Launching a startup is hard. Launching a hardware, digital health company in the pharmaceutical space is an entirely different question. To add to that, my cofounder and I were not specialized in the field before starting Pilleve. What we lacked in experience, we made up for in brute passion and dedication to our mission in reducing the risk of addiction to controlled drugs. Here is a quick list of the top five things we learned since starting Pilleve (some the hard way).
Be Mission Centric but Adaptable
Before Pilleve was a product, it was a mission. Today Pilleve still has a mission and we hope that it remains true and continues to unite us. So much can and will change during the startup phase, and a company’s mission is like a north star, guiding the team to an end goal or result in order to create a better world for our users and ourselves. Without the mission, startups will resemble a seafarer without a compass in a rough and angry sea. Furthermore, the mission allows startups to adapt to industry changes and pivot when need be. When Pilleve was just an idea, we had some major assumptions about how the product would look, function, and who our end customers were going to be. About 80% of that has changed over the course of 3 years. However, we continue to pride ourselves by staying mission centric over time and will continue to aspire to our mission as we grow.
2. A Team Moves Mountains
There’s so much that needs to be done to develop a solution to a large healthcare crisis. The R&D and work to develop a plan from scratch. The iterative process and testing before launch. The clinical oversight to ensure quality and safety in the pre-commercialization process. Finally, the manufacturing process and the distribution of devices to patients. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Without a team of diverging skill sets that compliment one another, none of that could be achievable. Start with the team. A strong team can move mountains.
3. Learn quickly
This is especially true for the first founders who operate in a new industry. In the early stages of Pilleve, my cofounder and I were talking with dozens if not hundreds of experts in the pain and pharmaceutical space to better understand the opioid crisis. I was working at a rehab center, part time, to further my experience and knowledge of the issue at hand. That was just the beginning. My cofounder built the early version of the Pilleve system from scratch with very little work experience in software development. He was able to learn on the job and adapt to the growing company. Similarly, when selling to doctors, we were expected to have a strong understanding of their needs and workflows. Even though we weren’t experts, we aspired to learn more and more every day to help create a better experience for our users and customers.
4. The “Fail fast” Sentiment Does Not Apply in Healthcare
Mark Zuckerberg and some of his tech associates coined and championed the term ‘fail fast’ and ‘break things’. While this outlook does help in a specific segment of tech, especially those that are more low risk, it certainly does not and should not apply in healthcare. If you scale too quickly in healthcare, you could hurt someone. The fundamental purpose of digital health is to improve a patient's life and experience through technology. Scale and growth shouldn’t come first even if it takes a year or two longer to bring a product to the market. Think about biotech. Investors are willing to spend tens of millions of dollars on a company with low expectations of an exit, let alone successful commercialization. Yet, investors ensure that the company has all the funds and time needed to develop a drug because of all of the associated safety and risk variables. Digital health should be treated in a similar respect, especially if the end users are patients. Investors should be patient and understand what they are buying into before making an investment. This article discusses the importance of product and proof of concept in the digital healthcare segment.
5. It takes time
Healthcare is a long haul and naivete can be both a blessing and a curse. We have learned that we need to embrace the lengthy process of taking a digital health product from inception to market. Rather than waiting for the regulatory industry to adapt and external forces to boost momentum, we are learning to improve the experience for our patients, providers, and pharmacists along the way. We are also prioritizing safety over speed to create a product that truly meets the needs of our users and can create a sustainable impact. Finally, communicating this notion to our investors and stakeholders is imperative. Rather than simply being hopeful and optimistic, we are learning to be grounded in empirical facts and evidence based findings that could further our impact, but also making sure to never lose sight of the torch that guides our mission.
These are just some of the key learnings that we experienced over the last 3 years. There is still a lot to come, like scaling a team, launching in new markets and geographies, and potentially discovering the path to a viable exit. We will keep you posted along the way and appreciate your support in furthering our mission!