We often hear people say, ‘timing is everything.’ For Dana Sellers, that seemed to be the case, as she co-founded two companies — Trinity Computing and Encore Resources — at the time when they were most needed in the industry. But while timing is certainly important, it’s not everything. During her career, which spanned more than three decades, Sellers demonstrated an uncanny knack for leveraging her knowledge and industry relationships to be able to anticipate what’s coming down the pike.
Recently, healthsystemCIO.com spoke with Sellers about the risky move of starting a company during a financial downturn, her strategy when it comes to identifying top talent, why strong governance is essential, and what she considers to be the key challenges – and opportunities – for CIOs.
- “I’m a chemical engineer by training
- Starting Trinity Computing – “We didn’t know we were pioneers; we just thought it sounded like a good idea.”
- Goal to be 100% referenceable
- Consulting with Healthlink – “I loved working with clients.”
- 20 years working with Ivo Nelson
- Leaving IBM to start Encore
- I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be fun to do it one more time?”
- Fortuitous timing with ARRA
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We were both still in our 20s, and we didn’t know what we didn’t know. And so we learned everything as we went. We didn’t even know we were that cutting edge. We didn’t know we were pioneers; we just thought it sounded like a good idea.
We said, ‘you know what? 100 percent may not be achievable. Someday, we may meet that customer we just can’t make happy, but that’s our goal. We’re not going to back off of it. We’re going to communicate it to our people, and we’re going to do everything we can to achieve it.’
Every time I would go out and meet with a client, I’d learn something from them. I enjoyed hearing about their challenges and their problems because, as an engineer, I love solving problems. Each time, I felt like I came away smarter.
I just knew that I wanted to get back into a small consulting environment, and we were very fortunate that, all of a sudden, there was this additional impetus for the industry to really do some important things.
The strategy we settled on was that we’ll grow as fast as the market wants us to, but within the constraints of that 100 percent referenceability. We’ll never go so fast that we can’t make our clients happy.
Gamble: I think the best place to start is to get some background on your career. What was your first foray into healthcare?
Sellers: I’m a chemical engineer by training, and I started my career with IBM. I worked in a part of IBM that sold large mainframe computers to the oil industry. I worked with an individual named Jim Pritchett whose family had a company that was in the healthcare field. One day, before the IBM PC even existed, Jim came to me and said, ‘hospitals are big users of technology. They use mainframes to send out bills and do patient accounting, but there’s hardly any automation in the specialized departments of a hospital like cardiology or radiology.’ Those areas hadn’t really been automated yet. In every other industry, automation had gone out to the end user, but not in healthcare.
We talked about it, and we concluded that part of the reason healthcare hadn’t adopted technology in the specialized departments was that the mainframes weren’t very well-suited. We saw the emergence of personal computers and we said, ‘let’s start a company that uses personal computers to do specialized things for departments in hospitals.’ We knew that the IBM PC was coming soon, so we thought, ‘that’ll legitimize it and we’ll be in the right place at the right time.’ We started a company called Trinity Computing. That was my very first toe in the water in healthcare, and I’ve been there ever since.
Gamble: That was some pretty cutting-edge thinking as far as where the industry was going, or at least where it should’ve been headed.
Sellers: We were babies. We were both still in our 20s, and we didn’t know what we didn’t know. And so we learned everything as we went. We didn’t even know we were that cutting edge. We didn’t know we were pioneers; we just thought it sounded like a good idea.
Gamble: Right. There was certainly a need there. And you were with IBM for about 10 years before you went to Healthlink to do some consulting?
Sellers: Yes, that’s right.
Gamble: And how did like that? Did you take to it right away?
Sellers: I loved it. At Healthlink, we had this philosophy that we wanted to be 100 percent referenceable. By that, we didn’t mean we’d be 100 percent perfect. We meant we’d do whatever it took to make the customer happy at the end of the day. Well, with a software company, you can never make everybody 100 percent happy. It’s just impossible. It’s always, ‘could you add this feature? Could you change this? I want this on my screen.’ There’s always a list of things that people want, and you can’t do all of them.
So I found consulting, especially with this philosophy of 100 percent referenceability, to be a wonderful environment. I was able to take advantage of what I learned at Trinity, but it’s also very much a problem-solving business, which fit right in with my engineering background. I love to solve problems.
Gamble: When you say 100 percent referenceable, what does that mean in terms of how you do business?
Sellers: When we first started Healthlink, we decided we needed a goal for making our customers happy. And so we said, ‘let’s say that at the end of the day, 100 percent of our customers will give us a good reference.’ But there are always going to be one or two people who aren’t happy. So we thought maybe the goal should be 99, or 98, or even 95 percent. We debated that subject for probably an hour during a retreat. Finally, we said, ‘you know what? 100 percent may not be achievable. Someday, we may meet that customer we just can’t make happy, but that’s our goal. We’re not going to back off of it. We’re going to communicate it to our people, and we’re going to do everything we can to achieve it.’
That was kind of a magic moment in Healthlink, because once people knew that we were committed to that goal and we were serious about it, they really took it to heart. They took it very personally. They were thrilled that the company would stand behind them and help them make the customer happy, because that’s what they wanted to do. That was a really important discussion that led to a lot of Healthlink’s success over the years.
