REALSELF – YOUR ONLINE WOM with Founder, Tom Seery

REALSELF – YOUR ONLINE WOM with Founder, Tom Seery

Trish

Hello, listeners. It’s Trish Hammond here from the Transforming Bodies podcast.
And today, I am joined by Tom Seery. Now Tom Seery is the founder of real self.com. And if you haven’t heard about it, you have to be living in the dark ages but anyway today, so we’re gonna have a chat with Tom about how the business started, why the business started, and all of that. So welcome, Tom.

 

Tom

Hey. Thank you for having me. And Oh, glad to shine a light on something that has been part of my life for a long time.

 

Trish

Holy. And you know what? I am so excited and honoured to be chatting with you because I’ve I’ve none of that real stuff, but ages. And then, you know, I met you last year, and I’m like, I got a little podcast for two, and you said yes. And I was like, yes. So it hasn’t taken us long. 

 

Tom

It’s a pleasure.

 

Trish

Yeah. Well, thank you. So it’s gonna be first of all, when did realself start? And why and how did you even, you know, get the idea to start such a community?

 

Tom

Yeah. I started realself fifteen years ago in a spare room in my house and the concept was really forged around what I saw happening in online travel at the time, which I had been part of. I was in the early stages of the development of expedia.com, and I know Expedia is a global brand now, but in the early days, my friend saw us a little crazy to go work or someone would, you know, help others get bookings online. They thought that was a strange thing.
So I was fortunate that I joined that company, but so that we were brought together with TripAdvisor, which was really amazing at what they were doing. As I thought at the time, there were, like, fifteen employees, and they were getting hundreds of thousands of clicks a day. But it was all based on this idea of people sharing their real true experiences and something that’s really important to them, which is where they travel, where they stay, where they take off their clothes, where they shower, where they take their limited vacation time.

And I, we’ll start turning off, like, well, if this is so powerful for a big decision, like, travel, what about health care. And I told my wife I was gonna quit my pretty good job and say, go do TripAdvisor for health care. She told me that it was a bad idea, and I should go back to work. And so I did and her point was it was too broad. It was just global health care.
I mean, in America, that’s a trillion dollar US dollar industry. And weeks and weeks later, she went to get her facial somewhere and came back and said, you really should look at this. And she had a brochure and she handed it to me and it was a brochure for our laser treatment. And they said, they recommended I get this. It’s 1500 US dollars and I said, okay. I don’t really get this idea that you’d burn your face off to look prettier, but okay, $1500 is a lot of money and I don’t believe anything in here and the brochures show up perfectly before and after. It tells me everything’s gonna be wonderful, and I know that’s the truth. Mhmm. And that just really was the lightning, you know, or the sorry, the light bulb moment was saying, oh, wow. I think I can do this and I start digging into this world of what we now might call medical aesthetics and discover that it really needed a place where people would share these types of authentic experiences with these treatments, and that’s how it got started.

 

Trish

Amazing. And so what year was it?

 

Tom

That was fifteen years ago. So sixteen years ago, really.

 

Trish

Okay. That’s not even that long ago, really.

 

Tom 

Oh. Well, if you talk to a Gen Z, they think you’re you’re you know, they think I’m a dinosaur.

 

Trish

Yeah. Yeah. That’s true.

 

Tom 

So I like to say, I’ve explained this to people who are from younger generations that the business was started before social media and before the iPhone. So in many ways, we were trying to stimulate what is now much more common, which is somebody that’s willing to post up their own experiences, their true authentic self, and we just happen to be ahead of that trend.

 

Trish

Yeah. Because, like, I think what’s happening now, people are more happy to share, but I think on realself, they’ve kind of been sharing since it’s virtually gone up. And do you know, like, whereas people because it was, like, cosmetic aesthetic surgery, cosmetic surgery, cosmetic procedures that were a little bit more taboo, I guess, kind of when you start a name.

Tom 

Yeah. No. I still think there’s and our research has shown that there is still considerable stigma that is associated with the world of aesthetics and there’s no shortage of individuals who are willing to point out, oh, that’s fake and that’s not right and and judging, people make a decision to what they wanna do with their own face body or smile. So, yeah, that’s also but for sure, when I started, it was kind of that’s one of the things that my friend said. This is kinda crazy, Tom. And I was like, good. You know what? Sometimes the more laughs you get are more sort of questionable looks when you’re pitching a business idea, the better. Because if it’s just mainstream, then that means there’s probably a thousand competitors and your ability to carve a niche is more like it did.

