Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Savitra Sharma, and I founded Third Wave Analytics in 2014. We are a cloud computing company specializing in “SaaS for science” - a platform for managing your entire laboratory in one place. We created Lockbox LIMS, the world's first cloud-based, end-to-end laboratory information management system (LIMS) built on the Salesforce platform. It provides laboratory staff with the world’s most customizable laboratory management system including sample management, protocol/procedure execution, freezer/storage management, inventory, and instrument management.
Lockbox is used internationally in a wide variety of organizations including R&D, quality control testing, life science research, and industrial laboratories to streamline operations and reduce the time needed to see results.
Notable clients include Invivo, Ohio State University, B2S Life Sciences, Boston University School of Medicine, and Insight Genetics. We recently partnered with the University of California-Berkeley in a research study published in Nature that developed a protocol for implementing a pop-up COVID-19 testing center in just three weeks -- much faster than a typical lab operation that might take months or years to get up and running.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I earned an MBA from UC-Berkeley and have a degree in engineering science from the University of Virginia. By the time I came up with the idea for Third Wave Analytics, I had over 20 years of consultant and leadership roles in life science, consulting, and digital marketing. In those positions, I witnessed firsthand how inefficient and ineffective technology was in laboratories.
While the front office had powerful resources like Salesforce, the lab was often forced to use spreadsheets to keep track of their data and information — meaning things were being lost in translation from test results being saved in the wrong place to potentially even physically losing results with no electronic record of the research or tests being performed. Knowing there had to be a better way, I reached out to Salesforce, already a multi-billion dollar company with innovative SaaS solutions for most industries, to propose a collaboration that would bring a new kind of software into the laboratory. I started with a mere $200 in the capital, but I knew my idea had unlimited potential so I went for it.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Over my 20 years in engineering and life science consulting, I witnessed the immense challenges labs face on a daily basis. Front office staff and HR had robust platforms that met their needs -- but labs doing the most critical work onsite were using tech systems that were years behind the times. I knew I could create a more optimal system than old-fashioned spreadsheets and manual data organization.
In a niche industry, ranking competitively for organic traffic is critical.
Working with Salesforce, we were able to build a blueprint for the most important elements of the Lockbox LIMS platform. Our primary objective at the beginning was to build a platform that was simple and intuitive, with 100% of data reliably backed up on the cloud. Initial iterations of Lockbox LIMS were simple - providing labs with systems to enter all of their data, upload it to the cloud, and reliably access it across the network. Coming from darker days of unsynced spreadsheets, this in itself was a major breakthrough in reducing errors and increasing efficiency.
As we learned more about different lab priorities, we optimized and expanded upon our suite of tools. The platform now is fully customizable so labs can prioritize the most important data points for them in just a few clicks. We’ve also added new tools to make collaboration and documentation much faster. If multiple technicians are analyzing the same sample, they are able to note observations, update results, and ask questions in one central thread that precisely documents who did what and when they did it.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Third Wave Analytics started with that phone call to Salesforce and $200 in the capital. I shared my vision with them and we started hashing out a plan. It took about a year for us to get our LIMS platform built and a website ready for customers.
Lead generation and raising capital at the beginning were uphill battles. Starting a new company with no brand recognition or similar models on the market made getting our foot in the door with high-quality leads feel like a major struggle. We started as a small, and fortunately well-connected, team and relied on our professional network for our first few clients.
Then as labs started using Lockbox LIMS and reporting the improvements, we were able to learn from their experiences and expand. Just a few success stories lead to case studies, testimonials, and the opportunity for significant growth. It took over three years for us to build up a reliable nucleus of clientele. Since then, we’ve been able to expand our marketing efforts and build brand recognition.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We focus heavily on building formative mutually beneficial relationships with our clients. Each lab has different needs and desires, so we take the time to ask the right questions and customize a system that works best for them. All of our clients are given account managers equipped to handle any issues with the software. Clients also know that they can reach out to me whenever. While we’ve grown substantially in the last few years, we’ve worked hard to build an “open door” culture where clients, entry-level employees, and senior management all collaborate together - without overthinking hierarchical structures or consequences.
In terms of attracting new customers, our leads usually come from two general categories: industry contacts and digital marketing campaigns. Our first reliable set of clients came through referrals and contacts in the lab testing industry. We’ve been fortunate to hire an exceptional team with decades of experience and connections. Our first major clients were contacts we’d worked with over the years.
We’ve also invested in SEO and, to a lesser extent, Google Adwords. In a niche industry, ranking competitively for organic traffic is critical. Many of our highest-value priority keywords average only a few searches per month.
Since kicking off the SEO campaign in early 2020, our organic traffic has increased 150% compared to the previous year. We’ve also seen a marked increase in rankings positions - we started with under 100 positions, and no visibility among Page 1 results. Today, we have an established Page 1 footprint, focusing our marketing efforts on highly relevant industry keywords. In an industry that has a long sales cycle, every effort made to get your product in front of potential customers early in their search can make a dramatic impact on revenue.
Through our industry contacts, digital marketing campaigns, and commitment to meeting the specialized needs of the labs we partner with, we’ve been able to build a reliable network of clients. With the need for robust lab information software at an all-time high, we anticipate significant growth in 2021 and beyond.
Be very clear on what metrics you really value in your business right now. Get clarity on what those objectives are -- and then focus your resources to meet those goals.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I know we’ve all heard a lot about how unprecedented this time in history is. It’s a really interesting time to be an entrepreneur, but particularly to be working in an industry that is so closely aligned with some of the biggest challenges we’re facing with the pandemic. Back in April, we worked with the well-regarded CRISPR lab at UC-Berkeley to help support the development of rapid Covid testing for at-risk populations in the Bay Area.
In a typical lab onboarding, starting up a new LIMS system in a lab can take months to fully customize and standardize their processes. We simply didn’t have that kind of time to get this going. By collaborating closely with their lab team and iterating quickly, we were able to cut down the LIMS implementation timeline to three weeks.
It was an eye-opening experience, and a gratifying one, to know that we could work together to meet this seemingly impossible timeline when it really mattered. And I think it’ll inform our collaborations with future customers - knowing that we can stand up an MVP that quickly.
In terms of what the future looks like, we’ll continue to iterate and improve the software. Every lab is different, so we take a great deal of care to learn about their unique processes during the onboarding process. We customize the software to their needs, but there is some overlap in terms of key feature sets. In developing software, it’s so easy to fall into feature bloat based on a handful of customer requests; to be reactive, rather than mindful. It’s helpful to approach additions from the perspective of what will best serve the largest number of customers.
We’re also focused on further expanding our reach beyond North America. We recently opened a European office in Paris to help better support our EMEA customers. And we’re always looking into how we can better support different types of labs. We’ve worked closely with numerous academic and genetic sequencing labs, but I’d like to expand to working with more food safety labs as well.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
There’s an unhealthy tendency among startup founders to try to do everything. And it’s impossible - particularly when you’re building something for the long haul. You’ll burn out, probably sooner rather than later, and no one is served by that. It’s hard on the team and it’s a disservice to clients who put their trust - and financial investment - into you and your product. Know what you’re good at, and do that. Hire the best people you can find to focus on those areas that you’re weakest at, and then get out of their way.
This doesn’t mean I’m not involved in product development or marketing - I am, it’s just my nature. I trust that those team members will bring their best ideas to the table. Making decisions - which is the majority of an entrepreneur’s day-to-day - can sap your brainpower. Having the best people at the table makes it that much easier for me to stay focused on the decisions and priorities that will move the entire company forward.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As I’ve mentioned, we’re platformed on Salesforce, so they’re a vital partnership for us. They’re continuously innovating - so it’s not only a good partnership from the standpoint of serving our customers, but I also appreciate the mindset.
Slack has been great for quick team communications during the pandemic. Being able to easily loop in multiple team members into a thread saves a lot of time and helps us address potential roadblocks quickly. It’s also nice to have a place to share photos and stories that are happening outside of work - it’s important to be reminded of the people and interests in our lives beyond our keyboards.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’m a firm believer that hard work pays off and good things happen to people who are willing to grind. Angela Duckworth’s research on the concept of grit really resonated with me. Her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance provides a great perspective on how entrepreneurs turn an innovative idea into a thriving business.
Duckworth dismisses the notion that the smartest people and best initial ideas result in the most successful companies. Instead, she believes that an entrepreneur with a good idea, a relentless work ethic, and the ability to push through adversity is best positioned to build a successful company. I’ve faced countless obstacles since I started Third Wave Analytics. Duckworth’s wisdom on keeping one’s nose to the grindstone and persevering through setbacks has been invaluable for me as I build my business.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Have a narrow field of vision. Be very clear on what metrics you really value in your business right now. Is it getting 10 new customers by the end of the quarter? Is it adding two new features to the product, or improving how existing components work? Is it establishing a partnership that will help you expand into a new service area? Get clarity on what those objectives are -- and then focus your resources to meet those goals.
As an entrepreneur, you will always have ideas and inspiration for what comes next. And those ideas have great value. Write them down, and revisit them when you’re planning for the next quarter with your team. But the day-to-day work should be more focused. Without clear action steps, and a clear goal, you’re more likely to spin your wheels.
‘Fail fast’ is a common cliche in startup circles - the idea of throwing a lot at the wall and seeing what sticks and moving on quickly. For complex software solutions, this fail-fast mentality is harmful. Give yourself at least 3-6 months to develop a new feature idea -- that’s enough time to work out the initial bugs and UX challenges and to gather initial customer feedback.
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