Tom Seery: Goodwill to Raise and Good Partner to Grow Business

Been traveling around his whole college life before settling down with RealSelf – the largest and first of its kind aesthetic community. Tom Seery sure is an interesting entrepreneur, read on to discover!
RealSelf founder at the headquarter office
Source: RealSelf
By | 10 mind read

We cannot describe what a potential niche, this is, as the global cosmetic surgery and procedure market is predicted to be worth almost $44 billion by 2025, according to a report by Grand View Research.

Founded in 2006, RealSelf attracts approximately 10 million unique visitors each month, contributing to millions of patient-doctor connections every year. When Tom Seery started content and reviews site RealSelf in 2006, he wanted to bring in a transparent approach and accessible resource for people seeking information on cosmetic aesthetics and plastic surgery by focusing on user-generated content.

It is said to be the go-to destination for making cosmetic treatment decisions and connecting with doctors. It connects millions of people from around the world to find unbiased information, real patient reviews with photos, and verified doctors.

So, how does it work? Generally, RealSelf is a two-sided marketplace that is free for consumers, and if they want to submit content, registration is required. Meanwhile, medical professionals would claim a free profile which can be upgraded via a paid membership. These doctors may also buy advertising that appears on the site at the same time post contents in specialties where they hold qualifications, but first of all these professionals on RealSelf must meet participation guidelines before they can be listed and they cannot achieve “Verified” status without prior payment to RealSelf. With this business model, RealSelf makes money by charging doctors for targeted exposure.

With this beauty community, all reviews, questions, and forums must undergo moderation before they are posted. Of course, RealSelf does not allow doctors to remove consumer reviews.

15 years in the industry, with more than 2 million reviews and 20,000 board-certificated medical professionals. Seattle-based RealSelf is an up-and-running tech company who just called a gazillion $40 million in series B funding, with more than 200 positions and a clear mission to bring transparency in modern beauty environments. But what to seek from this thriving business, is it all lucky strike or a grand effort from Seery and his unique strategy? Read on to claim your own spark in the journey of RealSelf!

Founding Story: Remember That Time When Seery Got Sued!

More than a decade ago, it all started when Seery’s wife, Krista, had gone for a basic facial and come home with a glossy promotion trying to sell her on the perks and value of a $1,500 laser treatment. Krista showed it to her husband and proclaimed “I don’t believe anything in this brochure.”

That time, Seery was working as an executive at Expedia, who had bought the travel review site TripAdvisor. No doubt, the founder is then fully conscious of how powerful information is and with his enamored ability to provide honest, crowd-sourced advice for people making costly travel decisions. Seery decided to expand that tool to the heal sector, but the full scope of medical procedures was too massive and unmanageable. So, that moment when Krista came home, she turned on a light bulb for Seery.

“The brochure my wife showed me said everything would be perfect,” recalls Seery, “It reminded me of what travel agents were doing. When it comes to your body, face or smile, these considerations are very important, and the return policy in the industry is rather ineffective.”

For which reason, he wanted to launch a startup in this industry which has the most dubious nature of information: cosmetic treatments – the founder envisioned building a resource that would “win my wife’s loyal and trust.”

In 2006, RealSelf came into being, with the first investor who helped raised $2 million in 2008 was Seery’s boss Rich Barton – Expedia’s founder. With the average of 10 million unique visitors each month, the site allows people to share before and after photos, reviews doctors and clinics performing the treatments, and especially advice from health experts. The founder said demand for the information is growing as the procedures become more mainstream and less stigmatized. Particularly with millennials’ attitude of ‘my body, my choice.’

A funny moment of his journey. Back on the early days, when Seery was so involved in bringing up the company he did not recognize how fast everything escalated, until RealSelf got struck by a lawsuit. Seery recalls it as something more like a “lighting shock or near electrocution.” There is a company that did not comfortable with reviews they were receiving on his platform and wanted to shut RealSelf down. That moment, one of the company’s earliest supporters came over and just gave him a pat on the shoulder saying “Congratulations, you will look back on this as the most important moment for your business.”  After the event, Seery in fact went on and write an article – a memo on that experience with a message “being sued by a large corporation means you must be doing something that’s making an impact.”

RealSelf staff shares stories in a conference
Source: SXSW

Another founding story, where ideas came from just right the corner of your daily life. To found problems and solutions for it is no difficult, but the real work here is to bring your solution national wide or even worldwide, and make money out of it. How Tom Seery did it? What are his visions and mindsets doing business and building cultures?

Talk with Tom Seery: Seek Experiences and Claim Your Own Lessons

It is no cakewalk to build a fast-growing company, not mention nurturing and keeping it healthy for the next 15 years. What are the tricks Seery has in his pocket to play this whole game right?

Let’s start with how entrepreneurs can follow Seery’s lead and build a successful online community from scratch. It’s all about good intentions. With good intentions, you find a category that needs community supports; with good intentions, you focus on bettering that community and your customer, that all is the first and foremost.

Seery recalls, when he first started RealSelf, everybody thought he was crazy and just desperately want to have something of his own. For his unfamiliar to the beauty industry, yet the founder claims it’s his fascination in bringing information to the space that works. Just like travel, it is a highly considered, out of your own pocket expense, and intended to change or improve your own life – in brief, this is where important decisions are made for your own body. So, seeing that niche and with the ‘good intention’ of him. You have the foremost recipe for success – business’s meaning! However, Seery also stresses, even a decade later, when the business has taken off, everyday it’s still in his mind what improvements he can make and what new products the company can launch to help consumers and the community.

RealSelf CEO with a physician
Source: RealSelf

Secondly, after you found the value, you want to contribute, you found your community, what comes next to bring it up? With his experience raising over $40 million, what advices does Seery has for other entrepreneurs?

