In today’s episode, we chat with Joe Spector. Joe is Founder and CEO at Dutch, an online veterinary pet telehealth service. He is also an investor and advisor to several startups in the healthcare space.
Fleeing from Uzbekistan at a young age, Joe experienced a massive culture shock. However, it didn’t stop him from adapting to his new environment and learning new things, including English.
It wasn’t an easy path, though. Because of financial issues, Joe had to work nonstop during college to support himself. He learned the value of hard work and education early, leading him to his entrepreneurial journey.
In this episode, Joe shares his experiences right after college, going to business school, and finding his passion for entrepreneurship. We also get to hear the history of Hims, a telehealth company that he co-founded in 2017, and Dutch, his current company.
Finally, Joe tells us valuable insights on entrepreneurship and the lessons he learned in his journey.
On the challenges he faced as an immigrant
A lot of these things, later on, led me to this entrepreneurial journey by giving me a very thick skin, by making me feel comfortable with the uncomfortable because I’ve had to learn everything that was just so foreign entirely from scratch. I also think it made me empathetic to other immigrant experiences and other experiences where someone may feel outside of their comfort zone.
What he learned on his startup journey
I started my first failed startup right after business school and I would say that sort of created this journey where I worked in a number of other startups and all of that led me to Hims where really it started off just like other startups; it was an idea on a piece of paper. But along the way, I learned the people I need to surround myself with. I built up relationships. I built up more confidence and more strategy. And so, by the time Hims came around, I think I had a lot of battle scars that made that experience go significantly better.
On being an investor and a mentor
I wanted to stay in health care because I think the mission aspect of it is something that resonates. One thing I was saying earlier is that realization in my twenties that there’s more to life than making money. I want to have a positive impact on the world around me and I think healthcare is kind of one of those areas. And as far as advising and mentorship, I’ve had mentors who have had an immense impact on me, and I think, again, I’d like to give back and mentor and pay it forward.
Advice for students
Take advantage of the multiple experiences that are available. And don’t have horse blinders on in your undergrad. Use that moment to do things that feel uncomfortable.
Advice for entrepreneurs
Don’t take no for an answer. And change is constant. If you’re having a bad day or something’s not working, that’s not forever. But at the same time, you’re in control of your destiny. I think another one, and this is my mantra for this year, is that I don’t have to react to everything right away. You can take a moment as long as you need because again, with startups, it just seems like you have to decide right away, but know that you can take a pause and not answer everything immediately.
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:04] Chris: Welcome to the OneHaas Podcast. I’m Chris Kim. Today, we have Joe Spector, Berkeley Haas undergrad alum and founder and CEO of Dutch. Joe is passionate about entrepreneurship and creating businesses in highly regulated spaces. Joe is also the founder of Hims and is an investor and advisor to other startups in the healthcare space. Welcome, Joe, and great to have you on the show.
[00:28] Joe: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:30] Chris: Yeah, Joe. I’m super passionate to have you on the show today. You have amazing story. Could you just, maybe, kick us off and tell us, where did you grow up and where did your story begin?
[00:39] Joe: Sure. I am originally from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. My family and I immigrated to the United States when I was 10 years old. And grew up in the Bay Area. All throughout high school, I really wanted to go to Cal. And right as I got into Cal, my senior year, my dad basically said, “Unfortunately, we don’t have any money for you to go to college.” And I just couldn’t believe it because I worked so hard. I took all the AP classes. I got into Cal. It was biggest challenge. And I think it was part of my not taking no for an answer mantra that I’ve had to deal with as an entrepreneur. And so, a lot of it, I ended up working throughout my time at Cal—
[01:31] Chris: Oh, my gosh. Wow.
[01:32] Joe: And I ended up finishing early just because I needed to pay for it. It certainly helped me be a hard-worker and really appreciate my education.
[01:43] Chris: That’s crazy. Joe, what was it like immigrating to the States and then being in the Bay Area and then going to Cal? It’s like a huge life transformation in such a short period of time. Just what was that process like? And what was that experience like having to go through all of this at that super young age?
