David Hysong | Crain's Nashville

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

David Hysong


After being diagnosed with an ultra-rare form of head and neck cancer, David Hysong decided to develop a biotech company run by cancer patients for cancer patients. Since its birth in January of 2016, SHEPHERD Therapeutics has brought on talented scientists and pharmaceutical veterans with a mission to find cures for rare forms of cancer. 

The Mistake:

I think if you had ever told me that I would be founding and leading a biotechnology company, I probably would have tried to prepare myself in a much different or more traditional manner, and I'm really glad that I didn't do that. A lot of how we set up the businesses and our early success has been because of our ability to think outside the box, and do things creatively and differently.

Biotech companies trying to make a lot of money are a dime a dozen, and a lot of them are reinventing the wheel. For us, being founded by a patient for patients – and coming at this with a business model that makes a great return for investors but can also save a lot of lives that wouldn't otherwise be saved – I don't think I would have done that if I had been from a more business or biotechnology background.

As I have gone about this, a couple of times I have reasoned my way out of a bolder decision and chosen something a little bit safer or wiser. That has, every single time thus far, been a mistake. Whether that's been hiring people or a target to go after, usually I found that my boldest, craziest ideas in my past experiences really have been the most successful.

When we first got started, I had a lot of advice from some really senior biotech and pharma executives, but they all definitely questioned some of my hiring decisions. They questioned my desire to brand the company in an edgier fashion and the whole narrative around my story and our story – that just wasn't how biotechnology was done.

For the first six months, I listened to them. I really tried to be more conservative and fit the mold, and we just weren't getting anywhere. That's when I decided to jump off and do things my own way and start with the look of the company. We're doing branding with a design firm that has done luxury brands like Valentino. We're now going after telling a story and focusing on that rather than just on the science and business sides.

 I'm not a traditional biotech CEO, and I will never try to be something that I'm not. 

The Lesson:

In simple terms, always follow your gut. Following my gut in terms of people and relationships and partnerships has definitely been a huge lesson. Coupled with that, when I make decisions that maybe aren't as risky and that I know in my gut aren't the right ones because I'm trying to appease other employees or investors, they have always been a mistake.

I learned not to try to embody a style of leadership that is not my own. I'm not a traditional biotech CEO, and I will never try to be something that I'm not. Authenticity, especially as the leader and CEO, is important. Being upfront and honest is huge.

The final lesson, that I think is the most important one, is that people need to know that you care before they need to know that you have a great idea. As far as my employees go, they know that I care about them and their personal lives, and in turn that's what causes them to produce and really go the extra mile. We have a personal investment in each other.

Photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media.

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