Embrace criticism and build personal resilience

An idea means nothing, its only the expression of that idea that means anything. But actually, an expression of an idea means next to nothing without commercial traction. No matter how good your idea, no matter how strong the expression of that idea, its the validation of that expression through sales that really matters.

At each point, the idea, the expression of the idea and the development of traction, people will criticise your proposition, people will throw obstacles in your path and you will find yourself asking yourself the following question: "Am I right?"

There are two things I have learned over the last year.

  1. Critique is a good thing, embrace it and never blindly ignore it.
  2. Develop personal resilience to manage critique and criticism in the right way.

There are plenty of times we have been critiqued over the last year. I have sat in meetings where our plan has been pulled apart. In the early days, that left me feeling dejected, it left me feeling low and questioning whether I had the right idea and, on a personal level, whether I could really cut it. Then, with a little time, you calm down, you think about it, and rational thought returns. Ultimately, those kind of meetings are an opportunity. An opportunity for you to build on areas of weakness, to strengthen how you describe the proposition and to learn. Moreover, there is no greater way to improve your credibility than to listen, strengthen and improve in the face of critique. 

I remember being told my understanding of our route to market within health services was too weak. It was, but you don't know what you don't know. Its not always obvious you have a weakness, until someone exposes it. In response, I met with four different procurement managers, spent time with medical physics team leads and worked with those who had already successfully sold to health services. I made sure I quickly developed an intimate understanding of the sales process. When asked in future, I made sure I nailed it. That is the power and the benefit of getting as much criticism and critique as you can, as early as you can. Take the criticism early and then when it really matters, you are in a much stronger position. It also demonstrates to investors in particular, your openness to learning and working with them. 

What I have learned is, as founder, it's your job to embrace all of the criticism, to listen to all of the advice, filter it, sense-check it with others and then come to an informed decision on the plan ahead. You have to consider who is giving you the advice or criticism, what is their experience in the sector, what is their personal motivation and ultimately, do they really know what they are talking about? You have to make the final judgement. Its your business, its your beliefs, your idea. Criticism and critique is a way of strengthening your proposition, but it shouldn't ever make you feel like you can't achieve your dream or put you down. 

Developing personal resilience allows you to manage that criticism and critique. It means you don't come out of meetings feeling dejected, but come out feeling enthused and motivated to move forward.  In the history of every successful business, there is a time when they weren't. But there is a key difference between personal resilience and irrational stubbornness. There is a key difference between strongly executing on your vision and beliefs and blindly pursuing a dream whilst ignoring the advice of others. What i've learned: take the criticism, take the critique, take the advice. Consider it, build on areas of weakness, continually evaluate and re-assess and then keep pushing. Do not give up. 

What I have found hardest about building a startup.

In just 9 months, snap40 has achieved a lot and we have huge potential. I have achieved more with snap40 than I ever did with Dizeo. Recently, I have been doing a lot of presentations, a lot of pitching and a lot of talking about who we are and our vision for the future. I am actually naturally a fairly introverted person so I have had to put myself out of my comfort zone and very quickly develop a lot of self-confidence. This has been the hardest part of building snap40. Building confidence.

I delivered a presentation recently, which went very well but it was pointed out to me that I talked a lot about we had achieved already rather than what we were going to achieve. This got me thinking and I had a look through some of the e-mails and documents I have written and there is a similar trend. I justify our right to exist and be where we are by our achievements. Its therefore not just about developing personal confidence, its about developing startup confidence. 

Subconsciously, I wanted to justify our right to be giving the pitch or presentation by showing we had achieved. Actually, we didn't have to justify ourselves, we were already there. Now it was our time to sell where we were going, what we were going to achieve and convince people we had the ability to do so. In the first paragraph of this post I wanted to caveat the phrase "we have huge potential" with "we have huge potential if we make the right decisions." Its a subtle difference, but I think it has big implications. 

I have now went back and re-structured my presentations, my pitches and my written communications to shift focus. We have a fantastic, truly exciting proposition and its about how we are going to deliver on that proposition. Instead of spending a great deal of time speaking about whats behind us, it should be about spending a great deal of time talking about whats in front. Thats where confidence is key. You need to have the confidence to say this is where we are going and we are going to get there, backed up with solid knowledge of the how.

Early stage investors know that you don't have everything solved yet - if you did, would you be early stage? You need to have the confidence to be able to stand up and say this is where we are going, this is how we are going to get there, and, by the way, we have already achieved huge progress. Intelligent confidence is king. 

Advice, gut instinct and the importance of being challenged

I have heard many successful entrepreneurs talk about the importance of going with your gut instinct. Heres the truth from me: quite often, I don't have a clue what my gut is telling me. I think gut instinct has become synonymous with make immediate decisions, but when it comes to the big decisions, the grey decisions, I think gut instinct is not clear. I think this is where advice and time is key.

I run an early stage startup, we are just starting to get traction and success. We are successfully raising money, we have strong engagement from health services and we are developing a great team. I am determined to grow snap40 into successful, profitable and global company that can make a positive impact on patients and healthcare, but we have a long long road to go. Many of the decisions I make right now, are going to determine whether we make it or whether we, like my first startup, are confined to the depths of failure. 

This is where the challenge lies. How do you know which path is correct? How do you know whether your decision is the right one? Of course, you don't, you can't. You have to evaluate the options and then decide which you think is best. You should also rely on advice to help you. However, advice is just that, it's advice. It doesn't mean that it's correct. I think you can become over-advised, its easy to take on too much advice and you have to be sure that advice is coming from people who actually know what they are talking about. Advice and feedback is a crucial way of identifying weaknesses and flaws. You can then correct those and come back stronger. It can make the decisions easier. 

This week was tough, I have a number of decisions to make on the best way to take snap40 forward and I received some very conflicting advice. The truth is, I didn't have an "gut" feel at first on the best way to go. I was confused, and it took probably 24 hours for my mind to settle down, for me to think it through, for me to talk it through with my hidden co-founder and for me to come to a decision based on what I think is best. Gut instinct, shouldn't be confused with rash decision making. Gut instinct can also mean decisions taken after a couple of days of thought, it can mean decisions taken after weeks of thought, consideration and letting things take there course. Similarly, this shouldn't be confused with indecisiveness.

Make the big decisions for the future isn't easy. It's hard and, in my opinion, it takes some time to let the mind mellow out, it takes talking things through with those you trust and sometimes it means letting things take there course. Advice is great, but you have to be careful who is providing it, why are they providing it and where is their experience and expertise. Advice helps you become stronger, it helps you think about areas you might not have thought about it and its something you absolutely should take but ultimately, its your decision. Its your company. You do what you think is best.

Conflicting advice this week, along with some internal thoughts of my own, led to some difficult decisions about how the best way to go to forward. But that advice, and the thought process, has also made us a stronger company and has helped me become a stronger individual. Whilst, you have to be careful to find the right advisors, I think you should actively seek being challenged and questioned. But crucially, you then have to reconcile that and decide on the best way to go forward. 

Relationships are king.

I have one failed startup and I have one startup in progress. In six months, we have made more progress than in 13 months of Dizeo. Why? One of the reasons is because I have invested time in building relationships. It has led me to firmly believe that relationships are one of the most powerful assets of a company. Let me explain.

As a medical devices startup, we have a number of complexities in our path. We need significant pre-revenue funding to get to market, we need to undertake clinical trials, we need to gain regulatory approval to get on the market and then once we get there we need to make sure we have people to buy it. When I started snap40 in July, I freely admit I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how to undertake a clinical trial and I had even less of an idea how to gain approval for a medical device. I didn't even really know how to put together electronics.

I got around this problem by building relationships, by recognising those weaknesses and by finding people who could help me to build snap40. Many of those relationships were only able to be cultivated because of introductions from other people. People who had nothing to do with healthcare or medical devices, but who had friends, family and colleagues who did. You have no idea who someone else knows or who they can can introduce you to. This is a key point, be open-minded and be willing to see where things go. That doesn't mean you should spend every hour of every day having coffees, but do keep an open mind.

How do you get these people to make introductions for you and to help you out? For me, the answer is in the title. Relationship. Don't just go out expecting but instead look to build a relationship. Explain who you are and what you are about. Sell your startups vision. I have found that if you do, if you show your passion and commitment to doing something positive, people will move mountains for you. And when you can, give back. If you can do something to help, then thats what a relationship is all about. 

Relationships have built snap40 into a strong pre-revenue startup and I fully believe those relationships will be one of the reasons that we grow into a successful, global company that makes a positive impact on patients and healthcare.

I need a co-founder

If anyone has experience in medical devices/electronics/being awesome then please skip the rest and e-mail me at christopher@snapforty.com.

More and more I have realised over the last few weeks that I need a co-founder. Many startup accelerators now avoid entirely or, or strongly discourage, single founders and up till now I only half understood why.

I am of the opinion that, usually, two minds are better than one and a great solution to a problem can come out of passionate discussion. Thats one of the key benefits I see of having a great co-founder. Obviously there are the other benefits too - sharing of stress, sharing of work load, balancing out skills - but for me one of the key benefits is just being able to talk things out. That being said, ultimately a decision has to be made. 

I read an article a few years ago that talked about the loneliness of starting a startup, and I never really understood what that meant. I never felt "lonely" while running Dizeo, but it was a very different startup to snap40. For some reason, I do feel the loneliness now. The loneliness of making a decision on your own, of choosing a path on your own. The loneliness of crossing a very dark and imposing desert with no map entirely on your own. That is part and parcel of starting a company and it isn't to say I am indecisive or not ready to take on the responsibility myself, I am and I will, but as snap40 begins to pick up pace I realise that I would be strengthened, and my startup would be strengthened, by having a co-founder. 

snap40 has some great advisors, people I can count on and talk to, but they aren't the same as having a co-founder there, someone who lives and breathes the company as I do now. They don't love building that company and cherish the ups and downs. The challenge is how do you find that person? How do you make sure they are the right fit for you and for your startup? Thats what makes me cautious and thats what makes me scared. 

Ultimately, I want to build snap40 into a globally successful business, a positive force both for the economy and, most importantly, for patients and healthcare staff (since we are a healthcare technology company). To do that, I want to make sure we are as strong as possible in all areas, and part of that is having a fantastic management team. I now strongly believe that having a co-founder, particularly in the early stages, is crucial to that team. 

I'm now cautiously looking for a co-founder for snap40. I'm not actively looking, I'm not searching, but if someone does come along thats right then they will be most welcome. 

Bridging the divide between healthcare data and privacy

The industrial revolution changed the world over a period of eighty years, but the technology revolution has changed the world in a fraction of that time. Consider how much has changed since just the year 2000. We now share vast amounts of information about ourselves and conduct a significant proportion of our lives online. Privacy has become one of the biggest issues of today due to a combination of a legal, political and ethical system that has not kept pace with such rapid change as well as a society largely split on what should and should not be shared.

Healthcare has, to a certain extent, lagged behind the revolution occurring in other areas but it is quickly catching up and this has lead to significant controversy around the sharing of healthcare data. Just a couple of weeks ago it was revealed that Booz Allen, the former employer of Edward Snowden, was developing bio-surveillance technology using devices such as the FitBit. The premise behind the project was to track population dynamics and specifically the spread of disease, but it is easy to see why this could get people concerned.

Personally, I strongly believe in the benefits of using bio-sensors for epidemiological purposes as well as for enhancing patient care. It is worth pointing out that I have a dog in this race, I am the founder of a startup developing wearables to pre-emptively detect deteriorations in patients so that interventions can be put in place faster, saving lives. I strongly believe that collecting and using healthcare data in this way has the potential for good, to improve healthcare and to increase patient safety. 

Patient health records are another area of significant controversy. The coalition government has been attacked in the media over its handling of Care.data, a plan to bring NHS health records into a database for use in research. Concerns quickly emerged over use of this data by private firms, especially insurance firms, and upload of the data has now been delayed until the autumn of 2014. 

The issue at heart for me is three-fold. First, we have a society which is divided between those who do understand technology and the sharing of data, and those who don't. Second, because things have moved on so quickly, we don't have suitable legal and ethical safeguards in place at a governmental level. Third, we have a number of people in public office who themselves do not understand technology and data, yet push forward policy and guidance in this area. 

There are enormous benefits both at a societal and individual level in using the data we can get from health records and bio-sensors. Unfortunately, there is also significant potential for abuse and this has sadly, in my opinion, over-shadowed the benefits. The Edward Snowden/NSA/GCHQ affair has furthered the view that governments cannot and should not be trusted. When Booz Allen talk about using bio-surveillance, it is hard not to think of the dark side of this debate, a government tracking you through a wristband, knowing your every move. 

However, lets consider the positive side for a second. What if we had a health service that used data from multiple sources including the Met Office to predict load on services? What if we had patients who were able to be alerted earlier that they needed to see their doctor? What if we were able to pull together health records with our growing knowledge of genetics and begin to introduce truly personalised medicine, where we give a drug not based on a flow chart in a guideline, but based on your genome? 

Health data offers us the potential to make our society better, healthier and stronger but we need to do better at educating the general public. We need to be completely open and transparent. We need to incentivise the right people to get into public office and work for the civil service where they can bring change. We need a legal and ethical system that safeguards and enshrines the right to privacy so that people can trust both the public and private sector to use their data for good and we need to make sure that boards are legally bound to handle this data in a socially and ethically responsible way.

We have the potential to solve the biggest problems of today

The tech industry has been half-enraged and half-mesmerised by the recent news that Yo, an app which does nothing more than allow you to send Yo to your friends, had received $1.2 million dollars in funding. Some expressed anger that their own startups hadn't received funding, others used it as further evidence, as if it was required, that we are in the midst of a bubble, and others tried to justify the investment with figures. 

Whilst I never like to criticise any business or founder, it saddens me that some of the worlds most driven, focussed, intelligent and inspiring individuals don't focus their time on solving the real problems our society faces. It may well be that Yo has the user engagement and growth that justifies such an investment on purely those terms, but, to me, that is a narrow outlook.

Consider that the World Health Organisation has estimated that around 70% of the US population is overweight or obese. In Scotland, rates of liver disease are almost double the rates of the rest of the UK, and they continue to rise. Healthcare staff are more and more having to deal with microbes resistant to multiple antibiotics due to persistent over-prescription and lack of investment by big pharma. In Glasgow, many now live with a lower life expectancy than many parts of Africa, with Africa itself gripped by high rates of HIV and hunger. 

Outside of trying to build a successful business, I am a medical student and I have witnessed first hand some of the problems we face. The NHS is frequently under-staffed and over-worked and is faced with an explosion of diabetes an a population that is living longer. This is on a backdrop of bureaucracy, poor communication and collaboration and frequently poor data. 

The problems facing us - energy, food, water, health, education - require big solutions and we are just starting to see some of these solutions come out of a new wave of startup businesses. For me, innovation and invention doesn't come from the top, but it comes from the bottom. It comes from disruptive startup businesses who dare to try something new, who dare to think a bit differently. 

I therefore find it difficult to see individuals who could focus their time and effort solving these problems, instead put their efforts into something like Yo. This may seem pretentious, and I re-iterate I am not diminishing what Yo, or any other similar startup, has and is achieving. I am simply pointing out that another instant messaging app, however novel or 'hipster', isn't going to solve what really needs solved.

We need to think big, see the real problems that are out there and go solve them. For my part, I hope to stick by this philosophy and play my part.