Everything I Needed to Start a Healthcare Business I Learned from a Mop.
As an engineer, I was trained to understand a problem, classify it, break it down, and then solve it. I did this over and over, and over again on a variety of different problems in Statics, Dynamics, Machine Design, Thermodynamics, Control Systems, and Fluid Dynamics. Some of the times, I even solved the problem correctly.
This training became even more valuable working in Product Design, except the problems were different, and what I needed to understand and breakdown weren’t engineering problems, but a combination of technology and human behavior issues that sometimes seemed related, and sometimes did not. Rather than a pure engineering problem and solution, I now faced a complex juxtaposition of unknown variables where the solution set was unknown and could be solved in a variety of ways. Welcome to product design- where many companies can acquire the same information (consumer data, etc), but classify, analyze, and come up with different solutions- some wildly successful, and some not.
Take the case of the Swiffer floor cleaning system. A product concept developed at Design Continuum, my alma matter from 1985–2007. Continuum too had a process to classify and breakdown a complex problem in order to create a solution. During the Swiffer project (“to reinvent floor cleaning”), we looked at all 125+ steps it takes to clean a floor using a mop and bucket. Using this approach, we developed a radically new concept in floor cleaning. The concept of the Swiffer floor cleaner was no accident- we used a well-defined process executed by some very bright and diverse people who know how to solve complex problems in a unique way. The most amazing thing about Swiffer was that people had been looking at this same problem for years, and we were the first to radically change the paradigm!
What I didn’t realize was that this thoughtful approach learned in engineering school could be applied not only strict engineering problems, not only product design problems, but to the design of a new business.
When I founded National Sleep Therap, a durable medical equipment company providing CPAP machines to people diagnosed with sleep apnea, I created a business model that was unlike most other companies already in the marketplace. The traditional mission of a CPAP supply company was- “how do we get more doctors referrals and sell more CPAP machines.” This seemed an obvious approach for a new business- how do we get more customers and sell more stuff. While this is the ultimate goal, our mission was different- our primary mission was to raise the compliance level of our patients and make it easier for doctors to care for these patients. Take better care of the patient first, and our business would grow as a result. Customer first, business second. At least this was the theory. Not only did we prove it to be correct, the company quickly grew to become one of the leading CPAP companies in our region nearly overnight.
Based on this fundamental [patient-first] vision, we designed the business model to match. Our business model was completely different than other, more established companies that had been in the business for 20 years or more. Other companies drove all over the region and visited doctors begging for more referrals, while we developed deeper strategic partnerships with doctors and hospitals so we could provide exceptional patient care and streamline their paperwork process.
After the initial “sale”, patients of these other companies never heard from them again, but they heard from us a lot. We became their partners, not just their CPAP supplier. And just like we did for Swiffer, we broke down every step “in the life of a patient” looking not only at the mechanics of the process, but the emotional state of the patient at each step. We defined how we wanted the patient to feel at each point along their healthcare journey and designed the business model and all the patient touchpoints to enable it. Every call, every email, every form, every word, every image, every everything was considered and designed to create the patient experience we wanted.
We executed this radical business model by designing every touchpoint of our company- from the literature, website, language, vocabulary, to the way we ran phone-based CPAP support groups each month. Everything we did was carefully designed and orchestrated to build a consistent message of trust, support, and helping our patients live better…and making it significantly easier for the doctors to manage their patients. Unlike most other companies providing CPAP and chasing referrals, we were a partner to the patients and physicians making both their lives easier, not more complicated.
When reimbursements went down, our services went up. When others cut costs, we invested. Our business model was designed to engage patients and help them achieve better success with their CPAP therapy. Whereas the national average is about 50%, our patients averaged over 80% compliance. This means more people sleeping better, fewer with high blood pressure, and many more well-rested truckers behind the wheel. With more happier patients, who do you think they told. Yup- everyone.
Engineering school prepares you well for business. It teaches not to assume to know the answer, but to solve for it looking at all the various solution sets. My 23 years in design taught me to always remain open to being surprised. Designing a business is a classic design problem and using some of the same techniques used in engineering and product design can have a major impact on the success of a business.
About the Author: Eric is a recognized leader in consumer and health technology with more than 30 years of experience developing products that create new consumer experiences using new technologies and healthcare behavior models. His long and successful career in new product innovation and development combined with his first-hand knowledge of patient care and industry-leading patient engagement methods plays a critical role in developing new products and services in the consumer and wellness markets. Eric invented the Reebok Pump, and was instrumental in growing Design Continuum, the largest private design company in the US. He co-founded National Sleep Therapy, one of Fortune magazine’s 5000 most rapidly growing healthcare companies, and Otis Venture partners, a company that brings new product ideas to fruition. His unique approach to healthcare helped his patients achieve a 60% increase in therapeutic compliance vs. the national average. Eric is a competitive cyclist and holds a degree in mechanical engineering. He’s always excited to meet people doing interesting things. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org