Steve Pontius '80: Ventures in Things That Matter
It’s late Saturday night and Steve Pontius ‘80 is trying to console his young son who shows all of the classic signs of an ear infection: fever, tugging on the ear, and many, many tears.
Steve knows that the boy needs an antibiotic, but at this late hour there aren’t any great options. Finally the clock ticks over and Steve loads his son into the car to drive to the closest urgent care.
After three miserable hours in the waiting room, the doctor finally sees them.
“[He] looked in his ear, and said ‘He has an ear infection’,” says Pontius. “I was livid! Yes, I’ve been up since 2 AM, and I could have told you that...I just want the amoxicillin!”
It’s in this moment that the idea for MinuteClinic is born.
Making Life Easier
It’s possible that you haven’t heard of MinuteClinic—but not likely. With more than 1,100 locations in 33 states and the District of Columbia, MinuteClinics have cared for more than 20 million patients since their humble opening back in 2000. Today MinuteClinic is the largest provider of retail clinics in the US.
What is MinuteClinic?
It’s that handy little spot inside of Target or CVS where you find fast answers to acute health problems: Is it strep or just a virus? Does my toddler need antibiotics or just extra cuddles? It’s the place you go to get that flu vaccine while fulfilling your Target list.
At the end of the day, it’s one more tool created to make parents’ lives just a little easier.
“Every year I get calls from MBA students from around the country who are studying MinuteClinic,” says Pontius, “and they always ask: “How did you guys decide to be such a disrupter in the market? How did you figure out a weakness and go after it?”
Steve’s answer isn’t what they expect to hear; he and his partners didn’t, in fact, study the market or set out to be a “disruptor.”
“We saw a need and wanted to meet that need,” says Pontius. “We wanted easier access for items that parents need to survive. That’s where we were at the time.”
From a Rocky Start to a Household Name
And, contrary to the occasional misconception, MinuteClinic wasn’t an immediate success. Instead, it was a vision that was only realized after multiple years of struggle.
“Back then, everyone wanted to come to a big building where people wore scrubs and a lab coat when they got sick. You would NEVER think about going to Cub for your medical needs,” laughs Pontius.
But hard work and personal passion paid off in the end. MinuteClinic started to make sense to consumers, and before long it was a household name.
Steve remembers one evening when he was watching American Idol with his daughter, Paige. A CVS commercial for MinuteClinic came on and Paige turned to him in excitement: “Dad! That’s the coolest thing ever!” she said.
“For me, that was enough,” says Pontius. They addressed a real need and received accolades from one of the most important people in the world: Steve’s daughter.
Once the clinic found its footing, Pontius and his partners sold it to CVS and moved on to new projects, but this project stands as a sort of benchmark: he learned that the most successful ventures would rise from things he truly cared about.
And lest you think Pontius’ success was handed to him on a silver platter, it’s interesting to note that Steve has dyslexia, a syndrome that faced a general lack of services during his growing up years.
In fact, Pontius came to Minnehaha Academy as a sophomore after spending two difficult years away from home at a boarding school enrolled in a special program for students with dyslexia.
“My time at Minnehaha was great because I got to be a kid again,” he reflects. ”I got to be with my friends and to go to people’s houses and go on dates.”
From classes to hockey to baseball he found his place in the community and developed friendships that carry into today.
In fact, classmate Eric Hawkins stepped in during the early days to invest in MinuteClinic and help get it launched.
Spiritually it was a time of sorting out his beliefs and recognizing that at the end of the day, you have to own your faith: either it’s something you walk out both in public and private or it’s something you leave behind, but it doesn’t service anybody to say one thing and do another.
Pontius readily admits that he wasn’t one of the top students or an obvious vote for “Most Likely to Succeed.”
There is much to be said for grit and passion, however, and this is where Pontius found that perseverance could outplay his weaknesses, even a learning disability.
He made his way to Westminster College in Missouri, earning a degree in Business and Administration and then, just five years out of school, launched Super Marketing, Inc., his first major venture capital project. Later projects took him overseas to Chinese factories as well as into the world of murphy beds.
“We used to go look at factories [in China], and you’d have to pay the motorcycle guys [for a ride],” he says, commenting that on some of those rides through crowded side streets or into the countryside he would start to wonder if they were going to end up getting mugged, or worse. Then, unexpectedly, they would find themselves in front of a perfectly normal factory where they could source items for stores like Target.
“It was really fun for, oh, about the first half of [the six years],” he says. But after a while the long flights and time away from home lost their luster.
Along the way, Pontius’s frank nature and willingness to step into uncertainty have enabled him to take risks.
“Venture capital works this way: out of ten great ideas, one is a home run, eight suck, and one is OK. Sometimes you just have to walk away,” he says. And, like MinuteClinic, the successes often rise out of a real-life problem he personally runs into.
Serving the Elderly
Such is the story with Pontius’s current venture. HRA IQ grew out of his experience of walking alongside his elderly parents, where he saw a gap in the Medicare system: many patients failed to show up for their annual wellness checkups, leading to preventable health crises that cost time, money, and quality of life.
Pontius wondered: What if we brought the checkups to the seniors? What if we spent more time with them than a traditional practitioner has to spend? Could we find a solution that solves problems for both seniors and the health care system?
And so, three years ago, Pontius launched a healthcare practice that stepped into the gap: at no cost to the patient, medical practitioners sit with seniors in their living rooms and kitchens, unpressured by the 10-15 minute time slots so many clinics offer, and gather in-depth information that can help head off potential health crises.
They also make sure patients have numbers and addresses for their primary care providers, clinic nurse lines, and the ER they should go to in case of an emergency. This saves time and money for seniors, insurance companies, and healthcare establishments alike.
Seniors often have such a good experience with HRA IQ staffers that they’ve even called the company and asked if they could invite the practitioner back for dinner.
“Our total goal is to be behind the scenes...helping people get the data they need so they can take better care of their patients. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Currently HRA IQ is in eight states looking to expand, driven by a service-mindset.
“If it didn’t matter, if we just wanted to make money, we could get a kiosk at the Mall of America, doing annual wellness visits and get paid,” he says, explaining that this would ultimately be easier money than navigating the large healthcare systems.
This, however, doesn’t help their target population: elderly patients like Pontius’s own parents. Similar to his experience with MinuteClinic, Pontius believes that this venture has been successful because he pursued a solution to a problem that meant something to him.
“I’ve done a whole bunch [of ventures] that haven’t had that, and they’ve failed miserably,” he says. “It has to matter. And when it matters, I’ll fight.”