When growing small business, bigger needs to be better:
Q&A with Health Union co-founders Tim Armand & Olivier Chateau
July 8, 2020
Ten years since its inception in 2010, Health Union is soon launching its 30th online health community, with over 1,000,000 social media followers, over 16.3 million web visitors just this past year, and a team of 175 and growing. In honor of the company’s tenth anniversary, we take a closer look at how co-founders Olivier Chateau and Tim Armand’s leadership has catalyzed Health Union’s growth and made a profound impact on the healthcare industry.
What initially inspired you to begin Health Union?
Olivier Chateau (OC): I always had a desire to start something from scratch, to take a risk. I think the attraction was a combination of trying something with the professional background that I had and seeing how I could translate that into an entrepreneurial experience. When you’re taking this on, you have to ask yourself: what’s your current personal situation? Is this the right timing? Do you have the right support? And, do you believe your idea can really make a difference? Anyone can have an idea; however, out of 100 people that tell you they’re going to do something, I believe only one will actually follow through. And it’s not because the 99 others can’t do it; it has to be the right combination of time, belief and experience.
Tim Armand (TA): I had owned a small business before I went to graduate school and before I worked in the pharmaceutical industry, so I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak–I was always the kid who would be out mowing lawns every summer. But, then I found myself working at GlaxoSmithKline for about 13 years, and we really just saw an opportunity to build better relationships, build a solution that was better than what we were being offered. I always knew I was the type of person just waiting for an idea to inspire me. I worked with Olivier at GSK closely for about five or six years, and we knew it was time for us to leave corporate America and go after the idea that brought us to start Health Union.
What was the hardest lesson during Health Union’s first year of business?
TA: It’s never as easy as it looks. When we first started, it looked like a slam dunk on paper, but we learned it doesn’t come as easily or quickly as you think. Obviously, we were fortunate that our ideas took off and it worked out, but it took longer than we thought. The fact is that we got some lucky breaks along the way.
OC: I think there were two very different lessons. The first was when you come from pretty big jobs with a lot of power and influence, and then you end up at your new business venture being the guys doing everything from scratch–the dynamic is so different. It was pretty challenging to adapt to that. The second lesson was at the beginning, you’re the only one who’s convinced your idea is going to work. Honestly, the turning point was when we did our first Migraine In America survey in 2011 through Migraine.com. At that point, we had less than 100,000 people visiting our site; we decided to launch the survey, not knowing what to expect. And it completely blew us away. That was the moment that validated our idea. The idea to model our business around building relationships was bigger than we thought.
Let’s jump forward to a year from now. What does the world look like for Health Union and the people in its online communities?
OC: Bigger needs to be better. If our company is bigger just to be bigger, I’m not interested. So, I think we will be bigger, but we will be dramatically better. We will grow in terms of our team and the people we attract and engage with, but we will improve the quality of the interaction we can support and the products we provide to our partners. From a technology standpoint, we will begin to see our platforms be more dynamic–meaning not everyone will experience the same thing in the same way. Right now, everyone in our communities has relatively the same experience, so I hope that as we grow, we’re able to start to provide more dynamic experiences to people based on their needs, wants and interests.
TA: A lot of what Olivier and I do is think about the future, so we have a pretty high degree of confidence in what is to come in 2021. It’s driven by a lot of forethought and planning, so we know we’ll have more employees, more communities, and hopefully we’ll continue to deliver on promises of technology we’ve invested in. Our partners have continued to see the real value in what we do, so I think the future is very bright.
In your words, what makes Health Union an award-winning company?
TA: It might be too easy to say the people, but it’s really a combination of the mission and the people. Even our Health Union logo emulates a circle, a yin and yang, balance and harmony–this circular idea that our mission attracts the right people, and the people drive our mission. We’ve had that employee-centric approach from the beginning.
OC: I think it’s because we give people the opportunity to excel and grow, leverage their skills, express opinions and ideas. People are the reason why we do what we do. We’re not necessarily business-oriented; we’re people-oriented first. Once you have the people, the business will follow. But, I think where we are now in our business’s growth is the hardest part. I often joke that Health Union is ten years old and, just like an ten-year-old child, we’re cute and we can talk and we start to do math, but there’s a long way to go until we can go to college and get our Ph.D. It’s a simple analogy but it’s relevant: everything is yet to be done.
How do you manage to maintain Health Union’s culture while the company grows so rapidly?
