Serial entrepreneur Jeff Smith tells the story of his early endeavors as a student, entrepreneur, and dedicated top employee. Jeff started as a coach and worked for free to learn business trades. He then went on to explore his passion for language, which brought him to the place that paved the way for his first venture! Today, he joins Samuel Gbadebo to share the challenges of working in sales and the lessons he learned from working in different markets.
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Pharma Sales To Med Device CEO: The Jeff Smith Story Part 1
I am proud to introduce a fascinating guest. He goes by the name of Jeff Smith. He has a medical technology company that provides solutions for cervical spinal conditions. It’s a two-part interview and what makes these interviews interesting is because he doesn’t have a typical career track. You’re going to be mildly surprised at where he started and even more surprised at the different experiences he had to take him to where he is now.
He’s a serial entrepreneur, has an open mind, the talent to learn, and a curious mind. He connected with the right people at the right time and made the right things happen. It’s an inspiration to hear from someone that started off almost at a level that’s accessible to a lot of people and was able to take everything they learned, do, and transform it into something else driven by their ambition and curiosity.
It’s a reminder that you can be the most talented and smartest in the room. You can have the most experience as far as science is concerned, but that’s not necessarily what’s going to take you to entirely new heights. What’s going to take it to new heights is wanting to go there and being driven by curiosity to improve things, make things better, and solve problems that are presented every day in the world. Jeff is a living embodiment of that.
I’m not going to spoil it. I’m not going to say anymore. I’m going to let you read the blog. As always, we do our best to bring you guests that have insight and innovation. We are doing different things to address all the medical needs within the medical sales community. I do hope you enjoy part one of this interview. Make sure you tune in next week for part two.
Jeff, how are we doing?
I’m doing great, Samuel. Thanks for having me on.
Let’s jump right into it. I’m going to go ahead and let you introduce yourself.
My name is Jeff Smith. Our company is a commercial-stage venture-backed spinal implant business, and we’re on a mission to establish circumferential cervical fusion as the standard of care for high-risk patients. I have four sons. I coach lacrosse. I live in the Bay Area. In general, I am a serial entrepreneur. I’ve always wanted to start businesses that solve problems.
In the last several years of my career, I have all been in healthcare, predominantly in the medical device and a couple of software businesses. My why for my career is inspiring people’s growth so that together we can transform healthcare. I love what you’re doing in Evolve Your Success. I’ve been amazed at the results we’re seeing within our salesforce. I’m happy to be a part of what you’re doing.
Let’s talk a little bit about your track and how you got to where you are now. How long have you been in that position?
I celebrated my 14th year in 2022.
I’m sure you have endless stories of growth, but before we get there, let’s take it back. One thing that we love to show on the show is what was the track like? Where did you start from, and what did you experience to get you to where you are now? Let’s take it back to college. What were you thinking of doing at college and what did you end up doing?
I went to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. I was recruited to play lacrosse there, which is how I got in. I got good grades in high school, but I was a left-handed attackman. I was recruited late to Brown. When I went to Brown, my freshman year was disorienting because Brown is primarily an undergraduate university. The emphasis is on the undergrad.
It was 6,000 kids, 1,500 a class, and everyone was smart or most people were smarter. Everybody had this exceptional thing about them that made them great. My thing was lacrosse, but even there, everyone was good at lacrosse. I was trying to get on the field and travel. I realized my freshman year that I was going to have to have something different if I was going to be successful in my career.
I was fortunate to have some dorm suite mates with one buddy, Alan Lee, who was from Taipei. He’s like, “China is going to take over the world. You should live in Mandarin. It will be great for whatever you do.” I decided my freshmen summer to start studying Mandarin. I spent the summer in Taipei. There wasn’t an entrepreneurship track yet, but it was international relations with the commerce track.
In my sophomore year, I got an internship in a good data solutions company. It was amazing because I worked for this guy, Eric Haller, who was one of the first and youngest Vice Presidents. He runs a huge business that’s all DataLabs, but he was a young and up-and-coming guy. He had me do research on eCommerce.
