Roby Miller and TelePharm Ride the Wave of a Perfect Storm to Entrepreneurial Success
"I had no idea what I was doing then," Roby Miller said with an unassuming smile, of the first time he met Mike Colwell in 2012. Miller, Founder of TelePharm Technologies, made his admission to Colwell, Executive Director of Entrepreneurial Initiatives for the Greater Des Moines Partnership, at the September edition of the Business Innovation Zone Startup Stories. Miller's timely appearance before a group of entrepreneurs and investors as well as interested parties comes on the heels of the announcement of TelePharm closing a Series A round of funding for $2.5 million from two prominent Iowa businessmen, John Pappajohn and Bruce Rastetter. Miller would recount the path from the business plan Colwell and he sketched out to a company, which will soon employ upwards of 15 people with sizable funding and a significant number of clients in the pipeline awaiting the opportunity to purchase its software as a service product, during an hour long Q&A fielding questions from both Colwell and the attendees.
Key Discussion Topics
A Confluence and a Perfect Storm
Holding a degree in Entrepreneurial Studies from the University of Iowa and a Certification in Advanced Project Management from Stanford University, Miller was a solution in need of a problem when he found that problem in his own backyard, or rather that of his family. Miller's family, in the pharmacy business in rural Iowa, was being forced to close several small town pharmacies as they were no longer profitable. While a few tele-pharmacy solutions were on the market, they were cost prohibitive, and/or cumbersome in their delivery of service. To help the family forestall the closing of even more locations, Miller agreed to research options, but found no viable solutions. "I sort of took it on as a weekend project," Miller said, ultimately developing a prototype which became the first tele-pharmacy implementation in Iowa. While the software was not scalable and far from what it would become, Miller's search for a mission, and his families search for a solution had come together to found TelePharm Technologies.
"There is a lot of churn in the pharmacy market right now with the average owner being 63 years old," Miller explained, noting that 47 rural pharmacies closed in Iowa in just the past year as they could no longer remain viable or recruit pharmacists to small towns. "Somehow we managed to arrive during a perfect storm for tele-pharmacies."
TelePharm offers a remote verification and workflow application with a video conferencing solution for rural pharmacies to operate multiple locations with one pharmacist. The application enables a remote pharmacist to inspect and verify prescriptions at each pharmacy to ensure accurate dispensing filled by the local technicians.
"It's a total game changer for pharmacies," Miller said, allowing them to stay open in sparsely populated rural communities as well as expand into the many locations which currently may have a clinic, but not a pharmacy.
Originally bootstrapped and a recipient of 2012 Demonstration Fund dollars, Miller commented on the differences between seed funding and Series A investors. "In the seed rounds, the investors were a little more hands on. They had a greater personal interest in the product. In series A discussions however it was much more intense and official. They are very serious meetings," he observed, adding that he was helped immensely by J.D. Geneser of LWBJ Financial and a mainstay of the Greater Des Moines (DSM) entrepreneurial investing community. "It helped to have a gray hair in the room on your side," Miller remarked to the delight of Colwell and the other elder statesman in attendance. Miller hopes that any future funding needs can be secured through the banking process.
Sales Process and Cycle
"I wouldn't say I developed everything," Miller said responding to a question about his sales process. "It's more like I made up everything." Pointing to trade shows and emerging partnerships with both pharmaceutical suppliers and the makers of pharmacy management systems as well as social media, Miller admits that the sales process is evolving and that the solution they offer is at this point so unique more sales calls are inbound rather than outbound. "The cycle is all over the place ranging from a few weeks to a year and a half. As we get further down the implementation it will grow shorter," he expected, noting that they have 40 clients awaiting implementation at the moment.
Scalability, Economic Growth and Opportunities
Unlike the prototype, the TelePharm software of today is highly scalable meaning not only can existing pharmacies on the verge of failure be saved by linkage to a partner business in a larger community, but new businesses can be added. While some early naysayers saw the software as eliminating jobs, the truth is that by saving pharmacies that were destined to close and making possible new pharmacies the software is likely to become a job creator.
"The cost of opening a pharmacy is really not that great," Miller, said explaining that pharma suppliers will front the initial inventory, leaving the cost of space and the less expensive technicians. TelePharm makes possible the establishment of pharmacies in locations which were previously considered cost prohibitive, for instance clinics currently without pharmacies. Additionally clinics can utilize the counseling component to offer a consultation with a pharmacist at the clinic as a value add to the clinic services.
"It seems like there are so many different things that we can do from this platform," Miller said of several future opportunities made possible by the data being collected. Keeping his developers focused on the tasks at hand is his immediate challenge, but he knows there is a richness of opportunity in the near future.
When asked if he had an exit strategy, it became clear that Miller enjoyed the team he had put together and the work they were doing far too much for exit to be on his mind. "I have no idea," he replied. "I'm doing what I want to do."
And after all, isn't that one of the enticements of entrepreneur-ism.