Interview: Tom Seery

Written by Chris Stock

Chris Stock helps Plastic Surgery Practices and Med Spas grow their revenue by converting leads into patients. With over 30 years of sales experience, including 15 years as a world-class sales expert and speaker, Chris has the expertise, know-how and strategic vision to deliver results every time.

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In this interview Tom Seery, CEO and Founder at RealSelf, talks about the trends he’s seeing coming out of COVID-19, his views on leadership and how the last few months have changed him for the better. Hosted by our CEO, Chris Stock.

Chris Stock  

Hi, I’m Chris Stock CEO at SalesMD. We’re a consulting and training company, focused on helping medical practices convert leads into patients. Today I’m speaking with Tom Seery, CEO and founder of RealSelf. Over 100 million people visit RealSelf.com and their media channels each year. It is the healthcare marketplace where consumers can research aesthetic treatments, connect with physicians, and even book aesthetic services. Tom is on the board of directors of Research International, a nonprofit organization, and is also an advisory board member of the Buick Center for Entrepreneurship. Prior to RealSelf, Tom was a director at Expedia.com. So it’s an honor to have this opportunity to interview you Tom, welcome.

Tom Seery  

Thank you so much. And hopefully we can get to know each other better after this moment, when we’re allowed to see each other in the flesh and blood.

Chris Stock  

Absolutely. That’s probably where I’d like to just jump in. I know you’re incredibly busy, but through this pandemic, what’s for you been one of the biggest takeaways living through this crisis?

Tom Seery  

I would go straight to how there’s no real playbook for this. When you’re an entrepreneur, you sort of follow gut and instinct and data, and you’re always at the mercy of the market of your customers. So it’s sort of built in that you can accept a high dose of ambiguity and unexpectedness. But I have to say, I really would have never fathomed the level of shock to the system that the pandemic represents to not just our business, but to our entire environment, our world and our humanity.

Chris Stock  

I totally agree. I’ve found it like a roller coaster. And I’ve used that analogy a number of times in terms of where I was mentally throughout this process, and I just never imagined we would ever be in this situation.

Tom Seery  

No, I don’t think I would say anyone was except maybe the Gates Foundation here in Seattle. It’s been certainly led by a very brilliant man who’s been talking about pandemics for a long time. And there are some governmental bodies that have warned us about this. But I think we’re all sort of discovering what are our best responses to disasters and to highly disruptive events, and I’m just glad we had this event here in Seattle, to wake us up for what is probably the predecessor to another environmental factor, which is earthquakes, we’re in a high risk zone. I would say, based on what I’ve learned over the last three months, we have a lot of planning to do a lot of prep. But we’re better now. We’re more organized. And certainly as companies, we’ve all rapidly adapted and watched our customers. In the world of medicine, you know things don’t move very fast. And it’s just incredible how much things have shifted in such a short amount of time.

Chris Stock  

I totally agree. You’re clearly a leader in this industry. So for you personally, what’s been that aha moment for you in terms of this journey?

Tom Seery  

Yes, I would say that I have found that as I’ve become more and more vulnerable in front of my team, and embracing both the challenges and being very transparent about what we face, and not, you know, doctoring it up and making it look better than it is but actually saying, here’s what we know. And what we don’t know. I have found that that has led to tremendous levels of trust building, new dialogues and a bonding between my team members in a way that I don’t think we would have achieved. I don’t think I would have achieved as a leader if I hadn’t had this crisis hit.

Chris Stock  

I love that. Because as leaders, we often think about authenticity and how we develop that authenticity, that openness, that transparency. And, actually I think we’re all probably, as leaders guilty of that, we Sometimes put out the veneer that we want people to see. And actually, this has forced us to actually go there. How do you think you continue doing that? Actually, doing that sounds like it’s false. How do you continue to be vulnerable, open, transparent and all the things that you’ve discovered about yourself and what that’s meant for your relationship with the team? How do you continue that as we come out of this and move forward?