[01:59] Joe: Massive culture shock. I think, frankly, it took me years to really realize what that was all about. And I think, when I was at Cal, I still was forming that understanding. But coming here into junior high school, I was often called a communist. And it’s back in the early ’90s. It was just like right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. So, I think, when you were kind of—that was still very much a real thing. And I had to explain to people I’m actually here because I fled that world. I also think that I have to come learn English for the first time completely from scratch. I remember my mom and I would read dictionary, like word-for-word, and translate everything. I think a lot of these things certainly, later on, I think, led me to this entrepreneurial journey by giving me a very thick skin, by making me feel comfortable with the uncomfortable, because I’ve had to learn everything that was just so foreign entirely from scratch.
I also think it made me empathetic certainly to other immigrant experiences and other experiences for someone who may feel not in their comfort zone. And it’s made me work just so extremely hard. I think, so many immigrant cultures, there’s this expectation and a guilty feeling like my parents made all these sacrifices, so the work I have to do needs to justify the sacrifice they made for me. So, I definitely identify with that. Yeah, so many lessons that have had everlasting impact on my career and me personally.
[03:49] Chris: And what drew you to Cal, first, as like a target school? Because, I know, just thinking about my family and folks that I know, sometimes when you come to the States, you just kind of want to go to any school. But you kind of shop for the top from the get-go. What drew you to the campus or to the school? And did you visit campus before you applied? What was that experience like?
[04:08] Joe: I ended up growing up in Fremont, which is just a stone’s throw away from Cal. So, I would visit the school a number of times. Honestly, it was basically the best bang for your buck, really. It was the best school I could get into that was the most affordable because, like I said, I was going to have to essentially pay for most of it. So, that was really my calculus. I also, of course, learned of the Haas program.
I think one of the—back to your earlier question, everything I had to do, I had to learn from scratch. My parents didn’t know about colleges. They didn’t know about business schools or, I mean, just all of that. Figuring out all mostly on my own. And so, I think I would generally pick the thing that’s like the hardest. And I would go after that thing. Back to, maybe, part of that has to do with justifying the sacrifice of my parents. But like I said, Cal, really, was one of the most top—it’s the number one public school. And it happens to be here right in my backyard. And it’s also the most affordable one.
[05:17] Chris: When you got to Cal, you kind of mentioned one of the things that is a little bit unique, maybe, to Berkeley is that there’s an undergrad program in business. Can you explain how you figure it out, “Oh, all right, now I’m on campus. I’m in Berkeley. I have to choose a major. And I want to do business.” How did you navigate that experience?
[05:34] Joe: So, I saw Haas as a program. And I think I’ve always been very competitive in nature. And that was a program that was really difficult to get into. So, I think part of that was the allure of Haas. And of course, as I learned more about the program, I just saw that caliber of students going to Haas. And I’m someone who seeks challenges, but also know that, if I surround myself with other amazing people, some of that rubs off on me these continuous benefits. I think I just also started to, back to my thinking in my 20s, it was very practical. And so, seeing that, if I go to Haas, then that could be a path to finding a very lucrative career, which I eventually started my career in banking after undergrad.
[06:27] Chris: Yeah, Joe. That’s like a story, I’m sure, that resonates with a lot of other folks who come to Cal and come to Haas. What was it like transitioning? So, you graduate early. You’re out of school. And you end up at J.P. Morgan investment banking. What was that experience like, going from being on campus to now working at a really prestigious bank?
[06:44] Joe: It was a very tough time period because I was interviewing right after 9/11, which was a time when, pretty much, the whole business of banking shut down, certainly, for a moment in time. And I was actually, at first, at a total loss because all I did the last two years of my life is just study finance and business. And it was, again, a lesson learned sometimes where, in life, you have to just make plan A work. So, I was the only person in J.P. Morgan hired that year. And I was so thankful. I’m lucky.
I don’t know if they still do this, but there was a Goldman Sachs finance competition on campus that was pretty competitive. And my team and I won first place my year. And I think I just remember thinking like, “I just went to Haas, best undergrad program, won this.” I just thought I was the man. I get to New York and J.P. Morgan. And really, it was one of the hardest experiences I ever had because I think New York is generally kind of a tough city. I was there really on my own. And banking is, at least at the time, as stressful as they say it is. And it was definitely—it’s like a very tough moment for me mentally. And I think I would say that’s kind of when I really realized there’s more to life than just making money. And I think because I was so pragmatic about you go to Haas, you go get this job. I always had these horse blinders on. And I would say being in New York certainly made me realize there’s many other things in life besides just making money.
