As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Nall.
Mike Nall has more than 30 years of healthcare sales and marketing experience and currently serves as the president and CEO of Biocept, a company that develops and commercializes diagnostic assays that provide clinically actionable information to improve outcomes for patients with cancer. In his current role, Nall has led the company as it transitioned from R&D to commercialization. Prior to Biocept, Nall served in the diagnostic and medical device industries in various commercial leadership roles for companies including Clarient Diagnostic Services, Impath, American Cyanamid, Maquet Surgical, Strato Medical, Horizon Medical Products and Columbia Vital Systems. Mike received a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from Central Missouri State University (now known as the University of Central Missouri).
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
There has to be a great story behind it, right? Well, I got out of college and went into surgical sales — selling equipment and implantable devices. I was in the OR and critical care areas every day. I worked with a buddy who switched to this emerging field of cancer genomics. He thought I would like it because I was curious and liked to understand how things work. He referred me for a job with a company that was the leading cancer diagnostic lab at the time, and it turns out I loved the genomics and pathology side of the industry. I’ve now become a senior leader in molecular diagnostics for cancer.
From the start, I enjoyed molecular diagnostics because you’re like a detective. What I mean is you’re looking for the answer to a puzzle just like a detective does. You look at the way a specimen presents itself and its traits, which lead to what’s going on with the patient. It’s like a mystery. When I interview potential employees, I always ask, “what kind of books do you like to read?” I know I have the right person if they say they like mystery novels because, like mysteries, in diagnostics you’re assessing clues to come up with the final solution. That’s why I love it.
Diagnostics accounts for less than 3% of the total spent in health care but is responsible for virtually all of the clinical decision making. The first step to managing care is getting the diagnosis right. Everything that comes after that gets the attention — the drugs and the procedures — but diagnostics is the most critical part of it.
When I started in diagnostic sales calling on oncologists, we were still treating everybody the same — if you had breast cancer, you got regimen A, colon cancer, regimen B. The industry has evolved to focus on personalized medicine, looking at molecular biomarkers to determine the best way to treat cancer using targeted therapies, which is now the standard of care. Early on, we had to convince oncologists that they needed a molecular lab test in order to make treatment decisions, which involved changing behavior. Fast forward to today — now we’re not only doing molecular testing on tissue, we’re doing it on blood and at Biocept on Cerebral Spinal Fluid, and we’re looking at multiple cancer biomarkers in the same patient.
I was recruited to Biocept in 2013 to turn around a molecular diagnostics company that had a lot of promise but had struggled for years due to lack of funding. Since then, we’ve been able to move the company forward to have multiple products and robust sales, as well as more than 70 patents worldwide. When I arrived, we had one patent. We had no sales. We had no salespeople. Just an idea — and a belief that we would be able to create a successful company while helping improve care for cancer patients.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I had always talked too much, but I’ve trained myself out of it after I learned a hard lesson. Two separate times in early my career I confided to a co-worker and friend that I didn’t like how our boss managed or what they were asking us to do. In both cases, what I thought was a confidential conversation made its way to our boss — I guess my friends were closer to the boss than to me! I had to learn the hard way that you try to only say good things about people you work with, especially those you report to.
This ties into something else I’ve learned — your words matter. It can be difficult for me to monitor what I say because I tend to express what I feel. But if I have a reaction that’s not positive and someone starts running with it, it’s counterproductive to effective leadership. You have to be disciplined about what you say. The best CEOs I worked for, the CEO I aspire to be, are deliberate and strategic with how they communicate.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve been lucky to have multiple mentors, but the person who deserves credit for helping me become the leader I am today is Dave Daly. I worked under Dave at Clarient Diagnostic Services when he was brought in as Sales Leader. He promoted me to a sales director, and then I became VP of sales, VP of reimbursement, and finally general manager.
Dave is an amazing leader, and the hardest working and most disciplined person I’ve ever met. One remarkable thing is that every day, Dave sends a motivational message to his team — initially on voicemail and now via email. He’d get into the office before anyone else and compose these messages for us each and every day.
