The 5 lessons I’ve learned building, managing and growing a PT Tech startup
I'm a physiotherapist and the co-founder of healthSwapp, which is like YouTube for home exercise prescription. Outside of my clinical work and my company, I’m a swimmer, rock climber and backcountry camper.
Over the past year and a half of building my company, I‘ve come to realize that many of the lessons I’ve learned building a business have been similar to what I’ve learned in the woods.
Just like hiking, starting a business is a process that requires planning, passion and a deep understanding of the terrain. Here are the top five lessons that I’ve learned so far.
1. Slow and steady wins the race.
When I was climbing Kilimanjaro, my Tanzanian guides kept telling us enthusiastic Canadian hikers ‘Mizungo. Pole. Pole.’ – meaning ‘White girl. Slowly. Slowly.’ Our guides were trying to help us acclimatize to the escalating altitude slowly and safely, giving our bodies enough time to adjust to the thinning oxygen. On the first 2 days, we didn’t listen, but by day 3 we were slowly following in their footsteps.
Similarly, when my co-founder and I started healthSwapp we were moving as quickly as we could to get our software and service out on the market. However, as we started to test healthSwapp with a group of you, practitioners, we realized that healthcare and technology are different atmospheres and practitioners, like our Tanzanian guides, knew the right speed to move forward.
2. Fail Fast. Fail Often.
In life, in business, in clinical practice, and in backcountry navigation - there will be times that you don’t get it right the first time and that’s ok.
On a backcountry hike in Newfoundland, I learned this lesson the hard way. A self-taught, amateur navigator, I set out on the long-range traverse with a friend – neither of us with any experience on a backcountry route that has no trails at all. This 5-day hike would take us up a gorge, across the traverse and finally over the Gross Morne mountain.
Amazingly, we passed the qualifying test that gave us access to the hike. So, we set off to the trailhead which is nestled in between the high gorges, accessible only by boat. To the confusion of many of the tourists onboard our boat, my friend and I hoped off with gear on our back and animal hats on our heads, determined to orient ourselves through the woods of Newfoundland.
Our biggest mistake was not understanding how different the Newfoundland woods are from the Ontario woods where we trained. A compass is only as good as the person who holds it.
Same applies in business. Understanding our terrain, or our market, was crucial to the development and growth of healthSwapp. Our initial business model required physiotherapists to charge their patients for the use of the healthSwapp app.
Our hypothesis: patients will be more likely to do their home program if they’ve invested in it.
Lesson: currently, not all physiotherapists want to charge their patients additional fees and therefore, our model failed.
We spent several months trying out this first model, often lost and unable to navigate the complexities of this approach. But when we re-evaluated the terrain, we made a decision to change our model and pivoted to a subscription fee for practitioners – healthSwapp was out of the woods and starting to grow.
3. The team is everything.
On that hike in Newfoundland, my friend and I quickly realized that we needed another teammate – either someone who had experience with backcountry map and compass navigation or a GPS. Bringing a GPS was an option and maybe, if we hadn’t been so ambitious in wanting to do the full hike ourselves without technology or help, we wouldn’t have ended up on the wrong side of the gorge.
Building a team that shares in a cohesive vision, meshes well, has passion and who have complementary skill sets has been critical for meeting the challenges of building a business. As a boxer, Mike Tyson says “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” So much about healthSwapp’s ability to get back up after being figuratively punched in the face comes from our teamwork and support for each other.
Our quick recoveries have also been possible by having a great group of coaches and cheerleaders in our corner. Being accepted into the DMZ – the top university business incubator in North America – has helped us build up our team members and coaches. At the DMZ we have access to co-working space, advisors, business services, education, and most importantly other startups.
4. Don’t bail on the trail.
Having big, hairy, audacious goals is important but learning how to create a framework for achieving these goals, taking them one step at a time and sticking with it has been crucial.
It is easy to get taken off course by shinny objects and ending up in big, muddy pits that absorb our time, resources and energy and ultimately don’t contribute to our goals. While building healthSwapp, it has been important to find our path and stick with it no matter how challenging the terrain becomes or what else gets thrown our way.
5. Death stink and leaky water bottles.
Death stink - That slight but noticeable sense that something’s definitely not right. Don’t ignore it, it only gets worse.
We, as physiotherapists, take so many courses and are constantly seeking new knowledge in order to improve patient care. But, if we aren’t able to transfer this knowledge to our patients efficiently and effectively, then this knowledge becomes obsolete.
Just like pouring water into a leaky bottle, a significant amount of the knowledge we transfer to our patients is often lost due to our outdated methods of communication.
Currently, we don’t know what our patients do when they leave the clinic, and we know that our clinical sessions are just the tip of the iceberg. If our patients don’t understand or follow our instructions, chances are our efforts in the clinic will have minimal effect on improving their condition.
I believe that technology can bridge this gap by changing the way that we communicate and follow-up with our patients. By giving patients convenient access to their physiotherapy programs from their practitioner rather than Dr. Google, and the opportunity to track how much they’ve done, we can become even more powerful allies in their recovery.
Physiotherapists are well-positioned to become critical contributors to the healthcare revolution – whether it’s by testing a new solution, implementing technology in practice and helping others learn how to use it, creating your own solution, joining a startup on their journey or contributing to the discussion online or in conferences like this one.
Building the technology and proving that it can improve patient outcomes is the first step. The process of incorporating it successfully into our practices in a way that both complements our treatment and improves our workflow is a much larger mountain to climb. I’m excited to be apart of this journey with you and I look forward to all of the challenges that we will face along the way.
This potential future for our profession is how I’ve kept my passion for physiotherapy. I’m on a mission to bring innovation and technology to the profession that I love because I believe whether it’s physiotherapy or camping I should leave everything a little bit better than I found it.
Maggie Bergeron PT, Co-Founder Embodia
Maggie graduated from McMaster University with a Masters of Physiotherapy in 2009 and spent the first five years of her career working in five different private clinics. Frustrated with clinic policies and constantly having to rebuild her patient caseload each time she switched clinics, Maggie decided to open her own practice in the east end of Toronto and, at the same, build a solution that would keep her connected to her patients.
Embodia was born in 2014 and since then has grown to provide digital home exercise prescription and online continuing education to more than 6000 physiotherapists globally.