[08:45] Chris: One of the things at the MBA level is really having that internal resonance and knowing what your story is and who you are. I think a lot of folks would have said, “Hey, you’re in New York. You’re in high finance. You’re living the dream.” But you decided to actually pivot and actually go to business school on the East Coast, not Haas but at another prestigious institution. Can you explain, what was the impetus there? Like, why did you decide to go to business school? What was that process like? And what was that experience for you?
[09:15] Joe: So, in this journey of wanting to go beyond finance and banking, if I wanted to go to business school and see what else is out there and I went to another business school and I really found my brethren there. I found other entrepreneurs. And I think part of it, again, sometimes when you’re an immigrant, you can be much more risk-averse because you use all of your risks capital on the immigration experience. And so, sometimes, you could have like just no life left in that bucket. But business school kind of provides that safety net to really try out entrepreneurship. And I just realized, for me, it had all the things that I’ve been looking for. You can certainly have financial success, but you can do other things that have been important to me, like building a business that does good, building a business that creates a positive culture for the people you employ. So, like I said, it created a safety net and allowed me to really get into entrepreneurship, which I think, I realized, is such a fit with my personality and everything I’ve gone through in my life.
[10:39] Chris: That’s amazing. I know, for a lot of folks, the MBA is really a pivot point or a launch pad. Joe, what did you do after business school? And how did you figure that, maybe, entrepreneurship or going to startups was part of your journey?
[10:52] Joe: So, I entered a business plan competition on campus. I actually started my first failed startup right after business school. And I would say that sort of created this journey where I worked in a number of other startups. And all of that led me to Hims where, really, it started off as just like other startups, where it was an idea on a piece of paper. But I think along the way, I kind of learned the people I need to surround myself with. I built up relationships. I built up more confidence, more strategy. And so, by the time Hims came around, I think I had a lot of battle scars that made that experience go significantly better.
[11:46] Chris: For folks who may not be as familiar, Joe, could you explain what Hims is as a company and where you got the idea to really have this really different and modern approach to health and wellness?
[11:56] Joe: Hims is one of the earliest direct-to-consumer companies that focused on men’s health and wellness. And it allowed men and, eventually, with another brand, Hers, to connect the doctors who are then able to provide prescription treatments for a number of ailments that are often embarrassing at first. And it’s actually grown into a variety of treatments that you can do now over telemedicine.
It started out of this incubator called Atomic. And it really was an idea that was just being kicked around. And I just remember, the moment I’ve heard it, I knew that this was a great opportunity because it had a lot of the things that are important to me of doing good. It’s a business that creates greater access and affordability to healthcare. It’s also a business in a highly regulatory field. And I think, given the many challenges I’ve faced throughout my whole life, when I see a challenge, I think I run towards it. There is something intellectually interesting about that that makes the time I spend worthwhile.
So, I think the complexity of it all was interesting. The mission of it was interesting. And the timing because it was a time when no one else was really connecting. It was doing telemedicine at scale.
[13:28] Chris: What was it about the business that attracted you or made you think that this would work out, at least for you, Joe? A lot of folks say, maybe, it’s the technology. Maybe, it’s the business. Maybe, it’s the team. There’s so many different factors. And for a lot of folks in the Haas ecosystem, there may be, whether it’s undergrad or graduate, maybe they’re thinking about starting their own company or they’re kind of in that process of discovery. Maybe, they have some experience. Maybe, they don’t. What are some of the things that went through your mind to help you realize that, hey, this is something that would be right for you and something that you thought could work out?
[14:00] Joe: So, certainly, on the one hand, it starts with the idea. Do I believe in the idea? I think another offshoot of that is the business model. Especially, if you rewind things just a couple of years ago, there were many business models built on the revenue will come later. Yet, this is a model where it actually makes money right away. So, it’s a sound business idea that people—super important. So, when I came into Atomic, I felt like the group of people in the network already that would work on this business were some of the best that I’ve seen. So, that’s also critical, because idea is nothing without execution. And access to capital. So, Atomic provides the initial seed funding in order for a company to really take off. So, that’s another important critical piece. And also, just fundraising can certainly take up a lot of time. So, knowing that was not going to be a roadblock was also exciting. But it’s really high-level people, plus idea, plus ability to execute.
