#StartupLife — The Journey Continues
About a year and a half ago, I wrote #StartupLife in a #StartupCity to document my extraordinarily challenging experience living the startup life. I can’t tell you how much I valued your responses, both online and offline. (If you haven’t read the post yet, check it out for yourself — it’s a quick 7-minute read).
I wrote #StartupLife in a #StartupCity to help other entrepreneurs with a similar experience feel less alone — because misery loves company, of course. Since then, I’ve received dozens of requests to share the rest of my epic journey — because people also love a great American comeback story.
For those of you who follow my blog, you’ve undoubtedly noticed a radio silence since my last post. If you know me, you know that when I’m building something, it’s all I think about from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep, and generally even when dreaming. Blogging during this period would have taken focus away from my product and team, and that’s not something I was willing to do.
With that said, I’m finally wrapping up a whirlwind of a dev cycle, and because I’m about to release a beta of my product, I’m finally ready to talk. What’s to follow is a story about the inevitable challenges, team dynamics, and the ups and downs of the startup life. But more than anything else, it’s about overcoming those hurdles, forging real innovation, and bringing a critically important product to the masses.
So get cozy on the nearest couch or beanbag, grab a cup of coffee, and imbibe this next, even more epic part of the #StartupLife journey.
Lessons Learned Along the #Startup Journey
As I sit writing this in Silicon Beach, it feels bittersweet to reflect on my time in Las Vegas. I miss the huge house, the friends I made, the raw emotional journey. It was an experience that tore me down so I could build myself back up — a painful but priceless growth process. Sin City represents a very special part of my life’s journey, but I couldn’t be happier to be back “home.”
How did I wind up in Los Angeles again, you ask? Ironically, the business I developed in Vegas brought me back to Silicon Beach. In September 2014, I began working with a team of individuals that focused on the worker’s compensation industry. It all started with a childhood friend of mine, a serial entrepreneur, who sat me down with a colleague and told me they needed an important piece of technology: a product they could put into patients’ homes to help doctors remotely manage some specific patient conditions.
I was told they were conducting research on products, and the best, simplest, most secure option came from a Fortune 500 corporation in the biotech industry. (Note: I leave out names throughout this post to protect the identities of involved parties). I was also told they had a rockstar backend (IT) architect that could build and host anything, and that we were going to have the ability to host the backend to ensure HIPAA compliance, and to potentially build our own hardware to work with it. Finally, I was told we secured a doctor who would be our medical director.
I was super excited. I had a dream team, a solid runway of funding, and the creative authority to build a product in an industry I’ve dreamed of impacting for as long as I can remember: healthcare. Fueled by dreams of what I could build, I dove deep into industry research to see what was currently out there. I even tapped a consultant to help me with that process.
Within a few months, we had logged countless meetings and training sessions, and even received a few hundred remote patient monitoring units we contracted for. But we knew something wasn’t right. So much of what this Fortune 500 company’s sales team promised us wasn’t physically possible.
Customizations couldn’t be made. The product needed to be physically sent back to them any time they needed to perform an update. Video calls on its telemedicine platform failed repeatedly, invalidating the usefulness of the product. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. As it turned out, virtually every other product we researched and tested was riddled with similar issues.
How was this possible?! The smartest minds in the world were working on, and perfecting, mobile ad-tech while we had these amazing supercomputers in our pockets called iPhones, yet when Fortune 500 companies were building and releasing expensive products in their own primary industries, they seemed to fail on so many levels. There was literally no good solution available.
Since the moment I joined the team and heard about the problem they were trying to solve, I had been mentally kicking around the idea of building a much simpler and more robust iOS app-based solution that borrowed paradigms and concepts from mobile ad-tech, such as a tried-and-true mobile-centric, user-friendly design. During this frustrating period, my only consolation was knowing that I could build anything myself. And I still had an amazing team: a good friend and CEO, a rockstar backend architect, a killer salesperson, and a great medical director.
That’s when the real problems began.
The first “side product” our salesperson asked me to build was an “incident reporting” iPhone app. The pitch was this: every time a company in the US has an incident in which someone is injured, the workers’ compensation claim reporting process is bogged down by paperwork-laden inefficiencies. I was tasked with working with our salesperson and their colleague, the head of a company’s risk management department, to create an iOS-based customizable incident reporting tool.
But once the product was complete and tested to ensure all criteria were met, I never heard back from the salesperson’s colleague. When I asked our salesperson about the status of the product rollout, I was told that “it would be a good demo tool for us.”
That product never saw the light of day. I was perplexed. That’s when I realized the salesperson couldn’t deliver, and that was going to be a big problem.
You’ve heard the old adage, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” Moving forward from that product, I knew that’s what I had to do.
As a designer and product owner, I’m super confident. I love making things. Creation is literally my lifeblood, so my next steps felt absolutely natural. I put pen to paper and began designing what I knew the industry needed. But I wasn’t just building for the workers’ compensation industry; I was building for everyone.
As a patient, I realized the healthcare industry’s health management tools were terrible. As the husband to a medical professional, I also knew how these poor patient management tools plagued healthcare providers. Determined to build something great, I began to recruit the help of each team member. I felt that each person had a unique perspective to offer.
