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Healthy above all: Genomic Health CEO's guide to starting a great business

Chris Seper

Being smart doesn’t get Kim Popovits excited.

Popovits, the CEO for Genomic Health, said any good early-stage company can grow smart people and, more importantly, maximize their workers’ potential if the business focuses on building a healthy company.

Popovits – inspired in part by Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage – outlined these key strategies to the audience at the Kauffman Life Science Venture Summit on Friday:

  • Be passionate about why you exist
  • Establish and embrace a small, specific set of non-negotiable values
  • Hire to your “why” and values – “smart” isn’t enough
  • Build a culture of candor
  • Be clear and aligned around a strategy that helps define success and differentiate you from competitors – clarity, clarity, clarity
  • Reward collaborative ownership

“The data on how much is left on the table at the end of the day because we’re not healthy is staggering,” Popovits said. “It’s amazing the capacity you can get by leveraging what you have. But what do companies do? They hire more. No.”

And leveraging what you have doesn’t mean working longer hours. It means candor, about people being comfortable sharing and similar values, she said.

Genomic Health has built a series of cancer tests that help patients make better decisions about the treatments they should receive. The company posted $58 million in revenues in the most recent quarter (a 17 percent increase over last year) and is capitalizing and expanding on market segments worldwide valued at a total of $3.5 billion.

Genomic Health’s success is due in part to the way they’ve understood their tests. Popovits told the 200 people at the summit that they learned their breast cancer tests could determine what treatments early-stage breast cancer sufferers should use. But they went further and studied what percentage of patients would actually listen to this advice.

Popovits said that Genomic Health would be even better if she had adopted all those health tenets at the beginning of her company. Companies will save money and find the best employees by building a company around that philosophy, she said.

She notes that some studies suggested an interviewer will decide whether to hire someone within 10 minutes. But it will take them two years to extricate the company from a bad hire.

“What happens over the 2-year period? Lost productivity. Lost morale.”

And clarity isn’t just about mission.

And she continues to drive clarity to her team today. After she saw a major league pitcher and his team celebrate pitching a perfect game, she walked into a team meeting and asked: What does it look like when we pitch a perfect game? What would you say a perfect game is?

“How are you celebrating that?” she asked the audience. “We’re all driven to keep going on to the next project.”

What isn’t Popovits a fan of? Posting your value and mission statements throughout the company.

“We don’t put them on walls and slides. We live them,” she said. “It’s not going to matter if you put it on someone’s door. Why are we here and what are we doing?

“How can work be meaningful if they are pipetting all day long?”

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