Health startups, don't put lipstick on the pig

By Neil Versel
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Dr Barry ChaikenWant to have a successful digital health startup? Be honest. Understand the market. Know your capabilities in terms of innovation and technological and human resources. And, above all, focus on the people you have and the problems you are trying to address.

"The biggest issue is focus," Dr. Barry P. Chaiken, Boston-based CMIO at enterprise software developer Infor and a veteran of clinical transformation through health IT, said Monday in Madison, Wis. "Don't get distracted," Chaiken explained. "You've got to know when to pivot and you've got to know when not to pivot."

Chaiken keynoted and chaired a preconference day for emerging health IT companies to meet with healthcare CIOs, potential investors and established vendors, ahead of WTN Media's annual Digital Healthcare Conference on the campus of the University of Wisconsin.

Pay more attention to usability of a product or relevance of a service than to outward appearance, Chaiken advised. He equated building a slick interface without a strong, useful underlying product to putting lipstick on a pig.

Unleash the power of employees and allow failure, Chaiken said. "You can't succeed marvelously unless you fail marvelously," he added.

Invoking Steve Jobs, he further advised startups to build what customers need, not what they want. "Think about what people use and could use and how you can make their lives better," Chaiken explained.

With employees, Chaiken told the audience to "focus on the cubby holes," putting the right people in the right roles. For example, technologists who are not natural salespeople might not be the ones to send out on the road selling things. "I've worked for companies that would have me do things I was incredibly bad at," said Chaiken, who has been with health IT vendors and consulting firms large and small.

The issue of bringing in the right people and using them correctly might be more important in a new company, Chaiken suggested. "When you have a startup, you have to be really, really careful about the people you have," he said. If not, the boss wastes time managing people instead of managing the business.

"Take your time hiring people, and when they're wrong, move them on in a graceful, polite manner," Chaiken recommended. And don't be afraid to have conflicting personalities.

"You have to have at least one person in your organization who you can't stand and don't get along with, but you respect for their integrity," Chaiken told MobiHealthNews in an interview after his presentation.

When dealing with potential investors, be honest. He said the traditional "hockey stick" graph of flat growth at the outset followed by a sharp upward swing is unrealistic, and venture capitalists know this. "Hockey stick equals bull," Chaiken said.

Investors want to see a plan to produce positive cash flow, Chaiken explained, with an assist from the audience. "Be realistic. You'll get a lot more credibility."