Diana Hall graduated from Colorado School of Mines in 1997 with a degree in Chemical Engineering, and has worked in process engineering and software for Fortune 500 companies across the country. She completed her MBA at Colorado State University in Fort Collins in 2007, worked as a Business Development Director for nonprofits, and founded a mentoring program for children in poverty.
Diana holds patents on 3D-printed exoskeletons and PPE, and founded ActivArmor in 2014. Diana has established partnerships with professional athletes, medical specialists, research hospitals and business leaders to develop custom medical and sports products.
Diana has won many small business awards including the Small Business of the Year award, the Southern Colorado Entrepreneurship Competition’s Social Entrepreneurship award, the regional InnovateHER competition, Nationwide Insurance’s national $100,000 Pitch To Win competition, and is listed as Top 100 Colorado Manufacturers. She has spoken at several venues on the topic of 3D design and printing, small business ownership and start-ups, economic development and entrepreneurship, and has given a TEDx talk on the future of mass customization in design and manufacturing in 2015.
ActivArmor is now a global biomedical company, with 5 international contracts and more than $1.6M in investment. It is the first Pueblo company to be awarded the Colorado Office of Economic Development’s Advanced Industries Grant, bringing more than $250,000 in state funding to Pueblo for primary job creation in the areas of bio-science and advanced manufacturing. ActivArmor casts are being worn by professional athletes, including NFL players, and the company holds contracts with leading orthopedic clinics across the country, including Jacksonville Orthopedic Institute (the official sports medicine provider for the Jaguars, Sharks, Blue Wave and Armada), St. Lukes Hospital Network, and Children’s Hospital Colorado.
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Table of Contents
Let’s start with a brief introduction first. Introduce yourself to our readers.
Diana Hall: I’m an engineer and mom who is lucky enough to have the opportunity to live my mission of improving the quality of life for people with injuries or conditions requiring casting or splinting. I live in a 1 bathroom, 2 bedroom cottage with my 17 year-old daughter and 2 dogs in my hometown of Pueblo, Colorado – the city where we fabricate all of our custom 3D printed medical devices. I love Star Wars, Marvel comics, technology, travel, and most importantly, solving problems that help people!
Our audience is interested to know about how you got started in the first place. Did you always want to become a CEO or was it something you were led to? Our readers would love to know your story!
Diana Hall: I’m an engineer that found a mission to improve people’s quality of life through biomedical innovation, by working with children in poverty and identifying a need for a hygienic and waterproof casting alternative. I spent a lot of time in Children’s Hospital growing up, as my younger brother had Cystic Fibrosis.
I saw kids with injuries and health conditions having to adapt to medical devices, instead of the devices being made for them. So after working in Fortune 500 companies in engineering and software, and seeing the need for kids to be able to shower and practice basic hygiene, like and washing their hands with a cast on, I started ActivArmor to meet this need worldwide. Getting an MBA on top of a tech degree helped me see market opportunities.
And as the founder of a lean tech start-up, I had to learn and develop all of the practical skills required to make a growing company successful – finance, marketing, sales, operations, manufacturing, regulatory, management, etc… so grew into the CEO role organically, in order to bring a new product to market. I would say that the journey made me into a CEO!
“Selfmade” is a myth. We all received help, no doubt you love to show appreciation to those who supported you when the going got tough, who has been your most important professional inspiration?
Diana Hall: This is a hard question because there are so many people that I have learned from on this journey. My biggest inspiration has always been my brother, who lived and died with the spirit of a warrior, and who continues to influence me every single day. He taught me that life is short, and that every day is a gift, and that nothing matters other than the impact you have on other people’s lives.
I am also a big fan of Clinical Psychologist, Jordan Peterson. His books and lectures on personal responsibility and the necessity of seeking and living Truth have resonated with me throughout my personal and business relationships. And, of course, there are many personal and professional mentors that I learned from along the way, and who continue to guide my decisions. Some of my best teachers have been failures, customers, critics and competitors!
How did your journey lead you to become a CEO? What difficulties did you face along the way and what did you learn from them?
