How do you define an entrepreneur? You might have visions of bleary-eyed university students hunched over laptops in the dark, coding the next Facebook or of businesspeople starting a new chain of restaurants. As an entrepreneur, the only definition I’ve been able to relate to comes from Eric Ries, writer of Lean Startup: “someone who creates a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”
During medical school, a few friends and I founded Mediwikis, a platform for medical students to share and update medical information with their colleagues. Getting started wasn’t easy: we made quite a few mistakes and we learned important lessons along the way. What follows is advice for those looking to start a business or those that want to learn the skills of being an entrepreneur for their hospital or their research.
During my third year of medical school, I noticed that my friends were sharing their notes on word documents via various Facebook groups. I thought that I had spotted a problem — while the response to the notes was good, two things were happening:
- Great sets of notes were lost to the next year group — there was no way for one cohort to transfer advice or information to the next.
- Bad sets of notes with errors could not be corrected, and so wrong information could spread through a year group.
I had some experience with wikis from gaming and thought that the same technology could be applied to medical education. Thus, I aimed to create Mediwikis to assist the students at my medical school. My vision was clear: improve medical education by allowing anyone to supply and learn from the resources that they find most useful.
My first lesson came early. When I started, I thought I knew exactly what I was doing, and dove straight in by starting the website. I was enthusiastic, but that enthusiasm led to many wasted hours, as I failed to consult other students on how the site should be laid out, or what they’d like to see. Thankfully the feedback I got early on was so strong that we were able to salvage the platform by rearranging and rewriting the site, but this wasted a lot of valuable time.
From my experience, my first piece of advice would be to create what is known as the minimum viable product, or a prototype that resembles the simplest functioning form of the product, and put it in front of the intended consumer to get feedback. This is important because one does not always know what the user’s are expecting or would like to see in a product or service. Without prioritizing, you might end up creating something that only elicits a lukewarm response from users — think of Google Glass!
Getting started, we were lucky to receive some really good quality notes from clever medical students, who got the website up to the “critical mass” that enabled everyone to get involved and start adding even more and better content. The response that we had from students at our university was phenomenal — with over a quarter of a million page views in the first couple of months. We were convinced that this was something that people enjoyed using, and therefore aimed to take it to other universities.
My next piece of advice is the importance of a business plan. In order for Mediwikis to be sustainable, while being free for users, a business plan was paramount. I didn’t come from a business background, but working with our university’s entrepreneurial development department, we were able to learn how to write an effective business plan, and how to execute it. A business plan can be anything — I’ve seen some that are structured like sales documents, some that read like a story and some that are so academic they wouldn’t be out of place in a journal. As long as you are specific and clear about each point of the plan, and can provide evidence of how each point will lead you to growth and success, you can’t really go wrong.
However, you don’t have to stick to this business plan rigidly — it’s important to have a clear vision, and how you’re going to get there, but if an opportunity or shortcut comes along, adapt and take it. On the other hand, don’t be distracted and end up chasing many rabbits at once!
Next, whatever area of business you’re going into, there’s a wealth of information available, and my best advice to you would be to read and absorb as much of it as possible. All of the technology for Mediwikis is either based upon the software underpinning Wikipedia, or is developed in-house. This meant that new technology and updates were slow until we learned an effective development practice — at one point the site was a house of cards of third-party software that was no longer maintained, bloated and slow. By looking critically at whether each section was used by the users, we were able to speed up the site while improving the user experience. I learned to code Python and PHP to a rudimentary level, and I loved it, but it’s not for everyone. Even if you’re thinking of running a technology based business, not all projects need coding — you’d be surprised how much is possible with a basic WordPress website, and we used off-the-shelf software initially!
Lastly, balancing the needs of the business with my own training was incredibly difficult, but worthwhile. Initially, I felt the need to skip lectures, or miss seeing my friends when meeting people for the business; however, I soon learned that everyone is likely as busy as you, and most likely won’t mind waiting for when you are free. I also learned to free up “dead time” — stop checking my emails constantly, not look at the site every day and switch off my phone when in clinical time. Around exam time, there was a definite need to cut out the business activities. I would advise to build a business that can function without you — delegate as much as possible to skilled team-mates, automate anything you can and build a community of customers/users that will support you taking time out, as Mediwikis users have.
- Got an idea? Create the minimum viable product, test it, learn from it, and adapt.
- Creating a business? Write a killer business plan and stick to it, but be willing to make changes as circumstances change.
- Balance your time closely, cut out useless stuff.
- Don’t be afraid to delegate.
Dr. Stuart Maitland, MBBS, MSc is an Academic Foundation Doctor in Newcastle, UK. He researches self-learning networks, and networks of self-learners. Dr. Maitland is the Founder of Mediwikis, a medical revision community.