Your Future Story … How Good Is It?

by Susan Nemetz, September 2017

Summer, sadly, is over. And while there are noticeable shifts with each change of season, I find the transition into autumn can often be bittersweet.

For those who recently had a high school graduate head off to college (I’ve lived that myself — twice), it can be particularly jarring. Nearly everything in their lives — and much of yours — is about to change. They’ll meet new people; they’ll learn new things; they’ll make mistakes. And, if all goes well, they’ll know a lot more about who they are, where they are headed, and what type of profession they are best suited for when they emerge four (or more) years down the road.

But what if it didn’t work that way?

What if, instead of waiting until they neared graduation to decide what they want to do, they had to interview for that future job today — at the beginning of the process?

What if today, they had to explain with precision how their presence in a company would improve its bottom-line in several years? What if today, they had to articulate their strengths and weaknesses and every step they are going to take to prove their worth? What if today, they had to tell stories from personal experience that would convince the interviewer to make them an offer upon graduation or even invest in them now?

I think you’d agree that this would be a fairly sobering scenario (no pun intended!) for even the most confident and self-aware college freshman. With such a limited trove of knowledge, experience, and data about themselves and the world in general, making their case would not be easy.

And yet, it seems to me that in many ways, this is exactly what is required of early-stage biopharma companies as they begin the journey to bring a drug to market. “Graduation” may be several years in the future. But the interview and the need for a story that envisions success, and supports the value of and investment in the work, can happen in a company’s “freshman year.”

What Story Are You Telling?

Will you need interim financing? Will you be speaking at JP Morgan? Will you be looking to court potential partners? Will you be working to convince payers, investigators/physicians, patients, and even internal gatekeepers to support your initiative? In all these cases and more, you’ll need authentic, practical stories with relevant insights. Stories that paint a picture for the listener about the vision for your technology and, ultimately, for your company.

And you need them now – not in three, or two, or even one year. Like a college freshman who is just getting started, you have the challenge of anticipating a future in which both what you have to offer and the world you live in will undoubtedly evolve.

    With that in mind, here are four essentials we’ve learned about telling better future stories:
  • Know who you’re talking to and what they need. Investors want it all clarified, especially the big opportunity. The commercial team of a potential partner wants to know how they will sell the drug – the story you tell needs to show that you understand the market and how your drug fits with what they are already offering. Scientists are sophisticated on the technical side and usually respect insights gathered in market research, yet may be a bit cynical about the commercialization strategy for a drug. Patients and families care less about the underlying science of a drug and are eager to know how it will improve their lives.
  • Different groups require different stories – stories that are mapped to their view of the world, level of sophistication, and overall needs.
  • Expect your stories to change but plant a stake in the ground today.Over time, as you learn more, your stories should evolve. You’ll have more data and experience. Regulations, competition, and internal factors will change. Like that college student who learns more with each passing year, your path along the road to commercialization will reveal more to you. Plan on adjusting your stories accordingly and build an internal capability to manage this process.
  • Speak about real people. In our industry in general, and in commercialization in particular, we have a tendency to assign people to segments: 40% have experienced this; 30% have experienced that. It is necessary as a means of gauging efficacy and progress, but in doing so we lose the personal element.
  • Do what politicians do so well – share anecdotes about real people.Talk about how a particular person, with a particular condition, is affected by a disease. Paint a picture of how an effective drug would allow her to play with her grandchildren, avoid risky surgery, or live a longer and fuller life. This insight comes from talking to real people: patients and the clinicians who treat them.
  • Know your own truth. We’ve all endured meetings over the years where an assertion or anecdote shared in one conversation is carried over to another. Pretty soon, this notion is accepted as fact across the company. Nobody likes to think that “their baby is ugly” and everyone wants to believe that “their science will sell itself.” This tendency towards groupthink is part of the human condition, but it rarely tells the full (real) story and is repeatedly proven wrong in the marketplace.
  • It’s critical to seek out external insights and validation, while ensuring a robust conversation about the source of your team’s assumptions and conclusions. That means continually gathering insights from KOLs, HCPs, payers, and patients to provide a check on the ever-changing global reality in which we live and operate.

The commercialization path is winding and filled with unanticipated obstacles, changes, and reveals. You can’t know precisely where it will lead any more than a newly-minted high school graduate can map each step of his or her future career.

That said, you can and must share a compelling vision. The stories you develop and tell, modified for different stakeholders, situations, and timelines, will help you gather the resources and team you need to “graduate” and achieve success as a company.