Sterling Lanier – Co-Founder and CEO of Tonic Health

[quote style=”boxed”]The hardest part of bringing ideas to life is simply taking the first step.  Often times, there is a tendency to keep analyzing or over-thinking an idea, therefore muddying the creative process.  Thus, I always try to execute a little bit on any idea just to get something on the table to react to.  And then we refine from there.  Half the ideas won’t make it past the drawing board, but it’s worth the energy.[/quote]

Sterling Lanier is the co-founder and CEO of Tonic Health, a healthcare software firm that is revolutionizing medical data collection through high patient engagement.  Prior to Tonic, Sterling founded and ran Chatter, a leading market research firm that works with a wide range of Fortune 500 companies across multiple industries, including Sony, Disney, the Discovery Channel and Activision.  At Chatter, he helped perfect many of the data collection practices in use today. He is a frequent speaker on brand strategy, research innovation and customer experience design.

Prior to founding Chatter, Sterling Lanier was a senior consultant at management consultancies Prophet and Tattoo.  Sterling holds a BA from Duke University and an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

What are you working on right now?

I’m spending my waking hours (and it feels like some of my non-waking ones, too) turning healthcare into a consumer product.  We are doing this through Tonic Health, which is revolutionizing medical data collection by making it hyper patient-friendly and less chore-like. This translates into greater patient engagement, more accurate data, improved patient screening and tracking and lower costs for healthcare organizations everywhere.  In other words, our software platform is a huge win for patients and healthcare systems alike.

Where did the idea for Tonic Health come from?

We were conducting a related project for the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, a large hospital system in Northern California, and noticed the need for dramatically improved patient data collection, especially in-clinic.  So we gathered a team of top engineers, consumer marketing experts, designers, scientists and clinicians and set out to build a better patient experience from the ground up—the result of which was the Tonic platform.

What does your typical day look like?

I could start with the standard yarn that no day is typical as an entrepreneur, but you’ve heard that one before.  Thus it generally involves herding a variety of metaphorical cats and trying to convince them all to run in the same direction.  I always try to carve out time for either a little play (if I’m on the road) or dedicated time with my wife and kids (if I’m at home) since your brain needs time to let the creativity bucket fill back up so you can keep generating fresh ideas.

How do you bring ideas to life?

The hardest part of bringing ideas to life is simply taking the first step.  Often times, there is a tendency to keep analyzing or over-thinking an idea, therefore muddying the creative process.  Thus, I always try to execute a little bit on any idea just to get something on the table to react to.  And then we refine from there.  Half the ideas won’t make it past the drawing board, but it’s worth the energy.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Consumer-centricity and design invading even the most archaic industries.  But of course we are excited by this trend since we are leveraging it to our advantage in the healthcare field!

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

In my last semester of college, I co-founded a Mexican restaurant right off campus called the Cosmic Cantina.  Though we were successful by any metric (it’s still going strong 15 years later), I realized that you have to truly love what you’re doing in order to put up with the pain and suffering that comes with being an entrepreneur.  I just didn’t have the burning passion for running a restaurant that I have for other endeavors.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would have listened to my gut and done it even sooner.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I constantly ask myself if we are always doing what’s best for the customer, even if it’s not best for us.  If you always have a maniacal focus on over-delivering for your customer, everything else will follow.  It may be counterintuitive, but acting in your customer’s best interest always comes around to benefiting your own self-interest.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I believe the best business ideas start with spotting an unfulfilled consumer need. Thus the real idea for people is to pick an industry that they either know a lot about or have a passion for and then do heaps of customer research to find out what there is a need for.  I’m not a huge believer in those ideas that, however cool and sexy, don’t really solve a problem or pain point for people.  Then you just end up with something cool and sexy…and worthless.

Tell us a secret.

I was once the mascot for the Oakland Athletics baseball team.  I figured that was the only way I could claim to have been a member of a professional sports team. I just tell people “I used to be on the A’s” and hope they don’t ask the obvious follow-up questions!

What are your three favorite online tools and what do you love about them?

  • is arguably the bible for all entrepreneurs.  Don’t pass go without reading his stuff.
  • can make you cocktail conversational on just about anything.
  • keeps you up to date on all the things you need to know now.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

It’s not a book but a magazine: The Economist.  It’s the one thing I make a point to read cover to cover each week. Read everything, not just the business articles. It saves my hide in high level meetings at least 2-3 times per year.  Plus, it gives me a broad overview of global macro trends and constantly populates my head with ideas.  Lastly, its short and to the point; I don’t have time to read an entire book on a single subject.

What’s on your playlist?

Mostly podcasts.  I love the Freakonomics and Marketplace podcasts.  It’s great to get a workout in while still populating your brain.

If you weren’t working on Tonic Health, what would you be doing?

I’d be out talking to people trying to find the next big gaping hole and determining how design and consumer-centricity can fill it.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

I laugh out loud everyday.  Life’s too short to take yourself too seriously.  Plus, no one will want to work at your company if it’s chock full of corporate stiffs who don’t know how to see the humor all around us.

Who is your hero?

Anyone who has the gumption, the passion and the will to survive by starting his or her own business is my hero. Non-entrepreneurs don’t fully realize how hard it is—and the darkness and loneliness that it sometimes requires.  I respect anyone who can make that leap of faith; they inspire me daily!

And I am defining “entrepreneur” here broadly: it can include not just business folks but also artists, writers, activists and more—basically, anyone who rejects the comfort and safety of the status quo for something they believe in.  They are the real heroes. They create jobs, ideas and culture. They move society forward.

How much does luck play a role in entrepreneurial success?

It matters a lot and not at all.  I’m a big believer that you create your own luck.  As long as you work as hard as you can, always do what’s right for the customer, act with integrity and honesty across all of your relationship and never show up unprepared, opportunities will often find you.  You certainly need the lucky breaks, no question, but those breaks will never happened if you don’t place yourself in a position to capitalize on them in the first place.

What impact does entrepreneurship have on your family life?

Entrepreneurship is going to take a toll on big aspects of your life; you just have to decide which ones you are willing to let it impact.  For me, spending time with my wife and kids is paramount—thus, I pretty much devote all of my available free time to them.  But this means I don’t have as much time to do other things that I used to enjoy for myself, like playing golf, watching movies or the obligatory annual “guys trips.”   It also means I do painful stuff like routinely taking redeyes so I can get an extra night at home with the family.  Life’s full of tradeoffs—only you can decide how to prioritize.


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