 

Trish

Yeah. Of course. Of course. And so like, what’s an everyday look like at realself? Like, because are there people sitting around on a computer? Like, do you have an office? Like, what does it look like?

 

Tom 

Well, that is a great question for reflecting on how much things have changed.

 

Trish

Yeah. From your garage. 

 

Tom 

Yeah. Traditionally, when I was now the chairman of the business, I’ve appointed a CEO and it allows me to do a more range of activities and a little more strategic thinking than just execution. Which has been fun for me, that’s why I got to go to Australia, frankly. And see you there, meet you there, meet the people there. But the business was as most startups happen to be. We were based in the Seattle region, which is a very hot bed of innovation and lots of support for entrepreneurial activity and the idea was to create a team and most of that team was based in Seattle. If you fast forward to today, we are distributed across probably twenty countries. We have a large operation in Barcelona, but we also we’re in Alexandria, Egypt, and we are in Mexico and Costa Rica and many other places. And that has really been both a strategy, but also COVID accelerated the trend, which was to move virtual. Today, we have an office, a beautiful office in Seattle — with a beautiful one in Barcelona, and both of them are woefully poorly attended — in terms of employees. Yeah. If you need some free office space in Seattle, feel free to contact me. Yeah. We have lots of floor space and so the team is distributed widely. And I  think it’s actually been a remarkably positive thing in terms of acquiring great talent, letting people live where they want to be. And so a day to day to answer your original question, sorry, I mean that the day to day looks like structured teams around engineering and product, which are constantly thinking about how to bring value to our customers. And also, deal with day to day operations of the pretty complex systems that we’ve built over the years. And we even have a group of people who manage calls from intercepting calls, better people trying to reach doctors and help those individuals get successful appointments and contacts with those practices. And we have editors and writers who are trying to help explain what is sometimes pretty opaque or confusing content and making it more authoritative and reviewed by surgeons and doctors around the world. And the salesforce side is really about engaging our doctors and teaching them about how to really meet consumers where they are, which is they want transparency, they want good information, they want to see more photos and by country, of course, there’s different regulations, but then generalist, the idea is to help them find a path to attracting new patients and earning their trust before you walk in the door as as a patient.

 

Trish

Yeah. I knew one of the things I really love about realself is we put pretty much the mission itself in the fact that and I guess that it kind of sounds like the exact reason that you started it, and and that’s the worth, like, the worth of the procedure, the worth of the practitioner, the worth to the patient and all that, and that’s kind of the word that’s stand out for me. And I guess that’s probably exactly kind of the reason why it started in the beginning. Hey.

 

Tom

Yeah. The notion of I was looking, you know, after my wife inspired a look at these things closer. I realised that an opinion of whether to say a treatment like BOTOX is worth it or not was really there’s a bit of subjectivity there because of the status, and you may think it’s a fantastic result, but you as the paying consumer customer. Mhmm. I feel like it just wasn’t enough or it’s too much or not the rate, whatever. And so we introduced the Worth It Rating, which is the percentage of consumers who say, thumbs up to their experience or thumbs down to their experience with a specific procedure. And I’ve had doctors come to me and say, you know, they and we’ve polled our doctors and they use it routinely for whether they should add a new device to their practice, whether patients are having you know, how satisfied they are with basic surgical procedures. And it’s interesting how it does line up quite well to what their own practices have experienced with these options and procedures out there. And then, of course, the star ratings that doctors are able to acquire or patients can share, which is authentic, here’s what I thought about my experience and the quality of care I received from that practice and provider. 

 

Trish

Because doctors can, it’s a great way for patients to speak to doctors. Without any, like if they wanted, they can ask us a specific doctor a question? Or can they just ask questions that any doctor can answer? Because I know that if you’ve got a question and you don’t want to, perhaps speak to a doctor face to face and you just kind of wanna just ask a question. You could do that on realself, hey?

