From doctor to tech founder at a $10M Sequoia-funded startup
Everyone thinks starting a multi-million dollar tech company is hard. Honestly, it’s pretty easy compared to medical school and the tiring years of residency. I began my tech career as a doctor in India with ten years of my life consumed with becoming a radiologist. I bought my first computer halfway through attending Rohtak Medical College. Nerd at heart, I joined numerous forums that connected me with local people who were equally impressed by new technology (and who played games like Age of Empires). I’d spend long hours on IRC channels finding out the newest technologies being added to our local ecosystem. Since we were the only aficionados of cutting-edge technology, our group became really close-knit. I eventually started managing my own forum, which is how I learned about Ubuntu, compiling on Linux and using a Diacom server.
My superiors in the medical college knew of my affinity for technology and needed help with a problem. The hospital was looking for an image archival solution and were going to pay a firm $2-3 million USD to help. I saw this as an opportunity to take on a big new challenge and prove myself.
How did I begin this challenge? I broke it down to its component parts. I’m a radiologist so I know that the first problem is retrieving DICOM images (here’s an example). Second problem, I don’t want to have to pay for this technology, is there an open-source answer? Yes there is! Third problem, I need to store these images. Fourth problem (same as the second problem), I don’t want to pay for this technology, is there an open-source answer? Why, yes there is! And who was my tutor, mentor and muse all along the way? Google. Check any blog or book about programming for beginners and I guarantee, there’s a mention of when you’re stuck on a problem, “just Google it”. Again, the most important thing here was being able to break down a problem. After all, you can’t figure out a problem if you don’t know the variables.
The hospital loved my solution and I got a contract for $4,000 USD per month for two years. What a huge win. Gaining that tiny bit of validation was an absolute necessity in feeling validated in my pursuit of technology. So I quit.
I did a lot of soul-searching after leaving my MD title behind and taking on the title of CEO. Going from living in my parents’ garage to managing two international offices of over 300 people has taught me a lot. I’ve found that my ability to be an entrepreneur is powered by fulfilling rewards and an intense fear of failure, also known as, the carrot and the stick.
I discovered my founder power with that first “yes” that inspired all future “yeses”. If you’re validated just one time, it instills in you this unshakeable kernel of belief in yourself, which is why it’s INTEGRAL for success to whittle your projects and ideas down to manageable and identifiable parts. Nebulous goals are never achievable. And it doesn’t even have to be a big win. All you have to do is move a little bit outside of your comfort zone. This could be getting your first 100 users or eating healthy for a month. Showing yourself that you can have a belief, create a plan to execute and actually deliver, is a necessary skill not just as an entrepreneur, but for someone who wants to live a more fulfilling life. I already had a fantastic medical career ahead of me, but that wasn’t fulfilling. What was important to me was self-efficacy. You start gaining psychological capital, the ability to know your abilities and navigate the world’s challenges with facility. And that’s my carrot.
When I started really pursuing medicine, not just dreaming of passing my entrance exams, a cloud of dread began to form over me. Seeing the entirety of my life planned out to the letter was a terrifying feeling. For some it’s comforting to know the road you’re on but for people like me, where creating something of your own is of the utmost importance, that completed life roadmap is the worst. It zaps the energy from you. There’s no excitement in the morning when you know the outcome of the day. There’s no motivation like having no motivation.
Discontentment is a hell-of-a drug. It powered me through those days at the hospital and motivated me to jump on any chance I had for change. If I heard about the hospital’s problem of trying to find photo archival software, and I was content with being a doctor, I would avoid that problem like the plague. Why add more challenges to my busy life? But this discontentment allowed me to see a problem as a possibility, a chance to prove myself. Discontentment is like white blood cells attacking bacteria. That bacteria, of course, is complacency. And that’s my stick.
The way I found more talent to work with me was finding myself. I knew the qualities in myself that inspired me to work (the carrot + the stick) and looked around me who felt and worked the same way. My first team of developers was from my closest friends online, a team of discontents. Everyone felt so strongly about doing something better for themselves. To make our team a success that we’d always tell each other one magical word, “yes”. And that was my next true success, finding a team that worked together so well, that we would propel each other forward. A good team can make a founder exponentially more productive. I need a team to create a web of inspiration around me.
Once you find what motivates you, what makes you wake up in the morning with some zeal, that next challenge is creating that environment for your company. There’s a cornucopia of knowledge written on the differences between intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation in psychology. Here’s a great primer on the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation but to break it down: intrinsic = motivation grown from real personal passion and belief while extrinsic = motivation imposed by external forces that appeal to things we need like money. The real difference in these two aspects of motivation is where the value comes from. For an extrinsically motivated employee, your relationship with them is purely around money. For an intrinsically motivated employee, the work they do everyday, the tasks that are given to them and the results they achieve are fundamentally fulfilling. That is the kind of work I want to do and the kind of work I need my employees to be doing.
My best team members were the people who felt the same way about the work we were doing. There are two key parts to creating a compelling and productive work environment: employee origins and company beliefs. If you can find employees that fit into those two molds, you’ll be able to create an excellent team.
Employee Origins: Everyone has a good origin story. From a tough childhood to living with a golden spoon, our past helps shape who we are. My initial Sourcebits team all had similar origin stories; we all had successful careers that just weren’t fulfilling enough. The path that lay before us was practical, yet boring. We all longed for something more. Finding employees that match how you’ve come into business ensures they are there for the right reasons, that it’s more than a paycheck.
Company Beliefs: Have a company with a purpose. Don’t simply make a company because the business model looks profitable and there’s a blue ocean awaiting your business-ship. Didn’t you start a business so you could turn the wheel? I’ve always been focused on finding work that was truly fascinating, not just another making more crappy enterprise apps. Our philosophy is “design-led engineering” and we only work for the best. If employees understand that, they’ll be excited to open up PivotalTracker / Basecamp / Trello / Asana everyday because the tasks they’re assigned are exciting to them!
After I left the hospital, the first product I attempted to create was an even more elegant version of my open-source hack of DICOM + CTN. The two people I needed were: a programmer and a designer. I found them both online by searching for, well, myself. Jimmy was one of the only mac programmers in my area and Yappa was an excellent designer. They both abruptly ended careers they didn’t like to pursue something greater, something that involved working for themselves and creating.
This little team eventually went on to create Funbooth, which is still featured in the top 100 Apple Apps ten years later. Each success attracted more similarly minded people who believed in the way we built apps. We’re now over 300 people strong and have presences in Bangalore, Niigata, London, New York, Detroit and San Francisco. We’ve made apps for Coca-Cola, Bank of America, General Electric, Skyfire, Posterous and Twitpic. We’re called Sourcebits.
If you sit on your successes, they’ll rot you. You need them to propel you forward. But not only that. Building the community around you that you need to succeed is just as important. I stayed very active in entrepreneur/creative/design/development forums (proud member of the first 50 users at Digg). This is how I found the best people to work with because they were the people who were running in the same race I was. Hire your cohort, and you don’t have to convince them to stay.
[Image via Shutterstock]