Apparently, it’s not only the money he was looking for, but rather more than that – a strategic partner. His advice is does not take the first money you were offered. But instead, find someone who is passionate about your consumer and the change you want to make in the world, does not simply aim at financial opportunity. The founder reveals one of RealSelf investor is a co-founder of Warby Parker – a company incredibly focused on the consumer experience and solving problems for consumers. That investor, according to Seery, is his match, he believes in Seery’s long-term vision, which is to create an honest space that serves as a beacon of trust and aspiration.

RealSelf website homepage
Courtesy: RealSelf

Thirdly, with 15 years of nonstop evolving at the same time building culture, Seery is a seasoned leader and there are a few values, that is to him, deserves most attention, and needed to stress on in all company cultures.

Toward leaders, to be an effective one and to bring your leadership skills to the next level, it’s important to create an environment where you and others can feel safe to express their true self. It’s your job to lower their guard, check their ego at the door, and make space for direct, personal conversations to happen. In role of the alpha, leaders need to summon that deep levels of authenticity in how they communicate – so be very thoughtful and open in sharing.

He also mentions a highlight at RealSelf. As the founder recognized that many levels communicate in different ways, and that it’s vital to look for ways to bring more people into the conversation, so you managers can hear from everyone. At the company, he started to opened up new channels of communications like anonymous text line, so people can choose the one that works best for them. Seery believes companies are not really listening to their employees if they are not offering more than one type of communication channel.

If he has to do it all again, Seery claims he would focus on “talking less than listening more” for that is “how you built trust with your team.” The founder goes on “it’s part of why I think I’ve been able to manage this process for 14 years. It’s just that openness and willingness to be wrong, and to listen.”

Toward consumers, you have to be responsive to recognize and embrace the shifts that are happening in your country, then look back and adjust your strategies to make sure you are being inclusive. New generations are emerging every day, getting only more diverse, so, even it’s particularly challenging to catch up, it’s the foremost mission leaders have to get ahead of and plan on with business actions. Or else, in just a year or two, you will go to work realizing how unrelated you are and it’s too late as others are finishing up your pie.

RealSelf founder with team in an outdoor activities
Source: City Scape

Last but not least, Seery also shared the single best piece of advice he has ever received. It was from his college roommate: Take the road trip.

Back to the zero day of RealSelf when he started it, and what does he have for someone that has an idea but do not know what to do with it, what is the first step to kick off an adventure?

In the founder vision, the nature of starting a company, pursuing something that starts from an idea on your laptop or simply in your head, is about embracing failure. The distance between the small spark in your head and actually becoming an entrepreneur is ‘execution.’ So how do you get from idea to execution? What stand in the way are barriers, like technology is something you can soon master. But the human condition of being risk-averse is the largest barriers you have to master before any other.

When it comes to business, often times that trigger fears of making mistakes or failures also are the objects that kills. It is hard to get pass, and you cannot imagine how to go forward.

But that is something you can train yourself to overcome, with setting up hypothesis and testing it and discovering your wrong and make a quick adjustment on that. The most important point is to make sure you understand that the risk of failure is not the thing you should be looking at, it the upside of if your hypothesis is correct, and if it doesn’t where do you lack? In brief, before getting yourself overwhelmed with not-happened-yet failures, try to recognize if the math does not work out, where did you miss?

Challenges That Are Troubling RealSelf

Challenges and how companies face it is one of the most fascinating aspects, all entrepreneurs want to hear and eager to share. At SXSW 2019, RealSelf shared, with TechRepublic’s Teena Maddox, the company’s challenges as of then, which it is doing most to overcome and get rid of.

Firstly, social stigma and understanding towards audience. The company share how visitors come to the site are often feeling highly sensitive to an aesthetic need, but rarely want others to know they have this concern. Hence, privacy and anonymity is paramount to them. Customers also don not want to be sold, and it’s up to the site to provide personalized information and care, not commerce.

Besides the common ones, many are exploring decisions that are not widely discussed socially, and it’s a challenge for the site to make sure each of customer’s need is served – each of the micro communities address each unique need with breadth and depth to help people make the right decisions for themselves.

RealSelf founder speaks at an event
Source: Press associate

Running as social platform and an online community, social impact is also a big challenge for RealSelf. Even though sharing intimate details of their daily life is what people most interested in doing digitally, but with the site’s audience, there are rare case in which they want to announce their Facebook friends that they are considering a hair transplant, Botox, or a nose job. For what reason, socially enabling “anti-social” content is what keeps RealSelf busy.

Besides, RealSelf is also struggling with audience’s nudity graphic and images. Sometimes before-and-after images are categorized and associated with adult websites. In this case, artificial intelligence and algorithms confuse what the true intent of that content is and cause much trouble for not only the audiences, but the site also.

These review images are very necessary to have, but really is best in context. Google will know when content is nudity and it does not want to send users to that unless Google knows that the content is appropriate and put in context for those users.

It turns out to be an interesting juxtaposition, according to the site, when you are a consumer-focused website. You are balancing the mission of providing this content and making it extremely accessible for everyone and at the same time balancing what search engines are seeing.

Toward this difficulty, the site is going through a lot of testing and experimentation in ways that the company can better put the nude and graphic images readily available for users at the same time tell Google that these images are in context for people with a purpose so do not let it be viewed inappropriately.

The Bottom Lines

As one of the early-adopter of this user-generating platform, RealSelf has got in hand the leading card. But the worth telling story here is how its sage founder Tom Seery envisions the aesthetic industry, with none of the related background. All started from an idea in his head to a real entrepreneur.

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