Alfred Poor of Health Tech Futurist : “Don’t build what people need”

A dip is not necessarily temporary, and a rise is not necessarily a trend.Everyone who has ever started a business has great expectations. You build a business plan that projects rapid growth and imagine the good life to come. When it comes time to track your progress, however, too many people let optimism take over. […]

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A dip is not necessarily temporary, and a rise is not necessarily a trend.
Everyone who has ever started a business has great expectations. You build a business plan that projects rapid growth and imagine the good life to come. When it comes time to track your progress, however, too many people let optimism take over. You close your first deal and get your first check, and the natural tendency is to think that this is going to be the new normal. And when revenues dip, many people have the reaction that this is just a small setback and the revenues will resume soon.
Of course, the reality can be quite different. Rises and falls may be temporary or they may be long-term trends. You don’t know until more time passes. As a result, I’ve learned not to get too excited or too discouraged by changes in revenues, either up or down.

The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.

As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alfred Poor.

Alfred Poor is a technology speaker and writer with a focus on health tech. A graduate of Harvard College, he is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books and he is the Editor of Health Tech Insider, a website and industry newsletter that provides curated news and original analysis about wearable and mobile technology for health and medical applications. His superpower is his ability to explain complex concepts to a wide range of audiences in a way that they can put the practical information into immediate use.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

As a child, I was always fascinated by how things worked. My parents encouraged this interest by providing me with clocks and other devices that I could take apart. Growing up, I had a bureau with five drawers; two of them held my clothes, while the other three were filled with “things that might be useful someday.” I’ve spent my life gathering things — such as information — that might be useful someday and sharing them with people who could use them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” H. L. Mencken

People tend to be impatient; I know that I am. This makes some of us want to jump to an answer — any answer — so that we can move on to the next step. But the simple answers are often incomplete at best. It takes time and effort to puzzle through the complex problems to find a practical solution. I seek out evidence, testing the proof, before I commit to a plan of action. I still make mistakes sometimes, but I make fewer of them and I have a better understanding of what went wrong.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I could give a long list of books have had a big impact on me, but if forced to choose one, I would have to pick “Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered” by E. F. Schumacher. The book champions the concept of “appropriate technology;” you don’t always need a bigger hammer. The key is to choose technology that is in the right scale to accomplish a given task. For example, farmers in developing countries don’t need giant tractors; they need a small, inexpensive, efficient, powered winch to pull their plows across their small fields.

This perspective has helped me avoid the “shiny” distraction of “better” technology that doesn’t actually deliver practical advantages.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?

I have experience with pivoting in my career. I wrote for PC Magazine (and other major computer magazines) for more than 20 years. I made a good living in the process. When you spend 3,000 dollars on a new computer, you care which one is best. But when that price drops to 300 dollars, you don’t care as much; it becomes a disposable choice.

After personal computers became commodities with few differences, I pivoted to helping people understand television technology. I had been PC Magazine’s display expert (and was elected as a Senior Member of the Society for Information Display), so when the U.S. went through the transition from analog to digital TV broadcasts, I helped them understand the difference and decide whether they needed a new flat screen television or not. Once again, when you spend 5,000 dollars on a television, you care which is best. When the price drops to 500 dollars, you don’t care as much. So I was buggy-whipped again.

In looking for my next focus, I saw wearable technology as a rapidly-growing market. I was not all that impressed with expensive pedometers that were only 20% accurate, however. I was more interested in devices that would help people live healthier lives, help detect disease earlier for more effective treatments, help lower healthcare costs, and help save lives. When a friend launched a series of websites related to wearables, he asked me to be the editor of Health Tech Insider, a site that provides curated news and original analysis about wearable and mobile technology for health and medical applications. After a few years, I bought it from him and continue to publish it to this day.

I also saw that it was getting more difficult to make a living as a freelance writer, so I also pivoted to professional speaking. I had lots of experience speaking for free at various conferences and events over the years, so I decided to make it a source of revenue. I have spoken at events across the U.S. and abroad. I was the Keynote Speaker and Honorary Program Chair for The Digital Health Show in Melbourne, Australia. I have spoken at CES, the large consumer electronics show in Las Vegas every year for the past six years.

What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?

In February 2020, conferences and other events were cancelling and it soon became clear that no onsite events would be held soon, and perhaps none at all the entire year. I heard from several professional speakers who were planning to just shut down their business and wait for 2021. I chose a different path; I pivoted from making onsite presentations to speaking at online events.

Over the years, I have produced many of my own webinars as well as being paid to speak at webinars for clients. As a result, I had the equipment, the skills, and the experience to deliver a compelling presentation online. In the early part of 2020, I spoke at a number of international onliine events, including “#VirtualPivot” (as Keynote Speaker) and “Work From Home Summit 2020.” I also produced a three-day summit for five other speakers: ”Resilience Summit 2020.”