In my junior year, I did a semester abroad in Hong Kong, a Yale in China program. I met some of my best friends in the world now in this program. One, in particular, is Alexander Hack, who lives in London and works at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. He and I went out and got internships to be investment bankers. It was during the Asian economic crisis. It was a terrible time to be looking for an internship.
There is a guy named Albert Cabello and Kathy Barna that I will never forget. It was a 30th-floor building we walked into bullets in Hong Kong, and we said, “Two Ivy League students, we’re looking to work for free.” This guy, Albert, was one of the godfathers of Emerging Markets Fixed Income. He’s like, “Lock the door. These guys want to work for free.”
At this point, everything was about being a banker. I was on this team where most of the guys, the seniors that were graduating, would go off to these great Wall Street jobs. My father had been in on credit card consumer banking. This was my internship. I did it and loved it. I had a Bloomberg Terminal.
This is not to disparage anything with banking, but I was an intermediary. I was commenting on what other people were doing. I wanted to be in the game, but it was on that semester abroad where I met my first cofounder, Jamie Murray, who is a wonderful entrepreneur and larger-than-life personality. Some might know him from The Real World: New Orleans. Forty-eight subsequent real-world road rules challenge.
Jamie had a gigantic entrepreneurial mindset. He gave me this book called Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson. I read this thing cover to cover for two days, and I was like, “This is what I want to do. I want to be Richard Branson.” Jamie and I were at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. It is in the new territories of Hong Kong, which is 30 minutes outside of the city.
We would go to this amazing surf break, where you have to take a boat and hike. This is 1998. We couldn’t find a surfboard to buy so we were borrowing boards from this Christian missionary, naive, and not even twenty-somethings. Were like, “We need to buy surfboards online. The whole world needs to buy surfboards.”
Would the classes that you were taking facilitate a budding business idea like starting surfboard selling online? Is this something you were doing outside of school completely?
It’s outside of school. By day, I was taking eight hours of Mandarin training. I love language, and human things are okay. The characters of Mandarin or Putonghua are difficult for me. I would go truck off to this internship with my cheap suit, sweating bullets, and the humidity is 200%. Jamie and I were BS and talking. The internet was happening. The companies were starting to go public and I had done an internship working for Eric Tyler.
I had a 100-page research report, which was not impressive because, at that time, people were still learning the trick of copy- paste. It is like going to a website and copy-paste it into a Word document. It was all-around eCommerce with a specific focus on digital certificates. I did this banking thing and I was a little underwhelmed. It didn’t feel that fun. I wasn’t naturally as curious as I would typically be.
You were doing the banking thing and the surfboard. Was selling still brilliant?
My first startup was a business called SoulGear.com. Jamie Murray, my first cofounder. He was part of this group of five of us. It was during the Asian economic crisis, which I mentioned because if you had dollars like we did, the Hong Kong government made a choice to peg the Hong Kong dollar to the US dollars as inflation was going through the roof. This was before the handover to the People’s Republic of China.
We would go buy sushi at the grocery store for $30. If we get a beer with your buddy, it was $12. We were broke. We need cash because our parents were pretty clear. They’re like, “No more. You have a meal plan.” Jamie and I started promoting parties. He was studying at Cornell, and he was at the hotel school, which is a famous business management school.
He knew how to talk to hotels and restauranteurs. I was already wearing a cheap suit. He’s a snappy dresser and better-looking guy and we will pitch to these clubs. I will be like, “We’re thinking of doing an event. We don’t want our guests to have to pay for drinks. Let’s negotiate in all your single cover price.” We would get a cut of the door.
When you’re in the thick of a bad moment, they make for the best stories. Click To Tweet
In this program, there were kids from all over the United States. There are maybe 100 kids. They would all show up at our parties. It was with unlimited drinks. It was a little out-of-pocket. That’s where I started having this like, “Anything is possible.” Jamie would walk into a place. It was on a trip we took to Macau. This is a cool gambling island where we sat.
We’d go to hot tubs, pools, and hotels that we couldn’t afford to stay at. We’re like, “We should start an eCommerce business.” We made this bet that extreme sports. Were hitting its stride. It’s going from ESPN X Games to the mainstream. We were like, “This is going to pop. It will be the vertical for extreme sports online. Let’s do this.”
