Category Archives: Startup

Why I am so bullish on health technology

optimistic about something’s or someone’s prospects

bull·ish

This monday I was having a somewhat heated discussion with my mother on the general future of health. It all started when I discussed the future of brick and mortar stores and malls. With the addition of self-driving cars, she felt that people would never go out anymore and lose whatever passive calorie expenditure we have left.

While it’s not an invalid point, I think people probably overstate the caloric importance that walking at the mall would bring. The important aspect is that if you do an effort to get out and walk, you are usually also focusing on other elements like the diet which accounts for the major portion of the calorie deficit required for weight loss. Because companies like Google and Amazon are removing frictions in our lives doesn’t have to imply that we are going to get unhealthier.

Health tech is not popular

Instead of asking “what problem should I solve?” ask “what problem do I wish someone else would solve for me?”

– Paul Graham

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the health tech space is the essay “Schelp Blindness” by Paul Graham (all his essays are amazing btw!). There are decades of behavioural research and theory to testify to the complexity of the task on top of the fitness industry that has a business model built around the fact that you will most likely drop out of an exercise program within the first 1-3 month(s).

There’s lots of people working to make us LESS healthy – it’d be nice if you could support the people trying to make us MORE healthy.

– Jason Shen

This fact is mentioned in an article PandoDaily ran monday called “All the fitness apps in the world won’t make us thin“. It’s a common article to see in the tech press (there is understandably a lot of doubt), but it did make a few of founders come out of the woodwork to comment. The comment by Jason Shen struck a real chord with me, but a lot of the other comments were good as well. Discussions around health topics are generally very polarizing.

The PandoDaily article did have a few important points. A solution needs to be convenient for the user. I also don’t think that an advertising revenue model is going to work there, but people could make it work. Who knows. I actually disagree with the article’s interpretation of the PEW report. I saw a lot of positive indicators in the report. The fact 60% of people track weight, diet or exercise routine is, in my opinion, very significant. The issue is that people 50% track with their heads because it is more convenient even if we, humans, are terrible at it. This creates a bad feedback for the person.

Convenience and the advent of wearable computing

I don’t know how many times a day I now reach into my pocket to pull out my phone. If I had to guess, I’d guess a hundred. Maybe it’s a lot more.

– MG Siegler

I’m going to back to convenience as this is the cornerstone of everything. Never in history has a device as powerful (sensors, processing power, storage, etc.) as the smart phone been so close to a person. Which is why I am so excited about the fact that devices are getting smaller and closer to you each year.

The writing is on the wall for wearable computing (things like watches and glasses) which reduces the friction of the user with the device even more. Devices like Fitbit and FuelBand are stand-alone devices only because that’s the only way they can exist, but give it a couple more years and developers will be able to incredibly cool things with generic devices like today’s smartphones.

The insanity of it all

Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.

– Albert Einstein

This quote sums up the essence the issue at hand. Each year in a cycle that transcends the cliché into researched behaviour, people proceed to do the same thing, use the same tools and fail in a very predictable way. It is normal for people to doubt that things will change, but they eventually do and it always seems obvious in retrospect.

In that way, I look at most of the behavioural research done in the past and I wonder what impact the smart phone or other devices could have had on their outcome. Eventually, I decided to stop wondering and slowly start working on it.

This is my first health related article. I do plan on doing a lot more in the future! I would like to point out that I would not call myself an expert, but I do spend a lot of time reading on the subject.

Cooking up a product: The ingredients of success

I’ve been focusing a lot on product development and design lately because I really had no idea what it meant to design and build a product. In a very cliché manner, I went in right with the coding when I started to build my product. Probably a mistake (I have made many so far.), but I think it’s too early to tell. Nothing you can’t recover from, but time was wasted which is always annoying.

What are the ingredients of success?

As I have gathered links and resources on the subject (I keep most of my interesting links curated on Kippt), I found the blog of Amy Hoy a ruby developer who teaches a class on product development. It looks really great, but completely out of my price range at the moment. She has some sample course material online and in it is this gem on the ingredients of success. She defines success when building as product as something that:

  • Sells well
  • Makes your customers happy
  • Feels great to work on
  • Gives you a lot of creative leeway/freedom
  • Fits into your plans to live your life the way you want
  • Produces a good profit
  • Grows in a controlled manner (so you can choose how big to get)
  • Does no harm (to anyone)

Amy Hoy

I have often discussed and pondered on my own motivations for wanting to build a product and I really can’t think of a more concise list of reasons for myself. Any element removed from that list creates a problem.

