Startup life: lessons learnt during a pivotal week

Last week, alongside my sister and co-founder, Anna Sort, I spent five days in Boston speaking to serial entrepreneurs, investors, VCs, BAs, innovation directors, MIT professors and business consultants as part of a Catalan government initiative aimed at start-ups in the digital health sector. Here are my top learnings from a very intense week:

1. Entrepreneurship is a calling

Embracing its spiritual side, particularly if your business idea has the potential to improve the lives of thousands of human beings, will help you during the inevitable hard times. Ask yourself why your project matters; if you genuinely believe in what you are doing, you will find the grit and determination to keep you going when things aren’t looking too rosy. As a bonus, you will also come across as more passionate and authentic.

2. The first fish you catch will be on the outside

Most entrepreneurs get so enamoured with their idea that they think it can help everyone, but that is rarely the case. Take the easier path and focus on a small population. After proving your concept with a specific demographic, you will be much better equipped to scale it to the broader public.

3. AI is still one big question mark

People talk about it without really understanding what it means, and there is a lot we don’t know about its potential abilities and applications — mostly because we have trouble even defining the foundations of intelligence. Don’t jump on the AI bandwagon just because everyone is doing it. Also, remember, you can go a long way with cleverly designed automation.

4. Avoid buzzwords like the plague

Investors’ eyes glaze over when entrepreneurs start talking about machine learning/ blockchain/ gamification. Instead, explain your tech in different words, focusing on the outcome you want to achieve. Find fresher ways to communicate what you do. Storytelling works; nothing beats a riveting tale when it comes to keeping an audience interested, but deliver it with truth and passion. You have to make your audience feel your enthusiasm in their gut.

5. The world is becoming smaller

In one of the meetings, a business angel said to my sister that she should meet one of her contacts. It turns out that she already knows him. He is based in Oregon and Anna lives in Barcelona, yet they had crossed paths before. As solutions such as LinkedIn enable us to keep track of a larger number of connections, we are more likely than ever to come across people who know people we know, so look after your networks.

6. Ideas are worthless

They are only the first stone. If there is no execution, you have nothing. Edison’s definition of genius as “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” still applies. Also, don’t think that you need a world-changing idea to start your business. You certainly don’t need a patent to make money. Instead, make sure you execute and deliver. While you are at it, think big and leave the SME mentality behind.

7. Follow the money

Understand who pays for your product and why. In the case of digital health, learning more about insurers, reimbursement and CPT codes was incredibly useful, especially as the set-up is so different from the European way of doing things. Having a clear business model is at the core of any business plan but is often not as straightforward as we think.

8. Get the board right

As an early-stage start-up, we had not given the board much thought, but in Boston, everybody seemed to have something to say about the kind of people we should get involved. Board members provide knowledge, expertise and experience, but above all, they give your project credibility and come with extensive relationship networks.

9. The future is here

Many things that we believe exist only in sci-fi are already in operation. After visiting the famous MIT Media Lab, I can tell you that the new technologies that are about to go mainstream are mind-blowing and life-changing. From computers capable of emotional navigation to highly sensitive biomarker sensors to privacy-friendly wi-fi waves capable of detecting if an older adult has fallen, it is all up and running and will be in a store near you in less time than you think.

As the jet-lag becomes a distant memory, we are sure that we will look back on this trip as a pivotal moment for Indiehealth. We come back inspired and with a long to-do list. We want to recruit a board; we want to continue to build on the relationships we have just established; above all, we are determined to make B.ENERGY the best possible solution it can be.

We may be no Edisons, but we believe in our product, even more than before our trip. We are buoyed by the thought that we can help thousands of people. Nobody said that behaviour change was easy, but we are convinced that our positive, fun and quality-focused approach can appeal to a segment of the market currently obsessed with monitoring steps and calories without seeing any results.

Actually, make that a few million individuals.

Thanks to: Steven Smith-Kennedy, Pear Therapeutics; Antonio Torralba, Sanjay Sarma, Mercedes Balcells, Brian Subirana and Javier Hernandez Rivera, MIT; Rick Weissblatt, Harvard Pilgrim; Ana Maiques, Neuroelectrics; Susan Baumgarten, Aptis Partners; Nancy Briefs, Digital Cognition Technologies; Laura Barker Morse, Entrepreneurship Ventures; Roger Frechette, NEP Associates; Noah Rosen, SureMedical; Christopher de Souza, Broadview Ventures; Karl Ruping, IncTank Ventures; Jon Giebel, Bayer LifeHub; Karen Juliano and Maura Iversen, Northeastern University; Russell Leftwich, Intersystems; Hemmie Chang, Nicola Lemay, Colin J. Zick and Erik A. Huestis, Foley Hoag LLP; Abi Barrow, Christa Bleyleben, Robert Gottlieb and Nancy Levy of MassGlobal Partners; Alejandro Roman, Digital Health Strategies; Marc Gràcia, ACCIÓ Boston; and everyone at CIC.