How Dave Monahan used transparency to redefine the dental care marketplace

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What do Microsoft and a dental care marketplace have in common? Plenty, if you look at it from the inside-out. Dave Monahan, CEO of Kleer, got his entrepreneurial training at Microsoft, where he learned how to focus on solutions, build transparency, and innovate faster. Today, Dave is building a pandemic-proof culture at Kleer, a dental care marketplace aiming to replace inefficient insurance plans. In this episode of The Modern CFO podcast, Dave and host Andrew Seski talk about the benefits of transparency, where to look for product data, and how Kleer survived COVID-19.

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Key Takeaways

4:22 - Microsoft-made entrepreneur
In his first year at Microsoft, Dave learned from CEO Steve Ballmer how to stay solution-focused.

“The person running that area asked me to present the first 10 minutes of the presentation... when I was done, [Steve’s] first words to me were, ‘I hated that presentation.’ I’m in front of Steve and his leadership team and all the leaders of the group I just joined. And so he goes, ‘let me tell you why.’ And he said, ‘you presented a number of problems. You did not give me any solutions.’ I think I was 29 or so at this point. And then that one for me was, all right. I will never ever do that again. If I'm going to go into a presentation anytime and anywhere, and I am ever going to present any kind of issue or problem, I will not only have the solution, but I'll have the data to back it up.”

6:44 - A model of transparency
Microsoft’s open-access information model encouraged responsibility and encouraged healthy risk-taking.

“Transparency was critical to Microsoft's success. They shared everything. It was the first time I'd been in an organization where you could get information about anything within the company. It was very open. Like these presentations we would do - there was, I can't remember the exact number, maybe 30 or 40 subsidiaries in Microsoft - at the time I could go get ahold of all their presentations and look at all their data and the company would post results on a weekly basis. And you can dig in and take a look at it in as much detail as you wanted. With that transparency though, they're their team's responsibility. So they assumed, ‘okay, if you have all that information, I'm mobilizing you to do things and take risks.’

7:35 - If you gotta fail, do it with data
Microsoft’s corporate culture encouraged rapid experimentation backed by smart data to keep innovation moving.

“The second culture piece that came from Microsoft for me, that I instill in every company I'm at is to try things, you know, always try moving forward. It's okay to fail. I know this is sort of a common term now, but back then it was sort of new for me: good news travels fast, bad news travels faster. Something doesn't work, try things, experiment, it doesn't work, kill it fast. It’s really important to try, but also kill when needed. And so that was our thing - just bringing that sort of culture of experimentation to the company that I'm with. And then the other piece of both of those items needs support from a data infrastructure standpoint. You don't want paralysis by analysis, but you want data and information to support where you're going and the decisions you're making.”


9:25 - The Kleer revolution
Dave’s company, Kleer, is a dental practice marketplace connecting patients, dentists, and affordable care.

“So it's a bit of a parlor game, dental insurance, and it ends up costing the dental practice a lot of money, and patients and employers a lot of money...we decided the dental space needed was an open marketplace where dentists and patients can connect directly without a middleman in the way. We created a platform that enables dental practices to design care plans for the patients. And these care plans can be different because one practice might be tailored towards older patients, but others would be tailored towards younger patients. And then the patients pay a subscription to dental practice. A simple subscription could be twenty-five dollars a month, $30 a month, and they get pretty much everything that's in insurance. You get your exams, your cleanings, your x-rays, and then you get discounts off of other treatments. But it costs about 30 or 40%, less than dental insurance. And it also has like, no, there's only no tax. There's no deductibles, there's no waiting periods, all that stuff's going away because we've gotten rid of that middleman. There's no reason for that middleman to be in the way. And once you get rid of that middleman, get rid of all the wasted inefficiency.”

17:37- Here’s to the milestones
As the company grows, the Kleer team builds camaraderie and motivation with a culture of celebration.