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?

I was in the middle of reaching out to meeting planners for industry association events when I realized that they weren’t going to be putting on any onsite meetings. My first reaction was “How can I help these people accomplish their goals?” They still needed to provide information for their members, or clients, or prospects. Their businesses weren’t stopping just because they can’t hold onsite events this year.

So I started reaching out in the spirit of partnership and support. I used my social media channels to increase awareness of what I had to offer and I began to get inquiries.

How are things going with this new initiative?

It’s going well, though it could always be better. For the first half of the year, meeting planners in general seemed to be scrambling, trying to figure out how soon they could restart. By the summer, they appeared to be coming to grips with the fact that they wouldn’t be doing onsite events this year, and they were starting to be more open to alternatives. Now meeting planners are committed to online events for the near term, even though they may not be completely prepared to make the switch.

In addition to my speaking, I’ve produced online events as well. I am a partner in Techfluence, a series of consumer electronics online trade shows for the technology media and YouTube influencers. We had our first event in September which resulted in rave reviews by both the exhibitors and the members of the press who attended.

I’m also participating in the creation of VEG: the Virtual Events Group. This is intended to be a community of those involved in all aspects of online events. I helped put together a list of the various platforms that are available for online events; that list now includes more than 100 companies.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I stand on the shoulders of so many giants who have helped me reach this level. I do my best to “pay it forward” and help others as I have been helped over the years.

I’ll single out one person who played a role in all this. The late Bill Machrone was the Editor of PC Magazine for much of the time that I wrote for the magazine. Over the years, we became friends and I admired his insights. One of his favorite sayings was that “Everyone is a beginner for at least 30 minutes.” The point is that nobody is born knowing how to do things; we all have to learn. Some learn faster than others, but we are all beginners at some point. Not knowing how to do something is not an obstacle, but instead it’s a challenge that can be overcome. He encouraged my natural impulse to figure things out for myself so that I truly understood them. I could then explain them to others, whether through writing as in the magazine or in books, or through speaking either onstage or online.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

This summer, I got to interview Wilbur Wright of the Wright brothers. (He was actually a reenactor and historian who plays this role for school children.) With the pandemic, he was not able to give his talks in person. I helped the First Flight Society by producing a free streamed event where I interviewed Wilbur about his life and times, and about how he and his brother achieved the first powered flight.