Tom Seery  

Yes, I have found that my team, it’s almost like once you break the seal, it sort of gives you permission now to have these more authentic as you say, authentic conversations. Internally, we have an operating principle around being direct as an example. And we really strive to be an organization. And I strive as a leader, to be extremely to the point and in a very fair manner, an open minded manner, but from a place of love, and from a place of, I want you to achieve better. But here’s something you are not achieving well, or whatever the feedback might be. And I would say that we have this guidance of operating principles and values that are really shaping our conversation. So it’s not just, hey, we’re all vulnerable, and we’re able to hold hands. It’s also, we have a framework for how we should operate with each other to preserve that goodness that comes with vulnerability.

Chris Stock  

Yes, I think you’re making some very good points. You can be vulnerable, but it needs to be purposeful as well. In terms of how it connects.

Tom Seery  

It just can’t be the CEO standing in front of his team crying, I mean, or hurting. It really gives people that sense of, we still understand our direction, you know, all these things you hear in business schools or if you’re starting a business, you need to have a mission and vision and values and goals. And all these things really come to roost when you have a team that’s very open to now being authentic in themselves. But they still want direction, they still want to know which way is north and are the guiding star to how and what we’re trying to achieve, you know, what are we long term longitudinally, trying to achieve as a team.

Chris Stock  

Changing focus to the practices, and it’s one of the reasons I was keen to have this interview with you. It was actually one of my first interviews was Aaron Burton, and he even cited you in his interview. So I thought I need to speak with you! Whenever you post it’s always incredibly insightful. I always sit there thinking, damn, I wish I’d thought of that! or had that intelligence that you’ve got, the data that you’re probably seeing from your systems, but based on your latest findings, what are the one or two areas that practices should be focusing on right now as they start to reopen?

Tom Seery  

Those are very kind statements. And Aaron is a fantastic leader, I look up to him more so than maybe he realizes. So if he’s listening, I want him to know that.

Chris Stock  

I agree. I think he’s just very open and supportive. Naturally, for me, for my first first one of these sort of business leaders interviews, I asked him, he went Yes, absolutely. So it was it started the ball rolling. 

Tom Seery  

Yes. And I think the similarity between him and myself, if I allow to bucket him together with me. Going on to what I post is, it’s really actually an act of a little bit of selfishness, which is I’m just curious about certain things and I like to share what I’ve learned, versus I’m trying to manufacture things that I think people will like. And so, if people find valuable what I’m sort of unlocking and finding then great, I love it. And if it can help somebody make a better decision for their business or the practice, that’s awesome too. But many times I say at conferences and venues, I’ll say, well, I’ve never run a practice I probably never will. You wouldn’t probably want me to. And so I can’t quite understand how these trends and patterns manifest in your business and your practice. But here’s what we’re hearing.

Here’s what we’re seeing. What I’m seeing to answer your question, though, is I’m not dodging! I think the 25% of people who, in our last survey, we’ve been doing these pulse surveys of our community. We started with about 3500 members, respondents and then over every couple of weeks, since the beginning of COVID-19. And we have found that the most recent poll said 25% of consumers who are very interested in aesthetics, but have put the decision on hold, sight that they are concerned about safety. They’re concerned about getting sick. And I think there’s got to be at least a dozen other surveys out there really trying to answer why are consumers so disconnected from the health care system in America? You know, there’s just tremendous plummet and utilization rates of say ER, and other specialties.

I’ve many friends and other forms of medicine who are literally watching the paint dry, they’re so bored. And ER doctors have never been bored, right? And so they’re like, there’s nothing coming in! But what is really important for every practice to reflect on is how can you assert and actually act on delivering a safer experience? And I know that’s kind of maybe a no duh, but I don’t think I just haven’t seen as many practices, actively promoting their point of view and what they are doing to promote safety in the practice beyond what they normally would. I’ve seen Dr. Greco and Savannah, Georgia, excellent. Business leader, Surgeon. And if you go to his website, you’ll see the first thing that pops up is, here’s what we’re doing to deliver a great, safe experience for you at our practice here in Savannah. So anyway, I just want to see if you agree with that, or do you have a different reaction than that being good advice or not?

