Thursday, May 26, 2011
Interview with Jake Winebaum, Brighter
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Jake Winebaum is a veteran of the Southern California technology industry, having run and sold a number of successful, Southern California startups. His last success was Business.com, which he sold to R.R. Donnelly, and he also was behind eCompanies, which invested in such companies as JAMDAT Mobile, Boingo Wireless, and USBX. He's also on the board of hot Silicon Valley startup Gigya. Jake's latest venture is Brighter (www.brighter.com), a service which is aimed at helping consumers find pre-negotiated rates on dental care. We caught up with Jake to hear why he's turned his attention to dentistry, and what he's trying to do with Brighter.
What is Brighter and what it is all about?
Jake Winebaum: Brighter's mission is to provide affordable dental care to the nearly 50 percent of Americans without dental insurance. That's nearly four times those who don't have health insurance. Lack of access to dental care is what the U.S. Surgeon General has called a "silent epidemic". When people don't get regular, preventative dental care, they end up with poor long term oral health, which is linked to things like heart disease and diabetes. The way Brighter makes that dental care more affordable, is it empowers consumers to find dental benefits, and allows them to compare that by price and reputation. The way a consumer accesses this, is they put in their zip code, the dental procedure they are looking to get, and it displays a list of dentists nearest to them, who have the best reputation and lowest price.
How did this startup come about, and why did you pick dentistry?
Jake Winebaum: There are a couple of things this is about. As you know, we sold Business.com to R.H. Donnelly. R.H. Donnelly is a large, yellow page publisher, and we found that one of the largest categories in the Yellow Pages is dentists. The reason why, is that dentists are very fragmented, very local, and really have a hard time reaching out to new patients. When you look at their presence on the Internet, only about one third have websites, and they are very poorly represented. We felt that as an area, it was an underdeveloped area of the Internet. What prompted this specific idea, however, was I was having dinner with my in-laws, and things invariably turned to health issues. My father in law had just come back from the dentist--he's retired and on Medicare--and they told him a crown would cost $6500. However, Medicare has no dental coverage, so seniors end up paying for most of those procedures out of pocket. We started looking to figure out if $6500 was a good price or a bad price, and we found out that there was no information on the Internet about what that procedure should cost. So we got going on this, and we've been working on it for two years. We raised funding in January from Mayfield, on top of the seed funding we raised at the onset.
You've been in involved in a lot of very successful ventures. At first glance, you wouldn't think finding dentists would be interesting to venture investors. What drove that VC interest?
Jake Winebaum: People spend $110 billion a year on dental care and at the dentist. $45 billion of that is spent out-of-pocket. You've got millions of consumers out there, with a very major expenditure, and having absolutely no price transparency, and no reputational transparency. It's a huge, huge sector. For children, it's 20 percent of their overall health costs. Although there are tons and tons of ventures going after solving healthcare, there is very little activity in dental. What Mayfield, and what we saw, is that there is a significant industry, relatively undeveloped on the Internet, and which also provides a really great consumer value proposition. We can provide customers with what they've come to expect from the Internet from travel and other sites -- why not bring those same benefits to dental consumers. We can go in and empower consumers, with knowledge of what the costs and reputation are at a dentist.
What's the business model behind this?
Jake Winebaum: The way this works, is we have pre-negotiated prices with 25,000 dentists nationwide. That's a quarter of all dentists. Those prices are 20 to 60 percent less than what an uninsured patient would pay for a procedure. Consumers can access those discounts through our free plan, with a 20 to 30 percent discount, or our paid plan, which is less than $7 a month or $79 a year. We've also got a small business plan, which costs $49 per employee per year. The model is a subscription membership model, where you get the benefits of being in the network, where we can offer these discounted rates, which are attractive to patients.
Did you have to talk with all those dentists to get that pricing, or how did you accomplish that?
Jake Winemaub: What we did is we leased a cost containment network. A cost containment network is what is used by insurance companies and others, to get contractually negotiated rates. Basically, the dentists in the network have contractually agreed to deliver these prices to enrolled members. That gives us national coverage in every major market, and in most smaller markets. That's 25,000 dentists, a quarter of all dentists. In Santa Monica alone, there are 300 dentists in the network.
Let's switch gears for a bit. Having been involved with lots of successes, you could just retire. Why another startup for you?
Jake Winebaum: It's what I like to do. I love to create things, to work on big problems, and create solutions. It's what I love to do. I tried for about a year to not do something, and I failed miserably. My wife threw me out of the house. I've now done probably 10 to 12 startups, it's just what I love to do, and it's proved to be really fun and exciting, and a really rewarding experience to create something. This can help people save money, and give them a reason to go to the dentist more often. As with every startup, there are always rough patches, and always problems which seem insurmountable at times, but solving them is really rewarding.
Are you still making investments in local startups?
Jake Winebaum: Not really. I have made a few investments locally, but my principal focus is my own startup, and that's what I'll continue to do. Where I've had the greatest success is as an operator, more so than as an investor.
Finally, what's your view on the technology ecosystem in LA?
Jake Winebaum: I couldn't imagine doing this anywhere but in LA. Everyone talks about doing things in the Bay Area, but LA as a place to do application on the Internet, is great. There is tremendous talent down here, and there is tremendous experience in consumer marketing and consumer products. As you can see from my background, I've seen some tremendous success here in LA doing startups. It's a great community that does not get the credit that it should. Because of that, we don't need to do the latest social network, or some whizzy mobile app-- we can focus on stuff that people really, really need, and do it right.