Ben Shaw, CEO of Vets First Choice
When you were very young, maybe you wanted to be an astronaut or a chef when you grew up. Ben Shaw, CEO of Portland-based Vets First Choice, always wanted to be an entrepreneur.
It’s Friday afternoon inside the hip, modern offices of Vets First Choice on Commercial Street in Portland. Twenty-five employees buzz around an open loft space on the fifth floor of one of the city’s old granite icons. The painted signage on the brick walls inside reads like an artifact from the industrial age, and the snapshot view of Portland Harbor takes your breath away. The vibe here is of people doing work they love, which is a good thing, because according to CEO and cofounder Ben Shaw, the Vets First Choice crew will be working very late into the night. They always work late. Welcome to the world of Maine startups.
Vets First Choice provides e-commerce and marketing solutions for veterinarians. This means they build online pharmacies for the 10,000 veterinarians who’ve already signed on with them, and that number ticks up every day. In the three years since Shaw and his father, IDEXX founder David Shaw, launched the company, Vets First Choice has grown 8,500 percent.
If it takes you a moment to get your head around that figure, maybe this will help: Inc. magazine recently named them the 24th fastest-growing company in the United States. Or try this translation: since 2010 Vets First Choice has partnered with 40 percent of all the veterinarians in the United States, and it seems like they’re just getting started.
Shaw has sandy-colored hair, a relaxed carriage, and an easy smile. He was born and bred in Maine—a product of Reiche Elementary, King Middle, and two years at Portland High before a stint at Phillips Exeter Academy. He graduated from Bates College in 2000 with a triple major in biology, political science, and environmental studies.
When you were very young, maybe you wanted to be an astronaut or a firefighter or a chef when you grew up. Shaw always wanted to be an entrepreneur. The instinct to grow new companies is part of his DNA.
“While I grew up,” he says, “my dad was traveling all over the world. I went along for the ride.” Shaw got to tag along in Europe and Asia and Australia. “I don’t remember,” he says, “what the dialogue was like with the King Middle School principal. But I’d go to Paris not to see the Eiffel Tower but to stand in an industrial park with my dad and watch him try to figure out details on a new venture. I was just watching. But it completely captured my imagination.”
After college Shaw joined the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, a place he calls almost spiritual because “they’re doing such important work there.” Then he got a job at VIA—a Maine-based advertising and marketing firm—and reopened their New York City office. He had great clients: large companies and younger-stage companies. The experience made Shaw even hungrier to be on the ground floor of what he calls “company genesis.”
So in 2002 Shaw and his father started Black Point Group, a private investment and business development firm. Shaw says, “We work with startups from scratch all the way to large-scale projects, and we like to follow megatrends in business and nonprofit.”
Black Point is always looking for “ideas that are game changers.” It’s harder than you think. Many stars have to align: interesting customers, interesting market, few barriers to entry, and quality of revenue, to name just a few. Shaw and his father founded Vets First Choice based on feedback from veterinarians who said they needed help competing online to retain pet-owner client relationships.
At Vets First Choice, dogs and really good ideas are both welcome.
The first official veterinarian customer of Vets First Choice was Town and Country Veterinary Clinic in Marietta, Georgia. Dr. Michael Good, the owner, “tackled” Shaw at a national veterinary conference in Las Vegas and “described his urgent need for a practice-branded online pharmacy service for his pet owners.” This same sense of urgency was shared by 50 other veterinary practices that collectively helped design and develop the online pharmacy service that has since become Vets First Choice.
Shaw and his father already understood the pet medicine business space because of their deep involvement at IDEXX, an international, Maine-based company that develops diagnostics and technology for better veterinary care. In a way, IDEXX serves as an older sibling for Vets First Choice—a model for healthy growth and innovation. Esteemed IDEXX alumni fill out the roster of Vets First Choice’s executive team. Shaw likens IDEXX to an anchor for all of the upcoming new Maine companies.
Pet pharmacy is a six-billion-dollar industry, and it’s game-on for who will win the market share. “Vets are under huge competitive pressure from the internet,” Shaw says. “Everyone wants in on this pharmacy space. Vets are very dependent on the dispensing of their drugs to subsidize their undercharged services. So their margins are really tight. They can’t afford to lose in the dispensing arena. Or they lose everything. It’s life threatening. If their drug business goes away they’re done.”
Now Vets First Choice is hiring like mad, building strong tech platforms, setting up regulatory and supply chains, shoring up their mail-order pharmacy in Nebraska, and refining their pet-owner call center in Kansas. “It’s this excellent team we’ve assembled and the way we solve problems that works,” Shaw says. “The vet pharmacy space is partly a side note. It’s more about how we think about projects and how we engage customers than about vet pharmacy.” He likes to cite an idiom that his father is known to often repeat: “it’s less about what you do than who you are.”
Working in Maine was non-negotiable for Shaw. Cape Elizabeth is home to him, his wife, Bernadette, and their three young children. Being in Maine means that Shaw and his team spend the bulk of the day on videoconference, staging meetings all over the country.
“This is a big deal,” he says, “that we can live in Maine and be effective in the virtual market. Fifteen years ago this couldn’t have happened. We’re comfortable in this virtual space now. One of the challenges in making Maine your home is how to have deeply satisfying careers. Entrepreneur ends up being a frequent choice for people here.”
A case of old meets new: Portland’s Custom House looks through the window at Ben Shaw of Vets First Choice
The customer is what it’s all about for Shaw, and veterinarians seem to be among some of the very best. “They’re very loyal and thoughtful,” he says. “They’re Peace-Corps workers in a sense. They’re passionate about their work and their love of their clients. They aren’t income-driven. You could go into about any other specialty in medicine to make more money. They love what they do. And that’s the greatest thing.”
Vets are generalists who see an amazing range of patients: cats and horses and lizards for every conceivable problem. “They practice geriatric care,” Shaw says, and “cardiology, infectious disease, nutrition, dentistry, and trauma care, and if that’s not enough, they are a full-blown pharmacy.”
Imagine that you’re a veterinarian, Shaw says, “And the customer comes in with her cat and tells you, ‘Fluffy just isn’t herself. She’s not eating.’ As the doctor, you know you have about 20 minutes and 50 bucks to figure out why she’s not eating. As a vet you have very little time and very precious cash pay. So you’re phenomenally resourceful and extremely independent.”
Shaw’s company has exploded on to the scene, but they weren’t the first. Other veterinarian online services were providing home delivery. But they weren’t addressing the complexity of the retail and direct marketing piece, or pharmacy management and the issues around private practice. “We were the first to do all three, and to follow pharmacy rules.”
And Shaw’s take on the pulse of other Maine start-ups? “I continue to be impressed,” he says, “with the smaller new companies who are coming here to Maine. You can do business in Maine. You can make it work.”
This start-up story is about a founder who’s hoping to stay around for a long time. He says it’s terrifying and exhausting and incredibly exciting to be on this ride. “We didn’t set up Vets First Choice to be small,” Shaw explains. “We hope to be a billion-dollar company one day. Different kinds of leadership is needed at different stages. I’m not going anywhere. I’m having a lot of fun.”
Vets First Choice | 888.280.2221 | vetsfirstchoice.com