Today at Biocept, I still take the many lessons I learned from Dave seriously. I can’t be as disciplined as he was in sending daily messages, but every holiday I send out a motivational message to my team. The messages may talk about how I’m looking at things and positive updates about the company, and I always emphasize what we do and why it matters. Every holiday, no matter what I’m doing or where I am, I get up and I send a message out to the team — inspired by Dave.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When I arrived, Biocept was in its infancy as a cancer diagnostics laboratory. We had a technology we felt could be of tremendous value for testing cancer patients — the ability to detect circulating tumor cells and cell free circulating tumor DNA in blood. We had a core team of about 20 employees and a relatively small amount of money raised from an IPO, and we built from there. We’re focused on impacting cancer patient outcomes in a positive way — that’s our purpose.
We realized — serendipitously while performing testing services for a biopharma company’s trial — that our testing technology was also very effective at analyzing cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to identify cancer that has metastasized to the central nervous system. The principal investigator for the trial, who is from a leading cancer institute, called and said, “Mike, you guys don’t know what you have. What your test provides is something I can’t get anywhere else.” That’s what led us to validate and recently launch our CNSide™ CSF assay.
CNSide addresses a high unmet clinical need, as the current standard of care, CSF cytology, has limited sensitivity for detecting brain metastasis and assessing therapy response. Between 10% and 30% of patients with cancer develop brain or spinal cord metastasis. Overall survival is low, and many patients are not diagnosed early enough for therapeutic intervention. However, newer targeted therapies may extend survival for a year or more, resolving symptoms and substantially improving quality of life. Initial acceptance by neuro-oncology thought-leaders is highly encouraging — physicians from nearly two dozen leading academic institutions have ordered CNSide, with many becoming repeat users.
Where we are today with neuro-oncology and CNSide is a huge leap forward in helping improve the care of patients with brain metastases — and in the evolution of Biocept. To me, this is a great example of a purpose driven business — persevering through difficult times and staying focused on the mission.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Early in the pandemic, we leveraged our expertise in molecular diagnostics to begin offering COVID-19 testing. We weren’t sure where it would lead us, but test volume quickly ramped up. During this time, we also had to move to a new building more suited for our needs. The new building wasn’t ready when we moved in and was not a comfortable place for people to work. There was dust, noise, and construction workers going in and out all day — it was very disruptive during a particularly difficult and busy time. But every day you have to power through and keep telling people it’s going to get better. And sure enough, it does. We started getting things done, just like we said we would. That’s what people saw and what kept everyone focused. It is so important to do your best to live up to the promises you make to your team and to set the tone with a positive attitude.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I don’t think I ever really feel like giving up. However, I like to jokingly say that at the beginning of every week I think I’m going to quit, and every Friday I’m glad I didn’t. But I’m only half joking because every day, every week, problems happen. One strategy I use and try to stress with my team: If you’ve got a problem that you don’t know how handle or made a mistake — just treat the next day like it’s your first day on the job. This approach allows us to push past frustrations over failure, which often get in the way of sound decision-making. When you start something new, you don’t have all that baggage. With a fresh perspective, the right answer usually comes to you; in fact, you probably knew it all along.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It is critical for leaders to demonstrate optimism and predictability — especially during challenging times. You have to show that the team is going to get past the problem so they can remain focused on the job at hand. Your team also needs to know they can count on you. Throughout the pandemic when much of our staff has been working remotely, I’ve been going into the office several days a week. I didn’t have to, but we have people working in the lab, and I wanted them to see my car in the parking lot. I wanted to go down and say hi at the end of the day. You want to make sure your people are okay, and they need to see that you’re okay.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
First, you have to pay people fairly. You need to do salary surveys at least every other year to make sure your compensation is where it needs to be. San Diego is a tight labor market, and we don’t want people to leave or take that call from a recruiter. At this point, Biocept has less than a 20 percent turnover rate, which is quite low for San Diego. I’ve seen surveys showing that almost two-thirds of people are thinking of leaving their jobs this year. We don’t want that to happen, so that’s number one.