 

Tom

Yeah. I mean, the most common format that we’ve developed was a Q&A where a person can post a question and then doctors around the world can add to that and this is also true for our international properties as well, mostly aesthetic and a bunch of over 15 different properties now and Tajmeeli in the Middle East. We seek to have the doctor answer it authentically and without promotion and so, don’t respond to a question the consumer has about it. Is open versus closed rhinoplasty better for a, I don’t know, bulbous tip nose? That question can be posted to doctors and if we don’t have a match in our system, we then can send it out to the doctors and say, would you like to answer? And I think our last count was about 4 million Q&A’s.
So there’s a huge treasure trove of data and content, and we’ll be able to talk about how we’re gonna leverage that in the future with AI and other future innovations. And there is outreach to doctors, which are, frankly, the most common question people wanna know is how much something costs for whatever reason globally and I don’t know if you see difference in Australia, but there’s this reticence, if not complete, just this taste for this idea of sharing pricing information for a practice or a surgeon or doctor. But guess what as cash paying consumers, that’s one of the first things we wanna know is, like, we don’t wanna be embarrassed when we’re standing in front of the doctor and saying, well, how much of this cost and they say it’s — Yeah. — $8000. We don’t wanna be, like, boom. Oh, wow.
I was thinking it’s like 800. Which is awkward and uncomfortable, a big waste of time for everyone.

 

Trish

Yes. And the thing is to see that doctor, you’re paying $300 to start up. But so why would you see a doctor for $300 when you know that figure that they’re perhaps wanting is totally out of your budget so you’re probably gonna have to look at a different doctor who may not be as who you may not like, stuck with me there for pouring out the pictures, but if they’re with a new budget and you’re gonna make that twist. So, yeah, I do like the fact that the price is transparent.

 

Tom

Yeah. And I see it. If you talk about it, I know some I’ll search in the United States too, actively share the pricing and transparently on their website and on social media and they say that it just leads to much higher quality exchanges with consumers. It’s not how much something cost. It’s like, okay. Am I a good candidate for this? Or do you have availability? And so it just doesn’t feed into this concern that it’s a race to the bottom. It’s about tire kicking and commoditization. I think that’s overblown but look, every practice is different. Right. It’s screaming in different ways. So I’m not here to judge.

 

Trish

Yeah. Exactly. I know it’s gonna ask you as well. So as you mentioned earlier, it must be an absolute nightmare trying to work out the different legislations in all the different countries and the reason I mentioned this is because Australia is just going through that. I think at the moment with the change in their legislation. How does a realself deal with that? Because it is like clipping people’s wings to say, okay. Well, you can’t. I mean, I guess, patients can share things with each other, but it’s sort of like, it can be quite, it’s just a bit unfair, I think. And they’ve sort of introduced these rules that are not kind of bad to the consumer to see, you know, to be transparent basically. But how do you guys deal with that?

Trish and Tom Doing the Bondi Walk

Tom

That’s great. Yeah. I’m glad you brought that up because I don’t really have a political view on it. From a consumer’s perspective, as I mentioned earlier, they want transparency, they want authenticity, and they really want as much information as they can get because it’s a big decision. If you’re gonna change your body, face, or smile, it can be permanent. It could be enough that it leads to a pretty dramatic change and how your outlook in life and so forth. So it’s a financial ally that is real. So you know, while I think regulatory bodies are rightfully concerned about advertising and advertising injury that happens when only a positive view of the world is shared. I think platforms like ours do a good job of bringing balance and so the New Australia Medical Board, the new regulations that have been promulgated around advertising rules. You know, our view on that, on testimonial advertising, basically don’t just tell doctors, will you please stop or you must stop saying to the world how great you are and look at my star rating and look at this and look at this patient review. What we’ve said is, like, we believe that our platform is actually just showing an aggregate of what patients say and quite contrary to what may be concerned, one of the concerned laws is like the doctors are promoting just a positive view. We actually have faced litigation in Australia multiple times because we do not allow doctors to manipulate their reviews. We do not take negative ones down due to this desire of somebody to say, why am I paying customers? Or I’m unhappy with this and so forth. So we think that in the end, we think our platform is actually really well set up for doctors to be able to advertise because they don’t have control over the review function on our platform which is explicit in the law that Australia has passed and we’re taking it for the further step of saying, you know what, for if a doctor does advertising a platform, we will no longer put on that advertisement, any reference to patient testimonials reviews, meaning star rating, the aggregate view. We’ve never pushed a view of like, look at me, I love my surgeon and check me out or check this doctor out type advertising on our platform.
I think Facebook and others are gonna have challenges because they’re sort of built around just all businesses, not just doctors and practically we are. So we’re able to move quickly and adjust. We’re going to communicate to our doctors in Australia and customers that we’re aware of these law changes, and we’re gonna protect your concern. So flouting laws but yeah. Anyway, so the rambling way of saying, we totally believe in and we’ll always argue in favour of patients sharing their authentic experience and I don’t think the Australian law or any other international laws try to stop that.