We went back to college. At that point, it was my junior spring. I had fallen on the depth chart for lacrosse because every year, there are better kids coming. I missed all the fall ball. On my final three semesters abroad before I graduated were Soul Gear. We built a website. At that time, it was called Community Content eCommerce. You can get a SoulGear.com email address for free, your message boards, and chat rooms.
One of my classmates, who was a year older than me, helped us build a content operation with freelance contributors. As soon as I graduated, we spent the summer before senior year in Santa Barbara, living at UCSB. I rented a room at a fraternity house. By the time senior fall hit, we’d launched our website. We’d raised, by the end of my senior year, $1 million from high-net-worth individuals. It feels great. If I go to my PO box with my little goofy key, I pick out and there would be $300,000.”
When you say raised, do you mean investing into the business or sales from what you were selling through Soul Gear?
You’d think sales, but we didn’t ever have much sales. It was raising money.
The audience has to know. You’re raising all this money. What are the people that are giving you the money expecting to receive in return?
At this point, every day, 4 or 5 dot-coms would go public on the NASDAQ. It will go public at $10 a share. It would go to $100. Companies had no revenue and massive losses. It was a land grab to own a vertical, “I own baseball. I own art.” I love studying this. It was Web1.0. It was trying to take a newspaper to a magazine.
Finally, I graduated and moved out to San Francisco. I flew with my stupid hard drive because we didn’t have cloud storage. There were five of us. My other cofounder, Will Steedman, who’s now living in the Philippines. He runs a big orthopedic distributorship. We were trying to build his business, but the problem is that people were not yet online. This was the summer of 2000. People were not buying high-ticket items online. They were starting to buy books.
Jeff Bezos knew this. He’s like, “We’ll start small and we’ll keep improving the customer experience. People begin to trust buying things online.” For context, Cyber Tuesday, which is the Tuesday after Thanksgiving was developed in 2001. The funny reason is because people didn’t have broadband at home. It wasn’t even Wi-Fi. It was just ethernet, so people would shop. We were running out of money. We had plans to go public with all these bankers.
How are you running out of money?
We spent too much money every month, and nothing ever came in. $1 million sounded like a lot of money but at that time we launched the website, I don’t know how much we had left, but it was never enough. The IPO talks that we had with bankers that we were planning to do this because companies were going public every day stopped. The air came out of the IPO bubble. It was in San Francisco where we had arrived. It was the last call that we got there.
Everyone was getting laid off. There was a famous website by Philip Kaplan, who has a bunch of businesses. DistroKid is the name of his business. He had this business called and excuse my French, but it was called, it’s called Fucked Company. Every day, he would go to Fucked Company. Wish.com was laying people off. People would say, “They’re not even letting us keep our coffee cups.” Everything was falling apart. We were like, “The music is stopping.” We had one investor front us $100,000 to try to sell the business.
We were talking to MVP.com, which was a collaboration of Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, and John Elway. They went out of business so that was dead. There was one other company called Broadband Sports that we thought this is where we’d land because we had this big content operation. It went out of business. We laid off ourselves.
If you know Downtown San Francisco, there’s a mark on the street, Run This Way. Our office for SoulGear.com was in the basement. Maybe a block away, there’s a big hotel, and it’s Hyatt. They’re doing a career fair. One of our employees was like, “Jeff, I’m going to go to this career fair. Do you want to come?” I was like, “Yes, I do.” I went home. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt like an idiot. I got upon my suit. There was this business AstraZeneca. They had people lined up like 50 people. I was like, “I want to go for that.” It looked like it was people wanting to be there.
I wait my turn, and I get up to the front. It was a good friend of mine now. His name was Jim Codero, who was the tenured sales rep that was doing their fair. It was a big developmental opportunity. He’s like, “Do you have any experience in pharmaceutical sales?” I was like, “No, I don’t.” He was like, “Sorry, we’re only looking for people with experience.” I said, “Hold on a second, Jim.” I said enough that he put me forward.
Jeff, I didn’t even know this. You started in pharma. I did not know that this. How long had you graduated? Was this a year or two years?
In May 2000, I got out to San Francisco. In June 2000, within a year, we were cash out, and I was becoming a drug rep.
