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SMB to Big Business: Interview with Edward Ungar, co-founder of Pharmacierge

SMB to Big Business: Interview with Edward Ungar, co-founder of Pharmacierge

SMB to Big Business


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min read

SMB to Big Business

Interview with Edward Ungar, co-founder of Pharmacierge

Ever wondered what would happen if the world of pharma met the world of digital convenience? Well, Daniel Brill took some time to speak with Edward Ungar, co-founder of Pharmacierge, to find out how the digital world has made it easier than ever to get the medicines you need. They discuss business, marketing, the impacts of Covid-19 and talk about tips on entering the world of business.

When did you start your business and how did it come about?

My brother actually started the business that became Pharmacierge. I joined him a few years later to help take it to the next level. The impetus was that there had long been pain points for private clinicians – trying to coordinate prescription medication remotely was a: very time consuming, and b: many pharmacies did not offer home delivery. We saw an opportunity.

There were two major innovations. The first was our e-prescription app technology, mPrescribe®, which saves clinicians a lot of chargeable time, and the second was a great experience for the patient. In many ways, it’s exactly the same problem and solution that we are working with today. We save clinicians time, aggravation and frustration, while offering their patients convenience, satisfaction and compliance with their doctors’ ‘orders’.

Can you talk to us about how you scaled up from an SMB?

We had grown steadily for a number of years and had started to increase in speed in the run-up to the pandemic. Then, in 2020, the public became far more aware of the need for medication delivery, as did their clinicians. The awareness of the business grew more rapidly.  

Was scaling up a challenge or did it happen naturally?

It's hard to scale any business while maintaining the same reputation for quality and customer care. Another reason it's hard to scale a business like ours is because it's very tightly regulated. You can’t cut corners. The reason that's important is that you have to move in lockstep with your ability to perform all of the regulatory functions that are required of you and be as good as your users and customers expect you to be. You need to scale all your operations and team to provide a first-class customer experience for your patients.

How did you think of the branding? Who came up with the brand name?

I came up with our name without thinking how difficult it might be to spell over the phone! It seemed like a good summary of what we did as a company; combining a pharmacy with the service principles of a concierge. We feel the latest iteration of our brand reflects a mix of traditional integrity that’s married to the latest technology.

How involved are you in the marketing side of the business?

I used to head-up SMB Partnerships for Google in Europe. We took Google's search advertising offering to small businesses via partners, trying to simplify it, and offer it via partners so that small businesses would more readily understand it. I came to love small businesses and the SMB market. I’m also an advisor to a Portuguese company, called advert.io, which dramatically simplifies local advertising for SMBs.

My partners back at Google had large sales forces, but their real gift was their ability to explain complex digital marketing concepts to small businesses at scale. I applaud what you're [12Handz is] doing, because I think it's a huge opportunity for national economies and Britain, according to [economist] Adam Smith, has historically been a “nation of shopkeepers”.  

How has your business strategy evolved over time?

The central tenet of what we do has not changed, and nor has our mission. It's still to be the premier private pharmacy and delivery service of choice for private clinicians and their patients.  

What has changed is the scope of what we do. The number of specialisms in medicine that we support, for example. We started off as quite a London-centric company with same-day delivery only to London postcodes. Then, over the past five years, we've become a national company with both private practices and their patients spread all over the country.  

I suppose the final dimension is the scale at which we operate. You must make decisions differently when you're scaling rapidly. The pace of our growth is another thing that has changed quite dramatically since our early days.

What do you like most – and least – about running your own business?

What's most satisfying is making a difference to people. Many of the medications that patients receive from us are life-enhancing, and so not receiving them is, conversely, detrimental. That puts us in a position of great responsibility. Learning about the improvement in a patient's health or wellbeing through using our service, is the most enjoyable part.  

There's a review on the patient page of our website, which beautifully sums it up, particularly during the pandemic:

"This company has taken the stress out of prescriptions during the stressful time of the pandemic. I want to thank them all. They, too, are heroes of the pandemic!”

It was entirely unsolicited, and it made us quite emotional, because it summed up what we were trying to achieve for our practices and patients.  

What's least enjoyable is, of course, when the unexpected happens. Nobody anticipated lockdowns. So, there were days (and sleepless nights) which were not our best. The pandemic has come in waves; and we've been buffeted by them, as have most businesses. The additional dimension for us is that we're in a position of responsibility involving people's health, so it makes the outcomes that much more significant.  

What would you say is the difference between running a small and a big business?

As you get more senior in a company, or start running your own, you can't control everything – and trying to do so is a poor idea. Being decisive, and being decisive fast, are two things with which you have to get comfortable.

It can also change which road you take at different intervals. There are other decisions that, between co-founders, sometimes emerge more organically. Two co-founders, for example, may come at a problem from different directions – perhaps even pulling in different directions on a decision. I'm fortunate that my co-founder is my brother, so trust is not an issue. If you trust each other and you collaborate, the decision is often better for coming at it from two different directions. It's great to make decisions and make them fast, but there are big ‘hairy’ ones where it's worth seeking more of a consensus.

Has your business always had an online presence, or did that develop later on?

We’ve always had a strong digital unique selling point. Prescriptions were all originally handwritten, but now the majority of ‘scripts’ we receive are created and authorised digitally. We've helped streamline and digitise a great deal of what were slow and manual workflows for clinics and practitioners.