[15:06] Chris: And eventually, I think we were talking about this. Hims was super lucky to be able to have an exit there. And it’s now on the market. So, focusing to learn more about the company as well. But for you, Joe, I know you, pretty soon after Hims on public, you transitioned and said, hey, there’s another thing that you were passionate about. So, we’d love to hear kind of how you came up with the company that you’re leading now, and what drove you after working for a number of years on a group, company, and product to try something else and do it again.
[15:42] Joe: I would say so much of my personal experiences, my startup experiences, have been built around a beginning, doing something, and creating something out of nothing. And that’s just something, I would say, that drives me, in general. So, by the time Hims was a now public company, I felt like my time there was turning into a routine 9:00 to 5:00 kind of job. And I just didn’t feel like I was going to make much of an impact for the near term, even. So, I had started to think about what’s next. I knew I wanted to stay in healthcare because I liked the mission component that healthcare provides. And then I actually had a number of experiences around the same time that made me realize that the veterinary space is in need of as much innovation as I just did on the human side. That was sort of my aha moment because I had to take my dog to a brick-and-mortar that—and there wasn’t a way for me to have a true telemedicine experience without having physical appointments, which was like literally the problem I just solved on the human side. And there weren’t really any other pet entrepreneurs with the kind of regulatory experience that I was bringing from Hims. I think another major lesson from Hims was building a billion-dollar brand. So, I think those two things, I felt, would uniquely position me to launch a pet healthcare brand.
[17:22] Chris: One of the things that, maybe, people who don’t know—it’s very intuitive, Joe, I think, especially in the Bay Area and Berkeley, everyone has a pet. So, it’s very tangible. Could you explain, maybe, a little bit of the problem and how the scale of the problem is? I think, for a lot of people, oh, telemedicine for pets. It’s maybe a luxury. But I think, for a lot of folks, especially in our community, even, it’s really essential in a lot of ways. Could you explain a bit about what that’s like and what the ecosystem looks like today?
[17:50] Joe: So, there are almost 200 million pets in this country. It’s like there’s almost as many as people. About 2/3 of households have a pet. Many have multiple pets. And there is a growing shortage of veterinarians. Many spend, actually, hundreds of thousands of dollars in grad school. In average, veterinary salary is roughly $100,000 a year. There’s massive burnout. So, you have this sort of growing demand for vet care because that start being adopted at a growing rate, especially after the pandemic. And then the supplier vets is going down. And so, as a result, it’s taking longer and longer to get any sort of an appointment. Even just to call to get a receptionist to answer your phone call might take you 10 minutes.
So, telemedicine, just like in the human world, can really add a lot of slack to the system and deal with a lot of low-hanging fruit so that veterinarians can focus on urgent cases, on surgeries, on things where you really do need to see someone in person, and it’s a much more urgent issue. So, what Dutch does, you can, within minutes, have a live video call with a licensed veterinarian, which I think is pretty amazing. And then, depending on the laws in your state, for a number of conditions like anxiety or derm, nutrition, you can actually get a prescription delivered to your door without having to drag your poor animal to a veterinarian every single time.
[19:37] Chris: Oh, that’s great, yeah. One of the things that’s unique, I think, about your business is you talked about the regulatory aspect. And I know when you—I was reading some of the news, the state-by-state approach and you launched it in a number of states, to start out. Could you talk a bit about that for, probably, some folks who don’t understand how those regulated industries work and what kind of complexity your business is able to maneuver, even in something like veterinary medicine, which isn’t necessarily people, but it’s still medicine, nonetheless?
[20:06] Joe: Yeah. This is a lesson that took me five years to learn at Hims, but healthcare is regulated at the state level in our country. So, every state has their own different state of laws. And just like on the human, on the veterinary medicine side, they have their own set of laws. So, in order to prescribe, you have to have a veterinarian who’s licensed in your state. Some states are more forward-thinking when it comes to technologies like telemedicine. Others, in fact, California is the most conservative, which you would think we’re in the most tech-forward state. Like, we should be the most advanced. But one of the things that happens in this industry is there’s a lot of protectionism as a result of people who own brick-and-mortar locations stuck in fear that this new technology is going to lead to massive death of pets.
