We talked to Balaji Gopalan on how MedStack makes healthcare privacy compliance easier and this is what he had to say about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Balaji Gopalan: We are fortunate to be safe and healthy, and I can say the same for our team. Many of us have partners or family members who are frontline healthcare workers, and we’ve all been cautious about supporting them and protecting our families’ safety.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded MedStack?
Balaji Gopalan: I began my career with my first industrial love, aviation. It was the industry I’d always wanted to work in; aircraft fascinated me. I was fortunate to pursue my calling there but quickly found myself moving into people, process, commercial and operational management, and not engineering as I’d anticipated. It was the people aspect of the building and delivering of product that I most gravitated towards. Enough so that when the industry took a downturn after 9/11, I decided to pursue a formal education in management and earned an MBA, which had the unexpected effect of inspiring me to take a new direction in my career. On a whim, I applied for a software product management job, fully leaning on thoughts I had about customer and market strategy more than anything else, turning a lack of direct technical experience into a tool by way of questioning everything.
My career hence has been focused on product and ecosystem strategy and innovation process management. I’ve mentored many product managers, several of whom have moved on to very successful careers, some As founders themselves, and have designed a ground-up curriculum in product management and taught for several years. I developed a keen fascination in platform strategy, focused on how two business entities can collaborate over technology to deliver value to their mutual customers. At BlackBerry, we helped inspire and build some of the world’s first mobile app developer ecosystems and brought mobile as a strategy to the foundational Internet companies. I’d go on to lead platform strategy at several other companies, but deep down, I knew we could do something more significant with it.
When my co-founder Simon Woodside brought me the market problem that would form the basis of MedStack, I found myself in front of a very severe and urgent societal problem that could be addressed with a platform strategy. We spent the first several months validating the business hypothesis with both sides of our ecosystem. Intending to put a proposition in front of customers as quickly as possible, we launched our ongoing learning process.
How does MedStack innovate?
Balaji Gopalan: Everything we do is customer-driven, and we always start with plainspoken facts. We think through what customers want to do, the pros and cons of changing our product or proposition across our customer base, and given our strategic direction, set boundary conditions, and then pursue these plans. We are continually iterating on our processes to drive the best balance of independent ownership and self-direction, and accountability and collaboration. We do not set about to create new things for their own sake, but rather for whatever best can bring success to our customers and brings our unique value to the forefront.
From a product perspective, we focus our efforts on three categories: customer usability, platform scalability and manageability, and compliance and security proposition, prioritizing based on value and impact.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
Balaji Gopalan: It is very tragic that the world is facing this crisis, and we are grateful to work in and power an industry that is responding to it and driving towards a “new normal” that will persist beyond the current environment.
When the pandemic was realized, we immediately took to financial conservatism, looking towards maintaining our business and continuous delivery to customers who we knew would be doing the most critical work of their careers. Some of our customers and opportunities slowed or dissipated, but mostly we saw a sharp spike upwards because digital health would soon become the fastest-growing software category overall. More care delivery was needed in new innovative ways to deal with the pandemic itself, while other healthcare aspects required continuity in a socially-distanced context. The result was a stable doubling of our business in 1 year. More urgency was required to deliver digital health, which means more of these companies and their applications had to commercialize faster, bringing our enabling automation technology to the forefront.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Balaji Gopalan: We certainly did. We did not turn down our business but took a good hard look at all opportunities to cut costs without cutting innovation or value and took a conservative approach to fundraise in an environment where the venture industry’s status was all but certain. We learned that building efficiency in the product, people, and process, delivered very notable returns.
Fortunately, however, some things were more aligned to our business than others – not only the industry we were in, but also because we were already a remote-first operation. So a transition to an officeless working environment was relatively frictionless, and we were happy to provide guidance and counsel to other organizations making this change more distinctly.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Balaji Gopalan: Ours is a very fast-changing industry space given the way it’s evolving away from its long-standing legacy, and most certainly, it’s never the same day twice. However, we know that pressures can be tremendous, and we place a very high premium on collaboration, transparency, and balance in the team. We encourage each other to do what we need for mental health (our weekly demo day starts with a short group meditation), and this and family commitments always come first.
But we do forgive each other for giving in to stress, which we know will happen. Patience and empathy are our guiding forces.
I have a few select things that are very different from my activities in a typical workday, and I try to turn to them to regularly achieve my necessary reset. These include cooking and baking, playing music, and focusing on my role as a father (though on some days, that isn’t that different than running a company!).
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Balaji Gopalan: We think of competition, not as technology providers with an offering that looks like ours, but rather alternatives to tackle a similar customer problem. We do have a couple of direct competitors (Aptible and Datica, most directly), and we pursue differentiation both in our platform’s usability and ease of access but also in the way that we put forward the automation of our data privacy and security commitments on their behalf, which is our core selling proposition. This also extends to the broader sphere of alternatives, from consulting services, security scanning platforms, or even efforts from the cloud vendors themselves (though they and we together consider ourselves more complimentary).
We look at what our competitors are doing from a product and corporate vantage, but this is always secondary to our customers’ inputs, considerations, and perspectives. We are always, every day, learning from them.
Your final thoughts?
Balaji Gopalan: Deep in the core of MedStack is a belief that entrepreneurship is a challenging, risky, and highly admirable journey, so we want to support the notion that anyone who is leaping should do so to make the world’s most essential industries work better, to tackle the world’s biggest problems. Even before 2020, but especially now, we believe few things to be more critical than making healthcare better, and we encourage everyone in this space to push harder, to question more, and to do what we can for patients and their families and those on all lines in the healthcare journey. Collaborate more, share more, and encourage more. If anyone is building something in digital health, we’d love to know your stories and cheer you on.