When Michael Dermer spent five years building his healthcare incentive company, IncentOne, into a thriving business, he thought the hard part was over. Then, in 2008 the financial crisis hit, and brought bankruptcy, a battle for survival, and two years of 20-hour workdays.
After pulling IncentOne back from the brink of destruction and selling it, Dermer is now promoting a book he wrote about being a business owner. There’s a reason he gave it the title “The Lonely Entrepreneur.”
“Being lonely isn’t really about you individually,” he says. “You can have hundreds of people around you, but you’re responsible for the whole organization. When you’re an entrepreneur, it’s your baby, and you take it personally. You’re personally invested in not only bringing your vision to life, but in all the folks who have take n stock in what you’ve created.”
Dermer will speak on Thursday, January 19, at 6:30 p.m. at the Startup Grind meetup at Tigerlabs in Princeton. Tickets are $10. For more information, visit www.startupgrind.com/princeton.
Dermer grew up in Freehold and learned about business around the dinner table, where his father, the head of investor relations for a public company, would discuss business and the real estate properties the family owned. Growing up, he always intended to go into business, and trained as a corporate lawyer, earning a bachelor’s in finance at Bucknell and a law degree at Northwestern.
The idea for IncentOne was born one day in the 1990s when his brother tried to buy a gift certificate at a store and was annoyed that there was no 1-800-Flowers type company for gift cards. Dermer began to look into the industry, and found that companies were using gift cards as incentives to entice consumers to do what they wanted them to. It turned out the practice of “incentives” was more widespread than Dermer realized, but that there was one business that didn’t seem to use them at all: healthcare.
If a bank could give consumers cash for opening a checking account, why couldn’t an insurance company give an expectant mother cash for going to all her pre-natal doctor’s appointments? Incentives could be used to encourage “any behavior you wanted to get a consumer to do that benefited the system and benefited the consumer,” Dermer recalls. “The healthcare sector had never applied financial rewards.”
In 2003 Dermer launched what he says was the first company that ran programs that used financial incentives to encourage healthy behavior in employees, with the aim of reducing healthcare costs for employers who provided health insurance. The concept caught on, and he had built the Lyndhurst-based business up to just under 400 employees by 2008. When the company got a big private equity investment, he felt like celebrating, little knowing that it would all come crashing down along with the fortunes of the economy in general when the housing market crashed. “All of corporate America was disintegrating, and that was a lot of our clients,” he said. For companies that had to cut budgets, healthcare incentives were one of the first things to go.
“Many hard years of working really hard almost got destroyed in a week,” Dermer says.
The low point came one day when Dermer was talking with his father, who had invested some of his own money in the company. “At that time, forecasts of revenue would come out, and whatever you thought the worst-case scenario for revenue was, the actual figures always seemed to be worse than that,” he says. “My dad said something like, ‘Michael, you have to stop bullshitting us.’ And I lost it on him. I said, ‘If you think your own son would ever BS you about numbers, then you’re not going to have a son for very long.’” The fight didn’t last long, but it made Dermer realize the pressure had gotten to him.
After two years, IncentOne managed to stabilize and get back on the path to growth. In 2013 he sold it to Welltok, another incentive company.
In his book and his talks, Dermer passes along what he learned along the way to other entrepreneurs and would-be business owners. He says you need several major qualities in order to start a successful innovative business. First, you need a unique product. “You need to have developed a skill, a capability, or an understanding of something that can really benefit a market.
Secondly, you need to “truly vet” the idea to make sure that there is a market for it.
Lastly, a business owner needs the humility to recognize what he or she isn’t good at, and to find people to work with who cover those weaknesses and can take over parts of the business. “You need to embrace that so you don’t get overpowered and frustrated. You’re going to have to supplement your own skills with the skills of others,” Dermer says.
When Dermer went into the healthcare business, he understood the principles of business in general well enough, but wasn’t familiar with the industry. He made sure to bring healthcare experts on board to help guide the business.
“If I had stayed in corporate law, I would have had a pretty easy career path and financially I would have been fine,” Dermer says. But his decision to go into business, and his subsequent trial by fire ultimately made him into a better person. “I became more humble and more appreciative,” he says.