Knowing a problem personally is powerful motivation to bring a solution to market.
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My friends Hoyoung Ban and Young Choi always peppered me with business ideas. Because one has experience working at an internationally recognized company and the other has a Ph.D. in engineering and physical science and is a genius, I always listened.
From a business perspective, none of the ideas were solid. Until one was. It was an idea that struck home for both me and Hoyoung. It aimed to solve a big problem in the American healthcare system we have experienced firsthand.
I was born with spina bifida and grew up in South Korea. That meant two things: First, I couldn’t participate in Taekwondo. To a kid in South Korea, Taekwondo is like football, basketball and baseball all rolled into one: Pretty much everyone participated, but I never could. Second, I spent countless, repetitive hours in rehab.
Repetition is kind of the point of rehab. Stand up, lie back down, stand up, lie back down. Completing small exercises 50 times in a row. Whether you’re a kid or an adult, that gets boring fast, and you’re never sure if it’s actually helping. How’s that for motivation?
But it’s necessary. Hoyoung knew this too. Several of his family members suffered strokes and struggled to regain functionality. His family didn’t even know about the rehab options available to stroke victims, which to be fair were a bit primitive in the 1980s.
So when we considered starting a business to gamify rehabilitation for people recovering from stroke, and Young said he could make it happen, the idea clicked immediately. Rehab was, and is, a big issue we are emotionally attached to. Most important of all, the rehab options in America at the time were a lot like the rehab I experienced 30 years before in 1980s South Korea. That emotional connection was key because it was anything but smooth when we set out to build this business.
Don't distract yourself from your main goal.
This wasn’t our first rodeo. Hoyoung and I worked closely together on a number of projects in business school. He had experience in the business world and we had tons of support as we worked toward our MBAs at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. But almost immediately, we ran off the rails.
Our plan for gamifying rehab for stroke victims was to build a wearable device that would be more responsive, more fun and more motivating. We had secured some funding but wanted a way to generate revenue while working to bring a wearable to market.
Thus, the side project was born. We started building mobile games. They seemed connected to our goal of gamifying rehab, and we could develop them quickly to support the hardware development. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as we thought. Suddenly resources were flowing into two projects instead of one. We wanted to work 50-50 on each but we found ourselves spending 80 percent of our time on the "side" project.
Everything always requires more work you think. Unless they truly depend on each other, don’t get sidetracked working on multiple projects. If I could go back to the beginning, I would stop that side project before it started. It seemed to make sense at the time — both projects shared technology and our vision — but it proved to be a drain on time, energy and resources.
We were building for two completely different audiences: one project for stroke victims, and another for gamers in their 20s and 30s. Looking back, we were way off track.
Finding the perfect employee is like playing poker.
We launched the business with our team of engineers working in South Korea while Hoyoung and I completed our MBAs. We flew over to check in during breaks in the school year but we weren’t present for the day-to-day. It was tough to know how our team got along or how new hires changed the dynamic.
When you’re spending 80 hours a week together in the same small space, disagreements will inevitably occur. That’s why finding the right personality fit is just as important as someone’s skill set and work ethic. At times, we found we were imbalanced and had to reset the team.
Hiring is like gambling. You can make the best decision given the information at hand, but could end up losing when all the cards are shown. In business, you won’t know how someone fits in and how they’ll perform until they’ve been on the job for two or three months.
What you can do when you’re interviewing is look for chemistry. Make sure candidates meet everyone they will work with. Every new person has an impact on team chemistry, and you want to make sure it’s a positive one.
If I could do it all over again, I probably wouldn’t.
Starting a company from nothing takes blood and sweat. It’s a road filled with potholes and lined with distractions. To be honest, it also takes a few lucky breals along the way to be successful.
If we had to go back to the start, who knows if the opportunities would line up the same way and lead us to where we are today. I don’t know that I’d be willing to take that risk again. But we grabbed ahold of those lucky breaks, learned from our mistakes and now the business is humming along.
We’ve introduced two products to help stroke survivors with their recovery, first for clinicians, then for the home. We’ve expanded to wearables for victims of spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. We’re looking into building products for special education students and the dementia population as well.
Right now we’re in growth mode. We have a solid team that works well together, and we’re focused. Focused on ways to make rehab fun, to create a better experience for every patient, to serve a population who, like me as a child, has a path to better health through repetition.