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Ron Gutman: “I Am Really Focused on the User”

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Ron Gutman: “I Am Really Focused on the User”

HealthTap founder has redefined doctor visits.
Blood pressure monitor, ophthalmoscope, otoscope
Ron Gutman, CEO of a mission-driven interactive health company, turned his lofty goals into a product. | Reuters/Lucas Jackson

Like many entrepreneurs, Ron Gutman had a lot of big ideas. There was, for example, this one: “I wanted to save health care.”

But as a company founder, he says, he had to chisel down this lofty goal to the most granular level of “use case.”

To figure out how to turn his mission into a product, he thought back to “caveman time.” For eons, people experiencing pain have gone to healers seeking potions. The science behind these potions has improved, he says, “but the experience of health care has remained the same.” Sick people go to doctors to be healed, and in the digital age, they seek out answers online.

Gutman tweet

Gutman’s company took the concept of digital doctor a step further, making physicians accessible for online questions, free of charge. Now, under its prime service, which users pay a monthly fee to access, his interactive health company offers “virtual consults,” in which doctors are paid to make video visits to the users of HealthTap. The service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The company has also entered the space of wearable technology. Its app, for example, is on the new Apple Watch, allowing users to call up a chat with one of HealthTap’s 62,000 doctors within seconds.

“If I had a dime for every time someone told me doctors would never answer questions for free, I would never have to raise money for this company,” Gutman, who received his MBA from Stanford GSB in 2005, said during a DFJ Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders lecture on April 15.

Gutman also helped found Stanford’s BeWell wellness program in 2007, including playing a key role in creating the program’s first website. He shared with Stanford students what he has learned from his work in interactive health care.

Be Mission-Driven

For a startup, having a lofty mission often sounds romantic — until the heavy lifting of execution begins. “When I hire people I tell them we are here to conquer Everest,” Gutman says. “They forget that when you get to the middle of the mountain, it’s cold, it’s slippery.” HealthTap’s mission is to “measurably prolong the life expectancy of humankind,” and Gutman says that keeping the mission in the forefront motivates employees during the most challenging times. “If it were easy to do what you want to do, other people probably would have done it.”

Know How to Hire the Right People

Some job candidates are brilliant at the interview process, making it difficult for employers to discern if they are the right fit or just talented at selling themselves. To find out, Gutman often takes job candidates out of the office. He might, for example, take them on a short hike as part of the vetting process. “Take them out of their comfort zone,” he says.

I’m very proud of what I’m doing because I can say I am saving lives every day.
Ron Gutman

Still, Gutman says, even someone with the right technical skills may not be compatible with a company’s culture. This is especially true for startups where success comes more often after years than months.

Align on Values First

Before HealthTap employees wrote a single line of code, they wrote the company credo, which helped answer the question: “What are the things that we stand for?”

Nearly five years later, the conference rooms in the company’s Palo Alto office bear names of these values, including “Sense of Adventure” and “Data Analysis.”

“‘Teamwork and celebration’ is a big room in our office,” Gutman says. To keep the values fresh, the company holds weekly town hall meetings where, in part, a single value is discussed to determine whether the value is still relevant and whether the company is living up to it. “This is the glue that keeps it all together.”

Set Lofty Goals

HealthTap’s promotion video includes a customer explaining that she had put off seeing a doctor about the blotches on her nose until a HealthTap physician advised her to see one in person immediately.

It turned out she had skin cancer. “HealthTap saved my life,” she says in the video. Gutman says her experience is not unusual, noting that the company has received close to 20,000 notes from people thanking HealthTap for saving them. Receiving such kudos never gets old, says Gutman, who reads them when he needs an extra dose of motivation. “I’m very proud of what I’m doing because I can say I am saving lives every day.”

Be Responsive & Nimble

Receiving a “snarky” email from a user that lists all the things that is wrong with your product is “the best thing that can happen to you,” Gutman says. That is because that customer just spent hours with your product and they can help you tweak it.

Some companies also make the mistake of delaying iteration until there is a large user base to test the product. “If it’s not great, then you’ve wasted a lot of time,” he says.

Start simple, collect data, test small and do it early and often.

“I don’t spend a lot of time looking at what (competitors) are doing. I am really focused on the user, the experience,’’ he says.

Reframe Failure

“At HealthTap, we have two modes: success and learning,” he says. “I don’t look at learning as a failure, as long as you don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over.”

Stay Positive

In May 2011, Gutman conducted a TED talk, and later that year authored a book on the benefits of smiling, Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act. Some of the ideas emerged from his experience traveling as a volunteer when he visited more than 70 countries, not knowing the native language in many of them. A smile became his universal language. “That was an aha moment for me,” he says. Gutman believes it is possible for anyone to learn to have a positive outlook. “If you keep thinking about how you are not where you want to be, you are going to be frustrated.”

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