How important is company branding to you, and how far does that extend through the business?

It's rare for small businesses to start with a really powerful brand from the outset. They build a good service, a good following and good loyalty. And then branding is something that evolves over time. There are very few brands, even big brands like Google, that don't evolve in look and feel, and our brand is no exception.  

We started with a fairly anodyne brand, which I created on a PowerPoint slide. We didn't put a huge amount of effort or investment into it. Over recent years, we conducted some qualitative research with our key users and customers, and our internal team. We asked ourselves some searching questions about who we were, why we existed and what our mission was.  

We poured all that research into a new brand, which is what you see today. We thought longer and harder about what the brand should convey to people. We did internal and external workshops around that, and then ‘poured our hearts out’ to an agency. We said, “This is who we think we are – please represent that in graphical form”. I think they did a pretty good job.

What are your main marketing channels?

We have a strong presence in the medical field and in trade associations. We also have a presence on LinkedIn. We find LinkedIn works well for us because it's where the doctors often keep their profiles updated.

We're heavy users of Google My Business, of which I'm a big proponent. I was responsible for pushing GMB to small businesses via partners when I worked there, and it's a very powerful free product. I'd recommend all UK small businesses manage their Google presence proactively – both for managing the facts and contact details about their business, as well as their reviews, which I believe are important. Obviously for SEO (search engine optimisation), there's no more of a “horse’s mouth” source than Google My Business.

Was there a moment in your business journey when you thought you wouldn’t make it and were near to closing your business?

I don't think we’ve ever thought, “This is not going to happen”. I think we have enough self-belief in the quality and benefits of our service not to have had that concern. But what we have experienced through the peaks and troughs of this pandemic is, “How do we adapt to this? How do we mentally, physically and emotionally cope with what the pandemic is throwing at us?” And our gut response to it was to try and protect the team as best we could. For example, we went heavy and early into daily lateral flow tests to protect our premises and our people.  

How else has your business evolved since COVID-19?

Medical practitioners predominantly had remote consultations, and patients were mainly at home. Some of them were displaced in different parts of the country or even other parts of the world. In some ways it made things harder, the volume of patients that we had to support. But in a different way, it made it easier, because they were usually to be found at home!

We had to cope with a higher volume of work, but also with a much-increased scope of medical specialisms. This was both an educational challenge for our teams, and a sourcing challenge, because we had to find the suppliers for rarer medications. That meant striking up relationships with many more wholesalers, in different areas of medicine – including the manufacturers themselves.

The pandemic hopefully is receding, but what's very clearly here to stay is the attitude towards remote medical consultation and remote delivery.

Where do you see the business going in terms of growth or direction in the next 3 years or 5 years? And what advice would you give to someone who wants to get into business?

I would say our aspirations are to keep doing what we're doing well. In fact, one of the reasons for our success is that we haven't changed course. We have doubled down and specialised in what we're good at.  

I think one of the dangers for small businesses is that they fork. Pivoting is a common thing that small businesses do until they discover what their true value is. Forking is a dangerous game where you see an opportunity to the left or to the right, which you think will be enhancing, and deliver you revenue or margin. Conversely it may end up distracting you from your core purpose - if you have already defined what that is.  

There have been many opportunities over the course of recent years which have come our way and, sometimes with regret, we have not swung at them. But usually, in the fullness of time, we look back and are glad we didn't, as we might not have been able to cope with what happened next in our core business. If I have a message for founders who believe that they found their purpose, it's to think very carefully before dividing your focus across too many business lines.

So you must have a clear vision as to how you define success in business terms: whether it's in very niche elements or to be a Jack of All Trades which could be a bit of a dangerous game?

Correct. Whichever way you fork needs to fit within the confines of your capabilities. Otherwise, what you're effectively building is two or more different businesses under the same roof.

Did your company have a very firm definition of what success is and goals?

I think we have a very firm definition of what success means for our users and our patients. A seamless and well-regarded service that patients love, that delivers both on their health and their sense of wellbeing. We've not really diverged from that so far, and I hope we won’t.  

Have you seen things that a business owner would be lacking in terms of marketing skills?

I spent the best part of eight years running small business partnerships and channel sales for Google Europe. Leaning on that experience, it depends on what kind of small business we're talking about. Digital SMBS are born native to Google Adwords, Facebook, Instagram etc. If they're not digital businesses, they need to invest the time to understand what Google My Business and Adwords offer.  

It doesn't mean they have to implement them personally, but they need to understand what the benefits could be. The other thing they need to understand is the ROI (return on investment) equation. Although it may feel as though you are handing-over lots of money upfront into a channel from which you cannot yet see any benefits, so long as the impacts are measured, and if those impacts are greater than the money invested, that's a positive ROI, and you should probably keep doing it.  

The challenge that small businesses face is that cash is king. And if they feel like they're not getting the ROI from a marketing channel, or if the ROI feels illusory, then they stop spending, which is sometimes premature. So, immerse yourself in at least the basics of Facebook, Google, and what a website should look like and why. Then, by all means, trust the implementation to someone else, but to someone who’s been recommended to you, not necessarily someone who has sent you an email.

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