Number two is culture. A new employee recently told the manager who recruited her something that was meaningful to all of us. The employee said she had several offers, but she chose Biocept because when she came into the office, people were smiling and laughing and connected, and that was the kind of environment she wanted to work in. That’s what I want as a leader — to see people enjoying what they’re doing. We typically spend more time working than with family, so it’s important to create a culture where people feel valued and fulfilled.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Just be honest. You have to be forthright about the difficulty you’re facing and what your plan is — and then you fix it. Most people appreciate transparency and will work with you if they feel you’re being straightforward with them.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You have to make plans but also be open to adapting based on external environments. You need to make sure you have options in case initial plans get derailed. For example, we budget based on the best information we have at the time, but I’ve learned to give the board a caveat that if things don’t go as planned, the strategy may need to change. Leaders need to have alternative scenarios in the back of their minds or explicitly with their leadership teams.
When we were planning our CNSide neuro-oncology assay launch, we could never have anticipated the pandemic. Changing strategy to devote resources to COVID-19 testing turned out to be the best thing to happen because the revenue generated allowed us to ramp up the commercial launch of CNSide. So, you should have plans and contingencies, but you should also remain open to capturing opportunities like the one that presented itself to us.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
We never lose sight of our core purpose, which is helping to positively impact care for cancer patients. Biocept employees understand who they’re working for and why they’re doing it — it’s not just about making money. There aren’t many jobs where you get to come in every day and realize that you’re helping improve patient outcomes and save lives.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I see this through the lens of a micro-cap public company, and the worst mistake a CEO can make is running out of money. It’s imperative to ensure that the company is adequately funded. People may be concerned about dilution when you do a funding raise, but there’s no worse dilution than a company going under for lack of cash. You always want to make sure the company has adequate financial resources, which involves planning months down the road. That’s the number one thing.
The other common mistake is not taking advantage of opportunities. Early in the pandemic, many lab companies began offering COVID-19 testing, but some didn’t seize the opportunity. In hindsight, some of them probably wish they had because of the financial boost it could have given them during an otherwise tough year for the industry.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Flexibility in how you approach the market is critical — finding new opportunities and new ways to do things. The addition of COVID-19 testing changed everything for us, and not just financially. It has been rewarding for our staff to contribute during the public health crisis — pulling together to provide exceptional service to a new set of customers with urgent needs. I am incredibly proud of our team.
It has also been critical to remain laser-focused on our core oncology business. By staying focused we were able to serve existing customers, grow sales, relocate to a new office space and even launch a new assay in the middle of a pandemic. This combination of flexibility and focus leaves us in a very strong position as the pandemic winds down and we regain some normalcy in life and business.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Optimism: People need to see that their leaders are optimistic about the business and future in order to remain engaged and motivated — especially during turbulent times.
Consistency: People need to be able to count on you and want to know what to expect in your behavior and reactions .
Communication: During the pandemic, our frequent communication and town halls have allowed us to give employees confidence that their leaders are charting a positive course. They also allow employees to voice concerns and ask questions — one person’s concern is likely shared by others, so these meetings are an important opportunity to address them.
Perseverance: Don’t give up. I was a longtime sales leader, and people often asked, “What do you look for high-performance sales team?” From my perspective, perseverance is the most important quality in a successful salesperson — and it’s the same in a successful leader.
Flexibility: Challenging times often present hidden opportunities. Having the flexibility to seize them can made the difference between coming out of the crisis in a stronger or weaker position.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are a lot of inspirational quotes out there, but as I discussed earlier, one of my favorites is: “Treat every day as if it’s your first day on the job.”
I use the concept for myself and my team when we’re frustrated or too focused on past mistakes. If you can’t quit looking backward, you can’t move forward.
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