Talking Brand and Fundraising with Maria Gil, Founder and CEO of Konsu Health

The current constriction and slow-down in venture capital funding have many in the startup world wondering what their next raise will look like, and if they need to batten down the hatches for hard times ahead. For others, like Maria Gil, founder & CEO of Konsu Health, it is a signal and opportunity for founders to know their audiences deeply, prove market fit, and make sure their brand is bigger than themselves. We sat down (virtually) with Maria, an experienced consultant and founder, to talk about her new venture, Konsu Health, the current VC constriction, and her advice to other founders when it comes to fundraising.

Maria, can you tell us a little about the start-up you founded, Konsu Health, and your work to make basic healthcare and testing available to people in their homes?

Konsu Health happened because I wanted a better solution for my grandmother. She used to have to leave her house and go into the doctor's office, even for routine testing and lab work. It’s not ideal for someone like her to have to transport themselves to the doctor’s office and get hurt along the way, which happened to her. But lots of people like her don’t qualify for home health or concierge care and have no other choice. 

The truth is, our current system isn’t set up to support anyone. It misses and mismanages people. If you’re a working parent whose kid has strep, you have to take half a day off work. For what? A simple swab? That’s crazy. Even people who are preparing for surgery like knee replacements — who have serious mobility issues, are asked to come into a healthcare facility for a pre-surgical clearance. It’s inconvenient at best and unsafe at worst.  

People are changing the way they interact with health care. Telehealth adoption and home orders are going up. But health care is still one of the only things you can’t get on demand. So Konsu Health is changing that by bringing the physical components of care, such as lab work, to patients in their homes. We started with Covid and respiratory viruses. We’re now expanding into sexual health, addiction management, and medication management. We do it affordably and easily, in conjunction with a patient’s existing care team. Patients don’t have to leave their homes, and physicians can treat more patients who need urgent or in-person care.

We’ve heard a lot about the current venture capital constriction. What are your thoughts on that trend? Will it impact your abilities to scale Konsu?  

For some industries, what we are seeing here is a bubble being burst. In tech, even a year ago, we started to see valuations that were unrealistically high, so I feel this was an inevitability. At the same time, constriction is not the case for all industries and all sectors. Some are full speed ahead. For instance, impact investing hasn’t seen a downturn. Optimizing gas prices has become highly relevant, so there’s suddenly a lot more money in that space.  There’s also more money than I’ve seen before for underrepresented founders, such as myself, though still not enough.

Things have felt similar in the healthcare space. We are not seeing a ton of slowdown in this area. One challenge Konsu Health is running into right now is investors wanting to write larger checks than we need. They’re saying, come back to us in 6 months. So often, the issue when it comes to fundraising is finding the right fit. Sometimes that can feel like a needle in a haystack situation. 

Do you have advice for founders out there trying to fundraise right now? 

I empathize! We’re in the middle of fundraising right now, and it can be tough. I’m not in the Bay Area, so that presents challenges. And I’m also not a 35-year-old white guy. So that’s a disadvantage, too. I wish fundraising was going faster and more smoothly, but it’s going. We have a lot of interest from physicians and physician angels, which is very validating.

I think in general, it’s really important to be realistic about what industry you’re in, and the current context and environment. For some founders, a raise does not make sense right now. For others, it comes down to the size of the raise: does it make sense to raise a smaller amount now? Or are you in an industry that is highly relevant at this moment? 

My biggest advice is to focus on being able to monetize and prove market fit. As a founder, that is your number one priority. It’s not just that people are tightening their belts. I don’t think the well has dried up. It’s that they need to know your product is going to be recession-proof. In a recession, market fit becomes more and more important.

What does it mean to you for a brand or product to be recession-proof?

It means knowing who your target is and being indispensable to them. And then being able to prove that to investors. 

It’s one thing when everyone had so much money to spend coming out of the pandemic. But you have to look ahead and ask, when that well of pent up money dries up, what else will consumers be spending their money on? Especially when their budgets are tightening.

Another way I look at it is: the more integrated you can be in an ecosystem, the more recession-proof you are. One way of enmeshing yourself in an ecosystem is through forming strong partnerships. For Konsu, those partnerships are with healthcare systems, patient advocacy groups, insurers, and eventually EMRs [electronic medical records]. It’s the whole landscape — look at the entire customer experience and the players within it. Take the time to understand how you can exist in harmony, partnership, and synergy with those folks.

Maria, you have experience as a founder. You’ve founded other businesses before Konsu. What role has brand played for you in fundraising up until this point? 

