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’s right. A good example for me was learning how to be
a parent. Being a father was something that was completely foreign to me
so, naturally, it was something I needed to work on. I tried to figure out and
understand what it meant to be a good parent – what was best for my children –
and apply it until I became better and better; I invested as much time as needed
to be the best parent I could be, and I continue to work on it every day. It’s a
great learning experience.

But in today’s world, not many people are willing to put in the effort needed to
improve what they are working on, so they will never understand what it’s like to
really enjoy that project. For example, when my children wanted to learn how to
play golf, they joined a group of beginners also learning to play golf. However,
many of the other children dropped out and gave up on the game very quickly
because they expected to become experts in a matter of hours, when, in reality,
it’s a sport that takes years for one to build skill, improve and actually become
good. Many people want instant gratification in their endeavors and when they
don’t get it, they lose interest. We need to think beyond that – If I’m bad at
something and I take the time to pursue it, I’ll eventually develop the skills I need
to succeed.

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. When we have visitors at
MedHelp, many comment on our low-stress environment. There are two things
I have done intentionally to keep MedHelp’s atmosphere that way. The first
is in terms of artificial stress – those who run by artificial deadlines create
artificial stress. I’ve worked hard to eliminate that type of stress and to kill the
politics associated with it. I trust people to work hard; we are a team that works
together and we make sure priorities are set properly and the rest falls into place
after that.

The second is to always keep things in perspective. Anytime lose perspective,
I call my mother and before I can say a word, she asks, “Is anybody dying? Is
anybody sick?” When I tell her, “No,” she says, “Then what are you stressed

about?” After having gone through the [Ethiopian] Revolution, she has such a
phenomenal perspective of what should cause stress. Talking to her reminds
me to put things in perspective, which, in turn, allows me to help those who I am
working with understand that stressing about unnecessary things is not worth it.
There are very few things that are so major. Most things are not.

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 whatever major stress we
do have to end at medium/senior management level. The other is that we are
very transparent with the company in whatever positive or negative experiences
we may be going through. These two tactics in conjunction with each other
allow everyone who is working at MedHelp to trust us to get them through
whatever ups and downs we’re experiencing without feeling any stress. Once
we get through it, I give the entire company detailed postmortems so everyone
knows exactly what happened and, as a result, our trust in each other continues
to build and our atmosphere remains relatively stress-free and productive.

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:  There are a lot of companies like MedHelp that are in the
health space and it’s become a priority for senior management in big companies
like GE to look at the health space. We’ve been very successful in these types
of partnerships. We find companies that understand the strategic importance of
working in the health space. Then, we work with them to understand what they
do have and where they want to go and leverage our platform to provide them
with the elements they’re missing to get there.

For example, GE has not always been a consumer health company; they sell
products to direct to hospitals. But, we realized together that GE needed to
have a direct connection with consumers, because, eventually, consumers will
be the ones that help drive the behaviors and decisions about which products
and technology will be used in these settings.

So, GE and MedHelp decided to start collaborating on a mobile platform as a
way to reach consumers directly. In partnership, GE and MedHelp developed
the mobile pregnancy application I’m Expecting and it did exceedingly well. GE
was incredibly pleased with not only the number of consumers we reached,
but also the meaningful connection that our app created between them and
the users. From there, we expanded our partnership to create a full series of
different and engaging consumers health apps, all with the goal of helping users
achieve better health.

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

John de Souza:  We want to make sure we continue to stay profitable and
that we keep moving forward. Having started, built and sold three different
companies, I know that a lot of what happens down the road depends timing.
It takes so much to build and chase exits that you end up spinning your
wheels and wasting a lot of time without much to show for it in the end. So
my experience has been that when all things align, at that moment in time, go
through and think about everything that will have an impact on the decision.
The best thing you can do to measure whether the time for an exit is right is to
always make sure that folks in the business make sure the companies make it
possible and the rest will take care of itself.


Editor’s note: this interview was edited for clarity on Feb. 22, 2013.

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