Setting a price for your product is one of the most important decisions a medical device startup will ever make. A recent A16Z podcast reminds us that “There’s no other single number that ties to the valuation” of your company.
Once set, prices are hard to raise. If you price too low, you can leave millions of dollars of revenue and profits on the table, starving your company of the funds it needs to re-invest in growth. If you price too high, product adoption will suffer.
In a 2006 presentation, Intuitive touted data that by implementing the da Vinci marketing programs, large hospitals could triple their prostatectomy volume from pre-robotic surgery levels, and small hospitals could grow their volumes by a factor of 10.
A great procedure and a consumer brand are necessary but not sufficient to drive adoption. Referring physicians can still be a bottleneck, preventing patients from even getting to your proceduralist. Many patients are like my mom, who routinely asks her doctor about new medications and procedures for her various medical conditions. If her physician doesn’t know about the procedure, or doesn’t feel comfortable with it, she won’t recommend it.
Robotic surgery has great consumer appeal. But it wasn’t always that way, and patients definitely prefer one brand – Intuitive Surgical’s DaVinci robot. Consumer preference helps drives system sales and ongoing device usage. We can learn a lot from Intuitive.
“Build it and they will come” doesn’t work when it comes to new medical procedures. For patients, unfamiliarity and unawareness breeds anxiety. Patients don’t come, and many companies experience slower-than-planned early revenue growth (aka the valley of death).
Treating and referring physicians have precious little time to explain new procedures during typical office visits. So most medical device companies create patient brochures for physicians to hand out, posters and videos for providers to display, and patient-friendly websites for additional research. Then they hope for the best.
Big pharma, on the other hand, goes big with Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising. Who doesn’t know the Nexium purple pill for heartburn? Valeant and Astra-Zeneca even advertised during the 2016 SuperBowl. Pharma experience makes one thing abundantly clear: a strong consumer brand can really drive prescriptions and brand preference. Yet for most medical device companies, DTC is simply out of reach.
That didn’t stop Intuitive and its DaVinci robotic surgical system. So how have they built the DaVinci brand?
No one does the vision thing better than Elon Musk. But he is even a visionary about vision. His grand visions inspire consumers and employees. But he also knows that visions need grounding in credibility. Overly grand ambitions generate skepticism and backlash. So Tesla has smartly scaled its vision over time, as its accomplishments have grown.
Medical device companies and auto manufacturers depend on a network of dealers or distributors, to market, sell and service manufacturers’ products around the world. It’s the accepted way of doing business, and it’s expensive. I’ve had great relationships with distributors, in the US and around the world. They perform an important set of services, but they are also expensive. Distributors can cost 25% of revenues (or more depending on local pricing). Compare that percentage to the percentage of revenues you spend on R&D.
So I’ve been pretty impressed that Tesla has gone dealer-free. They’ve up-ended the traditional model, and I think it’s time for medical device companies to rethink the role of the medical device distributor. If you’re a medical device distributor, it’s time you rethink your business model too.
To understand why Tesla went dealer-free, let’s look at the reasons auto manufacturers needed dealers in the first place, and what has changed.
In almost every business, customers weigh the downside of poor product reliability more than the upside of new product features. Consumer demand for reliability has driven automotive industry design improvements for the last few decades.
Achieving reliability for innovative products is pretty hard. Tesla has delayed new models to hit performance, cost and reliability objectives. My guess is that they have some pretty sophisticated product testing. Nevertheless, real world experience is never the same as bench testing, and even for Tesla the need for after-sales service is a fact-of-life.
Most vehicle manufacturers and medical equipment manufacturers manage after-sales service as a profit center. Tesla has taken a different approach to its real world reliability issues. Innovative medical equipment companies can learn a few things from Tesla’s approach.
In my last post, I mentioned Tesla’s brand identity – technology, performance, design. Tesla consumers pay up for the brand and its design. In brand strategy, I (and others) see a lot of parallels between Tesla and Apple. Both are status brands, and both use their brand identity to maintain premium pricing. Tesla has clearly been paying attention.
Take a look at Apple’s brand – design, performance, and reliability. People pay significantly more for Apple products than for similarly performing products from other companies. When the iPhone first appeared, its performance blew away other then-existing smartphones. Over time, it’s hard to say that Android phone performance hasn’t caught up with the iPhone. All the same apps. Great processing, camera and screen technologies. Sharp-looking industrial design. Most reviewers rate Google Now as better than Siri. Yet Apple is the smartphone company making the profits.
Apple leveraged their early technology lead to build their brand, and now the brand delivers the economic rents. Apple Music is a late entrant to the streaming music market, but its brand enabled it to quickly become a top player.
Now let’s look at Tesla and its electric vehicles. Nothing else on the road performs like Tesla’s current lineup, and Tesla can charge a premium for their products. Like Apple, Tesla’s product design, manufacturing quality and subsequent product reliability are outstanding. Tesla is using its early technology lead to build its brand identity for technology, performance, design and reliability. If/when competitor technologies eventually catch up to Tesla, Tesla will still be able to earn economic rents on their brand.