Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Is It Time For Pharma Reps to Find A New Career?

By Marcos Moura

To the right is the cover of one of the last editions of Pharmaceutical Representative, the Pharma Rep focused magazine that ran for 41 years.  

Is it time for Pharma Reps to find a new career? 

Over the last 2 years I've helped several pharma, bio-tech, and med device sales representatives transition from employee to entrepreneur.  Some of these folks started businesses after 15 plus years in pharma sales and management.  Guiding these folks through their startup journey has left me with a deep appreciation for the profession. Further, I've come to realize that many of the skills acquired in a successful pharma sales career are incredibly valuable in entrepreneurship.  
In 2009, CNNMoney.com ranked the pharmaceutical sales profession the 44th best job out of the top 100 careers in America. CNNMoney gave the relationship building profession high marks for personal satisfaction, job security, and overall benefit to society. The job would have ranked even higher, but it was weighed down by a lower grade in the “future growth potential” category.  It has not graced CNNMoney's annual top 100 list since 2009, most likely due to the chaos of medicare cuts, generic drugs, and ongoing healthcare reform - all of which have led to massive layoffs (as is evidenced by Merck’s recent 8,500 job cut announcement).

Regardless, pharma reps continue to report a high level of job satisfaction. They love the freedom, the pay, and the ability to connect with healthcare professionals.  But every job has its downfalls. Travel can be brutal and the doctors can be unforgiving.  However, I usually find that it's the lack of "future growth potential" (as CNN put it) that seems to be the biggest challenge for most successful reps.  Feeling like there's little chance for advancement can batter the soul – a good friend and ex-pharma rep recently said to me "I'd rather face the possibility of getting laid off than the strong possibility that I will never move up."  If you're a pharma rep and feel strangely fulfilled yet stuck, you're not alone.

You've Got Skills

1. You understand healthcare. Regardless of which product line you push, you have an incredibly valuable knowledge of healthcare.  I find that most reps don't realize this. Peek your head just over the walls of your profession, and you'll see an industry in turmoil.  American healthcare is radically changing right before our eyes, and pharma reps are right in the middle of it all, experiencing it at a ground zero level.  There are many opportunities to provide consultation services to companies like Qualcomm, Verizon, and other super cool tech startups.
2. Your business development and presentation skills are top-notch. After hundreds of conversations with healthcare sales professionals, I have yet to hear anyone say "eh, the training is alright."  The amount and depth of training offered to pharma professionals is astounding.  Any entrepreneurial venture will require a huge amount of meaningful relationship building with clients or investors.  Further, the ability to retain huge amounts of data and statistics and present them at the drop of hat is a valuable skill in any business. That combination of analytic aptitude and graceful business development is rare in corporate executives and entrepreneurs.   

Life after Pharma

So how can an entrepreneur leverage the skills and experience gained through a pharma sales career?   Many of the pharma reps I lead though our franchise discovery process have had that entrepreneurial itch for as long as they can remember.  Some (and this is just between us) have run side businesses while working in big pharma. Personally, I believe that you can start almost any business you can dream of.  However, I believe that pharma reps are best suited for starting service based businesses.

Start a Service Based Businesses

Most service based businesses require the entrepreneur to be highly skilled at business development or relationship building.  Since providing a service limits the need to produce and sell a physical product, the entrepreneur is able to start with a relatively small amount of initial capital and often start from home or a small office with little to no employees. As the business scales, the entrepreneur is able to add staff members and acquire more office space to meet their growing demand. The point is that you're not manufacturing a product - you're providing a highly valued service that improves someone's life or helps another business.

I'm Great At Biz Dev. But What About the Operations Side?

Few people have the ability to be excellent at business development and also be detail oriented operators. I have met a handful. They're a rare breed. If you're not that rare breed, you'll need to fake it for a season. Anyone can triple as CEO, CFO, and VP of Development for a short time. Eventually, you'll need to bring in talented individuals who can help you manage the business you bring in the door. I've seen this work first hand. At our company, Amada Senior Care, 80% of our franchise partners have a pharmaceutical or a medical device sales background. Now entrepreneurs, these ex-pharma reps start their business with no staff and spend much of their time in the field building relationships with doctors, nurses, and case managers. As they grow, they begin to add administrative staff who are much better at managing the business than they are.

A mid-career pharma reps earns more than two thirds of the American population. It's not easy to walk away form that type of stability. If you decide to pursue an entrepreneurial venture, be prepared to be challenged like never before. That said, starting a business that will positively impact society can be incredibly gratifying.