Over the course of 2015, I ended up working closely with our backend architect. He proved invaluable — a new kind of creative counterpart I had never experienced. He knew everything I didn’t; he could solve complex problems with simple and elegant solutions. He’s someone I truly see eye-to-eye with. In him I had a teammate I could rely on, and coupled with my old friend and CEO, I felt even more confident that anything was possible.
But not every teammate was so eager to help. Almost every time I tried to recruit the help of our medical director with product design & development, my requests fell on deaf ears.
When I look back at 2015, I can count only three or four intensive product-oriented discussions between us. One of those discussions was a heated argument that ensued when he failed to deliver on what I asked for (and what he had promised to provide).
There are two things I won’t tolerate on my team: laziness and dishonesty. This man wasn’t pulling his fair share. And he wasn’t honest about his promises to deliver.
Later that year, we brought in another salesperson to help offset the other’s lack of performance. This new salesperson ran into the team like a bull in a china shop, complete with an abrasive personality that you either loved or hated. Initially, I strongly disliked him. But over time, I warmed up to him, appreciating his honesty and candid nature. He is someone I came to enjoy being around, and his generally positive “can do” attitude was refreshing.
Soon after joining the team, the salesperson presented a client or two that he wanted to bring onboard. However, we didn’t have a completed product yet. Through the course of the year, I had found myself needing to make so many changes to the MVP (minimum viable product) that we spent more than 7 months working on its features and still weren’t finished with the design phase. Simply put, we needed a solution we could sell.
Fortunately, we found a product we thought would work. We contracted for it and received our trial units. Even with units ready to sell, the sales team failed to deliver clients.
To make matters worse, the team had squandered our capital on tradeshows and product licensing, and our founder was quickly running out of cash. And when the team worked to pitch some potential suitors/capital partners, we couldn’t come to terms on a pre-product, pre-revenue company valuation.
By the time November rolled around, the company was totally out of cash. Rumors floated around about what was going to happen, and the CEO called an all-hands meeting. The CEO was candid with the team, and everyone finally understood the severity of the situation: the company was going under.
On the development side, we had accomplished so much over the course of that year. We had developed and released a proprietary app-based product, completed the hosted integration of two licensed enterprise products and developed marketing collateral (our development/product team was responsible for designing most of the marketing collateral; it’s a long story I’m not going to tell right now). We had built our own full MVNO (we became a nationwide wireless network). And yet, the product I believed-in so deeply and that society needed so desperately wasn’t going to see the light of day.
Taking Matters Into My Own Hands
You often hear people say, “Necessity is the mother of innovation.” After seeing this in-action on multiple occasions, I can tell you it’s the truth.
I knew my product, Symphony, was of critical importance. Doctors needed this tool. Patients needed this tool. Managed care providers needed this tool. And more than anything, humanity needed this tool.
Our company had fallen apart, but I wasn’t willing to let our technology gather dust on a shelf. As I jogged along the beach one morning, I thought about the situation and mentally retraced the steps that got me there. Like an ocean wave coming over me, I felt my fight-or-flight survival response kick-in and I knew what I had to do.
Invigorated, I promptly visited with my attorney to determine how to approach the situation. I was worried that the product I was going to finally build might not be mine, and I wasn’t going to put money I didn’t have into something I didn’t (or wouldn’t) own. After a little back-and-forth, it turns out our corporate structure saved me. All of us were independent contractors, and I actually owned all the designs my design team and I made. So, with blessings from my close friend in-exchange for what he still owed me, I was on my way to making Symphony a reality — only this time, I owned my own destiny.
Kicking into overdrive, I “friends and familied” my way to cover what I already paid my design team and created some runway for the product I owned. I knew exactly how much capital and time I needed to build the first iteration (or MVP) of Symphony, and left myself with no other options. Initially I contemplated abandoning Symphony in favor of going to a bigger company that had offered me a job, but with looming “what if” thoughts in my mind, I knew I’d regret not building Symphony. I was, and am, fully committed.
And this brings us to the present day.
Since forging my own path as CEO, my product roadmap has become even more critical. I have a whole year (and three upcoming iterations) fully mapped-out, and I brought-on a senior hardware engineer who’s one of the smartest people I know. He’s helped expand my horizons to new and even more creative places, and I’ve learned things about microprocessors and hardware engineering I never thought possible.
My new team is solely focused on delivering our MVP, getting the right beta clients on board, ensuring we have the funding to iterate on our MVP (which includes either taking-in capital from an investment group or selling to a potential suitor that’s interested in allowing my team to continue leading our product development), and master-planning our ecosystem of products to ensure we stay ahead of the game — innovating with new products that haven’t yet been built.
Los Angeles. Las Vegas. And now, Los Angeles again. The #StartupLife has been a series of ups and downs, but now I feel more comfortable in the notion that life is about the journey, not the destination.
And so the journey continues. But this time, it’s in my own hands.
Hopefully you enjoyed reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Have you experienced something similar? How did it turn out? Have some insights to lend? Please share your thoughts below!