Only 30% to 40% of commercial drug launches recoup their development costs. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of new drugs fall short of their first-year expectations — and much of that is due to not having the right people.
It’s often difficult to recover from these types of mistakes, especially early in a drug’s — or company’s — development. Let’s take a look at some key issues you should consider as you plan your drug product launch.
Mapping Talent Needs to Launch Strategy
Hiring in pharma today is a delicate balance of operations and strategy, with disease-state awareness programs being a critical consideration. The ideal time to begin hiring for commercialization is 18-24 months from the Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA) date. Working backward from that date, a successful hiring timeline looks something like this:
- 2+ years prior to PDUFA: Many organizations, specifically orphan drug companies, have recently begun building their digital communities to help the commercial team and physicians understand the audience before the launch. This means that digital marketers, online community managers, and website development teams are in place often before the commercialization strategy has been finalized.
- 18 months prior to PDUFA: Organizations are ideally putting together a shell of a team to build the commercialization strategy, which may include the chief commercial officer (CCO), managed care team, and sales operations. Handling the complexities of the managed care market is often more difficult than anticipated, so don’t wait too long to hire this team; playing catch up when the drug goes to market is not a great strategy. We find, on average, that it takes 75 days to find a CCO, so we recommend starting this search 21 to 22 months out.
- 1 year prior to PDUFA: Medical science liaisons are hired to begin creating the ecosystem in the medical community. However, we are now seeing that these people are becoming hard to find. COVID-19 and the prevalence of new treatments in development have shrunk the talent pool, as has the dire need for frontline workers at hospitals and clinics. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of hiring the right people, so again, start your search early so you don’t have to settle.
- 6 months prior to PDUFA: Frontline managers are hired to set the stage for expanding the delivery teams (e.g., regional sales managers). Make sure sales managers know the importance of getting the sizing of territories right early. When territories continue to shift as organizations get close to the PDUFA date, hiring slows down. The six-month timeframe largely depends on expectation: If you expect them to be involved in market mapping, creating training models, and leading or being involved in disease awareness campaigns, you may want these hires in place nine months out.
- 3 months prior to PDUFA: Ideally, hiring is finalized either just before or after the launch with the hiring of the sales reps, who either lay the groundwork for selling or actually start selling the product. We see organizations approaching this two ways: hiring three months out or making contingent offers. Both work, though we recommend getting as much of your team in as possible prelaunch. If you’re not ready to hire the sales team all at once, phase the expansion. Consider bringing in reps from top territories before you’re ready to hire the next.
Manage Your Hiring Costs
Salaries, discretionary spending, consulting fees, and recruiting fees are all part of the process. Budget is important, but what the CEO and the board care about is whether the personnel perform or not. This is the biggest factor in getting your drug to market — and seeing your stock price soar. If you manage your budget but underperform, expense management won’t matter much.
Identify the Right Talent
No surprise, COVID-19 has had an impact on hiring the right talent. Defining the team you want starts with three factors:
- Phenotype — Identify the culture you want by determining the characteristics that are core to your success. Pitfalls can be very subtle, for instance, hiring an underperforming manager who is disconnected with the culture and develops a bad reputation. This kind of energy drain has a top-down impact on your teams, leading to a slow rollout (and an angry CEO and board if you don’t hit your timelines).
- Passion — Understand your culture and make hires that can add real value to the club (instead of just finding those who fit in). Candidates who are mission-driven tend to show a true passion for the work they are doing, and in today’s market, they’re the ones who are getting creative about relationship building in this new normal. Transactional interactions lead to a lack of access, so make sure your hires have boundless energy for the work you are doing.
- Diversity — This is an important factor and one that has rightfully risen to the top of the list for many HR executives. We’re still learning daily how to incorporate diversity effectively. One thing that doesn’t work, in my experience, is mandates on the number of candidates. It’s a vanity metric that creates a false sense of accomplishment. Ensuring diversity in the workforce requires a steadfast commitment. What we see working now is developing criteria and measuring candidates against them. For instance, if you have seven criteria, don’t bend them for candidates who don’t check all the boxes — unless you have a diverse candidate who’s a rock star. And if they have four of the criteria, interview based on those abilities.
Ultimately, we just need to bring more good people to the table who have different viewpoints and bring new thinking. Another way to add diversity is to broaden your pool of candidates. For instance, if you’re developing a hematological drug, expand your search to include those with experience in rare diseases. Changing the demographics on your teams will bring new ideas and approaches to the surface and make you better.
Three Best Practices to Ensure Success
Once your team is in place, how do you ensure success? The importance of getting the product launch right the first time can’t be overstated. Here are three best practices to follow as you approach launch:
- Start with the end in mind. Consider the keys to your product launch success and make sure those are prioritized throughout the process. What does success look like a year from launch? Define it, and then set clear goals, have a well-developed project plan with clear roles and responsibilities, and establish a protocol for evaluating talent so that there is consistency across the team.
- Stay mission focused. Like any project, the product launch requires discipline, great management, and constant communication. Build dashboards, establish metrics, and be beholden to your processes.
- Make sure you have the right resources. Whether that’s internal or external partners or resources, you need to make sure you have the right people by your side. Many organizations set a fixed budget at the outset and either end up with an unbalanced team or go over budget. Typically, the first few employees end up being referrals who are paid more; companies have then hired 25% of their team and spent 45% of their budget. Remaining hires end up being lower quality because budgets are squeezed, so set a budget range instead of a fixed number.
Commercialization can be stressful. Using the timeline and best practices above as a guide for when and how to hire successfully will help ensure that the process goes as smoothly as possible.