TA: Both Olivier and I are people-driven by nature in many ways. We never actually sat down when we started the company and said, “We’re going to have this great culture!” Maybe we should have, but it was just so ingrained in both of us that it came very naturally. We always want to hire a certain kind of person who can contribute to the company culture and not just benefit from it. It’s hard to define, but when you hire the right people, the culture just gets better and better.
OC: I actually think this is the single most important part of my job. Although there are very few jobs I haven’t done here, my job today is very different than it was before. My number one responsibility, as we grow, is to keep the culture, the spirit and the values of the business the same as when we began. So, how do we do that? I think that culture comes from the top down, so we as leaders need to stay humble, lead by example, do what we say and say what we do. Our core values of inclusion, community, excellence and transparency have only gotten stronger over the years, so we have to keep clearly communicating the short and long-term vision across the company and living the values of Health Union so that everyone is on the same page.
What are some common, or maybe not-so-common, traits that you look for in new additions to your team?
OC: I look at people first, and qualifications second. I don’t look at resumes; if I’m talking to a candidate, I know the team believes the candidate has the right culture fit. I want to make sure that not only can they do the job, but do the job in the mindset and cultural vibe that we’ve set for ourselves. I think we can all learn; a lot of jobs here are new and different, so it doesn’t mean that if you haven’t done it before you can’t do it with us tomorrow. I look for people who believe in our vision long-term. Health Union is successful because we have people who believed that we could achieve our business’ stretch goals. People have to choose us as much as we choose them. It’s a two-way street.
TA: With any new hire, regardless of the position’s degree of difficulty or technical specificity, the first hurdle is the cultural one. You could be the biggest expert with the highest set of skills, but if we feel you’re not a cultural fit, that’s a big deal. We are really focused on creating a team-oriented environment; we’re not looking for someone who is only concerned for themselves. We want someone who appreciates the mission; for example, if you’re in sales, you will sell better if you appreciate what we do and you want to be a part of it. We want someone to want to work here, even more than we want them to work here. If someone is driven by the good that we do, by the fact that we really help people, they’ll be really invested in their role with us. Everything in our business works because each individual understands what they do is crucial to our success: it’s like how a car can’t run without both gasoline and oil. You can’t really argue which one is more important because that doesn’t matter: without either, the car won’t run.
What’s one of the most important lessons you’ve learned in your career that helped shape who you are as a leader?
TA: I learned, particularly at GSK, that leadership is based on honesty. Trying to remain positive, using humor appropriately, being honest with people about the directions we’re going, what we’re trying to accomplish … I was blessed early on in my career with having good bosses who were willing to be honest and wanted to see others advance. I learned that I always wanted to be surrounded by people smarter than I am. Having a sense of humor is key for me, as well. It can get employees through tough times and help me communicate memorably and effectively, without just standing up there and telling jokes. All the leaders I’ve admired most have been smart, honest, funny people. That’s who I wanted to be.
OC: The first is that you can’t argue with facts. The second is that you can bring emotion to things, but you can’t let yourself be emotional about things. Facts are what they are. Often, I say that I have three stages of myself: I have an emotional phase, an analytical phase, then the rational phase–that’s just how my brain works. So, when I see something that I love, I love it 5,000% or when I don’t like it, I don’t like it 5,000%. But then I know that I also have to be analytical and rational about it, and take the emotion away from it and come to a constructive decision.
How do you two manage such a successful partnership? How do your leadership styles fit together?
OC: It’s very simple: we hide nothing from each other and have open conversations on every single topic. We highly value each other’s opinions, and we have an ability to compromise. That’s always been the case since day one. Tim helps me in many ways, and I help him in many others. We have a very equal-to-equal relationship. There’s a natural division of tasks based on our talents and likes, but it is one of the top reasons why Health Union has been so successful. It’s very hard to be alone when you start something from scratch like we did. You have questions and some days you struggle; so it’s a big deal to have someone else.
TA: Olivier is boundless energy and ideas. I think I have lots of ideas and energy, as well, but nothing compared to what he has. Boundless energy moving rapidly in all directions is called an explosion…it can blow things up and knock things down, but if you channel it properly you can take a man to the moon. I try to be the pragmatist, focus on the facts and funnel that energy. Where I’m weak, he’s strong and vice versa; we complement each other very well. We’re incredibly focused on making the company succeed. But, we know we can’t do everything; that’s a joint understanding. So we have to focus on what we can do and aim to excel at that, which helps broaden our impact and do even more.