Alex Williams is a health and wellness innovator and Founder and CEO of Holistic Hyperbarics, a Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Clinic in Oakland California. Not only is she a true health and wellness innovator, but she is also the first and only Black woman to own an HBOT clinic.
Was it a lightbulb moment or gradual process of Holistic Hyperbarics?
It was not a lightbulb moment but rather a gradual process of peeling back the onion that is the need for accessible holistic healing modalities. Put simply, I thought that the same technology that assisted me in my own healing would help other people.
How did you get your first three customers?
At the beginning, people were coming to my house to use my personal hyperbaric oxygen chamber but I didn’t even recognize them as patients. I didn’t charge them, I was just excited to have them in my apartment and see more people getting healing results like I had after being deflated by nominal results over and over again through traditional methods.
How did you validate the idea?
Major validation came from complete strangers coming to my door without knowing me at all. They had a massive trust in me to help them.
Have you raised any money? How much?
To start the business, we started with $40k, our first investment round was $220k at a valuation of $660k, we are now raising $9M in a S.A.F.E at a future valuation cap of $40M.
Who is your target demographic?
I don't believe it's possible to identify a target market. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy delivers oxygen to the body in large amounts. Everything we need in our body, every action or reaction we have in our body, requires oxygen as cellular cash. With that in mind, we have no target market as this treatment helps with all ailments and fulfills all needs for healing. In that sense, I guess our target market is humans!
This treatment is good for whatever you need it for because we need oxygen for everything that we do. Claiming we have a target market would be limiting to the rest of the population. Sure, we do see a lot of patients come in to heal concussions, traumatic brain injuries, migraines, Lyme disease, and fertility challenges, but we do not limit ourselves to a target market because it's impossible: we all need oxygen for everything that we do. We see a wide range, we cast a wide net, and we love it that way.
What is the funniest/most strange customer request you’ve had?
An opera singer came to see us after a vocal injury. Part of therapy was that she needed to use her vocal chords and continue to exercise them in order to bring them back to her performance-ready condition. She asked us if it was possible for her to sing inside of the chamber and if it would disturb the rest of the clients of the clinic. We said, absolutely not!
We weren't sure what to expect in terms of her volume - the chambers are these thick, sealed metal apparatuses - so we were incredibly surprised that even with the thickness of the chamber, the pressure, and the oxygen mask that she had on, she sang through it all. It was beautiful.
She made a full recovery.
How did you fund the idea initially?
Two women and I initially funded the idea together. The three of us knew very early on that people coming to my house and using this hyperbaric chamber was a sign that we had something. Together we gathered the $40,000 to get everything started, to get the equipment, the lease, and everything else we needed to get ourselves into a good position. That funding initially came directly from our personal bank accounts.
Where did you meet your founding team?
Much like many other founders of companies that started in such a raw form, I was already friends with the women that became my fellow founders. I had met them a long time ago; both of them had been friends of mine and had gone through other ventures with me.
They were always supporting me as I was trying to become a law enforcement officer and working as an EMT, however they were absolutely thrilled to see me in an entrepreneurial role. They offered so much excitement and support, and ultimately they helped me fund it.
Any tips for finding first employees?
My first employees were my friends. They were friends of mine that were working on the ambulance with me. I knew that hiring people that had the same medical experience as myself would be an asset as they were going to experience a lot of different people with different conditions.
I wanted to know that the people that had the same training as I would be able to see the patients in the same way that I saw them.
Did you run any companies prior?
I was born into an entrepreneurial family. My grandparents were entrepreneurs. They came to California in the Great Black Migration and worked in the public sector. They saved their money and started businesses very quickly. They started with one barber shop and that eventually grew to five barber shops. They sold that whole chain and opened up a liquor store. When I was about four years old, they started taking me to the liquor store to come and work with them. I worked with them in that liquor store for years; everything I know about business came from those formative days of understanding that even in the short moments that people were in the liquor store, it was essential we took care of them. We learned their names and their stories. It was all in the details and hard work: even though I’d sweep the floors at night, I’d always sweep the floors in the morning when we opened as well for quality assurance and confidence in our brand.
Those were very influential times. Ask anyone in my junior high school and they'll tell you: when our school outlawed candy bars, I sold candy bars out of a cooler that I took from classroom to classroom. It's always been in me to start businesses.
I worked in home health care independently, helping people recover from surgery and assisting with myofascial release. It's a huge shift doing things independently to running a business now with so many employees.
What motivated you to start your own business?
Running a business was in me. It was in my blood. What motivated me to start this particular business was that I saw firsthand a lack of care and general holistic exploration in hyperbaric medicine that I was interested in exploring. That was a main driver for starting this business; I wanted to do more than what was out there.
What were your family and friends first thoughts on your company?
My friends and family didn't know what hyperbaric oxygen therapy was. The first thing I had to do was repeatedly explain what hyperbaric medicine was. Even then, they just thought it was space-age science, God bless them. They’d tell me, “We're going to support you no matter what,” which really meant “We don't know what you're doing, but we support what you're doing.” That was the theme among my friends and family - they accepted that I was doing this weird thing, but always met my endeavors with a jovial thumbs up.
What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?
