Confessions of a Tech Entrepreneur: Old-School Senior Living Operators Just Don’t ‘Get’ Innovation

“Everyone is talking about major industry challenges (shrinking demand, negative stereotypes, shifting attitudes) without really doing anything drastically different.”

Those are the words of a technology entrepreneur focused on the senior living sector, who connected with Senior Housing News for this installment of “Confessions.” The goal of this series is to share candid perspectives that might be hard — but helpful — for readers to hear. To encourage this level of honesty, the tech entrepreneur has been kept anonymous.

Innovation is a buzzword in senior living, but “too many old-school operators” are set in their ways and don’t have the proper organizational structures and mindsets to actually achieve innovation, the entrepreneur believes. Instead, tech innovation is an excuse to hold conferences and golf course meetings, and launch dead-end pilot projects.

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The good news: There are some operators in the space who “get it.” Rather than mis-managing their budgets and dithering over potential tech investments, they “sign the damn contract” and get to work implementing new solutions to meet the demands of a swiftly growing industry.

Do you work in the senior living industry? Do you want to participate in the “Confessions” series? Email me at: tmullaney@seniorhousingnews.com. Confidentiality will be maintained for all sources for this series.

How innovative is senior living, when it comes to technology? Do operators commonly claim to be more innovative than they are?

At this point, I think the word innovation is being thrown around callously, in a way that’s sometimes a detriment to the actual evolution of senior living.

Operators love to talk about innovation. But how many actually embrace innovation? I think that a growing number are candidly trying, but fall short or completely fail because they don’t have a proper structure in place. Because so many people are talking about innovation, everyone feels like they need to be piloting something, which — alongside the fact that the industry itself is growing — is attracting other entrepreneurs to create prototype products that can be piloted in the industry. It’s this positive feedback loop, which sounds great and theoretically is something we should all be excited about, but it has this critical failure mechanism in that the dots aren’t being connected past the pilot stage, so it’s impossible to make a true impact.

And yet operators go to industry events that place the word innovation blatantly in their titles in order to “discuss innovation best practices,” but fail to realize that these events are increasingly sponsored by the same washed-up, decades-old companies offering the least innovative products.

As it stands, innovation is viewed as another reason to meet at the golf course or some odd beachfront resort and shake the same hands and sign the same deals with the same lackluster outcomes. That’s not what we need.

We need more people who actually live and breathe innovation. We need people who can differentiate between unproven prototypes and well-established products, and can devote resources and structure deals accordingly. We need people who can see and clearly communicate the value alignment, and who are willing to take the steps and time and energy necessary to see that value alignment come to fruition. We need more Kari Olsons! (Editor’s note: Olson is chief innovation and technology officer for senior living operator Front Porch.)

What are the biggest obstacles preventing senior living operators from being more innovative in their adoption and use of technology?

The theoretical obstacle is budget constraints, but I think more accurately it’s budget misappropriation. There is so much money poured into bringing a building to life … but relative pennies set aside for supporting actual life in the community. It’s kind of crazy, because it’s a relatively simple thing to rectify, and a simple change to justify.

The difference in scale between a community’s marketing budget and activities budget is nonsensical — especially when today’s consumer looks at lifestyle as a key feature.

Please understand: You can and should market your lifestyle, but (most of the time) marketing teams shouldn’t be making the lifestyle decisions. Take some of your massive sales and marketing budget and funnel it towards (a) an empowered corporate innovation lead with clear objectives that align with sales, marketing, and life enrichment, or (b) triple the size of your life enrichment budget.

What are your biggest pet peeves in working with prospective senior living clients or current clients?

Honestly, if they’re our client, I already know that that they “get it,” and we love working with them. We never revert to feeling as if we’re pushing against a concrete wall when discussing future opportunities with their corporate teams. We treat them as partners, and we’re confident that our values are aligned.

The issue is that there aren’t enough operators who truly “get it” enough. My biggest pet peeve with senior living operators in general is immobility: Everyone is talking about major industry challenges (shrinking demand, negative stereotypes, shifting attitudes) without really doing anything drastically different.

I’m floored by the frequency of new construction announcements that say nothing new. If you were in the tech space and noticed a major gap in your current product-market fit, along with data that forecasted a magnitude increase in that gap, investors would laugh in your face if you asked them for $50 million to go ahead and build it again. And again. And again.

I can point to dozens of people who have big ideas about the grand entrance of their new building, but I can’t point to more than a handful of people who take a really strong product-driven approach to the life that you’ve stepped into once the grand entrance is behind you.

What advice would you give to a mid-sized senior living operator that wants to become more innovative with technology, but hasn’t focused much on this area?

Two big pieces of advice.