Diana Hall: When you start a lean, start-up company, from concept through commercialization, you learn how to best utilize your assets – whether they be financial, specific skill sets, experience or expertise, etc, and to frame challenges as potential competitive advantages. I would say that the process made me into a CEO – through the school of hard knocks, trial-and-error, and continuously asking questions.
Some difficulties that I faced are:
- Financial – self-funding a startup is a big personal risk, fundraising and how to use your equity to launch your business are huge decisions with many different options and consequences
- Regulatory – the medical device space has intensive regulatory requirements that make it difficult and expensive to navigate and bring new technologies to market.
- Competitive – in this market, your competitors are behemoth corporations with legal teams and capital… you are either acquired or wiped out – there aren’t many other options, so it’s all or nothing!
- Culture – there are many sales difficulties in bringing a new process and innovative product into an old-school market with risk-averse gate-keepers and procedures established by procedure-heavy hospital networks
I’ve learned that the only way to navigate these challenges is by learning everything you can about them, thinking outside the box, trying new things, not being afraid to fail, and being assertive but patient. The ability to learn quickly and pivot is a competitive advantage!
Tell us about your company. What does your business do and what are your responsibilities as a CEO?
Diana Hall: ActivArmor makes custom 3D printed medical immobilization devices from digital scans. This gives patients with fractures and injuries requiring bracing low-profile casts and splints that are custom designed specifically to their unique body-map and for their specific injury and lifestyle. The casts are waterproof, breathable, sanitizable, lightweight, and allow patients to continue their normal hygiene practices and daily activities like swimming, gardening, doing the dishes or playing on the playground.
Even the ability to simply wash and sanitize your hands during a viral pandemic! They allow athletes the ability to best perform while healing, and for patients to incorporate other advanced healing technologies like ultrasound bone stimulators, muscle stimulators to reduce rehab time, and TENS units for pain management to reduce the need for opiods. They allow for visualization of the skin and wound-care while immobilized – which reduces the risk of complications or infections, and supports those with skin conditions and Diabetes.
As the founder/CEO, it is my role to ensure that all of the parts of the system work together for success of the business:
- Marketing – that the product becomes visible to prescription-writers and consumers, and is shown to meet their needs or solve problems for them
- Sales – that prescription-writers are willing and able to incorporate a new product into their workflow, and that patients can access it affordably
- Manufacturing – that the process is consistent and smooth, and the quality of the product is to the highest standards while minimizing costs and maximizing profitability
- HR – ensuring that staff is trained and motivated and fully supported in their creative and productive roles as key players in a small start-up
- Financial/Legal/Regulatory – ensuring that we stay viable and compliant
- Strategy – deciding where to invest in new product/feature development, and where to direct the company efforts and focus to ensure the best outcome for investors, staff and customers
What does CEO stand for? Beyond the dictionary definition, how would you define it?
Diana Hall: I have found, though the process of DOING it, that a CEO in a small start-up must have a clear combination of leadership and execution skills! With only a hand-full of employees to launch a new technology, leadership means getting your hands dirty and exemplifying the culture you want to build your business on.
Knowing intimately, every single critical role in the company, and keeping the lines of communication open for seeing and addressing issues and opportunities quickly and head-on. It’s really a big-picture role, the ability keep the forest in-sight, while addressing individual trees, so that the details are continuously aligned with the strategic focus of the company.
When you first became a CEO, how was it different from what you expected? What surprised you?
Diana Hall: It was different in that I didn’t realize the level of responsibility I’d feel. When you work for a company, you depend on the CEO’s leadership and guidance to ensure that your efforts are fruitful – that the company will be successful and that your career is meaningful and secure.
You make decisions that affect yourself and your family. But when you take the role yourself, you are now responsible for the livelihoods and careers of everyone in the company! Every staff member, customer and investor is relying on you – they’re investing in your leadership and ability to navigate uncharted territory and come out the other side successfully, without a roadmap! It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility, and I don’t take it lightly at all.
There are many schools of thought as to what a CEO’s core roles and responsibilities are. Based on your experience, what are the main things a CEO should focus on? Explain and please share examples or stories to illustrate your vision.
