Leadership   //   January 24, 2022

Stiff resolve: How one leadership team swapped selling erectile-dysfunction meds to Covid-testing kits in $200m business pivot

What does a company that started as a platform for diagnosing erectile dysfunction have in common with at-home Covid-19 tests? It turns out, just enough.  

When Vault Health began in late 2019, the start-up was focused on men’s sexual health, providing telehealth and at-home visits with clinicians. The goal: to scale nationwide.

Then the pandemic shut much of the world down, including Vault’s business prospects. Not only did clients stop welcoming clinicians into their homes, but general medical care also seemed suspended.

For CEO Jason Feldman and his two co-founders, it was a nerve-wracking time. But then, they caught a break. Their lab partner at Rutgers University called to say that the saliva-based Covid test they were working on was about to gain FDA approval. They proposed a partnership in which Vault would provide distribution for the test. It was late March 2020 — Covid tests were in short supply and high demand. Feldman sensed it was the lifeline they needed. 

To pivot the business with its 43-person staff, from a men’s sexual health services provider to a bonafide Covid-testing power player, Feldman needed funds. He won $30 million in Series A funding with the help of Redesign Health, the healthcare innovation firm that provides seed capital and resources for the start-ups it launches. 

Vault then went on a hiring spree, swelling to more than 500 full-time employees. They distributed upwards of 12 million at-home saliva tests and now sell turnkey Covid-testing management systems for employers and have 3,500 enterprise clients ranging from the state of Minnesota to the PGA.

Vault ended 2020 with $200 million in revenue and Feldman expects 2021’s revenue to be more than double that. 

“Creating real change requires a leader to be forward-thinking and adaptable,” a Redesign spokesperson told Work Life. “That’s exactly how Jason and his team have approached building Vault.”

KC George, a partner in Bain and Company’s healthcare practice, echoes that sentiment. “It takes incredible leadership to recognize, seize and capitalize on the moment,” said George.

Fast Results

Vault’s success even surprised its leaders.

“It became a lot bigger than what we set out to be,” said Claire Cochrane, a Vault co-founder and chief operating officer.

From late March, Vault staff spent four weeks working around-the-clock to rework the backend technology and operating system and get distribution partners like UPS on board. “We placed a big bet,” said Feldman. “I told the board this is either going to work or I’m going to kill the company.”

Speed was key since it took two weeks to get results — that’s if you could find a test. Vault whittled it down to 24-48 hours.

“A lot of this we had in place, we just had to expand and scale it, which was no easy feat,” said Cochrane, a former supply and logistics executive at Blue Apron and Unilever. “UPS was used to receiving and returning test kits from us, but not at this scale. We had to make sure their supply chain could handle it, because they were facing a lot of the same pandemic challenges as everyone else.”

The road to success

Naturally, there were unexpected obstacles. It took a month to get FDA approval in order to be able to sell tests directly to consumers. “Experts told me it’s probably not going to work,” Feldman recalled. “I was a neophyte in healthcare, but I love fixing big problems. Not coming with preconceived notions about why healthcare works and doesn’t was an advantage since I wasn’t getting stuck in the ways you can’t do things and focused more on ways you can.”

Then there was the time a potential business client searched online to learn more about Vault and found ads for penis enhancers. The digital marketing team quickly removed them.

By June, Vault’s tests were readily available for $119. Before taking the test by spitting into the vial, users logged onto Vault’s portal and were observed by an administrator who talked them through the directions and confirmed the test taker’s identity.

Growing the brand

The team spotted an opportunity to grow when they learned that professional sports teams were keen to re-establish playing. Feldman contacted the PGA, and the golf tour became an early client. Next, they contacted sleep-away camps. Modin, an overnight camp in Maine, hired Vault the summer of 2020 to test kids before arriving. It wasn’t unusual for kids to be seen spitting into Vault collection vials in Feldman’s driveway when parents signed their kids up for camp at the last-minute.

Schools signed on to bring students back to campus as did municipal entities. Leadership doubled efforts on business-to-business opportunities. “We were picking up the phone saying, ‘you’re trying to bring your employees back. Can we help you?,’” said Feldman.

Vault expanded its purview, working to make clinical trials more efficient and using its experience in telehealth to do clinical research at scale. And it still keeps its hand in the men’s health business, having broadened into diagnosing people with prediabetes and heart disease, and continues to sell libido kits. 

For Cochrane, the lesson from the past two years is clear: “Hire a team that is customer obsessed. That helps you get through those long, long days.”

3 Questions with Dr David Rock, CEO of NeuroLeadership Institute.

What are the most interesting behavioral changes you’ve noted over the last few years, that are critical for business leaders to know about in terms of how they manage their workforces?

If you look back on the Great Depression, it changed a generation. In fact, several generations — the way people went about their lives, their savings habits — 80 years later were still entrenched. It burned certain changes into people’s brains, not just memories. And in many ways, this pandemic is going to do the same thing. You’re going to see the effects of this in 100 years, in different ways. Overall, there’s been an increased allostatic load [the cumulative burden of chronic stress and life events], or baseline threat level, across all employees everywhere

What effect has that increased allostatic load had with regards to the workplace? 

We’re always at a set point of approach versus avoidance in life. Approach is where you’re open, interested, curious and calm, and avoidance is where you’re in a more vigilant state of avoiding dangers. The whole world pretty much moved to the left on that scale, towards avoiding dangers. And there’s a whole raft of effects on our biology, our cognition, our immune system — everything, from that. 

So people were starting work at a higher stress level than they probably ever have in their life. That’s probably been the biggest thing that companies have had to deal with. At the extreme end, there have been incredible mental health challenges, all the way through to companies with hundreds of people who passed away. Many larger organizations were having funerals every week. 

What’s been the knock-on effect of that to management styles? 

Managers who are used to managing through increasing tension and through fear — making people anxious so that they can deliver results — that kind of strategy obviously, has to go out of the window. People managers everywhere have had to become kinder, far more flexible and more thoughtful than they’ve ever had to. The fact that you could take a whole company that was planning to increase their work from home by maybe 20%, over three years, and go to 95% in a week — it prompted leaders to think: ‘what else is possible that we currently think is impossible?’ And a lot of companies went with that and started to think about big changes they should make. And there’s good [psychological] research that shows when there are big changes going on, that’s when you can actually execute other big changes, because people are more open to really big change if there’s already a lot of change going on.

Dr Rock will speak at the NeuroLeadership Institute’s summit In February.

By the numbers

  • 88% of 1,350 C-suite execs say they started to value their frontline workers more than they did before the pandemic, but 52% of 7,000 frontline employees polled still believe they are seen as less important than their HQ counterparts.
    [Source of data: Workplace, Meta’s Deskless not Voiceless: The 2021 Frontline Barometer report.]
  • Flexibility is critical for retention: The number of job posts mentioning flexibility has increased more than 83% year on year. 
    [LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Talent trends report.]
  • 73% of 2,000 execs polled, say stored recordings of calls, emails, and messages have affected team members’ performance reviews.
    [Source of data: Instant Offices’ Future of Workplace Surveillance report.]

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