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How Saad Alam's Inspiring Journey Revolutionized Personalized Home Healthcare
You need to know your value system. Mine is making an impact, freedom of choice, pursuit of growth, and family.
By Saad Alam
Saad Alam is the founder and CEO of Hone Health, a telehealth company that offers personalized care with data-driven insights, consultations with licensed physicians, and medications, all from home.
I grew up in upstate New York, in Albany. My father came to the U.S. from a small village in Pakistan in the 1970s. He was one of 12 children. Somehow six of the kids got PhDs, and one became a national hero in Pakistan. My dad went to Stanford and became a particle physicist. Then he went back to Pakistan and married my mom.
My dad didn't stand out in the crowd but said: 'I'm going to marry the most beautiful woman.' Mom assumed she'd be a housewife. But my dad's gift was getting people to believe in themselves, and he said: `You have so much more to give the world.' He put her on a bus and said, 'You are going to school.' My father didn't have a lot of money, but he was smart and had a huge personality.
We started in a bare-bones apartment. But every four years, we moved to a nicer apartment and a different part of town until we got a three-bedroom colonial in a middle-class neighborhood. Part of my skill set is going to new places and meeting people. I hated it as a kid, but now I recognize the value.
My mother is one of those people with a high EQ. She is stunningly gorgeous, super smart, and unbelievably down to earth. Everyone falls in love with her. I grew up incredibly supported by both my parents. Looking back, I won the lottery. Education was a big deal, and I got near-perfect grades. But I did everything I shouldn't do. I was the kid who pushed the button after you were told not to.
I started becoming 'Americanized' in my teenage years, and my father couldn't understand me, so there was friction. He came from Pakistan with $5 in his pocket and sent money back home to his brothers and sisters. He had a lifelong obsession with educating people from the Third World so they could have the American Dream. My dad put 50 people through PhDs. Since his passing, this has become my greatest source of joy. He was helping others who want to help themselves. My parents were social people. They would have 50 people over twice a month. I was surrounded by all these people and intellectual curiosity.
We would go to Pakistan every year for one to three months. In Pakistan, everyone was poor. It was abject poverty. If I had a toy, I would give it to them. I was taught that if you help people, you go to heaven. I thought the purpose of life was to make an impact. My parents said I should be a neurosurgeon.
I believed in hustling at a very young age. I had $500 in my pocket when I was 12. I loved the hustle. I found friends to drive me to Chinatown in New York City and buy bootleg shoes and sweatshirts to flip out of my locker. I was selling baseball cards and any item of popular culture. I learned more doing that than going to school.
Dad forced me to go to his physics lab after school every day during high school. I would sit in a clean room in a sterilized white suit and test silicon circuits that were being produced for CERN. I didn't understand that value then, but it made me technical and put me around smart people. That had a large impact.
"I believed in hustling at a very young age."
I was offered full scholarships to several schools but went to SUNY in Binghamton. I wanted to be as close as possible to my family. I studied molecular biology but never went to class. I would learn from books and take exams. I spent most of my time trying to build small businesses. At that stage in my life, I wanted to have fun. But I still planned to be a neurosurgeon to make my parents happy. There is a saying from the Prophet Muhammad: 'Heaven rests beneath the feet of your mother.'
I attended Columbia for a Masters in Public Health and met Dr. Paul Brandt-Rauf. In one conversation, he changed the trajectory of my life.
I was a punk kid who was trying to find himself. I asked Paul, 'Why are you sitting across from me when you could earn millions as a heart surgeon.' He said: 'You have so much to learn.' He said that as a doctor, he could help perhaps ten patients a day, maybe 3,000 a year. But working with his Ph.D. to eradicate arsenic in the drinking water in Bangladesh, he could change the lives of 65 million people. I immediately understood that impact and decided not to complete medical school.
I went to business school at the University of Rochester because it was less money than Columbia, but it was one of the best decisions of my life. I was the president of my class. I learned leadership skills that helped me beat out older and more experienced people. I realized you could create something out of nothing. I fell in love.
I did a summer internship at Eli Lilly. They usually only accept kids from Harvard, Penn, or Stanford. I was from Rochester. I didn't understand how large corporations work. I had my ears pierced. I think I benefited from a disregard for structure.