First: Be more candid! If you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about when it comes to innovation and how to weave it into your storytelling or as a component of your branding, say that! If you’re working with the right technology partner, they can help you craft the story and the plan, and define success metrics that are not totally arbitrary. Chances are, you know something major that could help your innovation partner — you should embrace open idea flow, we’ll both be better for it. But please, for the industry’s sake, don’t stop at ideas and ruminate indefinitely on what could be. Sign the damn contract.

Second: Fix your lingo. Don’t think of innovation as an expense, treat it as an investment. Seriously. Yes, there are limitations to that approach in practice, and you should understand those limitations, but don’t treat them as barriers. There’s a huge difference between a barrier preventing you from doing anything right now, and a limitation setting the parameters on the extent of what you can do right now. If you invest in the right kind of innovation, and your communities grow as a result, then those limitations should loosen up, and you can pursue more.

And here’s where we tie those two pieces together: Be candid about what your limitations are during your discussions with us. We’re all on the same team. We want you to be successful so you can invest more in innovation — both ours and others! — and we want you to take that success and sing our praises to the sky. What happens then? We can sing yours alongside the families and residents and staff who have benefited from you taking a bold step forward … even if that initial step was limited.

What do you wish more senior living operators understood about what you do as a tech entrepreneur?

I don’t think senior living operators — at least at the corporate level — understand that we’re fighting the good fight.

There is so much stigma surrounding this industry, and most of us embody the exact opposite of that stigma. In fact, we’re actively working to redefine the stereotype that’s limiting your own growth. We’re not some enemy budgeting line item to be scoffed at, we’re allies in the greater mission of improving the aging process, and showing that senior living is a viable (and perhaps, preferable!) option for our loved ones and eventually ourselves!

Do you think that the senior living technology space is too crowded with startups? We hear complaints from operators that they get pitched constantly.

Seriously? That is an insane complaint. Here’s a hot take: there are too many old-school senior living operators.

Let’s think about this for a moment. These startups are working to improve the lives of your residents, through developing products for your communities, all the while recruiting investors and industry partners to focus funds and efforts on your industry, thereby improving the health and outlooks of this entire industry … If you are complaining about this, then you are part of the problem, and shouldn’t be a part of the future.

Don’t be a fool! It’s an amazing signal that people are pitching you. A much more valid problem is that you’re receiving a lot of bad pitches, which is likely the real complaint here. Rephrased in that way, I probably agree, and think we need to address this as an industry.

Here’s what we need to work together to understand and answer: What are the requirements that define an organization that belongs in this industry and deserves a seat at the table?

It’s a question that every industry has to consider at some point in order to cut through the noise and move to the next level. Frankly, I think this question applies to both senior living operators and technology entrepreneurs, but I can speak more towards assessing a startup, as this is a big part of my job.

As an operator evaluating a potential innovation partner, here’s a baseline framework of questions I would consider prioritizing (beyond the basics), in order to verify that the company you’re considering (a) is proven to the extent that you know you won’t get burned, and (b) actually cares about this industry, and isn’t just trying to make money off of the rising “longevity economy.”

  • Does your executive team have a personal experience and background in the space?
  • Is the senior living industry your primary target market? If so, why are you focused on this space?
  • Who are your major partners and how do they contribute to your success and our success?
  • Can you clearly define the problem you’re addressing? Can you show clear data that your solution successfully addresses this problem?
  • Can you explain how your product fits along the continuum of care? Is this an investment that is limited and targeted at one level, or can you show that it flexibly applies to multiple levels of care?
  • How much actual user testing have you done with seniors and staff? Have you done this testing with each level of care that you mentioned?
  • Do you have a proactive community-facing team that’s going to make sure my investment in this innovation is carried through successfully?

Do you have positive or strained relationships with your competitors in the tech space?

The industry needs more technology companies focused on it, not less, so broad competition excites me from an unselfish point of view. There is a caveat here: The last thing the industry needs is to be burned by selfish entrepreneurs who are trying to take advantage of the growing longevity economy.

The way you raise funds and customers in the broader Silicon Valley ecosystem involves a slew of practices that need to be weeded out when you enter this industry, which is largely full of people who absolutely love seniors. Companies that lie about how far along they are, overpromise and underdeliver, and are unapologizing in their negative impact, need to be removed before another operator feels the sting of making the wrong decision. Hint: Read the framework above.

To any new entrepreneurs looking to enter this industry, I have one clear message: Senior living is dominated by people who are loving and passionate and overly human, and we’re all obsessed with improving the lives of seniors. That not you? Then get out of here — you’ll be wasting all of our time and energy and money, and the industry has been burned enough.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I love hearing stories about how a community has been impacted by our product. I cannot explain how satisfying it is to see the light shining in a staff member’s face as they relay the moments of joy they’ve experienced as the result of their leadership team’s decision to actively invest in innovation.

It’s the gift that keeps on giving, because when you really look at this industry, the majority of us really are looking to make the world a better place — it’s why we all love what we do. It resonates in our core, and it’s why we wake up every day eager to make an impact.