It’s really important that you make your brand bigger than yourself and your own views. Because what I’ve found is that your company’s strength and opportunity are not always what you as a founder think they are. My initial impression as the founder of Konsu was that it was a revenue generator for physicians. What I’m offering helps them improve their patient volume and revenue. But that’s not exactly what we’ve found. 

Physicians care about treating their patients in a timely manner and not overprescribing antibiotics. So that value proposition around quality actually resonates more than that revenue bump. 

As a founder, the foundation on which your messaging is built has to be rock solid. It has to be tied to a greater purpose and vision. And it has to be separated from a founder’s own personal notions. As founders, we get caught up in our own story and view and what we think is so amazing about our product or service. But we are not our consumers and investors. So making sure you’re listening to your consumers and expressing yourself in a really strong, clear way is of paramount importance.

What is most important in terms of brand expression for your business? 

It’s really important that Konsu has the right tone of voice. I’m not talking to a concierge audience. The language in all of my communications and touchpoints needs to be friendly, super accessible, approachable, and authentic. For Konsu, when you look at our website, we’ve put a lot of time into the visual cues and the language. This is why it’s so important to understand your brand and consumers beyond just yourself. They’re not all going to be experts. A 12-year-old needs to be able to understand your communications. 

And it doesn’t stop at the tone of voice and messaging. You need to understand how those messages change based on the audience. It’s really different for Konsu to engage a physician vs. a caregiver vs. a potential investor. 

One of the most important things you can do as a founder is to equip your biggest advocates to deliver your message. I’m not always going to be in control of who delivers Konsu’s messages, so I need to be packaging up that messaging and language for anyone who is acting on behalf of my brand. 

You are in seed round funding for Konsu. What role will brand play moving forward, now that funding is more competitive?

Brand should be part of everything you do — it forms your foundation. The mission of the company and the “why” — that is really important to potential investors. They need to feel my passion because they need to know I’ll work as hard with their money — to make money — as I’m saying I will. So the mission becomes incredibly important.

If I’m thinking of my pyramid of who I have to impress and be buttoned up with, investors are at the top. Physicians know the industry, but not every investor does. Some are industry agnostic or work across multiple industries, so they require the full story. I need to have answers for them. It’s where I have to be the most prepared because I don’t have as much room for error. And I don’t have a second chance to make an impression on them. 

I’ve been fortunate — I’ve had coaching. This isn't my first startup, and I’ve had consulting experience. So my advice is this: the story you tell, from your personal story to the why behind what you do, all the way to being transparent about your risks… your messaging for that needs to be highly calculated, extremely deliberate, and very concise. 

A big part of what we do at Spectacle is helping clients identify and articulate their “why.” Can you talk a little more about why that’s an important part of your messaging during a raise?

For me, the "why" and the mission have a huge impact, especially in a space like healthcare. That’s what differentiates you. It answers the question, why me over the other companies pitching? The "why" plays a role in investors seeing that you can credibly deliver. 

The "why" is the very first piece of content in my investor deck. If I don’t cover that on the first page, then why are we all sitting here?

In your experience, do founders typically overlook that?

Sometimes, yes. I do a lot of pitch competitions. I’ve seen so many pitches. It’s all over the board. At times, it’s obvious that there are only engineers on a team. And engineers are incredibly important. But there can be a tendency for specialists to over-focus on the product and the technical aspects. Often, technical founders overemphasize technical strengths and the "why" behind the product is convoluted, complicated, or not stated at all. 

Whether or not you have a clear purpose behind what you do reflects on the quality and diversity of a team. If a team can’t tell a story, they can’t sell a product. 

You have spent a lot of time in the VC space. What advice do you have for other women in this ecosystem?

VC has historically been a boys’ club. It’s hard to penetrate it unless you’re constantly networking... and I’m constantly networking. But the preference is given to the guys that know the guys that know the guys — that’s how you get meetings. I’ve cold emailed hundreds with no response. But when I get a personal introduction, I get a response within an hour. It’s not that people aren’t willing to listen, it’s just that personal connections mean a lot in this industry. And it’s an industry that’s still dominated by men. 

My advice is to tap into your male allies. Make them a part of what you are doing. And be brave. I’m tapping into friends in VC. I’m going up to people I don’t know at networking events and asking for introductions. It’s not always a comfortable feeling. But you know what? It’s worth the discomfort. Because I’m not doing it for myself, I’m doing it for my dream. I’m doing it for what I think needs to be different in the system, and what patients need in healthcare. I remind myself that I deserve to be here. And my “why” is the reason. You deserve to be here, too. Tell yourself that, on repeat, every day.