My first product development book: 4-hour work week

The first book I read that really discussed developing a product was the 4-hour work week by Tim Ferris a few years back. When I read it, the lifestyle he presented resonated a lot with me. Obviously part the appeal of the book is the lifestyle he presents so it’s not exactly surprising.

A friend of mine has several website specializing that does free peer-to-peer apartment marketplaces (think craigslist). He makes some money from Google ads and that has allowed him to travel and not really work in a few years. There’s also plenty of other case studies on the 4-hour blog if you are looking for inspiration.

On a personal note, I never felt comfortable with the idea of selling or making anything just to make money. It didn’t sound like the right way for me to approach this. Eventually, I came to an important conclusion.

As a programmer, craft matters

I never really thought of programmers as craftsmen till I started to read the pragmatic programmer, but it makes of a lot of sense and that’s why this list is probably is more exhaustive than if I made one based on the 4-hour work week for example. In that context, a lot of the elements of that list are relevant only when crafting something where you value the output.

When you take time to craft something, you are always mindful of the end result. This is something that I realized as I programmed more and more. I became increasingly critical of how I did things and making sure I understood conceptually what I was doing. I think this extends to anything really. When I start something, I’m never quite satisfied till I have a solid understanding of the subject.

Do you find yourself putting a bit of extra work just to make sure everything is right and up to your standards? I look back at my time working and I definitely went the extra mile to make sure the level of quality of my work reflected who I was.

So you have a list, where do you start?

So you’re looking at that list, it makes you all warm and fuzzy! Where do you go from here? If you just want to make a product, any product I would look into the Customer Development methodology by Steve Blank. There’s a lot of resources online on it, a lot of books, training products, etc. So much in fact, that it is starting to look a lot like diets. People find unique names to market essentially the same thing (talking to your customers!).

Not a programmer? Intimidated? Understanding your customers does not require programming knowledge. Just empathy. Outsourcing your development is a touchy subject (especially as a developer!) that warrants its own post, but it is possible. My friend with the apartment marketplaces uses an outsourced developer (he’s a business graduate). If you’re looking for a great talk, this one (sorry this is the only ungated link) is an interview with someone who created a profitable product outsourcing development and following the Customer Development methodology.

Got some thoughts on the subject? I’d love to hear them.

New Market and Market Types

I recently began interviewing potential customers as part of the customer development methodology I am using for my startup adventure. As I interviewed these potential customers, It slowly dawned in me that I might be dealing with a new market. When starting a company, market type selection affects everything. It influences marketing, income projections, customers, sales channels, etc.

Let’s take a second to go over the different market types.

Market Types

Existing Market

This is pretty straight forward. An existing market is well-defined with existing customers as well as known competitors. It’s easy for potential customers to highlight the features that are must-have or explain the edge your product is trying to bring (e.g. better performance, new features).

Re-segmented Market

Sometimes entering an existing market isn’t possible due to various issues (e.g. monopolistic market, cost of entry), but it is possible to distinguish yourself by either offering something different like targeting a niche or by offering a drastically reduced cost. By doing this, you segment the market in a way that you position yourself as the market leader. This is a re-segmented market.

Clone Market

Clone markets are simple. It is the act of copying/transposing a known startup idea into another large market containing language/cultural barriers. Common example are Yandex and Baidu which are huge search engines in Russia and China respectively.

New Market

A new happens when you talk to customers and you hear “I have never considered this”, “There’s nothing else like what you are offering” or something along those lines. You also can’t find competitors or a comparable product. This is a new market. Some examples are the iPad and Ford with its model T.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

Apparently Not Henry Ford

New Markets are radically different

While the above quote might not have been uttered by Henry Ford after all, it still illustrates quite well why a new market is fundamentally different compared to the other market types. Because of this, they also have very unique challenges that are not shared by the other market types.

Customers and Growth

A new market has to be grown. This has significant consequences for income generation. While other market types have existing customers, new market have none and this means you might not see growth for a few years as you educate your customer base. This is partially where the concept of the “Death Valley” comes from.

Marketing

For a marketing perspective, you have to shift from the standard marketing practice because, since there is no competition, you cannot compare yourself to an existing product or brand. You can’t sell new features as well because you have no competitors to compare them to. All you can do is sell your new market vision to potential customers.

Is this good or bad?

So it’s not clear if it’s good or bad, some people seem to think it is bad like Steve Blank who discusses it in this article. Peter Thiel seems to think it is good. It is possible to be in a situation where you can choose if you are in a re-segmented market or a new one, this is well explained in this other article by Steve Blank.

That said, sometimes, you can’t articulate your new product as a re-segmented market, but if you have the choice then you should spend a considerable amount of time thinking about it as it is one of the most important choices you will have to make.