Health 2.0 Keynote with Jonathan Bush: A Hedgehog of a CEO

Maybe you’ve never heard CEO of athenahealth Jonathan Bush speak about what he does before. And anyone in the audience at Health 2.0 Spring Fling who hadn’t must have been surprised.

Bush often describes himself and his company by doing impersonations of various caricatures. He turned into Scrappy-Doo to explain his personal style of running the company. Bush was asked by an audience member if he’s always been so energetic, from the beginning of athena.

“You need to get attention any way you can. If you break a leg or piss someone off, it doesn’t matter,” Bush said. “And getting out in front, taking all the intellectual and emotional energy of your company, stealing it, driving it into you [allow five seconds to morph into Scrappy] … that’s really good.”

Athenahealth creates cloud-based business services for physicians. Bush co-founded the company with U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park in 1997. Now, though the company is ever proactively looking for partners, it’s in the position to be approached instead of just doing the approaching.

Bush described three maxims for small startups as they look to parter:

1. Don’t bite off more than you can chew
2. You need your partner’s “id” as well as its signature
3. Culture trumps capability

On the last point, Bush described how clicking with the actual people behind the partnership makes a huge difference when making sure the joint effort is successful. He talked about one instance when he felt the click through a partnership with the Ohio State Medical Association.

“It was just hugs! Somebody who sees me for who I am. In fact, I think it’s that they see athena for who she is more than me in particular. But that feeling makes you share so much more with that person. Go so much further out of your way to make things work for them,” Bush said.

And they’ll likely return the favor.

Bush spent a lot of time talking about the company’s low points and relating the takeaways from his experiences.

He described an early relationship athena had with the Hospital Corporation of America. At one point, Bush and his coworkers were just about to run athena into the ground. HCA said it would help them out, but that it wanted to own athena.

“We almost lost the deal,” Bush said. But Bush and his co-workers stuck to their guns and didn’t give the company up.

“If you’re in one of these big deals, do not give away your company. Do not give away your code, do not do these things. Because you’ve given up the whole dream.”

An audience member asked Bush, now that athena is on the other side of the dealmaking relationship, what does athena look for?

First, he said, a potential partner might exclusively provide a service or feature that athena either doesn’t have or isn’t delivering it as well as it could.

“Our hedgehog is that we’re going to get doctors paid for for doing the right thing,” Bush said. Partners can make athena better at that.

Number two, athena looks for a company to have capabilities, meaning it’s a master at what it does. And three, the partner creates regular access to people athena wants to access.

Oh, another question someone in the audience had: What is a hedgehog?

A hedgehog isn’t a fox. A fox moves fast and keeps changing direction. (Bush physically demonstrated this on stage.) A hedgehog, on the other hand, knows right where he’s going.

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