John de Souza on Parenting, Persistence and Being MedHelp’s CEO

MedHelp hosts hundreds of forums for medical questions online. The company’s CEO John de Souza will join us for a fireside chat at Spring Fling: Matchpoint Boston. 

Indu Subaiya: You said you can’t decide if you like something until you’re good at it. I’ve used the other side of that statement in my own life which is if you love something a lot, you have to love it enough to be bad at it for a while. I like this idea of being brave enough to suck at something.

John de Souza: That’ll be right. To me, a good example is being a parent. There’s something I knew I love from the day you see the kids, but being bad is a good example. I need to learn how to be a good parent and that’s the time to go through it and trying to figure out what it means — what does it mean to do it well. And so there are some things where you naturally know that you’ll love it and you want to go through and invest as much time as it takes to get good at it, and for me that was a good experience. Education is another thing, how to invest in it.

And then there are things that for whatever reason you want to try until you’re good at it you’re not going to do. You’re not going to know what it is like to really enjoy it. And we live — often in the generation we live in, too may things I think, treatment is to have a very short attention, it’s a very good example. When the kids started playing golf, a bunch of other people started playing golf as well and they all dropped out very quickly because when you play golf you get good in a matter of hours. But in reality, it takes years to get good at.

So a lot of what we live in right now, people want that quick gratification, and if you don’t get good very quickly, people lose interest, and then I think you need that above these, I can pursue it for a long time and eventually I’ll get good.

Indu Subaiya: Alex Drane [of Eliza] gives data on how — even if you work a really hard and intense job but you find it rewarding, you don’t report negative stress on your health. But people can have an easy job, but be really unfulfilled.

John de Souza: I think that’s a great insight. If you come at my office, lots of people, surprisingly people go, well, it seems like a low stress environment. There are two things on that that have done very intentionally. One is in terms of not creating artificial stress and a lot of people who run by artificial deadlines create that. Kill that and I’ve gone all the way to kill the politics and all within it.

But the other thing I’ve done which really helps me is anytime I lose perspective, I call my mother up and then I go, this is — first, the question is, is anybody dying? I don’t even know. She is, is anybody sick? I don’t know. She says, what are you stressed about? And having gone through the [Ethiopian] revolution, she has such a phenomenal perspective on what should cause stress.

And any time I lose that perspective, I just need to call her back and get us right back and it’s allowed me to fill in people that we need to keep things in perspective. I think it helps us, obviously we need to do a lot of good things. But all the stress about unnecessary stuff is not worth it. It’s been wonderful and in turn we say, we just need to keep things in perspective. There are very few things that are so major. Most things are not.

And then you trust people to work hard, you don’t need to fire drill to look out, it’s working hard. We just need to make sure that priorities are set properly and it goes well.

Indu Subaiya: What other things have you done from a cultural standpoint at MedHelp? How do you get people to focus on the priorities?Do you have your manager set priorities? Tell a little bit about how the company is structured according to your philosophy.

John de Souza: There are a few things. One is I want major stress to end at medium/senior management. So as you look at people, some people do well at stress, some people don’t do well. But there is a very few group of those things that are — that come without stress, for example, we had a major customer decided — and this was in 2008 when we went through downturn that decided we had a million dollars due to us, they decided not to pay us, and we had that stress.

But what we sort of do here. One is, I tell — we are very transparent with the company and that’s helped a lot to the extent that it allowed them to trust us and it turned up – we were going to go through ups and downs. Just trust me that I’m going to do what we need to get through them. So I can improve them, they’ll go through and they’ll trust me and they’ll allow that stress to end on my part as opposed to meeting the stress and then causing everybody at the company to stress as well.

So I do two things, one we do have transparency and I tell them to look at allow me to — have the trust and then I’ll go through and deal with it, and then once we get through it, I do these detailed postmortems at the company so that they know exactly what happened which gives me the trust and gives me the leeway that said, look, we trust you, you know what’s happening, and that does help in a tremendous amount.

Indu Subaiya: So GE in particular is one of the partnerships we’d be talking about on stage in Boston. So tell us a little bit about how that partnership came about and kind of what it means for MedHelp right now in terms of MedHelp’s growth and strategy?

John de Souza: You know I think it would help — a scope for us is there are lots of companies that are in the health space and it’s become a priority for senior management to go through and to look at the health space. You know GE is one of those and there are a few other companies that we are working with. It is the scene where we succeeded where we can find companies that look at heath find it to be strategic importance and then we can use what we have in the platform to work with them, to realize the process that they don’t have, and they wanted to go through these.

You start off with them looking at the mobile face and they wanted to go through and initially during in the pregnancy and wanted to see, what is the effective way to go through and reach people?

Now, for them they’ve always — they have not been a consumer health company, they sell everything to hospitals doing large development, but at a high level we had the vision to realize that over time, they need to have a connection with the consumer because consumers will become more important in making those decisions even in hospitals.

So they wondered to be able to connect with them to work together and develop an app called I’m Expecting and it did exceedingly well. So they came back and said, that’s unbelievable how we do, not only reached but have an ongoing meaningful connection with through that, so we expanded and have done a full series of different types of apps for them.

 Indu Subaiya: Just sort of big picture of MedHelp going forward many years from now, do you guys leave it open-ended for discussion as to where the company is going? Any thoughts of big picture goes for the company in the future?

 John de Souza:  Before there is a company, we want to make sure we keep on thinking profitable and going. This is sort of doing down the thing what they could have learned through, haven’t gone through three different companies, lot of it depends on what’s happening with the timing and all. There’s a plenty of time going through building becoming chasing exits, you end up spinning your wheels and wasting a lot of time. So my experience has been when the things align and go through and think about it at the time the best thing you can do to measure is to always make sure that folks in the business malls make sure the companies make it possible and make sure you’re going to do that, the rest will take care of itself.

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