Scripps & The Formation of O’Connect — evolving a freelance initiative to a boot-strapped startup
In 2015, I was thinking about product ideas that I could eventually launch into a startup opportunity. Although many ideas were circulating in my mind, nothing was concrete. I decided to pursue some technology freelance projects through my company, hoping that could lead to more solidified ideas.
Tip: Identifying a solid freelance opportunity is a risk averse approach to bootstrapping a startup.
I met Dr. Steven Steinhubl, a well-known cardiologist at Scripps Translational Science Research Institute and Director of Digital Medicine, at a local San Diego, California USA tech networking event. He was speaking on a panel about the emergence of mHealth initiatives. I approached him at the end of the event, and in about a five-minute span, introduced myself, my freelance company- www.ointerface.com — and the ideas around building an App focused around a research community for patient trials. He gave me his business card and asked to be in touch…
Fast forward to about six months later. I formed a team of 5 local freelance technology colleagues, and as a group, we put together a presentation overviewing our ideas around this research community App.
Dr. Steinhubl was very impressed with the team and the presentation, and personally committed to finding a way to work together. Over the next several months, he tried engaging us on an opportunity they were jointly working on with a client of theirs in which we would build an App to help monitor the data around the efficacy of using a trial drug for Retinopathy. Unfortunately, after months of discussions and a near guarantee on getting the project, on the 11th hour, internal politics got in the way as their client wanted to pursue their own internal team to build the application. It fell through. Thought it was a major disappointment for me personally, Dr. Steinhubl still insisted he would find a way to work with us…
Over the following months, I kept in touch. Sometime in January/ February of 2014, Dr. Steinhubl approached me again, asking if my company would help them build their own branded conference App solution for two of STSI’s signature conferences — Mhealth and Genomics. They were not happy with their current solution, and wanted their own private App, albeit with a very modest development budget for the project. Given the brand name of Scripps, we agreed.
One critical negotiation tactic was to ask permission to retain the IP rights for the solution we built. Essentially, securing IP rights this gave us the opportunity to build a generic platform for conferences that we could “customize” specifically for Scripps, but not limit it to be a platform exclusively for Scripps (as long as there was no conflict of interest).
The key here for any entrepreneur was just to ASK for this during the contract negotiation phase. Since this platform was not core to Scripps business, they agreed without hesitation and opened up an opportunity for us to make a company out of this if we wished to.
Tip: Maintaining IP rights for a freelance technology development effort is a requirement to launching a product company.
After signing the contract in late February 2014, I decided the only way we could do this would be to leverage the student community, so I recruited 3 undergrad CS students from UCSD, motivated to learn and develop on IOS and Server side platforms.
Finally, six months later, after lots of learnings, late nights, in-person meetings, product definition requirements, agile project management, rigorous testing, and frantic 11th hour, last minute issues, version 1 of what became O’Connect — was born.
We successfully launched the STSI branded App store on the Apple iTunes Store for iPhone, Google Play store for Android, and even a web application version for PC users. Aside from that, we also built an intuitive back-end, cloud-based content management system, for the conference organizer to build the conference content into the App — all with an amazing student team.
Finally, after years about talking about building iPhone Apps, and being involved with the mobile industry, I finally took the plunge and built my first App. The days of the actual conference were very nerve racking for me. It would be the first time almost 500 users, including high profile celebrities, would be using the platform.
It turned out being a great success! Not only did Dr. Steinhubl write an incredible testimonial, but individual participants at the show commended us on a well-done App not bad for a first launch…! In fact, over the next 8–10we went on to secure 10 more paid conferences with prestigious US-based medical and educational institutions using our complete App solution.
Tip: Establishing an anchor client(s) through a freelance intiative is extremely validating to investors looking to fund a bootstrapped initiative.
Tip: Continuing to have a set of beta paying customers adds more traction and market validation on the concept
Eventually, we applied and were accepted into a well known San Diego accelerator program called Connect. We went through a successful 1.5-year program with pre-selected experienced mentors, where we focused on refining our value proposition, strategic positioning and preparing an overall pitch deck for the investment community. Finally, by the summer of 2017, with 10 paid customers live on our platform, we pitched our solution to a set of real-world investors and completed the full circle from conception to fund-raising, with an offer for a convertible note from one of the investors at the meeting!
At the end of this journey, I decided not to pursue the path of external fundraising and building this into a larger company initiative. There are several reasons for this decision, primarily around competitive and personal factors, but the platform could be revived with the right opportunity, especially as I explore the Asian market as a freelancer. It was a wonderful adventure and there were many lessons learned along the way.
Looking back at the entire experience, I firmly would advise any young entrepreneur to strongly consider this approach of finding a way to convert a freelance paid project into a bootstrapped startup initiative. It is (1) more risk-averse, (2) provides financial backing (3) builds anchor customer traction, and (4) provides market validation, all positive factors to showcase when approaching investors for funding an angel or seed round.