Written by Shala Hainer Wednesday, September 14 2011
Snapshot: Linda Nash, co-founder, PartnerMD
A former teacher in Virginia, Linda Nash has a knack for turning ideas for businesses into success stories. She began her entrepreneurial career in 1983 by starting Richmond's first child care facility exclusively for school-age children. She struggled to balance a part-time morning job, the afternoon child care facility, and her own family, but she saw the potential of the business. She knew that owning a business offered a more flexible schedule than her teaching positions.
She continued to create successful, creative child care models, opening convenient workplace child care centers, which she eventually sold to a public company in 1998. She began to consult nationwide with preschool startups, then designed the private preschool and kindergarten program, the Compass Schools, where she served as CEO and chairman of the board for several years.
The idea for PartnerMD was born after Nash couldn't reach her doctor after being thrown from a horse while out of state. She knew there had to be a better way to approach health care. With co-founder Dr. James Mumper, in 2003 Nash opened PartnerMD in Richmond to offer 24-7 access to a doctor and health care information, extensive physicals, and an emphasis on wellness. The main Richmond location is the largest concierge medical practice under one roof and boasts a 95-percent patient retention rate. There are now three offices in Virginia: two in the Richmond area and one outside Washington, D.C., in McLean.
PartnerMD's patient-centered approached hasn't gone unnoticed: its physicals have even been featured in Fortune magazine. Last year, Nash received the 2010 Executive Women in Business Achievement Award from Richmond’s Style Weekly.
A mother of three grown children, Nash lives in Richmond with her husband, Steve. A self-described outdoor person, she spends a good bit of her time away from work hiking and traveling.
Womenetics: Who are your main clients for concierge medical services? How do you market to these clients?
Linda Nash: Our clients are from a broader group than I originally thought. The largest demographic is the 45- to 65-year-olds, mostly executives and working people, but we have everywhere from a 5 year old to a 102-year-old lady in our practice. When I started, I thought it might be more skewed to middle-aged or elderly people, but we have a wide spectrum.
Our greatest source of new clients is referrals. We have 4,200 members in three offices – with that many patients, there is a lot of word of mouth. Thankfully for us, it's positive word of mouth. We use a wide variety of marketing – direct mail, our website, we host a number of events – such as our PartnerMD Women's Night, with healthy foods and fashion – all kinds of speaker series with noted area physicians and our physicians speaking, and we sponsor events in the area. We like to be out and about.
Womenetics: Having 24-hour access to medical information has obvious benefits for clients. Why is this service also attractive to doctors and medical professionals?
Nash: Our company may be more attractive to doctors than clients. We are very picky and turn away quite a few physicians who want to join the practice. The reason they are eager is not that they work less hard, but because traditional doctors see 4,000 to 6,000 patients, but ours typically have 500 to 600 patients. This allows them to have deeper, more quality time with patients. The doctors can think about what the patients need, take time to teach, coach them on changing behaviors, and guide them toward optimal health. A lot feel burnt out by the pace of traditional doctor's offices, where they may see 40 patients per day instead of 14, like the PartnerMD doctors.
Nash: We recently completed a partnership transaction with Markel Ventures. They have acquired us, allowing us to grow a bit faster. This is a whole new phase of our life as a business, and it's very exciting. Markel Corp. follows Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway business model, which means they buy a company and hold it. They don't flip it or change management, and they don't mess with a good thing if it's profitable and well run. They allow the management to have the deep pockets it needs to further the company's goals. They are a unique purchaser. They have been our clients for a while – we have known them for many years and have conducted their executive physicals – so it seemed like a perfect partnership when we started discussing the idea.
Womenetics: How do you manage a 24-hour business and make sure every issue is handled effectively? Do your employees work more from home or from an office?
Nash: All our employees work out of one of our offices. Since we have around 50 employees, we have sufficient layers of management, so that's not an issue. There are two different sides to the business – the business side that I manage and the medical side that my co-founder, Dr. Jim Mumper, handles. It's a nice separation because I'm not a doctor and don't know about the medical piece, but I know a lot about customer service. As for the 24-7 feature of it, you learn that on every vacation, something could come up. I was just on a cruise and had an hour and a half call with my CFO, but that comes with the territory. As a business owner, you are ultimately responsible for the company, and you want your staff to know you are accessible during a crisis.
Womenetics: How are you using modern technology to help your PartnerMD clients, perhaps in ways that are unusual in the medical industry?
Nash: We are very proud of our use of technology. At the end of every executive physical, we give our customers a personal health portfolio. This reminds them of recommended changes in behavior, medications, and goals for the year. We give this to them on a jump drive to have with them at all times, to attach to their key ring if they want to. We also have electronic medical records so that any physician who is on call at any point can see all of a patient's medical history and medication at all times. This allows our doctors to more effectively minister to the patient. We use tablets and iPads in the rooms to gather data for the patients. This allows us to get the information more quickly into the record and share and process that information more efficiently.
Womenetics: What has been your biggest challenge as an entrepreneur? How did overcoming that challenge better equip you for future challenges?
Nash: There have been quite a few challenges, as you can imagine. A year into running the company, I had a situation as we were growing madly and acquiring investors very quickly and burning through cash where some rogue employees tried to take over the company – they tried to kick me out and steal the company. This took me very much by surprise as I was busy outside PartnerMD raising money and working with investors, not seeing the signals inside the office. I learned from that situation, which was very personally challenging.
