Alex Tolbert

Master of Business Administration, Juris Doctor; Class of 2007

Founder, Bernard Health

Could you provide a brief recap of your career since graduating from Owen?

I started Bernard Health while I was in school, inspired in large part by professors at Owen and a professor at the law school. I’ve continued working on the business since then. I graduated in 2007 and was a health insurance broker for several years. My typical activities as a broker included cold calling employers and getting clients. I was very focused on helping clients be successful with health savings accounts. Since 2008 we had been building a software that became its own business in 2016. The brokerage still exists and is extremely important for our success but the software company is now the biggest part of our business.

What is your company and where did the idea come from? What served as the the biggest motivator or influence in starting your company?

BerniePortal is an HR software for small employers. When I was a health insurance broker, I was calling on HR of these small employers. Often I had this grand idea that I was going to be advising clients on their health care strategy, which I did a little bit of, but what they really needed help with was recruiting, onboarding, tracking time off,  compliance, performance management and administering benefits. At this time this was all done with paper. I looked to see if there was some kind of software platform to move these processes online but back then there was nothing. We started building a software with a focus on benefits and later built out parts of the functionality. For many years, the software was how we attracted clients. It wasn’t only about how we could help with clients health care strategies and health savings accounts but also that we had this software that can help resolve all the transactional issues within a business. We always had a vision that the software would get good enough to distribute to other health insurance brokerages. In 2016, we finally felt it was ready and now we have 233 brokerages in 44 states that have adopted it and implemented it with their clients. 

There was a combination of two things that served as motivators. The work that Germain Boer and Michael Burcham did at Owen was a huge source of inspiration for me. I think the things that I learned from Professor Blumstein in the law school about the healthcare system got me passionate about solving some of the problems in the industry. I had been on a finance career path and had some good internships that made me realize that’s not what I wanted. The other thing was I had the opportunity to run a cafe in the business school while I was there and that gave me just that little entrepreneurial experience. Those are the different ingredients that helped me make that decision to start Bernard Health

What is the most challenging thing about being an entrepreneur and how have you worked to overcome this challenge?

I think the hardest part was the start. I remember someone saying that they weren’t worried if they were going to starve, if they failed or if they were going to have some big dramatic setback that they could never get over. The biggest worry was embarrassment, being embarrassed among their friends if they tried to start a business and it failed. People say they don’t really care and they probably think that it’s cool that you tried. Those initial stages were the most difficult part with the emphasis being on just having to put yourself out there and committing to starting a business.

What qualities are most important to possess as an entrepreneur?

For me it was important to develop good sales capabilities. I didn’t have any sales experience before. There’s plenty of books and things to do that can help you develop those skills but in the initial stages it’s all about being able to sell customers and to sell people on joining the team – that’s a lot of selling. It persists in the later stages as well but I think that would be one hard skill that is very important. I have a friend that likes to say nothing happens before you sell anything so you have to have the ability to do that.

What are you most proud of about your business?

We make a really big difference for our clients and our partners. I think we have a highly differentiated offering. What we provide in the market I’m extremely proud of and I’m also very proud of the environment that we have created for our team members. I think that we’ve fostered a really great culture focused on personal and professional growth. Our culture is centered around Stephen Covey’s book: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. All new team members read the book.

What advice do you have for students as they launch their business? Are there any tools you consistently use as an entrepreneur?

A well known Nashville entrepreneur named Bill Cook encouraged me to think about what business I’d start around an idea – in my case, Health Savings Accounts – if I were not going to raise any money, what would it be? For me, the answer to that question was to become a health insurance broker focused on Health Savings Accounts. And that’s how I got started.

The other thing would be just to pick a name and start. I know people who spend six months picking a name and that’s 6 months lost. The quicker you have those initial ingredients of having a name and being able to articulate what you do, the quicker you’ll be able to get in front of customers. If I hadn’t had a pipeline of potential interested customers I had when I graduated I’m not sure I would’ve felt enough positive reinforcement. 

What do you do to live a balanced life? Do you have any interesting or fun hobbies?

I’m married and have 2 children. My biggest hobby is hanging out with them but I also run. For entrepreneurs there’s a time in life when everything is on fire. In the initial stages of starting a business everything is urgent, every single customer calls you, you’re running payroll… and it is hard. Expect that getting a business off the ground is a ton of work. You can always be selling and doing the admin work in the evenings. For me it took a little while to get away from that. I don’t think an entrepreneur needs to be too conscious of work life balance. It all just becomes life. I have interviewed people who have come from big corporate backgrounds and you can tell they have a very regimented lifestyle but for entrepreneurs it’s a lot more fluid than that.