In This Episode
Podcasts have been around for quite a while, but we’re still just scratching the surface of how we can use them. We’re getting meta this week on the Veterinary Innovation Podcast as Shawn & Ivan sit down with Dr. Justine Lee, the CEO of VETgirl Veterinary Continuing Education. From her desire to find an innovative way to study to hosting their own boutique conference, Dr. Lee’s story of how the VETgirl podcast became a juggernaut is vital listening for anyone who is interested in using new media as part of their business strategy.
- The birth of VETgirl
- Business branding
- Using negativity as fuel to succeed
Shawn Wilkie: Hey you’re listening to the veterinary Innovation podcast You’re listening to the veterinary Innovation podcast. My name is Shawn Wilkie, and I’m here with my awesome co-host. I didn’t want you go ahead and introduce yourself and our special guest today.
Meet our guest – Dr. Justine Lee | VETgirl
Ivan Zak: So my name’s Ivan Zak come from the generic background and then spend some time in technology startup workflow that eventually ended up being eyed extends where I’ll end the suffering Division and the left its and currently in semi retired state employee or next best thing today. We have a guest. Dr. Justine Lee personal friend of mine. I we met through I don’t remember what it was and he was 2015 I worked in emergency hospitals 404 kitchen area emergency and Specialty Hospital in Toronto Email to give a talk on wrinkle care and I think it was a little bit of a flavor of Toxicology and make sure of it. The reason why I remember is because we both were the beginning of to startups myself with smartphone just he was at the beginning of Batgirl and I think we just started talking the sort of entrepreneurial talk and connected and I think the last five years just kind of intersecting different areas of a bitch new medicine little bit about Justine. So she’s a double border specialist in toxicology and critical care. She published over 45 Cent cific journals and articles and she’s a speaker at conferences. Obviously. It’s outer of Batgirl which has over one hundred eighty-five thousand followers $77,000 on Instagram what I didn’t know about me we found in research that your co-host analyst of National Geographic Wild Animal your life really cool and obviously of Ultimate Frisbee ice hockey and I can’t rally running guarding reading and you climb the Mount Kilimanjaro in 2014 and spent two summers in Rome when you were kid, so that’s what we have on you.
Dr. Justine Lee: That’s pretty good internet stocking your overall a boring person. It sounds like yes. Yes, very very honored to be on your podcast and Ivan. We actually met in June of 2013. It was a week before I release that girl live. We just celebrated our 6-year anniversary. So we met just the very beginning and we’re definitely drawn to each other a conversation wise. I remember we were sitting at dinner and talking about business and that’s where it’s been. So interesting just to see each other’s business grow.
Ivan Zak: Yeah, that’s amazing and you know, just kind of starting to extend into that. So one of the businesses use podcast these days is sort of the marketing material collateral do whatever they do and sort of introduce their customers to whatever they do with sort of no hint of their product and this sort of the collateral material. You did something very Innovative. You took the podcast and greeted it into a product. So it would be super interesting to understand. How did the concept came about and then what made you choose podcast as platform for your business
The birth of VETgirl
Dr. Justine Lee: Well as a little bit of background when I actually first came up with the idea it was during my last year my residency at the University of Pennsylvania in 2003. I was studying for my emergency Critical Care boards, and I was studying 12 to 14 hours a day, and I wanted to go for trail run with my dog just for some mental health and a break and I felt guilty for doing so and it felt like gosh I wish there was a technology out. There were someone could just read me a Veterinary article and I could go for a run at the same time and there was no smartphone technology Walkman that I had and then I came up with idea again when I was studying for my toxicology boards in 2012. And again, I just wish that someone would be able to read me a toxicology chapter so I could learn at the same time while multitasking and just around this time the technology was just starting to develop and so that’s when I reached out to a fellow critical assist. Dr. Garrett pack Dinger. We actually trained at the University of Pennsylvania together. That’s when I reached out to him in 2012 and said hey I have this idea and I had picked him specifically because he was a vet student when I was a resident at pain and he was the most tech savvy person that I ever knew. He was the first to sing Palm Pilots. He was very generous with intellectual property. He had created an online version of a pain formulary and gave it free to all the veterinary students and the residents and interns which was very helpful. And so we actually Release it out to the veterinary public July 1st 2013. So again just celebrated our 6-year anniversary and it’s been an amazing ride. What we wanted to be was a clinically relevant practical way for veterinary professionals to be able to get their continuing education online. And so when we first released we actually were helping educate Veterinary professionals with podcasts and webinars back when we first released, you actually had to pay to get access to the podcast and we did this because as you guys know creating a podcast is so much work and what we had to do was we had two critically review a Veterinary article then we had to type it up in summarize it we had to upload it onto a web page upload it onto Apple podcasts and it was so much work. So for a 10 to 15 Minute Podcast, it took us four to five hours of work and so initially our we’re only limited to subscribers and then two years later. I realized you know what I don’t pay for any podcast. They listened to one to two hours of podcasts a day as a great way of being able to, you know, keep up on news or keep up to date on current events, and that’s when we decided to release it free to the veterinary community. So we did this in about 2015 and even though this pained us because it was so much work. We wanted to be able to do this as a way of being able to a get our name out there, but B also provide a great way for people to be able to learn free and I’m excited to say we are the number one downloaded very podcasts out there. We’ve been downloaded over two point four million times in the past three to four years and over a hundred and seventy countries.