“A big part of how we run Kleer - or any company I'm in - is it's not me making all the decisions. It's me asking others to sort of step in and take responsibility for certain things. And so one person on my team is in charge of making sure we are celebrating and taking a break, making sure everybody is having fun and enjoying themselves. So what he's put in place is once a quarter, we actually go off-site. Now, obviously, the pandemic has caused an issue with this, but prior to the pandemic - and we're going to start it up again as soon as everything's back to normal - is once a quarter, we go out and do something and it can be all kinds of different things from bowling to ax throwing to make sure that's part of our culture is that we're willing to relax and enjoy each other and see each other on a personal side. We find the milestones in the company that really matter, and we celebrate those.

21:20 - How transparency beat COVID-19
How do you save a start-up in a pandemic? Reinforce your transparent culture to rally your team - and extend the courtesy to customers, too.

“So we reflected on that when COVID hit and decided this was a chance to actually rally the company. And to position that as a major challenge, where everybody's going to learn through the challenge, but we're going to have to sacrifice to get through it. So we basically rallied the team around, ‘Hey guys, we're going to get through this, it's going to be some pain along the way, but we're going to come out relatively stronger than any of our competition. So on the other side of this thing, we'll be in a better position than we were prior to it.’ We just basically got feedback from everybody in the company and we had open sessions and everybody was willing to sacrifice. We ended up cutting salaries drastically. We ended up negotiating ahead, my COO went out and negotiated with our vendors to get lots of concessions from a cost standpoint…we actually implemented a thing for our dental practices where they could suspend their subscription. So if a patient was paying a subscription, we enabled dental practices to suspend the subscription until the pandemic passes. Then they can come back into the office. The net was the goodwill we created.”

27:09 - DIY transparency culture
Want an open culture? Stop worrying and allow access to key info - your employees and growth will benefit from it.

“Probably the first thing that comes to my mind is letting go. A lot of people just hold on to information or insight. And what I think is they are either afraid it’s going to get into somebody’s hands and competitor's hands, or they're afraid that people are going to react when they see negative news negatively. And I can see the exact opposite -is that people will protect information. And let's say some leaks, that information is not going to cause damage to you as much as the positive you create by giving it to your company. People, one, when they have data can act smarter and execute better. And then the other is you'll be really surprised at the level of engagement you get from people and the buy-in you'll get once they have information in their hands and their ability to tolerate bad information goes way up.”

30:48 - No skeletons in the office
Dave keeps the info door open to investors to build trust, gain support, and benefit from outsider feedback.

“There's not a business in the world that doesn't have a problem or multiple problems. And I'm not a miracle worker. I'm not going to tell them that they'll never see an issue from me and I'll never have a problem with my business. But I do tell them is I will share my issues with you, but I will also have my plan I'll have my plan for fixing it, but I'd welcome your feedback on those, but all data is exposed...It allows me to one, be free and do what I need to do to run the business, but also sometimes - not all the time - but sometimes they’ll have an insight how to help me. I've had plenty of mentors, CFOs, podcasts try to shake their heads on this one. I had multiple investors come to me with ideas that were horrible. And I'll share information with them. They'll come back, interpret it wrong, come back and say, ‘Hey, here's what you should do’. And I think thank you very much for your feedback, not gonna do it but thank you for your feedback.”

38:14 - Connecting the data dots
Dave prioritizes collecting and understanding data from multiple sources, such as customer feedback.

“The way I look at problems is probably what my core strength is. I think of myself as somebody who can connect a lot of dots, and those dots are all over the place. So some dots are we go and talk to our customers and ask, what do you like about us? What don't you like about it? How can we do that better? Right. They're going to give you a list of things from their perspective. The other thing you got to understand from their perspective, it's really critical, when you're considering different data sources. So great. I understand that some people think, well, that's enough information. Let's go now. It's not actually. Customers don't know what they don't know, and that's one set of data as customers.”

39:56 - Keeping a global view
Along with market and customer analysis, Dave looks to the outside world to get a sense of what’s to come.

“So market research or whatever, market analysis, you've got customer analysis. And then the other thing I try to do is look at the world outside of our market. So I do a lot of reading. And a trickier one is where is the world headed? And sort of where or how can we sort of map to those macro trends? And which ones make sense to us or are relevant to us, and which ones aren’t.”

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