Gamble: When you were in consulting, were there ways in which you would tweak you philosophy or adjust based on different learnings?
Sellers: We always committed to our philosophy. That was the overriding goal all the way through Healthlink — and even when we started Encore. What we did do was tweak how we operated in order to achieve that goal. For example, we might have a project that went really well. And so we would try to capture how we did that so we could teach the next team to do it the same way. If something went wrong, we’d do a lessons learned session and change what we taught so that there would be more information, and the next team would be even more consistently successful.
Gamble: What did you enjoy most about your time consulting?
Sellers: There are a few things. The first is, I love working with clients. I’m retired now, but every time I would go out and meet with a client, I’d learn something from them. I enjoyed hearing about their challenges and their problems because, as an engineer, I love solving problems. Each time, I felt like I came away smarter and better, and maybe had helped them. Maybe I had an idea that could help them solve a problem.
I also loved working with our team. At both Healthlink and Encore, we had amazing teams of people who were very committed to making healthcare a better place. Every time I’d go out and have an opportunity to meet with our people, I came away just inspired and motivated to do even more.
Gamble: Now, when did you first start working with Ivo Nelson?
Sellers: I joined Healthlink in 1992. Ivo was the person who hired me.
Gamble: And then you continued to work together in different capacities.
Sellers: Yes. I worked for Ivo during my years at Healthlink and for several years at IBM after we were acquired. And then when I started Encore, Ivo was my co-investor and chairman of the board at the beginning. So we’ve worked together over 20 years.
Gamble: Why do you think you were able to work together so well? Was it because you had similar values or a similar mindset?
Sellers: You hit it right with values. Ivo and I are very different people. Ivo is a charge ahead, go-go-go type-person, and I’m more, ‘Where are we trying to go? What are the objectives? Is this the right way to do it, and can we engage teams of people to make sure we’ve got the right plan and we’re doing the right things?’ We really were opposites in a lot of ways. The one thing that held us together was we had the same values. And so even though we had different approaches and different ways of thinking, we always came back to that same set of values.
Over time, we developed a mutual respect. He’s a very intuitive thinker. He would just jump to a conclusion and say, ‘We’ve got to do A, B, C.’ And then the engineer in me would say, ‘Wait a minute — I don’t even know what problem we’re trying to fix, much less why we have to do A, B, C.’ I would ask, ‘What’s the objective? What are we trying to accomplish?’ Then I would figure out whether A, B, C was the right answer. I learned over time that usually, he would intuitively reach the right answer. But he respected the fact that my approach to engaging people and getting the right teams in place would allow us to accomplish those goals in a better manner than just forcing it.
Gamble: So it definitely took some time to reach an understanding, and to figure out how to bring out the best qualities in one another?
Sellers: Yes. And I think that mutual respect let us move faster in some ways, because we didn’t have to go through a lot of thrashing. When he said, “I think we need to do this,’ I respected that. It was more a question of, ‘how do we get there’ than ‘why are we going to do that.’
Gamble: Right. Let’s talk about Encore — how it started, and some of the challenges in starting a company during what were some difficult economic times.
Sellers: I was probably crazy, in retrospect. I had a great job with IBM, which is a great company. But I kept thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be fun to do it one more time? To start a company; to be small and nimble.’ Finally, I called a family conference with my husband and my kids, and I said, ‘I’m thinking about leaving this great job and starting a company. I’d have to take our savings, and by the way, these are the worst economic times since the great depression. This is really a crazy thing to do. What do you think?’ My oldest son asked, ‘what do you want to do, mom?’ And I said, ‘I want to do this.’ And he said, ‘then go for it. If you need to, you can move in with me.’ He was still in college, so I don’t know how we were going to do that.
And so, with the full support of my husband and my kids, we started the company; there were some people just crazy enough to come along for the right. Little did we know that the day after we founded Encore, the stimulus package was passed, which included $21 billion for healthcare IT spending. I’d love to say I knew that was going to happen, but I had no clue. I just knew that I wanted to get back into a small consulting environment, and we were very fortunate that, all of a sudden, there was this additional impetus for the industry to really do some important things.
Gamble: Okay. I was going to ask you about the timing. I’m sure it was very encouraging to see something like that.
Sellers: We didn’t even understand at first how significant it would be, or what it would mean, but it was exciting.
Gamble: And as far as the strategy in growing the company, was that something that was challenging to do? How did you make sure it was growing at an appropriate speed?
Sellers: We had discussions about that. Let me touch on strategy first. When we started Encore, over the first 90 days, Ivo and I met with between 120 and 150 healthcare executives. We’d go to Los Angeles and we’d have a breakfast, a lunch, an afternoon meeting, a dinner, and drinks after dinner, and we’d get up and do it again the next day. We asked everybody, ‘What do you need? What do you want Encore to be?’ And we based our strategy on that getting started. We didn’t go in with a predefined definition; we looked into what the market told us.
The second thing you asked about was speed. We had stuff coming out at us so fast that we got worried. We didn’t start Encore with the idea that we were going to be a huge company. We wanted to have a company that did great things for our customers; and all of a sudden, there was this huge demand. We had a concept that was at the root of everything: 100 percent referenceability. And so the strategy we settled on was that we’ll grow as fast as the market wants us to, but within the constraints of that 100 percent referenceability. We’ll never go so fast that we can’t make our clients happy.