Shawn Wilkie: So incredible it’s such an accomplishment. Congratulations on you know, taking the podcast World by storm.
Dr. Justine Lee: Thank you so much.
Shawn Wilkie: How do you choose podcast topics, countered or they suggestions from your audience is a bit all of that to tell us a little bit more?
Dr. Justine Lee: Sure. So, you know we stuck with the original goal, which is always to deliver clinically relevant practical continuing education as a vet. I know that when I used to get my job more articles those journals would collect into piles that were, you know, five to six feet tall on my office and then every two years I throw them into the recycling bin because we’re all too busy to be able to read our journals. And so we wanted to be able to provide clinical vignettes in the form of podcast. And so what we do is we combed the veterinary literature to look for the most clinically relevant important updates that vets need to know about and Veterinary technicians and Veterinary students. So if you don’t have time to read your Veterinary Journal, we take the time to review that article all the articles are reviewed by board-certified Specialists. And then again, most of them are about into 20 minutes long, but again, they’re really designed to be clinical summaries of the key updates in veterinary medicine.
Ivan Zak: That’s excellent. So from the business side of things you said that you made a change along the way and how you want it to deliver it and whether it’s free or not free, but the startup there’s always pivot you start with one idea and then you have to Pivot because the market reacts in different ways. So how many times did you have to make those turns and change the approach but still stick with the vision so that sounds like a significant one when you’re trying to sell it and then change but other any other pivots that you had to do.
Dr. Justine Lee: Yeah, that’s a great question Ivan. I would say that we stuck with our main goal of clinically relevant practical CTE, but we had to do a few pivots the first one again being the release of the podcast free to the veterinary public or to the general public. The second one was the pivot of adding more continuing education and so in 2019, we actually went from 12 hours a year in 2013 to 20 hours the following year to 40 hours the third year and we’re excited in 2019, one of our biggest pivots is we actually expanded to a hundred hours of new race approved CE each year. So we expanded to four different tracks. And so we’ve always had our small animal track, but in 2019, we added a large animal track a leadership track in a veterinary technician track. We also pivoted and added an online Forum in 2019 and so towards the end of 2018 after our first vet girl you conference. We did expand quite a bit. I would say another pivot that we had was expanding to in-person C8. We have always prioritize convenient online CE so if you can’t travel to a conference one year, you can get all your see from the Comforts of home and for the first time ever we decided to this was in Minneapolis in August of 2018, and the main reason why was because we wanted to be able to meet our fan base and connect with those that were our most loyal followers and we capped out and sold out at 550 people, and the amazing thing is we actually sold out before the agenda was even released. We sold out within months. So it was an incredible conference we had about 75 percent. Respond to the survey saying it was the best conference they’ve ever been to in 20 to 40 years or so. That was another significant pivot. And so we’ve decided that while their main Mojo is online CBE, we’re going to continue with a live in-person conference every other year.
Shawn Wilkie: So interesting just to you know, I’ve gone to hundreds of veterinary conferences and it’s so interesting as an entrepreneur and as an innovator I go to these conferences and that one thing that runs through my head is this is so old-school. This way of doing things and you know if I was to describe conferences, I would definitely not describe them as Innovative businesses like Uber or Airbnb it would be the exact opposite, but it’s interesting to hear you say that you know, there’s maybe a blend, you know, I think the veterinary Conference of the future is going to be very different from what it is today, and I’d like to get you to speak to that a little bit. What do you see the future of this continuing education piece in veterinary medicine, you know, where do you think the Innovations will come from? What are you seeing on the ground when you talk to people? What do they tell you?