Chris Stock  

It’s funny, you should say that, but I saw one of the doctors out of Beverly Hills, maybe OC come out and say ‘this is what we’re doing.’ It was literally sort of half an hour 45 minutes ago. So you could scroll through and every element of the safety was covered in an Instagram post. And I thought, wow, they’ve just nailed it in terms of this is the experience, this is what you’re going to feel and see and hear and it nailed it. Versus what I’m seeing a lot of is ‘we’re open’. And I think that talks to your point in that it doesn’t give me confidence. You know, great you’re open, but I need to feel this is going to be safe.

Tom Seery  

Yes, and we’re open is a little bit of a self-serving message anyway. Well, good for you. That’s great. But so? Tell me more.

Chris Stock  

Yes.

Tom Seery  

I mean, clearly, there’s some pent up demand out there and people wanting to know that a practice has reopened. But I look at schools and, you know a lot of the prospective patients, doctors in our area of aesthetics are younger parents and people who are in their 30s, 40s and those parents are getting now starting to get new information for how things are going to work in the next school year. How things are going to work if camps haven’t been fully cancelled, like that happened in Seattle. And they’re hearing from these organizations a whole punch list of amazing amount of changes. My kids school, it took them over an hour to explain all the changes they’re going to be introducing next year. And it kind of made my head spin. But then, you know, that’s an environment with kids. Yes, there’s a lot of potential for spread and so forth. And safety is a big factor for children, of course. But I’m entering a medical facility to get an elective treatment, totally elective, I don’t need to be doing it. I would expect something quite similar, but maybe not as exhaustive. But if I want to go down the rabbit hole and really watch a video for 20 minutes about walking through your office and seeing all the things you’re doing to change it. I think I might be interested in that as a prospective patient.

Chris Stock  

Yes and you make a good point. For me, the ‘we’re open’ is one, self serving, as you said. It’s also a little bit lazy. It’s lazy insofar as I guess there’s pent up demand. There’s going to be a number of people. And actually, you can’t have so many people coming through the door. So it serves me, but as you say, it doesn’t. I don’t think it builds their brand. It doesn’t build beyond that pent up demand. I’m interested in what happens in three months time, subject to no second wave and all of those things. But, you know, what they’re doing now, I think impacts three, four or five months in terms of what that demand for them could look like. Yesterday, you shared some interesting trends, one of them is about an Increase in consultation booking activity. And this is an impossible question that you can’t answer, but subject to your magical crystal ball that you have just to the side. What do you think the next three to six months looks like for the practices?

Tom Seery  

Obviously, it’s going to be very dependent on the type of practice, what services they deliver, the market they’re in. So like, for instance, here in Seattle, we’ve largely been buffered by the economic side of COVID-19. And I don’t believe that there’s a lot of unemployed people. So I do not say that without empathy for individuals who are unemployed in Seattle, Washington. But there are some major employers who are seeing incredible upside I guess, If that doesn’t sound too crass, from the pandemic, that does sound wrong, but it’s true if you look at you know, Amazon’s based here, we have Microsoft based here. And so I would say practices here are just going to see a different experience than a practice in Orlando. In a market where, you know, really depend on travelers like Vegas.

You said it’s gonna be an impossible answer so I just wanted to throw in I’m completely self aware that it depends and has to be part of it. I’m curious and what I’ve been sort of challenging people to think about is what happens when 40 million Americans or whatever the number ends up being, roll off their Cobra coverage, and suddenly household discretionary spending becomes something that they have to make big trade offs on. And so what things can they delay? What things are most essential? So I think there’s this growth side of aesthetics that the people who are just coming into the market who are new, who are intrigued, making the budget work, somehow taking loans. I think that market is going to be really slow to show up in the next 12, 16,18, 24 months. And I don’t know how to quantify what percentage that is, but Allergan calls them the consumers are sort of what they’ve said there’s 10s of millions of women who are interested in Botox who aren’t moving forward. I think they call it the naive. I know in the industry, it’s called the naive consumer. I think they’re going to be very hard to bring back into the market to have that first experience on aesthetics, even with lower cost treatments, and certainly with surgical where credit’s going to be less available for a higher risk, lower availability.