Diana Hall: I think the role is different based on the size of the company, and what it’s function is. For me, in a high-tech startup, my main focus is to ensure that our strategic milestones are met. Growth, sales #’s, new product development… that all of the staff have the same vision, and that systems are aligned and running as effectively as possible toward that goal.
That we have the capital to get there, that we have the exposure and visibility, that the sales process works, that the product delivery and quality is consistent, and that the team is efficient and motivated to the vision. To me, it’s very much like conducting an orchestra – to listen to each instrument and work with the individual musicians continuously to ensure they come together smoothly in a symphony.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts?
Diana Hall: Hands-down, the most difficult decisions have been those that required staffing changes. The PEOPLE are the real assets in a tech start-up. Their skills, their motivation, their experience, their expertise… when running lean and innovating, having the right team and culture is make-or-break. Deciding when and who to hire and who to invest in, and who to let go… these decisions are hard and rarely black-and-white. But NOT making them is even worse than making a mistake. When the culture is right and the team is tight, the company can’t help but be successful in whatever you try to do.
How would you define success? Does it mean generating a certain amount of wealth, gaining a certain level of popularity, or helping a certain number of people?
Diana Hall: The definition of success changes for me with every company milestone!
The first measure of success for me was developing a better mousetrap. (i.e. R&D) Making something that is an improvement over what’s currently available to consumers… to have a part in the evolution of humankind and the advancement of technology is incredibly fulfilling. Having a product/solution you believe in is the foundation.
The second measure is developing the process for getting the product to the consumers. (Marketing and Sales)
And the third measure is Scale. To bring this life-changing product to everyone that can benefit from it, worldwide.
Right now, my company is in the second stage of success, and I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished so far! Getting to that 3rd level would be the ultimate – because when you have something you know will improve people’s lives, you want it to be available to EVERYONE. And simply being on the pathway to this goal is incredibly fulfilling at every step.
Some leadership skills are innate while others can be learned. What leadership skills do you possess innately and what skills have you cultivated over the years as a CEO?
Diana Hall: Innately, I have a vision and drive for creating. I’m a natural developer and executor. I’ve definitely had to cultivate my skills in mentoring/guiding, and in the infrastructure details of the business – like accounting, legal/contracting, regulatory functions. I don’t find those interesting, but are essential pieces to the company’s success, so I’ve had to learn how to choose the right team, delegate and manage the processes instead of doing them all myself. I’ve had to become very self-aware… critically addressing my own personal strengths and weaknesses, and finding team members to fill the gaps and synergize our strengths for the success of the company.
How did your role as a CEO help your business overcome challenges caused by the pandemic? Explain with practical examples.
Diana Hall: For us, the pandemic brought on challenges in many parts of the business. Marketing (our main lead-generating channels of live demos and professional expos were halted) and Manufacturing (supply chain and labor shortages) being most impacted.
But these issues forced us to innovate further… to start a new PPE product line, and to invest in new sales technology, like an i-phone app, that would make our product available to everyone and allow for a virtual sales process instead of in-person. My role was to see each challenge as an opportunity and develop a strategy to leverage our assets to take advantage of those opportunities, and then lead and manage the execution process.
Do you have any advice for aspiring CEOs and future leaders? What advice would you give a CEO that is just starting out on their journey?
Diana Hall: My best advice would be this:
– Become the subject-matter expert. Immerse yourself completely in whatever niche you are uniquely positioned for.
– Learn from the best. Intern or work for people that you admire and want to be like. Be a sponge around them and get all of the experience that you can.
– Invest in yourself. Be willing to take risks, go all-in, and make mistakes. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable!
– Focus on the team. Find the right people to work with and re-evaluate quarterly. Don’t be afraid to make team changes.
Thank you for sharing some of your knowledge with our readers! They would also like to know, what is one skill that you’ve always wanted to acquire but never really could?
Diana Hall: Patience! I have absolutely none. I need to feel like we are growing and productive at all times, or I feel anxious. I know that rest and down-time are essential to productivity, but I am not good at managing that, so many times I learn the hard way.
Before we finish things off, we have one final question for you. If you wrote a book about your life today, what would the title be?
Diana Hall: Going All-In
A story of finding and living your purpose.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Diana Hall for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Diana Hall or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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