And again, this is all the same stuff I saw on the Hims side. And eventually, when you show that the reality is no one died, in fact, more people got care, more people saved money, change happens. It can be slower than, for an entrepreneur, a month can feel like a year. For a legislator, five years can feel like one day. So, we’ll have our different frame of reference. But I think, eventually, people realize the benefits. And usually, things change, usually moves forward. But yes, it’s a complicated arena. And I think, again, one of the advantages coming into Dutch is I was able to build relationships with lawyers and lobbyists and pharma companies. Many of them are using a similar playbook here with Dutch to help me move forward with this business.
[22:02] Chris: Yeah, that’s amazing. And Joe, just want to, maybe, touch on it briefly, because I know, after you started Dutch and even, you had a rise through Hims and then you started Dutch, you also took on the opportunity to become an investor and advisor to startups. I just want to talk about that as well. What motivated you to want to go that route? I know some people just do it because without any kind of strategy. But it sounds like you’ve been really intentional with the types of companies you wanted to get connected with and work with as either a partner with, as either an investor or as an advisor. Can you talk about that a bit? What went through your mind when you started going down this road?
[22:39] Joe: So, I think a couple of things. One, like I said, I wanted to stay in healthcare because I think the mission aspect of it is something that resonates. One thing I was saying earlier is that realization in my 20s that there’s more to life than making money, is I want it to have a positive impact on the world around me. And I think healthcare is kind of one of those areas. And as far as advising, mentorship, I’ve had mentors who have had an immense impact on me. And I think that’s, again, a way for me to give back and mentor and pay it forward. And then I usually, having said that, I tried to mentor where I would say it’s worth my time and where I think that entrepreneur is ready for my advice, because I think I’ve also had moments where the entrepreneur wasn’t at the right stage. And so, it didn’t feel like this was the best use of time. But for a couple of the companies that I’m advising, it’s an exciting symbiosis of my learnings and then their readiness to act on the advice.
[23:54] Chris: That’s great. Joe, one of the aspects, and you kind of hinted at this, talking about different stages of a company, and in your case, bringing Dutch from more or less from scratch, can you, maybe, share a bit about that experience? Even raising some of the early money, I know you had some really cool and interesting investors early on for Dutch. And can you explain that process? I know a lot of Haasies are, maybe, starting their own firm and thinking about raising a seed round or a pre-seed round. Could you explain that a bit and what that experience was like when you were starting Dutch?
[24:26] Joe: So, on the one hand, I’ve learned one thing with entrepreneurship in general is it’s really about doing. Don’t overthink things too much because what will happen, whether it’s with your customers or with raising money, is the feedback that you’re going to get will always surprise you. So, you want to be prepared. But sometimes, when you’re over-prepared and you start thinking out of every scenario, you realize like you’ve thought of maybe like 1% of the possible scenarios. And that goes for raising capital all the way to starting your business and seeing what consumers want and consumer behavior. I do think, early on—and this was a lesson from Hims—is the idea to invest from day zero and things like brand to invest and even start to think about even company culture, because those things happen, whether you want to plan for it or not. Your brand is a sum of who you are, same as your culture. So, I did start to think about that early on.
With regards to investors, I think, because I was part of the fundraising for Hims, I was able to develop a lot of those relationships. And certainly, in that seed round, I think so much of the investment is based on the CEO and whether the VC is—they’re making a bet on you as an individual, sometimes more than necessarily the business itself. So, the more that you can de-risk it from that perspective, I think, the better. So, certainly, your reputation, as your brand, is an ever-evolving being. And that’s what I think, at the seed stage, most people are investing on.
[26:24] Chris: And it’s just as much as the idea, but also, as you were talking about, the accumulation of experiences and reputation that you build. It’s great insight. And I think for a lot of folks in the Haas community, definitely, it’s a, hey, you’re building your reputation, even when you don’t know it. So, it’s awesome perspective. And Joe, I know you’re running the company and, I’m sure, constantly thinking about what’s next. Could you share a bit with us in terms of what’s in your mind in Dutch in terms of where you’re going in the future and what are some of the things that you’re excited about in terms of where you’re heading?