 

Trish

That makes so much sense. And I love the fact that the website is genuinely authentic. You know what I mean? Like the fact that you’ve taken that’s not stance, but I think because you followed through on that stance. Yeah, exactly whereas, if the information is provided by patients, it cannot seem manipulated by the practitioners because I I know that’s being known to happen so I love that. Whatever you see is what you get kind of being on the websites.

 

Tom

It’s been a very hard business to run because we have a paying customer who is in a world where everything is in their needs to be in control and yet our proposition to consumers is to openly share your authentic experience. And if it’s not a positive, that’s and it’s true, truly what you’re experiencing, then so be it and the best thing we can do to that doctor is to say, we’re sorry that you’re challenged by this one patient. Have you tried reaching out to them? Maybe there’s a way to cure this in other formats or forums. We don’t arbitrate between needs and it’s really, I have empathy for all sides, but for a paying customer doctor, it will be galling sometimes to say, wait a second. I’m paying you and I can’t control my reviews and we say that’s correct. You cannot control reviews and now the Australian government and your legislators or I don’t know exactly your government’s form, but even the people who promulgate these laws, the medical associations are really supportive of this view that doctors should not have control over reviews and use it to manipulate public opinion and making them seem like everything’s gonna be perfect because we all know, the behind all these procedures and treatments as a human and they can have a bad day.
They can have a patient who has an adverse reaction that’s unexpected. They could be poorly trained. They could be amazingly trained so there’s a whole bunch of variability that makes it important for consumers to find places they can trust and you’re right.
We’ve been pushing that hard for well over a decade, and it doesn’t always win us. You know, it’s from all doctors, but we’ve had thousands of customer doctors around the world who have been with us for the entire period and have learned to really see the benefit of our format and forum.

 

Trish

Yep. And I reckon people do not wanna see one hundred percent five star reviews because then it has to be a little bit questionable because you’re not gonna do everything per day one hundred percent of the time.

 

Tom

That’s right. No. You’re right. And if you know, AI is just gonna make this even more difficult as how do we humans know what’s truthful or not, and what’s authenticating, what’s not and so we’re going into this brave new world that is is at times both exciting and terrifying as you’ve probably heard in the press of, you know, these AI experts saying, well, this is this there needs to be regulations here because this could be really bad. But for sure, when we go look at restaurant days or I like to think of Amazon reviews when I see a light bulb’s been reviewed thirty six thousand times and it has a four point eight star rating. I’m just sort of and it’s got all this information from people. There’s this company called Fakespot. It’s an app that I’ve been playing with and uses AI to sort of detect what they think is the true rating for that light bulb, and they’ll grade it. And so that light bulb might get a one point nine star rating and a rate and they’ll upgrade it on A to F, so, like, a D rating and it’s pretty amazing when you see the level of manipulation that has happened in the world of online forums and regularly and reviews. Some patients are looking for authenticity, so It’s less about the star rating, frankly, and people are looking for okay. Can I see real photos, real results, and hear from a real person?

And that’s what I think is why social media is so powerful and none of these regulations affect the ability for consumers to keep sharing their real experiences and that’s what we tell our doctors is, like, your patients will continue to if you give them great care, they’re now more and more willing to share that on platforms like ours, Instagram, TikTok and so forth.

 

Trish

Yep. Yep. That makes so much sense and do you know you were talking about AI? And this I won’t ask you more questions. I’m just otherwise, I’ll quickly talk with you all day. And now AI is gonna not affect realself, but will realself be incorporating some AI into it because I think you kind of mentioned that a little bit before. But can you give us a little snapshot of what that might you like?