I’m sort of meandering here only to say I think once we get past the sort of one time, pent up demand situation. I think there’s gonna be some challenges for these practices in regions that are highly affected. I think if you’re in a wealthy area, like Jason Posner, who’s in Boca Raton, and he was telling me a lot of people in his area normally travel and spend money, they’re going nowhere. So they’re able to spend money on aesthetics now, so that might help him in that area. But I don’t necessarily expect that to be a national trend. What do you think, do you have a sense for where things are going?

Chris Stock  

I think we’re pretty aligned actually, and I come back to the comment ‘we’re open’ is a little bit lazy, but it’s there. My mother is, I’ve got to be careful here if she watches this and I get it wrong, I’ll be in trouble but I think she’s 82.Let’s say she’s 80 just in case.

Tom Seery  

You don’t know how old your mother is?!

Chris Stock  

She’s 82 or 83 and she lives in Spain and literally 48 hours after the hairdresser was open, she was there having a haircut. And you know, I’m saying, Mom, you must stay home, you shouldn’t be doing this. Anyway, I think there’s very much that pent up demand, people are frustrated, they want to get out, they want to do something. But I do think when the economy kicks in, I think we have been protected right now. Not protected but there are the schemes for some of the businesses that are keeping some organizations afloat. And when that comes to an end and we start paying back some of those loans, then the problems start. Unless the economy bounces all the way back, which I can’t see happening. And even prior to this, we’ve been talking for the last 18 months of a recession coming. And this is sort of that facilitation of this recession we’ve been talking about. So I think this kick starts this cyclical recession. 

Tom Seery

Yes, there’s a sugar high from the trillions of dollars that are injected in the economy certainly have buffered many of these things. But, I have friends who are very involved in organizations like Gates Foundation, and if you want to have sobering discussion, talk to Epidemiologists and others who are saying, well, for those who think COVID has sort of been defeated or is in our rearview mirror, they say it’s fully capable and will come back in different forms and I think we’re more prepared. I think people a little bit more can contain their fear and frame it like, Okay, I understand what this means in terms of risk.

But you know, here in Seattle right now, as we sit here, there’s I think, at least 125 fisherman sitting on a boat. I literally could walk to the boat from my house, who all have COVID-19. The whole ship is contaminated. And it’s just an it’s just a really scary indicator of like, here’s what super spreading looks like. And I don’t mean to rain down on  the parade. I am a super optimistic person. I think we will all come through this and we will actually be better. I think I’m going to be a better leader. I think we’re going to be a better industry in Aesthetics. But I also think we got to take these things really seriously and get out of the headlines of politics and really be very, very astute to what has happened to the consumer, what are their behaviors ,what are their attitudes, how are they shifting? Because it’s not like anything we’ve ever seen before in terms of the way it’s reshaping Americans and probably globally, consumers, on how they think about life in general. And maybe Aesthetics will be the beneficiary. Right?

It’s like, wow, we really now care very much about our well being and want to do everything we can to preserve what we have. And so it’s possible there could be a tremendous wave of growth ahead of us. I just don’t I don’t know. We’ve got a lot of time to sort of work through some big challenges.

Chris Stock  

There’s some great things you’ve said and referenced and alluded to. I do hope as humanity that it has stopped us a little bit just to think about the impact that we’re having on the planet and some of those bigger challenges. I had a project a couple of years ago and I was literally, I was living in San Diego, and every other week I was in London. And now I think, you know, what, what was I thinking, what why was I doing that? And yes, it was a customer, I really enjoyed working with them, etc, etc. But actually, it’s not sustainable. You know, I’ve got to make a different decision. We all have to make different decisions going forward. That’s not to say we don’t travel, the world is there to be explored. But, you know, we don’t need to commute to London from San Diego.