The investor I was working with pulled out and called his note, and I had to roll the dice on the company and put $1 million of my nest egg into the company – up to that point, my actual financial investment was relatively small. The roll was good one, but it really made me understand how important it is to walk around and talk to people, to look beneath the surface of things as a business owner. Once that happened, I heard many stories of this happening to other businesses – you can really get sideswiped if you're not aware.
I have a very, very supportive husband as well – he believes in me and my ability as entrepreneur. He was willing to take that gamble with me, which was key.
Womenetics: With three young children at home when you started your first business, how did you balance work and family, as well as time for yourself?
Nash: It was challenging, I must say, but my business was child care, so my children could come with me until they started school. They were always down the hall, and I could be with them if I needed to. I didn't exactly work full time because one of the benefits of being an owner and CEO is that you can create your own situations. I decided I wanted to be off when my kids were off and home with them after school, so I made a point to hire more people. I made sure they were good people who could take over when I wasn't there so I wasn't tied there all the time. That's part of the point in owning your own business. My kids had a mom who had a good job and was a strong role model, but I could be there when they needed me. That's different from when I was in the classroom as a teacher.
Womenetics: You have started several successful businesses from scratch. What advice would you give women who want to start a small business?
Nash: Ask a lot of questions of a lot of people. Talk to whoever you can in the field or related to the field and ask out-of-the-box questions. As an entrepreneur, you fall in love with an idea, but you need a lot of perspective to make sure it's the right idea. When you run the initial numbers, discount them by 50 percent. Entrepreneurs are so optimistic – they believe if you build it, they will come. But that's not necessarily the case. I've always discounted the initial numbers, and I've exceeded the numbers every time instead of having to come back and raise a certain amount of dollars.
Having said that, if there is a way for you to do it, go for it. I started my first business with $400. I had to have a morning job selling yearbooks, then my afternoon job was my school-age program. If I had failed, I still had my morning job or could get another teaching job without jeopardizing my family.
As a woman entrepreneur, I would encourage other woman entrepreneurs to ask for help, to ask for what they need. It's not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of strength. It's one thing I've done my whole career – if I need a door opened or advice, I ask, and nine out of 10 people say yes. In the Markel transaction, I had advice from three top brokers in Richmond, talking to me for free because I asked them. I was grateful, and they wanted to help.
Womenetics: What helped you cross the divide between having a great idea for a business -- seeing a need -- and then actually starting the business?
Nash: You just have to start it. Make sure you set a number of how much you want to put into it. Hang out your shingle and start advertising, start marketing. Hedge your bets – set an amount of time for the business to be successful, then reconsider the business after that certain amount of time. Decide if you're going to keep going and how to change the business to make it successful.
Womenetics: What has been your favorite part of your life as an entrepreneur and consultant, and why?
Nash: I love thinking up new ideas for business, and I love the people part of the businesses. When you start a business, you have a couple of people doing sales and working the business. As it grows larger, you work with an executive team. I do a lot of coaching and thinking about who is on the team, challenging them, and working with them on leadership to create a cutting-edge team to make communication better and improve conflict management. As we evolved from a couple of employees to much a larger organization, I enjoyed asking what is not working and brainstorming on ways to fix it. I love coming up with out-of-the-box ideas. Many of the ideas are successful, some aren't, but it's about envisioning. When we came up with the idea for PartnerMD, I could see things in pictures. I saw what it would look like, feel like, and what it would do for people. It's important for entrepreneurs to see the pictures.
Womenetics: You are very active in the community, sharing advice on small businesses, schools, and children's issues, as well as on local and national boards. How do you choose which groups to participate in, and how much time do you donate to these groups?
Nash: In my past life, I overcommitted on too many boards, which became almost a full-time job. At this point, I'm picking one or two. I'm on the advisory board with the visual arts center and the board with the United Way. I looked at the impact the United Way has in our community, giving $18 million in Richmond, and in terms of people falling through cracks. They help preschoolers and the homeless – all people who don't have strong voices. I like the fact they help those groups.
I also mentor people who want to start a business. In the past month, I interviewed with three young people who heard me speak and wanted to come to me and ask where they should go with their lives and what they should do. I don't like to give that kind of advice; instead, I ask more questions to help guide them. There are not a lot of strong entrepreneurial women who can mentor other women, so I enjoy doing that. I guess that's still the teacher in me.
Womenetics: What do you like to do to relax?
Nash: I'm not really a workaholic. I have a lot of friends, and my husband and I are very social. I like to hike and I'm a big reader – I'm a member of a couple of book groups. I like to go out with friends a couple times a week and have a glass of wine after work, and I love to travel. Once you get to a certain point in life and a certain level of success, you able to do these things and have career satisfaction. The key is having really good people at the ranch, who don't need micromanaging, to run the show.
It's really important to have a good work-life balance. It can be consuming to have your own business. I never feel like I have everything checked off the list when I leave work. But I have to turn it off and be present with my family and friends and outside interests.
Based near Atlanta, Shala Hainer has been writing and copyediting since 1995. Beginning her career at newspapers such as the Marietta Daily Journal and the Atlanta Business Chronicle, she most recently wrote and edited articles for several nonprofit organizations before purchasing a flower shop in 2006. She earned a bachelor’s in communications from Jacksonville State University.