily ritual. Some have morning rituals, others have after-work rituals. What’s your ritual?

To be honest with you, I don’t really have a daily ritual. I do make a point to have breakfast with Ava every morning before I head to work. Otherwise, I go to Yoga and/or the gym a few times a week and find other ways to stay active like hiking, but that’s pretty much it as far as a daily ritual goes. We also just added that treadmill desk to our office, so that may be a new daily ritual in the making. I’ll keep you posted!

You are involved in an amazing intersection of technology & medicine. Where do you see this movement leading us over the next 3-5 years?

Healthcare technology is obviously a hot topic, but let’s make this specific to PT. Where do I see it leading us? I imagine patient­-centered medical teams (with PTs as a vital part of that core  team of medical providers), giving patients access to true integrated care through technology. The healthcare industry isn’t using physical therapy to its fullest potential. That’s why I’ve been talking so much about the need for interoperability.

Interoperability occurs when diverse systems and organizations work together for an overarching goal—providing excellent care to our patients. In healthcare, interoperability focuses on successful information exchange across all healthcare platforms. Both communication and technology play massively important roles in achieving seamless data exchange.

And as patients become more technologically savvy, they’re quickly expecting the same from their providers—with some even deciding who to seek care from based on the provider’s ability to offer technology­-enabled solutions. That’s where EMR comes into play, and that’s not a WebPT plug (well, it is a little bit). That’s just healthcare­-specific technology. I am also passionate about using marketing technology to help elevate our brand as physical therapists and help get the word out about the value we offer patients.

What is your vision for Physical Therapy in the next 5 years? What are you doing to make this a reality? And how can PT’s across the country help?

I really embrace the APTA’s Vision 2020 statement. It’s a shame they’ve moved on to something less tangible. Physical therapists have a branding problem. No one knows who we are, what we do, the value we offer to patients, and the dollars we can save the healthcare industry. Therefore, we must brand PT. I just spoke about this at an industry conference organized by the Independent Physical Therapists of California (iPTCA) and the Physical Therapy Business Association  (PTBA). To the average consumer, there’s still a shroud of mystery around physical therapy and what it is that therapists do. And because of our reliance on referrals, we have diminished our brand as “lower on the totem pole” to that of physicians and even chiros. If potential patients don’t understand what we do, why would they ever think of physical therapy when they are injured or in pain? How could they possibly know to make that connection if it isn’t clear they can benefit from our services? We now have direct access in all 50 states, but is it making a difference? Do we know how to capitalize?

We have to put ourselves in a position to compete. I want us to make ourselves so relevant that when people think of, speak of, or experience back pain, knee pain, shoulder pain, surgery recovery, incontinence, they think of physical therapy—immediately—and know exactly where to find a PT within their community. When people have any one of these issues and they ask “what do I do now?,” there should be one clear answer: Get PT. It’s short, simple, and memorable, and it seems to work. We’ve market tested the idea over the last year and the imagery and messaging is resonating. #GetPT is recognizable and action-­oriented. It’s not the magic bullet solution to all our problems. It is, however, a tool we can all leverage to help brand our profession and ensure that we control our own destinies.

I hope you’ll join us in our efforts to better brand private practice physical therapy. We’ve talked a lot about the possibilities and the potential to take our branding to the next level, but none of this is doable without a united front and a unified effort. All of us would benefit from more patients seeking physical therapy more often. I want to set aside the silos and forget specialties for the moment and focus on one singular goal: getting patients through the doors of private practices across the country.

Life is more than just work. Tell us about one of your most memorable “outside-of-work” experiences.

Getting married to Brad on a beach in Hawaii comes to mind immediately. Of course, the birth of my daughter Ava was one of my most rewarding and memorable life experiences. We also just went on a family vacation to Austria, which is where my father was born. My mom and dad, my brother and his wife, Brad, Ava, and I all spent about two weeks traveling the country in a ten-­passenger van, visiting every place my father has ever lived and making what will surely be lifelong connections with my dad’s side of the family. It was incredible—not to mention the country and its rich history, breathtaking scenery, and delicious food.

Thanks for the opportunity to interview you! It was a pleasure to get to know you better and glean some of the lessons you’ve learned over the years. My readers & I wish you & WebPT the best of luck. The future is bright.

Find Heidi on twitter @HeidiJannenga

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