My manager at Lilly asked me to determine if there was an opportunity to treat patients with co-morbidity of diabetes and depression. I used his name to get into rooms I shouldn't have been in, including the president's office. I pitched ideas, and at the end of the internship, the company assigned $30 million to chase the initiative. I thought, 'Wow if you believe it and dream it, you can do it.' This wasn't a small hustle.
I finished business school and returned to Lilly at 26. I was thinking large.
I was assigned to work on Zyprexa. It was a global $4 billion medication for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. I was inspired to work on the brand since a family member was bipolar, and it impacted my entire life. The company had just paid a $1.8 billion lawsuit because they had lied about the risks of weight gain. My job was to help turn the brand around. My sponsor was one of the smartest people I met, a woman named Deirdre Connelly, who later ran U.S. operations for the company.
The job required traveling around the country to reposition the drug, and I learned a ton. There were skill sets I was good at, understanding qualitatively what was going on using quantitative assessments. I was a workaholic, putting in 80 to 90 hours a week. During the grind, I started realizing that rather than give my life to a company; I owed it to myself. That's when I began to believe in entrepreneurship and think for myself.
Several years earlier, I had told my parents I wasn't going to med school, and now I was ready to tell them I would quit a dream pharma job. I engineered my exit by convincing Lilly they were missing the boat on digital health and asked for money to create a venture fund. We threw the largest digital pharma conference.
At that point, Chris Schroeder recruited me to run sales and marketing at Health Central, one of the largest digital health publishers in the space. The business depended on page views. I told him I'd be working on my own company at the same time, and he said he would support it.
My brother called to say he was going to drop out of college. I realized he was having trouble organizing his thoughts and came up with the idea of a digital note card organizer to help him. That, for me, was the beginning of entrepreneurship.
I told Steve Krein, who is the godfather of digital health, that I was thinking about starting a company, and he told me to pick a date on the calendar. I was worried I was walking away from a comfortable lifestyle. Steve said: 'Do you believe in it? Yes? OK, pick a day to quit. This is how it's done.' He was right.
We started interviewing people and ended up creating a tech house with eight people living in a loft on Wall Street. I was the poorest I'd been. I had no side money from a hustle and no corporate money, but it's the happiest I've been. Mom gave me $35,000 from her pension to get started. We went to the NYC library because we had no office.
We did three rounds of venture and moved the company to Baltimore. After five years, we sold it to Sylvan Learning, and it became an enterprise-level writing program. It was incredibly rewarding watching children find their 'aha' moment.
I decided to take a break from traveling in Thailand. To try to understand what I did well and what I didn't, I wrote a 100-page manual on myself. People often hold on to what they don't do well. You don't have to be good at everything. I learned not to get emotionally attached.
From that point, I started working with executive coaches and therapists and trying to be brutally honest about my strengths. I realized that I'm a little Pakistani dude who is bad at a lot of things, and I embraced that. My other big learning was: 'If you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room.'
That experience taught me to believe in myself at a different level. I got deep into meditation, practicing two times a day for 20 minutes. It gave me tremendous clarity.
I started diving into different businesses. I looked at online betting and got involved in a fashion company and trading crypto. I worked on starting a company in the HR space. We had a term sheet and were toiling away for six months, but I had a nagging feeling this wasn't my mission. This wasn't the company I wanted to build.
My energy level had decreased. I had trouble waking up. I eventually discovered I had low testosterone, the levels of an 80-year-old man. I did some research and found that 40% of men over 35 suffer from low testosterone. I went on treatment, and it changed my life.
I told my partner I was not going to build the HR company. I want to build another company that helps men with low testosterone get confidence. He was angry, and there was a falling out. But I felt liberated and knew what I wanted to do.
I spent five months researching as I had done at Lilly. You talk to people to get quantified assessments to validate your idea. As much as I hated that job at Lilly, the process I learned there became my cornerstone.
We realized testosterone is a big problem and that we could build a telehealth business. We put a team together in October and launched the product in April, and it has become the biggest hormone clinic in the country. We have 14,000 patients.
Everyone is afraid of testosterone because it is stigmatized. So I vowed to create the safest clinic and only do things the right way for the patient. We require blood work, a 30-minute audio consultation, and then blood work again every 90 days.
We're finishing a capital raise and hope to add additional categories like weight loss and thyroid, which require more medications and longitudinal care. We then plan to add the same sort of services for women.
It's been the most rewarding venture to date.
Originally published on CEO.com.