Frank McGillin | Crain's Boston

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Frank McGillin


NeuroMetrix is developing "wearable pain relief technology," that promises a drug-free option for managing chronic pain. After a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in 2015, its Quell products are now available online and through major U.S. retailers including Amazon, Target, QVC, CVS and Walgreens.

The Mistake

This was in the early days of [the electric toothbrush] Sonicare. I was in a marketing role at Philips and we tried to launch Sonicare in Europe, and it was a huge failure. We weren't hitting our sales goals, probably hitting 30 percent of our goal. This was a point where our U.S. business was on fire, we had what we thought was cool, unique technology and we looked at the European market and said, “Why don't we just cut and paste? What could go wrong?” We found a lot could go wrong.

We thought we knew some universal truths about consumers, about how dentists operated, and even just internally how we would motivate our sales forces. You think brushing your teeth is a very simple thing and everyone's brushing their teeth for the same reasons. We found many of the things that in the U.S. were very motivating—things like aesthetics and wanting a very bright white smile—were actually turn-offs to Germans and English consumers. They were more motivated by their health. And they understood that they could stay out of the dentist's office. So we kind of missed the mark by just replicating our messaging on the consumer standpoint. Having dentist and dental recommendations and endorsements became very core to our strategy.

It also mattered how health care reimbursements were structured. In the U.S., we were very focused on prevention. German dentists were saying, “If you keep people out of my out of my practice then I'm going to lose money.” So again things that we thought were absolute, universal truths turned out not to be universal truths.

And then finally just in terms of internal motivation—sales force, training, messaging—we needed to to adapt.

Assume something's going to go wrong.

The Lesson:

I think the big lesson is, don't assume that if you have great technology that that alone is going to win the day. Sonicare now is very successful. It's No. 1 or No. 2 across Europe in every market. But don't assume cool technology itself is enough to win.

At NeuroMetrix we're trying to build a whole new category of wearable pain relief, and I've taken that message to heart. We really spent time and did our homework both on consumers and different channel partners to make sure that we understood what was motivating, what was exciting to people and that everything we did would help folks' lives and make a difference.

The only thing knowable is the unknown. So you need a team to be nimble. Communication and alignment is just critical in making sure that people can not just deal with the uncertainty but thrive in it, because moving fast and adapting is key to success.

And I think the final thing I learned out of this was always have a plan B. And be ready. Assume something's going to go wrong. So think what might go wrong and be ready to adapt. Be ready to evolve. When stuff hits the fan you're probably not at your clearest thinking. So having thought through different scenarios ahead of time, you're much better off.

Follow NeuroMetrix on Twitter at @Quellrelief.

Photo by Tofer Cox.