Dr. Justine Lee: I would say that our conference is a little bit different than traditional conferences in that we are always going to be a boutique conference. We’re not going to be over, you know a thousand people or at least that’s not what we’re projecting. We want to keep this as a boutique conference and again if I was going to Envision the future veterinary medicine conferences are still always going to be there because people want to connect in person the estimates they want to go to the reunions. They want to walk the exhibit hall. So I definitely think there’s a place for Combined online and in-person continuing education. So that will never go away what I think is important is Veterinary professionals as we know are generally introverted and so they do like smaller conferences in my opinion and again still really important that they be able to connect to exhibitors and classmates. So I really think it’s going to be a blend
Shawn Wilkie: It’s interesting to keep changing. You know, I remember, you know, some of the most interesting ones that I have been to are like the Radiology conference where it’s like it’s like a reunions you’re seeing the same people every year in he wrote. It’s a wonderful experience start to end and then you go to some of these giant converts is like nabc two years ago. I don’t have you both were there but the lineup of food was longer than the period that they had allowed for lunch and you know, it’s for happening and it’s very much in flex, and I think there’s an opportunity for them to change and I don’t know what that change looks like. I agree that the in-person component of them is very very important. But you know when you have to grab a shuttle to get from one side of the exhibit hall to the other it’s a bit exhausting
Dr. Justine Lee: You know, it provides people options if they want to go to 20 different tracks and check out lots of different options out there. I will say that the girl you is similar to the ACBR conference in that it’s only one track veterinarians Veterinary students. Veterinary technicians are all in one room together whether or not that will change in the future. We don’t know but I feel like people have, you know fomo they’re worried that they’re missing this awesome lecture because they’re stuck in this one and so, you know, it’s really personal preference on what size conference people enjoy or learn best from we wanted to make our conference unique back pack a backpack you were going to throw away you had free daycare. We were the first conference ever in the world to offer free daycare to parents and that was a huge huge hit we offered free amusement park passes to Nickelodeon Universe, which is in the Mall of America every single meal was covered so they had a great breakfast a great lunch. We had a gal. Oh, we had a paddle boat cruise and so our goal was to wine and dine our attendees just because we wanted to give back they had been so loyal to us in helping build us for the past five to six years. So we wanted to make sure that we were treating them really. Well. We actually had attendee say you guys are charging way too little so it was a really amazing event.
Ivan Zak: So awesome. So to shift a little bit. I remember early days. We’ve been talking a and you’re asking some questions and I’m happy to say that I failed the prediction that the name that girl was very focused audience one of the things that I remember I told you early days that having a girl in the name might detract other people that are not girl you’re wrong. I Vanessa. Thank you for doing that for me. Just so well too in my defense. I think 85 right now percent are women in the industry. So maybe that’s what resonated but then you know now that I think about it, was that more of a girl. Is that the brand of just lie, and then the question that I have following to that is is it the brand the bad girl is you and how scalable it is beyond you being the Persona behind it. And do you think it has sort of a movement of that girly as about the lifestyle the new lifestyle of veterinarians in areas that are more out there and you know The see that way or is it more related to you? So how scalable that is you think and can it go beyond Justine and is it sort of a brand on its own?
Dr. Justine Lee: Sure great question, you know, we got a lot of pushback our first year from colleagues also with the name of that girl and the reason why I named it back girl was because I considered myself vetgirl. I also did it because of the popularity of the term girl not meaning for it to be derogatory in any way, but I actually based that girl on one of my favorite podcasts money girl and grammar girl and these are two of my favorite podcasts that I listen to all the time. You know, they’re skinny girl. There’s you know, all these different names and brands out there with the name girl, and so totally not designed to be derogatory or sexist but really just described me and again was based on pop culture. I can also say I wanted something short and sweet in a name if I named it online VeterinYou wouldn’t be having this podcast with me because you wouldn’t have heard of me. Right we’re vendor unification podcast with that. It had to be something short and sweet that people would remember and so again, that’s the main reason why we decided to go with it. It’s also because of the changing demographic of our Veterinary Community, you know, it’s 60 to 80% female graduating classes are 90 percent female our Veterinary conference that girl you was almost 90 percent female also. So again definitely not designed to forget about our male colleagues. In fact the COO of that girl is dr. Garrett passenger. So again really used to describe me and if you look at the logo, it looks like me I didn’t make her look quite as Chinese, but you get the general message.