 

Tom

Yeah. Our CTO is the better one too. Sort of give the much more technical view and he’ll probably listen to this podcast and pull his hair a little bit, go, wait. No. It’s not quite that.
But he described it at our last board meeting as thinking of this as just just to get a frame of reference of where we’re at. Because it’s a big buzzword. Right? AI, AI, it’s all over the place. We’re just in sort of the dawn of the next Internet. Like, this is the first days of the Internet, like, AOL and so this is just like we’re at and the end of but yet the rate of change is so unprecedented. So it used to be that a computer scientist would hear something in research and bring it to their workplace and from a paper, you know, it’d be like eight months, two years, five years, you know, later, it’s implemented. Now things are a paper could be presented at a conference on AI and two days later, it’s in the wild on the, you know, available to in some application or format. So at this point, the computational power of Google, you know, their system, Chat GPT, is much greater than a human brain so the rate of our learning is sort of capped. Right? We can expand slightly as we, you know, apply ourselves. By humans, whereas computers are able to and these algorithms or or language models are able to basically far exceed any human human computational power. So what it means to us is okay, let’s break it into what I think it will mean to companies like ours if it’s an existential moment. It is as if every startup, every company that has an Internet presence isn’t thinking about what AI is gonna mean for our business? How do we adjust they’re gonna be dead in the water because we are gonna find more and more applications where we can just simply ask for information and we’ll get robust responses that are comprehensive. We don’t have to do this silly click click click and look for the blue link and find it on Google and so forth.

That’s gonna be the dinosaurs, like myself are gonna be doing that while my kids are gonna be just able to communicate with a bot that they’ve that is customised for them and an agent that is their own agent that helps them through decision making for, say, a classroom pro project. Well, I think that for us, we already use AI tools across multiple areas of our business and those are almost exclusively for efficiency. For instance, we’ll do videos of doctors at various events around right now, I think we just do in the United States where we’ll interview them and have a really great session trying to introduce them to our audience and to and to their own social audiences and instead of that video just being in this big format, you have to pay an editor to chop it up into bits you can just run through an AI solution and you get immediate shorts that can post immediately to YouTube or wherever format and do it in, like, seconds, minutes, seconds, no editorial or limited or editorial engagement involvement.
Proofreading, all of our blog posts go through making sure they’re optimised for best grammar and stuff of grammarly. Our salesforce has tools to help improve their targeting of messaging and so any business that is around that isn’t using AI tools today probably doesn’t realise they already are using them in some other system like salesforce.com and so forth. They’re being integrated into things like Gmail when you’re typing else and it finishes the sentence for you. Oh, wow. That’s AI. So that’s just from a pure operator of a business. We have that piece. For customised, for aesthetics, we’re looking at what we have this massive trove of data and content. How do we put it together in a way that allows a consumer to query and say, one like you said earlier, I have a question. I wanna know you didn’t pose a question, but if you had about that open versus closed rhinoplasty, you can get an immediate response and then what you should look at next from a system that we wanna build and and the language model that we’re developing on the back of chat GPT. So that is just a simple mechanism for us to then bring that to apps and other formats where it just makes it for a much more customised personal experience than we could possibly do without AI. 

 

Tom

And I guess that’s you’ve got so much built up content there over the years as well. It’s almost like, can be a library of you know, like, because it could be a library of if you wanna find out how many people choose this over this or how many so you’ve got a massive resource of research there, I guess of what people that are actually interested in aesthetics procedures looking for like genuine. 

Tom

What we’ve tried to do is poll, it’s genuine and then what we tell doctors is really what we’re trying to do is take what amazing knowledge you have in your heads that you share in very private settings. You know, in a consultation in our patient interaction we’re trying to get you to share it broadly and they’ve done that and they’ve met us where we like them, which is please stop hoarding that information because it’s so but it also helps your personal brand, by the way. But please share that so we’ve had those postings and it’s now there’s a lot of noise, so to speak, and but in that content, there’s still a lot of unnecessary statements that are made or things that aren’t really prescriptive and helpful. So there is and and there are fees associated with licensing of chat GPT and so there’s a lot of complexity is my point and we’re at the very early stages. So, well, yes, we feel like we have some competitive advantage there. I also feel like we’re in a race to adjust to what is a just seismic moment for all businesses.

