Carmel resident David Wasilewski has launched WhatNext, a website that uses matching algorithms to make it easier for cancer patients to connect with others in similar circumstances. The site went live in September with the support and endorsement of the American Cancer Society, and it now has 1,000 users. Wasilewski, 39, started the site after spending eight years as chief operating officer of the Spanx line of body shapers. Before that, he did health care consulting. He is planning a marketing push in early 2012 that he hopes will boost the number of WhatNext users to 100,000. If he can achieve that kind of growth, he thinks he can have a compelling business proposition for health care organizations looking to share their name and expertise with patients in need.
IBJ: In 2007, you were taking six months off after leaving Spanx, and you and a friend were helping friends and family research their health conditions—cancer, Alzheimer’s, eating disorders. Describe that experience and why it led you to launch WhatNext.
A: We were going to the Web for information. And we both said it was inspiring, how much information was out there. But then we were both frustrated, because the data was completely unstructured. And you didn’t know the people’s backgrounds. The only way we were able to find that information was through arduous searching through thousands of pages on the Web. And even then you only got a partial story.
IBJ: Why did you decide to focus on cancer, as opposed to other kinds of diseases?
A: When I started off, I started with lots of diseases. But I found that I could recruit 500 people to the site, but with all those diseases, it was so diluted. I could have 50 people with cancer and nobody with prostate cancer. So we had to build these taxonomies [of all the variations of each disease, as well as the different paths of treatment patients choose]. We’re working on plans now to expand into other disease states in 2012, but I don’t know what they’ll be yet.
IBJ: How can WhatNext make money?
A: Health care brands today are spending billions of dollars on what I call sales-based marketing. Things that people have learned to tune out. I believe the future in health care is turning from a sales-based marketing to a service-based marketing. For example, if a patient here in Carmel was on WhatNext saying they're suffering from depression, someone from St. Vincent could come on and say, “I’m sorry you’re not doing well. By the way, most insurance plans cover treatment [for depression]. And we provide services that might help you. If you have any questions, here’s my contact information.” Here’s the opportunity for the health system to engage in the conversation and give them the opportunity to serve [patients]. And if they help them on the little things, [the patients] are sure going to turn to them on the big things. [For a fee], we would monitor the site and alert them to the opportunity to engage.