Shawn Wilkie: Totally awesome. Incredible Journey incredible amount of followers. swcCreative approach to seeee delivery. What have you learned? What has been the hardest thing that you’ve learned about running a podcast share some of your insights.
Dr. Justine Lee: You know, we’re we’re novice podcasters, you know, I would say since we teach through so many modalities not just podcast. We do online webinars. We do real-life rounds which are designed to be short sweet 30-minute cage side rounds with a specialist and we also do videos or what I call how to do videos. I would say the biggest thing that I learned is you’re always going to get pushed back the more successful you are you’re always going to have trolls or haters. I will say Garrett and I do not read every single comment on Facebook on our vet girl page, but I’m honored to say that with very very little advertising dollars two hundred fifty dollars towards Facebook ads just to get us up to a thousand people. The rest has been growth on it’s own, so I will say the biggest lesson. I probably learned is go with your gut instinct You know, despite the criticism of the name becquerel initially we stuck with it, despite the pain and the sadness of having to give away podcast when there’s so much work to create strategically. That was a good marketing move for us just because it helped get her name out there and I would say, you know, my dad’s philosophy. My dad’s a retired Pastor is have the heart of a lamb the skin of a rhino because you will always have haters out there. So, you know, we always try to stay positive and lift up our Veterinary Community, but once in a while, we’ll see some pretty negative comments on our vet girl Facebook page or on social media and you know, you just have to chin up and stay passionate and they dedicated towards your main mission.
Ivan Zak: No, that’s fantastic. And I think you know, I think that one of those things I’ve seen the trend with the some entrepreneurs that we are doing interviews with and the colleagues of mind that the negative comments and haters is probably the most common denominator in motivation of entrepreneurs and uh certainly in my case when I started smart claw, remember I flew to Russia where my wife was residing at that point and her dad met me at the airport and on the drive. I told him I want to create an app for veterinarians to do their clinical work and he said that’s stupid and it’s never going to work and just go back and work as a Visionary. It was quite a pleasure to prove him wrong. Five years later, but I think that in a way it’s motivating to have those people that you’re proving wrong and showing that you’re up to something your laser focus on your vision and you execute on it without a blink despite the comments out there. So so that’s I totally can resonate that
Shawn Wilkie: Haters are going to hate but they’re actually helpful and let this be a message to all the haters, I had a trusted mentor of mine that had several businesses had a huge net worth and I said youngest start my own companies had no you should sell insurance and he’s like don’t do that and you know, the minute somebody says you can’t wear your shouldn’t it’s the best thing that they can do for somebody that has the entrepreneurs make up, you know, because it’s just going to make you go the opposite direction as quick and as hard and as fast as you can and it’s nice to get that motivation, so if they knew what they were doing, maybe they wouldn’t do it.
Dr. Justine Lee: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. I graduated over 20 years ago from Cornell and my first year of at school was the first year that we had email at Cornell even an undergrad where I went I went to Virginia Tech we didn’t have school email. So like the technology has changed so much and with that, you know reputation management has also been affected social media so so much has a firm believer that the veterinary field and one of the things I love about it is it’s so relational and so I always tell people even though I see all this negative energy oftentimes in comments. I really think it’s so important that we lift each other up nobody’s going to practice perfectly and you know, it could be something where I’ll post a benign picture of you know, something whatever splenectomy and people will immediately go in judging saying they’re not going up there not draped correctly blah blah blah, you know, what in real life practice is don’t always offer that and in other parts of the country, they don’t offer that at all and you our goal with Vetgirl is to be able to save more lives by providing clinically relevant online CBE. I was a total see student at Cornell and so my goal is if I can walk away from a lecture with two to three things that are going to help improve the quality of care in my patient’s life. That’s our goal, keep in mind I was help people, especially new graduates. Remember veterinary medicine is so relation all play nicely with everybody have a little bit less judgment because we never know when we’re putting that scenario and you know, the third thing I always say is animals survived so much despite what we do and just try to practice the best way you can try to always have that desire to continue to learn to be the best doctor that you can be to be the best vet student the best technician you can be but when in doubt let’s judgment, please don’t you agree?