From dot-com entrepreneur to drug rep.
I can laugh about it now. I remind myself this when I’m in the thick of a bad moment, they make for the best stories, but it was tough. My whole identity had gone from being a D1 lacrosse player at Brown and being a dot-com CEO to failure. I’m not playing lacrosse anymore. I don’t go to an Ivy League school anymore. My business failed. Now, who am I? It was depressing.
There was the practical matter of money. I needed some money to live. When I got to AstraZeneca, I was over the moon for the opportunity. I had a base salary, incentive plan, a car, and medical allowance. It was the best deal. I spent a month in a hotel in Chicago learning about cardiovascular medicine. When I say a month, I was there for a month. It was the best training I’ve ever had. I ended up selling a beta-blocker that had been on the market for 100 years. It is an angiotensin receptor blocker, which was a relatively new class, but we were 1 of 7. We are the good enough version.
I learned how to ask and to probe questions. I learned how to get access. You learned about doing detail of a clinical reprint and bullet-point format. I did that job for one year. I was a little disenfranchised six months in because I realized in a podcast for Unmet Need that I recorded. I got caught in the shift of what was the pharmaceutical direct salesforce arms race.
What had happened in the ‘90s was there weren’t as many pharmaceutical companies. When a little one would get big, it would get acquired. It was the bigs duking it out. The way they were winning was the number of sales calls they could detail. They were not full sales meetings you could deliver per day. Two months after I got in there, there was a new regulation passed where you couldn’t take docs to a ball game. You couldn’t go hunting.
The heyday was over.
I missed the dot-com party. All you can do as a drug rep is you had to involve food.
What year was this? Give us some context.
- I would look around and I was hustling. I was trying to be the best pharmaceutical sales rep you could possibly be. We are supposed to do a minimum of 8 sales calls a day, or 10 or 12. I entered the nerdiest books of notes. I had this little computer that the prescribing physician had to sign. The scam was you’d give it to the gatekeeper, the gatekeeper, take it back, but I’d be like, “No, I’m sorry. I need to see the doctor signing.” I got all my pens. I order most stuff. I realized quickly. I was like, “I am busting my hump and I love my medicines.”
I had some amazing relationships, but every time I walked into a clinic, it was a bunch of young people like me in suits and 3 or 4 patients. I realized I was in the way. I didn’t want to be in the way. I wanted to matter. I want to be clear. It matters. Anyone that’s a pharmaceutical sales rep now, whether it’s their 1st year or 30th. It’s a noble profession. It keeps getting harder. I saw a McKesson rep. It would scoot in and out of the cardiology offices. He was wearing scrubs. I was like, “What does this guy do? This thing is like a good gig.” That’s why I learned about device sales.
This is a funny story too. After my first year of going gangbusters, working my tail off, I sat down with my manager, and I have a lot of empathy now and understanding because he was the ninth person to relay this message. It wasn’t his, but he was like, “You did great. We’re going to give you a 2% raise.” It’s like $40,000 becomes $41,000 something. I had won a contest to get a Chrysler Sebring that had leather.
The person I beat out was this sharp woman. We were the same age and out of college. My manager was like, “I know you won this, but I think I’m going to give the Chrysler Sebring to this other rep.” I was like, “That’s not fair. I won.” He was like, “You’re going to be a team player.” I was like, “Whatever.” He’s like, “How do you feel about your raise?” I was like, “What do you mean? I’m not happy. Is this the deal? Is it just we’re not giving big increases, or could I have done better?” I realized this isn’t it.
When a little one would get big, it would get acquired. Click To Tweet
I want to be clear too. That manager was a great manager. Three-day field visits, field about follow-up letters. It was brutal. I got nothing else. I’m nowhere else can take you. I’m done. I get a call from this recruiter for Cardinal Health. They were part of their acquisition of Allegiance Health. They had a device business where they built a direct sales force for an interventional radiology suite, like call point.
There are a whole bunch of products, biopsy needles for lung, breast, thyroid, and kidney, but there’s one little product for vertebroplasty, which was a way to deliver bone cement into an osteoporotic compression fracture. I was competing against the 25-year veteran of Cardinal Health, a tenured rep and great guy. Rick Schempp has been an amazing part of my career and a good friend. We were interviewing head-to-head for this thing.