Things will go wrong. Things will always go wrong - that's where the learning comes in. If we didn't have to learn when we were building something, it would build itself very quickly. We would never have real “entrepreneurs.” The grit of a true entrepreneur is their ability to learn from mistakes. That was something that was taught to me very early: things go wrong. It is the best motivator for me. I'm interested in what is going wrong, and what can we perfect.
I like to sit down and analyze what exactly happened. How do we shift it? How do we fix it? How do we make it better? You have to ask yourself and your team the right questions so it doesn't happen again. How do we move around it? How do we shift and adjust to it? That's always been really inspiring for me.
Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?
The advice that I always give people when they first start out is that everything is a lot more expensive than you think. If you're in this to get accolades, if you're in this for fanfare or the “Atta boy!” or the “Yeah, you did this right!” then you're in the wrong kind of environment.
Entrepreneurs, or at least the good ones, get a lot of naysayers. Sometimes those naysayers will be the closest one to you. They could be your husband or wife or your family that tells you that you should be doing something else. Sometimes it’s the professional environment that you wish to impress that you end up not impressing.
Just remember that you are the little engine that could. You are a person that understands this thing that you want to do, and you can not look outward for praise and awards. You must solidify yourself inwards. If you can do that, you will have the strength to do anything you want to do.
What has driven the most sales?
You would think that the biggest driver of sales would be social media or SEO, but the driver behind how we’ve grown hand over fist over the last four years is from the patients themselves. They tell their stories, they tell other people their stories and are clear about their experiences in hyperbaric medicine.
We have grown a network of people that talk about their experiences and get their friends to come in. That has been the biggest organic power behind our growth. For the first two years, we didn't even pay for advertising at all because we're doing so well with people recommending their friends and family to fill our appointment schedules.
Never turn your back on the power of testimonial, experience, and word-of-mouth marketing. It’s the truest and most natural form of marketing.
What is stopping you being 3x the size you are now?
If we're going to be real about it, it’s access to capital. I am an African-American woman in an environment that is predominantly, white and male. You simply do not see the same amount of funding for minorities across the board and in many sectors, but especially in my sector. What we are constantly fighting for is equity. I believe with the correct funding, my business model can be easily spread across the country.
That's why we're in an investment round right now. We're incredibly excited because with this investment round, we'll be able to expand organically and not have to rely on funds that are so scarce for minorities. But yes, our biggest obstacle is funding, as funding has always been elusive for people that look like me.
How do you protect yourself from competition?
I don't protect myself from the competition. What we do in our center is very unique. We are the highest rated and most rated hyperbaric center in the country. I don't see my competition as competition. In fact, every business in this industry would all do better if we could collaborate on what we're doing.
But we do things a lot differently than other facilities, and it's not hard to see what our differences are. In fact, it's been really fun to watch our competition emulate us and ask for our help, which we are happy to provide. In this sense, I wouldn't say that I protect myself from the competition at all. I embrace competition. I think it's healthy for the market.
Do you have any trademarks/IP/patents?
As much as I embody a kumbaya spirit around competition, I also understand that opportunists in the world don't care about your mission of collaboration and friendship; people care about money, prominence, and being first. I learned very early on that you must protect the creations that you have. So yes, we do have trademarks. We do have IP and we do have patents on a lot of things that we do. We have spent a lot of our capital protecting our intellectual property, and I am proud of what we have done.
What are the next products you’re working on?
I have always had my eyes set on the stars and I love pushing the boundaries of what we can do. I am currently working on a few products that will do just that - we aim to push the boundaries of what hyperbaric medicine can do.
We're working on a new hyperbaric chamber that we just put into production, a chamber that has never been seen on the market before. It incorporates all the things we come to expect from hyperbaric medicine, with a lot of extras to help us push this therapy into the next century.
Are there any releases you can tell us about?
We're in an investment round! Part of that investment round is that we are taking our company to the next level. We have identified that we need to control our largest vendors and vertically integrate. Our first vendor is oxygen, so we are starting an oxygen production company to supply not only our hyperbaric company, but companies around our area and beyond to wherever we expand. As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest products that we'll be releasing is our very own designed hyperbaric chamber. It will be produced in Spain, and once it gets FDA clearance here in the states, we will be selling it all over the country and using it exclusively in our facility.
Where do you see the company in 5 years?
Assuming this investment round goes the way that we think it will go, we will be probably be getting ready for, if not already finished with, a series B raise. We have a model that we can stamp out across the country in different markets and we are excited to get them into as many markets as possible. In five years, I see us in three to five markets. It's wildly exciting to even say that aloud, but we really do see ourselves growing exponentially.
Would you ever sell?
This is a deeply private question; this business is like my baby. I have held it, nurtured it, and shepherded it to where it is now, watching it grow exponentially every day. I think it'd be really hard to sell, but I know that I would be ready to sell when my work is done.
The work I have ahead of me is to make hyperbaric oxygen therapy accessible, innovative and something that any American can reasonably get to from anywhere in the country. This medicine deserves to be everywhere. Once I've reached a certain saturation point, I think I would be interested in selling, but that said, there is always so much more that we can build upon once we have reached saturation. It's hard to say, but I would be open to it for the right buyer and for the right reasons.