By Keith Rosema, Partner • Aug 7, 2023

Outbound AI CEO Stead Burwell on Transforming Healthcare with AI

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Stead Burwell, one of MVL's alumni founders and the CEO of Outbound AI. Outbound is building "A fully scalable workforce of AI-powered virtual agents" that can streamline and simplify phone-based administrative work in healthcare. Outbound has just announced closing a $16M raise to accelerate growth, leveraging its conversational AI to maximize workforce performance and job satisfaction.  We wanted to hear about Stead's journey as a founder, post-Madrona Venture Labs, and what he could tell us about growing his startup through the end of Covid and in the new era of AI.

Our conversation has been condensed for readability.

MVL: What were you expecting when you got started, and how has it evolved since?

Stead: We've been pretty strongly on the mark in terms of what we were building, which, from the start, was these voice-based virtual agents that could do phone-based administrative work in healthcare. That's still at the heart of what we are building and commercializing. How we deliver that core functionality—that's changed a lot.

I was impressed at how much data has played into it.  Like the fact that knowing all of the right phone numbers was really important.  [We thought] oh yeah, we’re gonna do this administrative voice work, but then there's this whole other layer of data  [you need] to provide to your customers as part of that.

The reality is that these AI services require a lot of software around them.

MVL: Do you have any key insights now that you’ve made your way a little bit?

Stead: Yeah, it's maybe still a little bit too early to tell, but we probably over indexed on one type of early design partner and didn’t look at the rest of the market landscape early enough.  There was a point in time when the data was really relevant from a design partner and you could get that from most people in the market landscape. But there was a moment where there's a second part of the experience of just the sales cycle, onboarding and feedback that I think some other market participants would've given, that we could have explored better.

There's always this tension between the first person who says "yes" to you and you really want to engage strongly.  The investors are saying, “Hey, you need to engage strongly and make this thing win,” and that tension fights against this “Hey, you need to keep your head up and look out ahead and try other experiences as well”.

MVL: What has been your strategy for team building?

Stead: As we've gotten bigger, we continue to be remote first, work from home first, and that has been an advantage for talent and hiring. It is a material benefit to our team in India, not having to go to an office given their lifestyles and the considerations there. It still has been a material benefit to us in the Seattle, Tacoma areas well. We've added a commercialization team, and that tends to be located in the Kansas City area, which has some high density health tech.

Although we're remote first, our goal is to still get people together at various cadences. And I think that as we move and get larger, that will become increasingly more important.

I think that's going to increasingly become this sort of dynamic that all organizations will need to walk between kind of remoteness and still needing team building and togetherness and human vision and touch and the like. I think it's one of the big managerial challenges we'll have going forward.

MVL: Do you have advice for other founders trying to navigate the current funding climate?

Stead: It's been a difficult, capital raising environment. The last six months [have] been more active in [2023]. I think that has to do with the interest in AI. There's a lot of people trying to get smarter and a lot of investors trying to get smarter about AI generally and healthcare and AI specifically. So that's helped us a little bit.

I'm trying to develop relationships with capital even though I don't really need it right now. And I am always thinking about capital raising and this backdrop and getting to know investors and allocating some time to meet with investors if they want to meet. I think raising a round is gonna be hard in 12 months. A B round is gonna be hard. And a C round... It's all gonna be hard right now until we get through the next couple of years.

MVL: Looking back on your time working with MVL, what was most helpful to you?

Stead: For me, it was a really great fit. Obviously, the advice, the early technical alpha development, the early market activation, [some] smart deal point-of-views. I think that was all really critical and important to the process for me.It was really important to get our technical co-founder on board. That was, if you'd say anything, determinative. I thought we both worked hard at that. One of the biggest things we de-risked on the deal over the last two-and-a-half years is that we took that relationship and worked through a lot of stuff together and it's still solid.  It's one of the elements you gotta have. Beforehand, that didn't exist for me.

MVL: What are you most excited about in the coming year?

Stead: Right now we're fortunate [to be in] the momentum of the commercialization phase.The cool thing is that it's all within the backdrop that is excitement around AI. You've got this incredible, very macro perspective around AI and its impact on industry and society.  Meanwhile, we are in the trenches right now adapting AI services and healthcare at speed and velocity. I'm just really blessed to be able to be in that situation. It seems we timed it pretty well. Two years ago, there wasn’t much about AI and now it's all about agents and a lot about conversational AI. That's great because it seems like we made the right bet and we're in a position to execute. I'm just really excited to engage with customers and users and to be able to address our vision, which is to elevate the human work experience in healthcare. I think we're starting to do that and I think it's a pretty big problem and a very big opportunity.

Founder Spotlight is a series dedicated to bringing you insights into the founder journey, lessons learned from startup leaders, and a behind the scenes look at some of the most compelling tech companies in our community.

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