The program was streamed live on several platforms, and it was watched by hundreds of children (and adults!) around the country. It was great to be able to use this technology and my skills to provide a special experience for these kids whose schools were closed due to the pandemic.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. A dip is not necessarily temporary, and a rise is not necessarily a trend.
    Everyone who has ever started a business has great expectations. You build a business plan that projects rapid growth and imagine the good life to come. When it comes time to track your progress, however, too many people let optimism take over. You close your first deal and get your first check, and the natural tendency is to think that this is going to be the new normal. And when revenues dip, many people have the reaction that this is just a small setback and the revenues will resume soon.
    Of course, the reality can be quite different. Rises and falls may be temporary or they may be long-term trends. You don’t know until more time passes. As a result, I’ve learned not to get too excited or too discouraged by changes in revenues, either up or down.
  2. Everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you planned.
    “No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.” Helmuth Von Moltke
    In other words, your plans go out the window when the first shot is fired. A business plan is a good thing as it helps you lay out your assumptions for your business. A good plan will help you determine whether the venture is feasible financially and otherwise. If you can get expert, experienced help in building the plan, it has a chance of being somewhat accurate.
    But the fact is that even the best business plan is speculative fiction and you must be prepared for things to go differently. Money will go out faster than expected while revenues will be slower to arrive. My rule of thumb is to take the amount of capital you expect to need to launch your business, then double that number. And then double it again. In most cases, that may be enough to get you started.
    When I started my first business as a computer consultant, we had to refinance our home twice to have the money needed to get us through the startup years.
  3. People don’t do business with companies; they do business with people.
    It is a rare business that you can just set up and let run on autopilot. In most cases, you need to have personal contact with your prospective customers or clients. You need to establish trust with them. I think that the best way to do this is to be scrupulously honest with them. If you exaggerate or stretch the truth, they may not believe anything you say after that and it will be hard for them to choose to do business with you.
    Instead, I try to under-promise and over-deliver so that people feel that they are getting real value in their dealings with me. The end result is a loyal customer base; keep in mind that it’s always easier to make a second sale to an existing customer than it is to find and convince a new customer to buy from you.
  4. Don’t build what people need. Build what they want.
    This is my favorite mistake. I have made it over and over throughout my career. I’m getting better at it, but I still struggle with this.
    I understand that you want to solve a problem for your customers, and that’s good. But your solution may not address the problem that they think that they have. The classic example is an electric drill. The average customer does not want a drill. They want to make holes in things. To do this, they need a drill, but that’s not what they want.
    One of my first self-published books was about HDTVs. I explained the different technologies and the advantages and disadvantages of each type. I explained the different specifications for flat screen displays, and I told readers what to look for when selecting a new TV. I sold the book with a no-questions money-back guarantee, and while many readers were very happy with the book, I’ll never forget the first return I got. The customer was apologetic in asking for his money back, and I assured him that I was happy to do it. But I asked him if he would share what was wrong with the book. “There’s too much information in it,” he told me. “All I want to know is which television to buy.” I gave him some specific recommendations and sent him back his money.
    So if your customers need broccoli, don’t try to sell them broccoli. Sell them the ice cream that they want instead, and then add some broccoli to it so that you solve their problem.
  5. The unfamiliar is scary. Make it familiar and it won’t be scary.
    A familiar quote states that “people fear public speaking more than death.” It’s wrong.
    This is an inaccurate summary of a study’s results from the 1970s. The study showed that people fear death more than public speaking, but that speaking was indeed a fear shared by many people.
    Our brains are hard-wired to fear the unknown as a survival instinct. When we are faced with an unfamiliar situation, we naturally respond with anxiety because we don’t know what will happen. This is true for speaking, but it’s true for other activities as well.
    I am also a musician and have performed in public with groups ranging from bluegrass bands to classical music choruses. And I am always a bit anxious the first time I play or sing a new tune. It takes me a while to learn the notes, and then the words. I have to listen to the other musicians to make sure I’m in sync with what they are doing. A lot of different things are all happening at once. So I practice. I rehearse the music over and over, by myself and with the other musicians. And over time, I memorize the music. It becomes familiar to the point that I can relax and feel the flow. I may still be a bit anxious the first time I perform it in public, but usually that passes quickly and I feel relaxed and natural in my delivery.
    I believe that the same is true for public speaking. It’s normal for it to be a bit scary at first, but if you practice it over and over, if you repeat a speech enough that it becomes familiar, you will be less anxious. Just as with a favorite song, you will just know “what comes next” without having to refer to written notes. You will know how long it takes to deliver; you won’t be anxious about running too short or too long. You will know the shape of your talk, which will free you from having to remember the precise words and instead can speak freely about your topic.
    The key to transforming the scary parts of life is to do them over and over until they become predictable and familiar.

So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?

My family is important to me, and having both our son and daughter and their families nearby has been a great comfort. We worry a lot less because we know that they are all safe and healthy.

Family also helps me keep my perspective. Business is important, but it is not as important as the safety and health of my wife, children, and grandchildren.

I also have other activities to give me balance. I have a small garden in the summer that produces enough tomatoes that I can eat one every day and still have plenty to share with the neighbors. I have a small woodworking shop where I make gifts and projects for our home. For example, I made desks with adjustable legs for two of our grandchildren to use while doing their remote learning. We also have a sailboat that gives a socially-isolating activity that provides us with a change of scenery and a peaceful experience.

Finally, I do my best not to stress over situations that are beyond my control. If there’s a problem that I can help solve, then I’ll do what I can. But sometimes I have to simply accept that some problems will have to work themselves out or have someone else fix it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I try to use my influence to encourage positive change. In particular, I believe that wearable and mobile health technology can help save the healthcare industry in this country. Costs are spiraling and care is declining for too many people on our country and worldwide. Health tech can make patient monitoring and treatment more efficient and effective. We can diagnose disease earlier, which means that treatments can start sooner, which in turn results in lower costs and better outcomes.

For example, a few connected devices can help patients with chronic conditions send data to their healthcare team. This can allow them to spot changes, sometimes even before symptoms are noticeable. As a result, the problem may be solved by a small change in medication. In contrast, patients without this monitoring often wait until they are in crisis, resulting in an expensive ambulance ride to the Emergency Department and subsequent hospital admission.

Another example is our aging population. The vast majority of seniors wish to remain living independently in their own homes, but we don’t have enough caregivers and family members to be present all the time. Technology can help with these aging-in-place issues, by monitoring for gradual or sudden impairments that could threaten the health or safety of the seniors. Technology can also help compensate for physical or cognitive impairments as well.

I want to do what I can to help people understand the benefits of such technology, and address the complex problems that stand in the way of the adoption of these devices and services.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

I have great admiration for many people in many different industries, and I’ve been fortunate to meet more than my share of them. If I could pick one person to have lunch with, I would pick Atul Gawande, former CEO of Haven (the healthcare venture by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan Chase). He is an expansive thinker and visionary, and has written extensively and eloquently about how healthcare can be changed and improved. I would welcome the opportunity to share ideas and explore concepts with him.

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Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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