Rather than generating an auto-response list of thank you’s and talking about how humbling it is to win the award, I’m using this as an opportunity to reflect on what is driving our growth. From this, perhaps our 4,000-member-strong doctor community will glean ways they can capture new growth for their practices.
1. We build confidence.
Our mission and primary purpose at RealSelf is to empower consumers with information about elective, cosmetic procedures. It’s not about making money. It’s not about marketing doctors or generating “leads”. Rather, our team works to ensure people get the complete, real story about everything from Tummy Tuck surgery to Invisalign braces and Gastric Bypass. From this exchange and transparency, RealSelf users gain confidence that they aren’t taking blind chances with cosmetic changes to their face, body, or smile.
2. Facebook paved the way.
We’ve all come to expect to use social information whenever confronted with a big decision. And while Facebook has made social sharing ubiquitous, we actually see minimal visits from our Facebook activity. People don’t talk about their plastic surgery on Facebook. As a result, Facebook is a key enabler for our unique value proposition. We provide social information, support and data for aesthetic-interested consumers, but honor their desire to remain anonymous. As one of our active members once explained, “it’s just personal.”
A reporter from Forbes asked me to describe RealSelf in a single sentence. I blurted out, “RealSelf is the anti-social social network.” What I intended by this remark is that people deeply value social information about cosmetic surgery and procedures, but don’t necessarily want to broadcast their interest and concerns on Facebook. By focusing on sharing experiences with a procedure, and allowing people to remain anonymous, RealSelf has taken “whisper conversations” associated with these interests and built a roaring online conversation that helps people discover what’s worth it, and what’s not. Thank you for the assist Facebook (as well as Yelp and Google+).
3. Our team wants to change the world.
People who work with me at RealSelf all believe in our values, and see that we’re having a positive impact on the world. Think you should be part of our team? Check out current job openings (sorry, I can’t resist any opportunity to shamelessly recruit talent).
4. We took a bet that doctor training and credentials matter. (They do)
Shortly after we invited any medical doctor to participate on RealSelf, I was stunned to learn from our doctor Q&A that oral surgeons can do–and may offer–breast augmentation surgery. Simultaneously, I was reading on RealSelf about countless cases of serious injuries that people were incurring from lipodissolve fat “melting” injections performed by poorly trained clinicians. As a side note, I’m proud to point out that our community and reporting by Joan Kron from Allure Magazine were instrumental in putting Fig Lipodissolve out of business, shortly after they got the backing from venerable venture capitalists, Bessemer Venture Partners.
In light of the responsibility we have to help consumers get informed by medical experts, I made the call to remove doctors from our site who didn’t hold board certifications in areas specialized for aesthetic procedures. While this caused us to lose thousands of doctor answers and stirred up some resentment, the doctor-participation standards we maintain were based on a hypothesis that highly qualified doctors generate higher levels of satisfaction. That hunch is proving to be a good one and is key to why major medical organizations in aesthetics partner with RealSelf.
5. Helpful content became our SEO strategy.
It’s no secret that Google is the most significant source of new visitors to RealSelf. As I’ve expressed before (SEO is Dead), content that’s helpful to people making an aesthetic decision will naturally get ranked ahead of static articles or boring blog posts. We don’t have a single person working at RealSelf dedicated to SEO because we get a bit more Google love every time a site member or doctor generates content that someone else would find useful. This happens thousands of times a day.
Admittedly, prior to the big Google update over 18 months ago (which served as a great wake-up call to me), we were very SEO-tactics oriented. Get links, work on keyword density on pages, etc. I’m glad we moved on, and returned our focus to helping people get informed and empowered.
6. We made content marketing our business model.
With the prodding and coding by our former CTO, Eric Kennedy, we shifted from an entirely free model with doctors, to offering a paid subscription product that allows doctors to cost-effectively generate local exposure by featuring their content on RealSelf. Our “Dr. Spotlight” product is a form of social advertising, where we bring value to our audience by showing them in-context answers, pictures, and stories by or about local doctors who are active on RealSelf. In addition to driving revenue, this offering has a strategic value of encouraging doctors to become and remain active participants in the community. Doctors are busy, but those who make time for RealSelf see that the more they put in, the more they get out.
7. We apply the scientific method to product development.
Our mantra for product development is build-measure-learn, where we develop a hypothesis and then run experiments. This is also referred to as the lean startup methodology. We openly share the findings, and then iterate quickly. Our developers push more than 3 releases per day.
Unlike typical businesses where people try to hide “mistakes”, we embrace failures in the experimentation process. The only demand I have on our product team is that breaking leads to learning.
If we stop learning, we definitively won’t see a return to the Inc 500 list.