 

Trish

Absolutely. And I guess the good thing about you kind of taking a step back and putting a COO and is the fact that you can actually do exactly what you said is worth it rather than in it, which is fantastic because you’re always gonna stay on top of everything.

 

Tom

Yeah. I mean, do you hear much about AI in your realms with your interactions in the industry?

 

Trish

It was really funny because we just had a conference last weekend, and I was actually honestly expecting a whole lot of AI stuff in there. But I guess because it was for practitioners and injectors and stuff like that, there wasn’t too much to it, but I think if the business side of it that some like everybody’s talking about it, like, we’re using it in in what we did, but probably only, like, point one of the percent of probably what we should even should be using it ourselves as well because it’s hard to, I guess, know where to start unless because I think it’s something that it’s like you have to be working on it all day, every day to sign it, kind of know about it and then like you said, it can change so rapidly. It just has to be your full time job, keeping up with AI.

 

Tom

Yeah. And and it’s when something is so early too, it’s hard to, you know, it’s hard to predict where we’ll end up and land, in the end, we’ll we’ll hopefully be in a place where it will be a world where, for instance, in skincare it won’t be this mysterious formula that a dermatologist has in their head that they share with you or some algorithm that’s pretty basic that’s on commercial website, it should get to a place where for instance your skin, can be closely assessed, evaluated, fed into a model that then produces very specific targeted advice and recommendations that not just are for products, but for your overall wellness. And that’s why I’m pretty intrigued about what they’re doing at HydraFacial with their new systems for basically, their latest systems will feed data from the treatment back into the patient’s app, and the app will share more customers and personalised information for you as a patient. Well, I don’t know a patient, or a customer treatments. So that there’s one company there that’s already on that. I’m cutting it forward.

 

Trish

Yeah. Exactly. And it would just be a domino effect. I think once something tends to be the case someone starts and I’m like, oh, okay. I better catch up. So yeah. You’re spot on how to give the show. 

 

Tom

If you’re getting a laser treatment, for instance, there’s a lot of feedback and data that comes from that procedure that could get that back to you and again, or even to the practitioner and make them more effective. Sciton, I know, as a laser company, is looking at using technology, these machine learning algorithms to make it much safer to administer laser tune. So almost a person like me could even deliver it without making a mistake. 

 

Trish

Funny to mention that because I would like to make certain because I was actually watching a demo that was happening on the weekend for a safer device for patients and having the screen there and Daryl was like, yes, this insight, oh my god, it’s almost like a preset for exactly the person on the table once you’ve just answered the couple of short questions.
I’m like, wow. This is a quite mind blowing. That’s been so interesting. I’ve been dying to speak to you, and it’s just like it is. I feel honoured to have spoken to you today. If I really, really appreciate your time, excuse my voice because like I said, I had a big weekend.

 

Tom

No. I met you in Australia. I loved your country, the people. Then I was blown away by the low sophistication of the practices there and also just the patient education so I think Australia is just one of them, and you’re located in Asia and those trends. I just think you’re on the cusp of where things are headed and while I might talk about technology ultimately, Ithink you’re probably closest to the trends and so I hope we stay in touch and I came in to listen to our posts here and hopefully interact with your audience on the road.

 

Trish

Absolutely. Because we are per capita, I believe, the biggest users of the non surgical treatments. So yes, we’re definitely up there even though we might not have as many people, the percentage we like to look good and feel good.

 

Tom

 And you get a lot of sun. 

 

Trish

We do have a lot of fun. Exactly. So we’re great patients. We’re lifelong patients.

Well, thank you so much, Tom. Thanks so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

 

Tom

Wonderful.

 

Trish

Yes. And great. Well, listen. Look, if you do, you haven’t heard of realself.com. Check it out.
There is, like, so much information. Be prepared to spend hours and hours and days and days and days and weeks, weeks, months, months, on it. But, yeah, you’ll get there. So, thank you so much for joining us again today. Have a great day.

 

Tom

Have a great yeah. Great day. Thank you.

 

Trish

No worries. Bye. Bye. 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *