There are those who are at home in a start-up environment, and those who are ONLY at home in a start-up environment. I met Richard Penner when we were both working for a company which, when we joined, employed about 70 people, and during our tenure, grew to over 300. That staggering amount of growth allows you to experience an accelerated life cycle of a company. It also helps you put into perspective how you'd like to shape your career.
Richard found himself in a situation where he wanted to get his hands dirty by starting again from the ground up. He and his two co-founders then created Figure 1, a medical application for smartphones which allows doctors to share photos.
I spoke to Richard about his journey from salary man to start up co-founder.
A lot of people, especially in the wake of Dragon's Den and movies like The Social Network, dream about packing it in, and starting up their own company. Talk to us about why you made that decision.
"Up to this point in my career I've been torn between management and development. On the one hand, I really enjoy software development and will keep writing code for as long as I can. But I've also had an increasing interest in how businesses are run: everything from finances to building a user base.
Previous to this start-up I found myself in a great management position at a great company, but I needed more. Movable Science has given me the chance, with the help of an amazing team, to learn how to build something out of nothing. That's what we've done with our first product, Figure 1, a photo sharing app for healthcare professionals."
You made your own apps for a while before moving on to Figure 1. How did that help you when you eventually made the move?
"After doing apps independently, software development comes naturally to me. But one of the benefits of working with a team is that I've learned a lot about business and a lot about healthcare, an industry increasingly ready to embrace innovation. My skills in development are new to this field and that's exciting."
Explain where the idea for forming Figure 1 started.
"The idea actually started with my partner, Dr. Joshua Landy. Josh is a practicing physician specializing in internal medicine and critical care. He recognized that a lot of young physicians are taking pictures on their phones of interesting and representative cases and sharing them with small groups of colleagues, their medical school classmates, or other physicians to learn from. He saw a need to make it easy to share these images (in a privacy safe way) with the broader healthcare community. This way they could harness all of the medical knowledge that is currently being lost to anyone not involved in those conversations. I told him that it would be quick to build a prototype of this app, and our third co-founder said he thought he could make a business out of it. So the three of us set to work, and not even 2 months later we found ourselves at the Ryerson Digital Media Zone (a startup accelerator) building the product full time."
Karen: When did you decide to go the accelerator route?
"Joining the Digital Media Zone at Ryerson University was an early decision. We were given a tour of the place and it was bustling with a lot of smart people and interesting products, so we were eager to join."
How has your accelerator experience been? Any surprises?
"By far the best part of any accelerator is the people we meet. It's a regular occurrence to have short conversations about specific problems and solutions that somebody has already gone through the pain of experiencing. We've even had people from other companies jump in and help us with in areas where they have skills that we don't. There's a really nice collaborative spirit here. We have weekly meetings with advisers and check-ins to hear about other companies successes and struggles. We get to see new products launching regularly, and we can follow the story from the inside. And one of the biggest benefits is our amazing office space. It's actually Google's old office. We definitely could not have afforded this space otherwise!"
What was the biggest change you had to make going from a large company to a company with three cofounders?
"Definitely being taken out of my comfort zone. There's a good chance that at a large company you're doing exactly what you're best at, and won't often get a chance to jump into something entirely new. I'm comfortable with writing apps, but deploying servers and keeping them running was new to me. Additionally, I love being involved in key decisions about the company and learning from the amazing team we've created."
Were there any bumps along the way?
"We shipped our app with a small but important bug that was overlooked during testing. It was our first time dealing with a 'production problem,' and it was stressful for all of us. Thankfully, the update to the app was approved within a week and in time for our official launch."
What was the biggest surprise?
"For me the biggest surprise is how supportive people around you are when you put yourself out there. Everyone from our friends, families, investors and even our users have been incredibly supportive, and that's encouraging when you have so much work to do."
Did you have a learning curve when doing things like marketing your product directly or securing press?
"When I was an independent app developer, this was a huge learning curve for me. I couldn't quite crack it. Thankfully, now I have people on this team with different skills and we're learning from each other. We're only just starting our marketing efforts now, so it still remains to be seen how successful we are, but things are looking good."
How crucial was it for you to get your pitch perfect, and your pitch materials in order?
"We're dealing with healthcare and photo sharing, so it's really important to us to explain Figure 1 correctly to people and emphasize the care we took in making this legal and safe for physicians and their patients. Luckily, we're finding that physicians have responded really well and we've been encouraged by that. We've even had some physicians become investors because they believe in this idea. So yes, it was really important for us to explain our product in the right way."
Are you an agile company? Explain your reasoning for this choice.
"Overall, we are an agile company, but I'm a skeptic of any practice that doesn't evolve or adapt enough to its surroundings. There are a lot of people who feel compelled to follow the textbook version of Agile, but I think a strong team can perform well taking and leaving some of the key principles."
What has been the most rewarding thing about having your own company?
"Doing something that I love has always been incredibly important to me. Coming from a development background and running this company with my two co-founders gives me a chance to learn the 'business side.' Everyone on the team brings something very different and valuable to the table and together we're greater than the sum of our parts."
What is next for Figure 1?
"Our vision is for doctors around the world to interact with one another, so in keeping with that, we're looking to expand globally. Beyond that, we're already designing new features for Figure 1's next release.
It's been really interesting to learn about medicine and healthcare from Josh. Healthcare can be traditionally conservative, but we are starting to see innovation put down roots (particularly in mobile health). I'm excited that Figure 1 is part of this movement. Coming from a big company that is now quite established, it's invigorating to create something from the ground up."