Tom Seery  

There’s a pretty distinct line between explored and exploited and I think you’re right, I have had a lot of moments to be able to reflect on. Wow, I have stopped traveling, and how much beneficial things have happened in my life, let alone how fewer resources I’m using. It was interesting, I was looking at photos from a year ago. I was trying to find something for my kids. And I just kept seeing weekend after weekend of pictures of me at conferences all over the world, Monaco and places and I think I just let it get to my head like wow, I’m being asked to speak at an event. But I didn’t realize what the consequences were for my children, my family, my friends, my business. So I don’t know how my friends at Expedia and the travel world are going to see the market come back probably in a decade, it just probably won’t come back to where it’s been today. Thanks to things like this, what we’re doing, you know, we’re communicating just fine and probably actually a little bit more effectively, using a format like this Zoom call and taking a moment to have a conversation.

Chris Stock  

Coming into this industry, you’re clearly a prominent figure. Now, I’ve known about you since I’ve sort of been in the industry, but it’s actually since i’ve stopped and am sitting in my kitchen that we connect. It’s not at the next trade show. It’s actually through the technology and that’s great. I love it.

Tom Seery  

We would see each other at a conference and we would have that superficial like, hey, let’s sit down at this little roundtable and talk about things and then exchange business cards and you would go onto a stack of 40 other business cards. Not intentionally trying to ignore you at all. It’s just we go back to our homes and we have to go do everything that we’ve left and we were doing before and it’s so super inefficient. I mean, look, I miss connectivity and seeing doctors. I really enjoy having some fun at times, but I don’t know I, I don’t think I would ever give this back up. I have little children and I’m bonding with them. I Remember Dr. Corey Moss out of San Francisco, a great surgeon. I saw him at a conference a couple years ago and I said, Cory, I have not seen you in ages. And he said, Oh, that’s an intentional thing. And I said what do you mean? He said, you’ll see me a lot less going forward. And I really honored that. I was really inspired by that, but I didn’t act on it. And so now I’m acting on it and Dr. Moss was right on. This is the right way to live life.

Chris Stock  

I love that story. It actually reminds me, I was coaching an executive of a FTSE 100, one of our top 100 companies in the UK. As a coach, I don’t mention any names, but he was courted to come and join this other organization and as his coach, we were talking it through and he said, I’m not taking it. And i’m saying why? You know, it’s a phenomenal opportunity. You know, look who’s asking you! He said, I know he flies his private jet down to the South of France on a Friday night. On the flight he goes through all of his numbers. When he arrives, he phones all of his CEOs and wants a report. And he said Friday night, I’m taking my kids to Pizza Hut. And this company can have me from, six o’clock in the morning on on a Monday all the time, but 4:30 on a Friday, that’s what my kids want to do. I’m doing it. And I came away thinking, wow, this is a career guy full of potential. But actually when it came to that big decision, it’s my kids get me. I’m getting goosebumps just repeating the story because that for me is what it’s all about.

Tom Seery  

I worked at Pizza Hut. One of my first jobs was at a Pizza Hut and I know what’s happening in there behind the scenes. Well, hopefully they’ve improved their standards since I was there.

Chris Stock  

Hopefully they’ve matured!

Tom Seery

You know, I was talking to a member of my team who’s, I would say, a very demonstrably proof point of a millennial and the millennial generation. Very distraught what’s what’s happening within America with the tensions around racial relationships and black lives, let alone pandemic. And I said, You know, I don’t mean to be that cranky older generation person right now but I think your generation needed to be shook up a little bit from staring at your phones, chasing after followers, likes and loves that are all you know, kind of phony. And thinking that a hashtag is a form of advocacy, but they just didn’t know how to put it into action. So that’s one thing but I think a point about working too much.