Cardinal is a profitable business. They didn’t spend a lot of money. They had the same car service, taking us to the airport to fly to Chicago together. We were picked up at the same time. With the course of a whole day of travel, you quickly realize that’s the competition. It ended up we both got the job. They made two territories. I spent a year at Cardinal Health selling against reps.
I was selling a $500 disposable instruments set with $200 bone cement. There were seven reps against me because I had this big geography. There’s all of Northern California, and they were selling something that costs ten times as much. I was causing them enough of a problem. They offered me a job. I went eight quarters as a spine consultant in the Bay Area. I was going through this regional sales manager job. My competition was better. That woman was a better salesperson, a better manager, and more mature.
The VP of sales at the time, another mentor, Brad Paddock. My manager was like, “You’re not going to get the RSM job.” Julie Keller who’s phenomenally talented. I was crushed. He’s like, “Brad wants to meet with you to talk about something.” Kyphon was a 300 or 400-person direct salesforce. If you were a spine consultant, you reported to 1 of 50 regional managers. There were 4 area sales directors and 1 VP of sales. In two years, I’d never had a private audience but with the big boss.
Kyphon was a sales-leaning company. In sales, we never missed a number. The director of sales operations, who was the right hand of the VP of Sales, had accepted the job to be a GM in Europe, Ben Murdock. He is talented. Brad was asking me, “Do I want to be the sales ops guy?” I was like, “Wow.”
I got my own office in Sunnyvale, California. I was working for Brad, and I was going to be involved in everything. It’s a dream come true. I took a comp because it’s a good time to be selling. I was doing pretty well. I took a 50% pay cut. I lost my car allowance. I lost my gas card. I took 1 hour and 20-minute commute both ways. My wife and I bought a lot of houses. We have two kids at that time. I was like, “This is great.” It was, for me, the pattern. I took a step back financially, but I got to go inside and see how the business works.
That was part one with Jeff Smith. It’s pretty interesting stuff. He started off with a huge opportunity to do that at a college or while he was still in college. What’s cool about that experience is he’s Ivy League. He gets an opportunity. That’s probably afforded to a lot of Ivy leaguers, and then there’s a reset. He has to bring it all down to a foundational level and re-enter the marketplace and work that a lot of people, almost anyone with a college degree, has access to.
After he started to perform in that space, different things started to happen. He took things to entirely new heights. I reiterated the point that I made at the beginning of this episode. If you’ve got that ambition, the drive, you’re curious, and trying to solve problems out there, amazing things can happen. You’re set up to walk into opportunities.
Some of you might be reading this, and you might be someone that’s trying to get into the industry. You’re reading this, and you’re saying, “He started there. That’s exactly something I want to do now.” I would say, “Stop pondering, stop wondering, and stop thinking about it.” If you’re ready to do something about it, you need to visit EvolveYourSuccess.com.
Follow the prompts, Attain A Medical Sales Role, fill out our application, and have a conversation to get an opportunity to finally get into the position you’ve been dreaming about, the position you’ve been reading to all these blog posts about. That position that you know you can do will completely change your life. We have a program that’s waiting for you to jump into that can change your life. Stop thinking about it, and let’s start doing about it.
If you’re a sales representative out there, regardless of the industry you’re in, would it be a medical device, pharmaceutical, biotech, diagnostic, or even dental? You want this to be your year. We’re only in June 2022. There are still over six months to make something happen and completely change your trajectory.
Maybe it’s the president’s club, a promotion to management, or it’s setting yourself up to take advantage of a bigger opportunity. You know you’re trying to make something happen, and you’re ready to finally do something different about it. Again, visit EvolveYourSuccess.com, select Improve Sales Performance, schedule some time again, and have a conversation with us.
We do everything we can to create opportunities for people that want to be in medical sales and for people that are in medical sales. We also do everything we can to bring you information and insight through our show. Make sure you tune in next week for the second part of this interview with Jeff Smith and make sure you keep reading the blog.
- Jeff Smith
- Losing My Virginity
- Attain A Medical Sales Role
- Improve Sales Performance
About Jeff Smith
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