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Chere Cofer, CEO & Founder, Open Books MD

Chere Cofer has always executed her jobs in pharmaceutical and biotechnology sales with a certain level of creativity. But over time, even the most creative ideas for getting face time with her doctors seemed to be getting less and less effective. More and more medical practices were trying to “go it alone” and shutting their doors to the valuable patient resources and education that reps provide. About two years ago, Chere's sister was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. That’s when the challenge of getting face time with the doctor became personal.

Like everyone else, she wanted her sister’s doctor to be up to date on the latest breakthrough therapies, but that’s not always as easy as it sounds. Chere decided to build a scheduling platform that would give doctors the tools they need to better manage their rep interactions and help reps get their information to doctors more easily. She bootstrapped the venture from concept to launch with some luck, good people in her corner, and a lot of Sticksnleaves. Armed with a little domain expertise and a lot of creativity, Open Books MD was launched a year later.

More about Chere:

1. What is your professional background?

I have sixteen years of experience in pharmaceutical and biotechnology sales. It’s a very challenging job. You have to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable because rejection is daily. It’s not uncommon to drive two hours to see a doctor, wait another hour, and then be turned away. At times it can be a thankless job, but whenever I hear a patient testimonial about my drug changing someone’s life it brings it all home. I feel blessed to have had a successful career in sales. When I walk into my home office there are awards and trophies all over the room, but the real payoff is knowing my efforts have impacted someone’s life. I am hoping Open Books MD becomes a way for me to have a greater impact on more people.

2. Who is your key audience?

When asked about my customer base, I say “I have three”. I am told you can only have one true customer, but I disagree. Open Books is for medical practices, medical reps, and eventually the caterers who provide the lunches. Of course this means there will be more moving parts, but three revenue streams are better than one! Now is the right time for Open Books MD because most medical practices are fully integrated with electronic health records (EHR), so they are more at ease with using technology. My current customers realize this is the modern way of interacting with the pharmaceutical industry and I am hoping that creates a tailwind to help us go faster and farther.

3. What is the biggest challenge starting up your business?

The biggest challenges to launching a startup are the skeptics who don’t quite get your idea and plant that seed of doubt. Then there are the people who are just resistant to change. One hundred percent of the medical practices I’ve talked to say their current physician-rep scheduling system is broken, but at the same time they’re afraid to try something new.

It’s like Uber: growing up, we were all told not to get in cars with strangers, right? Can you imagine the amount of skepticism Uber founders must have faced trying to change that thought process? It’s the same concept. You’re trying to convince a market to do something different and to do it with you, not the competition. If you can win you win big, but it’s usually like going uphill on skates in the beginning. People are social creatures, so they feel more comfortable making change when they know others have taken the leap first. If you know any decision makers in the medical practice management space, a warm intro goes a long way! Share my story.

4. You’re a sales expert, why did you want to become an entrepreneur?

People probably don’t realize it, but being an entrepreneur requires the same skill set as a sales expert: strength in the face of rejection, a can-do attitude, out-of-the-box thinking, strategy, patience, and probably a little bit of crazy. What sane person knowingly signs up to have doors slammed in their face everyday? I guess it’s the thrill of the chase and the possibility of a big payday down the road. I’ve been chasing carrots my entire life.

5. What are your plans for growth over the next year?

My plans for growth for the next year are simple: I plan to raise money so I can add staff, scale the business, and hopefully get a strong advisory group around me. Beyond that, it’s too hard to predict. I realized early that the only constant in business is change.

6. Looking back, are there any questions you wish you would have asked earlier?

How long will it take to get to break even? And profitability? How do entrepreneurs eat in the meantime? I have no answers for any of the above, but it never crossed my mind to inquire when I first set out on my journey either.

7. What does being a “minority woman founder” mean to you?

I was recently reading an article in Forbes that talked about the arduous journey that few entrepreneurs successfully complete: raising a million dollars. Add a female founder at the helm and the chances of success decrease significantly. Now add an African American female founder, and the chances become abysmal.

African American women receive a mere 0.2% of overall venture capital dollars and of the rare few who do receive money, the average dollar amount is thirty-six thousand dollars compared to the average $1.3 million doled out to white male founded startups. We all know that raising capital is key to being able to sustain and scale a business, but knowing the cards are stacked against you makes the journey that much more daunting.

Clearly we have to do better, but I think it all begins with taking chances and coming to the table competent and confident in your abilities. Part of the battle is knowing where the landmines are hidden and successfully navigating around them. If capital is one of them, start having those conversations sooner than later. Ultimately, we have to change our approach. Stop asking for a seat at the table and just change the table.

8. What advice do you have for other women thinking about starting up a business?

Find a problem that affects millions of people and is worth solving. Tackle a problem you know intimately so you can start with a certain level of expertise. If fixing this problem will make life easier or better for many people, then you’re on the right track. Find a group of like-minded people to be in community with and lastly, throw away your small thinking cap. You won’t need it.

9. How have The Startup Ladies helped you grow?

The Startup Ladies organization has given me many tangible benefits: training for the IN Conference for Women pitch contest, meaningful connections, advice etc, but it’s the intangibles that really make this organization special. You won’t find a more diverse group of smart, accomplished, well connected, and ambitious women. There’s a lot of expertise and power when we are all in a room together. I attribute much of where I am in my journey now to linking up with the Startup Ladies early on.

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