I’m a Gen X’er and there is some bizarre status symbol associated with being busy. I don’t know how that came about in our generation, potentially the previous generation really impressed that upon us that work ethic. But all my friends all of us work way too much, too many hours. A crazy amount of our lives have been given up to something that doesn’t give much back at times. And so to the person who decided they were going to forgo the crazy career and spend more time with the people they love and who love them back. That’s pretty Noble. I look up to that. I think that’s a fantastic story. Those people have their priorities, at least my opinion set in the right direction.

Chris Stock  

Wow, we’ve gone totally into areas I wasn’t expecting which is great!

Tom Seery  

Oh, sorry. You probably want to talk about like, what do you think Botox pricing is going to do?

Chris Stock  

No, actually this is the type of conversation I love.

Tom Seery  

Look I just want to say, sorry to interrupt. Why I have enjoyed this conversation is when I do go to meetings and I’m asked to speak, I really want to have these conversations. I want to talk about life. And you know, the people that I’m typically speaking to are very similar to myself. They run small businesses, they have an entrepreneurial spirit, they’ve taken a lot of risks to do that. They’re way smarter than me, they’ve trained. They’re so focused and disciplined in how they got to where they are, where I’m a little bit more scattered, and I like to call creative. But, you know, where we can be most helpful for each other is talking about things like emotional maturity and values. And that’s something that Marie Oleson has talked about on the podium before, but we just don’t get a chance to really talk about.

It’s all about the team and the operations and taking care of your team first. And so people have asked me if i’m nervous about taking a stance on black lives matter? I’m like, not at all. And like, what if somebody disagrees with me? First, I believe from my perspective, it’s a human rights issue, not a political issue, and a human rights stance and not a political stance that we want to take. And I have to look at what matters to my team, to my black team members, and to my customers. And they really, really find this to be extremely relevant, important where we stand and take a stance, and I do too, personally, but I just, I feel that’s kind of what is interesting and why maybe running business is better than just getting a job for a job with the government or something. It comes  with a lot of responsibility to do the right thing.

Chris Stock  

Yes, again, so many things I could pick on, and jump into but I’m also conscious of the time. So coming back to leadership, I think it’d be a really nice way to finish. One of the things I know about my success over the years is the mentors and the coaches that I’ve had access to. And I’m sure in your journey you’ve had, and sometimes it may not even be a formal mentor or coach, sometimes it’s just that bit of steerage or that guidance that you’re given. But, if there was just one lesson you’ve learned or piece of advice you’ve been given that really stands out for you in terms of being a leader, what would that be?

Tom Seery  

Yes, I’ve been very fortunate to have many sources of inspiration and support and things that helped me grow. I think that it goes back to my previous comment, which sounded maybe I was going into a random space, but I was trying to really get to a point which is, for a long time, I thought I was building a product. I was building a company, I was trying to get new customers, I was always focusing on that’s my job as a CEO. And then I got advice from one of my actually one of my investors and early investors, angel investors, and they said, your job is really about enabling, empowering and inspiring your team. And so start with your team. And trust your team. And they’re the ones who are going to figure it out, not you. They’re the ones who are going to figure out how to get the next customer. And I think that sounds subtle, but it was significant for me, it was almost letting go and saying,

You’re right, this is only going to work if I get to a place of trust. And the only way I can get to a place of trust is if I know that I’m being as authentic as possible, and they are as well. And we’re just being honest and transparent and very sharing and not worried about things like well, what if they find out this, you know, just accepting that information is going to be our friend and sharing that will be something that will make sure we’re all looking at the same thing. So that’s probably the most helpful. I can see that as a moment where I shifted my mindset and actually started acting differently and behaving, I believe more effectively as a leader.

Chris Stock

I think that’s a perfect place to finish. This has been phenomenal. As I say, we got into different conversations, but I relished the conversation and where it went. So, Tom, thank you very much,

Tom Seery  

Chris. Thank you, you’re a great host and very accommodating of my long responses, but this is a fitting, this is the end of my week here and this has just been a great way to end it. So thank you so much for inviting me on.

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