Shawn Wilkie: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s so interesting, you know, we’ve interviewed some incredible people kind of leading up to this call and this meeting with you Justine and there’s so many similarities in this group of innovators these people that are you know, kind of doing things different than most people. It’s interesting because, you know, whether it’s the desire coming from a hater or it’s just the I guess really needs people like I get everybody that’s kind of giving back to it to you know, lift people up a little bit and it’s just really interesting to kind of hear the same message over and over again in a different way. It’s pretty inspiring. So it’s kind of cool. So thanks for that.
Ivan Zak: So from the from the entrepreneurial sort of Journey when you had to Pivot and decide that I’ve cast is sort of a giveaway. How did you change your model because it’s a business you created an incredible group of followers that now a lot of people identify themselves and know people they love your brand but as a business, how did you modify your business model to actually continue this movement if you will
Using negativity as fuel to succeed
Dr. Justine Lee: So Ivan, I will say we definitely made a lot of mistakes in the beginning even our first conference that we ever exhibited at and ABC or now called vmx people thought we were a t-shirt company so we spent you know way too much money tens of thousands of dollars on merchandise trying to get and in retrospect that probably wasn’t the right decision the way we pivoted was we used to have a subscription model where it was $99 a year for a standard membership where you only get access to the podcast and you could still get CE through those podcasts versus if you wanted the webinars in addition, so at least 12 to 20 hours fresh new content to the year. It would be a hundred and ninety-nine US dollars a year and so we did that for about two years had very few subscribe to just the podcast so the standard membership and so our pivot was you know what it’s probably not worth it. Let’s just go ahead and give these podcasts free. We were finding people just weren’t paying for the podcast. They were going to go ahead and pay for the full amount of CE to begin with and so that’s why we decided well, we’re just going to release it and because of that I will say even though it pained us because the amount of work, it helped with getting our brand name out there. So, you know, you just have to roll with these life lessons as you start your small business and pivot and adjust as needed
Shawn Wilkie: Justine a question. That seems to be coming to be commonplace is out of all of the work that you’ve done. So this is a commonplace question for us in our podcast recommendations for people that are trying to be Innovative, you know books to read questions to ask things to look at. Do you have something that comes to the top of your head?
Dr. Justine Lee: Well, you know, the funny thing is, if you ask any of my classmates at Cornell or even if I self-reflect I never would have considered myself a small business owner again. I was a total C student. I had no interest in buying a practice that wasn’t anything I was interested in. I did not feel like I was smart enough to become a small business owner quote unquote and you know, it was just coming up with the idea where and I will say my one advice barring the logo from Nike is if you have a good idea just do it because everyone comes up with awesome ideas. It’s just a very small percentage that actually take it to the next level because it’s so much work right? It’s so much work to start an LLC to find lawyers to find small business accountants to help you get it off the ground to be able to find the right business partner. So I always say if you really feel like you have a good idea just do it go for it because most people will come up with a great idea, but they don’t have the energy or the passion or the time to be able to bring it to the next level book-wise. I will say I didn’t actually read a lot of small business books my two to three favorite books that did help. Move me along my path from private practice to branching out into my own small businesses were probably two to three books off the top of my head. One of them was Tim Ferriss has the four hour work week, which I’m sure will be.
Shawn Wilkie: Love that, made me move to Bali.
Dr. Justine Lee: Yeah, you know a lot of that book is not applicable to veterinarians that’s work in clinics. We can’t, you know, just decide we’re only going to work for hours in the clinic. So a lot of it was not pertinent but so much of it was on email etiquette something as simple as not responding to your most difficult clients not wasting 80% of your time on 20% of your difficult clients. And so I learned a lot from that book the second book that I really loved was how Full is Your Bucket and this is an old book. It’s from the 70s and it basically reiterated that we spend the majority of our time at work, but the way that we talk to our colleagues or receive Comments or feedback from our colleagues often can deplete us one person can walk down the hall and say hey Justine, the first year vet students were raving about your lecture and that’s going to completely fill my bucket versus someone will say, oh you got a client complain. I’ll tell you about it later that completely depletes my bucket and ruins my day for me and so it’s just about the art of conversation and I think you guys know the quote it’s better to be kind than to be right and it’s reiterates the importance of talking nicely to people taking care of our colleagues. I wrote an article for veterinary team brief years ago. Probably eight ten years ago on my own struggle with suicidal ideation during my first year my residency and we all are touched by colleagues who sadly have taken their own lives who are who really struggle with depression? And so I will say, that book was really important to me because it really reiterate the importance of your tongue and how you talk to your colleagues and how you talk to your family and loved ones. So those are probably the two biggest books that had the most influence in my life in the past decade.