[26:58] Joe: I am excited about the additional services that we’ll be able to provide to consumers and play a bigger role in the life of their pets’ health. So, I think that’s really exciting. We’ve been able to bring, really, some of the best folks into Dutch. I think it’s because, A, the mission of the business resonates with them. I’ve been at so many companies where people understand the business case logically and they see, maybe, the numbers and they see how much money. And it felt like, from a practical perspective, they’re on board. But I think what’s interesting with Dutch is, almost everyone at the company has a pet, which is cool, non-salary requirement. And I think the mission really resonates with everyone, personally. And so, that has a bunch of positive externalities as a result. And so, I’ve been really impressed, again, with the kind of people I’ve been able to bring into the company. And then those people are creating really wonderful product. So, that’s what’s super exciting for me. And I think consumers will start to see that in the, certainly, stuffs that’s released this Friday, but also, stuffs that’s going to be released in the coming months.
[28:23] Chris: Joe, it’s been great to learn a bit more about background. And super exciting for all the things that are happening with you and Dutch. We have a tradition on the podcast to run a lightning round of fun and quirky questions before we close. And we’d love to go through that with you, if you’d be open to it.
[28:42] Joe: Yeah, let’s do it.
[28:44] Chris: Our first—almost always our first question. It could be controversial. It could not be controversial, depending on where you like to eat. But, Joe, first question, what was the favorite place or one of your favorite places to eat when you were at Berkeley?
[28:56] Joe: I would go grab a Fat Slice. That was my favorite. And then I’d also spend a lot of time with Strada Caffe.
[29:04] Chris: Yeah, both great places, for folks who haven’t been there.
[29:07] Joe: That place, I don’t know if it’s still around.
[29:09] Chris: I think both of them are still around, yeah. Definitely, I haven’t been to the campus in about a year because of the pandemic, but last time I was there, both of those are still in Berkeley institutions. So, it’s still hopefully there. Another question, Joe, kind of related, would you share a favorite memory or one of the memories that you had from your time being on campus?
[29:29] Joe: Oh, gosh. One memory, I definitely remember my lifelong friend who I met when I was 19 years old, who I met on the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph because I was also a CalSO counselor. I was putting up posters. And we bumped into each other that day. And we’ve been friends, like I said, since I was 19 years old. And I remember the day we first encountered each other.
[29:58] Chris: Wow, great. That’s awesome. Joe, what’s one piece of advice that you give to someone, or one piece of advice that you’ve received that sticks with you? It can be either personal or professional.
[30:10] Joe: At Cal, I would say, take advantage of the multiple experiences that are available. And don’t have horse blinders on in your undergrad. And use that moment to try things that feel uncomfortable.
[30:27] Chris: Do you give the same advice to the entrepreneurs that you talk with? Or do you give any different advice for folks who are, maybe, further out in their career as well?
[30:36] Joe: For entrepreneurs, I would say, don’t take no for an answer. And change is constant. So, if you’re having a bad day or something is not working, that’s not forever. But at the same time, you’re in control of your destiny. I think another one, and this is my mantra for this year, is that I don’t have to have a reaction to everything right away. You can take a moment, as long as you need to, because, again, with startups, it just seems like you got to go decide side-to-side. And knowing like you can take a pause and not answer everything right away.
[31:21] Chris: That’s great advice. And our last question, Joe, before we end, what’s one thing that gets you excited about the future?
[31:27] Joe: Change. I’m always excited to see change and progress. And I can always feel that it’s imminent. I may not know what it is, but I’m excited. I’m excited for the growing possibilities that exist.
[31:44] Chris: Joe, thank you so much. It’s been great to have you on the show today. And we just wish you all the best. And look forward to all the amazing things that are going to come out of Dutch in the future.
[31:52] Joe: Awesome. Thank you so much.
[31:58] Outro: Thanks again for tuning into this episode of the OneHaas Podcast. If you enjoyed our show today, please remember to hit that Subscribe or Follow button on your favorite podcast player. We’d also really appreciate you giving us a five-star rating and review. You’re looking for more content? Please check out our website at haas.fm. That’s spelled H-A-A-S.F-M. There, you can subscribe to our monthly newsletter and check out some of our other Berkeley Haas podcasts. And until next time. Go, bears.