Talk to your customers and develop close relationships with your end users. Use those relationships to create ongoing feedback loops.
Aspart of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Reminick.
Jason Reminck, M.D., MBA, is the CEO and founder of ThalamusGME, a cloud-based SaaS company and creator of the premier platform for hospital residency application and interview management. Prior to launching ThalamusGME, Jason trained in the combined Pediatrics/Anesthesiology program at Stanford University, with interests in pediatric chronic pain. He is the Director of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs (SOPE) Nashville Chapter and also serves as an advisor, specializing in healthcare and business pitching, at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. Jason was recognized as a Physician of Tomorrow award recipient (2012) by the American Medical Association for his entrepreneurial, humanistic and medical journalism pursuits. He was a member of the Stanford University Society of Physician Scholars (2013–2017) and a Joseph Collins Foundation Fellow (2011–2013). Jason has won several nationally recognized entrepreneurship competitions including MedHack-San Francisco (2014) and the Johns Hopkins University Business Plan Competition (2012). He holds an MD and MBA from the University of Rochester and a BA and MS from the University of Pennsylvania.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Like many entrepreneurs, my path to this point has been a blend of focus and good fortune.
I probably got my first business experience at age 12 when I started buying and selling video games on EBay. The business was primarily driven by my own interest in gaming, but I learned a lot of basic principles that have definitely come in handy from time to time. For many years, my goal was to be a physician and I spent a great deal of energy focusing everything I had on achieving that goal. As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, I entered a dual-degree program that enabled me to graduate with a BA in biochemistry and theatre arts and an MS in chemistry in just four years.
Upon graduation I was fortunate enough to be offered a position as a research scientist at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals in the Department of Cardiovascular Disease. The team I was working with was researching novel cholesterol treatments, which was a fascinating area of study and gave me terrific experience in a laboratory setting.
I was finally able to combine my interests in science and business when I enrolled in medical school at the University of Rochester in their combined MD/MBA program. My business studies concentrated on entrepreneurship and health sciences management with a focus on medical education. But it wasn’t until I moved to Silicon Valley and began my medical residency at Stanford that my dream of starting a business in the health technology space became a reality.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I had a very clear “Aha moment” that gave birth to the idea behind Thalamus.
In the fall of 2012, I was in my last year of medical school and applying for residency. I had a number of interviews scheduled in New York City with major medical institutions. These interviews were extremely important and were going to determine where I would be spending the next few years of my life. As a native Long Islander, I thought I would almost certainly attend residency in New York.
However, Hurricane Sandy put a wrench in those plans. After the Governors of New York and New Jersey declared a state of emergency, all of the roads, bridges and tunnels leading to Manhattan were closed, leaving me safe, but trapped. Unable to get to some of my appointments, I frantically scrambled to contact the appropriate people and reschedule.
In the end, some of the appointments proved nearly impossible to reschedule. Two programs allowed me to interview on the last day of the season and two others were unable to accommodate me at all. I vividly remember one program coordinator telling me, “Well, next time try not to book an interview in the middle of a Hurricane.” I recall thinking that I never realized consulting a meteorologist was part of the residency application process.
About a week later, one of my fellow medical students shared a story about how he paid hundreds of dollars for a cab ride from Staten Island to Long Island because his house was completely destroyed and his car had actually floated away. Unfortunately, the residency program he was applying for, which was his top choice, could not reschedule him for another date. It was devastating and I felt terrible listening to his story.
Later, I was discussing the application process with another medical student. My mind was racing with ideas about how to improve this very stressful and challenging process.
I asked the other student, “What if there was a system where applicants could book and reschedule interviews themselves using a system that incorporated travel planning? And, what if it also helped hospitals better manage the process?”
“That would be a hell of an idea. I’d sign up for that in a second,” I remember him saying.
After the storm had subsided and clean-up began, I finally made it back to medical school in Rochester. I began discussing ways to improve the residency application and interview process with my mentor, an anesthesiology residency program director who later became the co-Founder of Thalamus. We focused on one particular question: How could we streamline the flow of information between an applicant and a residency program to avoid the kind of nightmare scenario I had experienced during Hurricane Sandy?
That was probably the moment when Thalamus was conceived.
I needed one more course to complete my MBA so we imagined an independent study where together we would write the business plan for what would become Thalamus. We found some mutual friends who were software engineers, built a minimum viable product, and rounded up 20 national anesthesiology programs to use it for their recruiting.
That storm changed my life. I can confidently say that without Hurricane Sandy, I probably never would have come up with the idea for the business I now run.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There were countless moments when I considered giving up. But each time, I got the drive to continue by returning to the core problem we were trying to solve: streamline the medical residency application process.
After medical school, I ended up attending Stanford University in their combined pediatrics and anesthesiology residency program. The residency required a big move, from the East Coast to Silicon Valley, and was accompanied by tremendous culture shock.
Suddenly, I found myself in the land of startups with a great business idea, a polished slide deck, about $2,000 in the bank and approximately $400,000 in educational loans. All told, this was not exactly the ideal situation to try and start a company. And, it’s probably the point where being resourceful, and very lucky, came together.
After doing a Google search for “Silicon Valley Lawyer,” I found an attorney who thought my idea had merit. And, he was willing to work with me in exchange for equity, which is a virtually unheard of concept outside of Silicon Valley. From there, things moved quickly. My attorney introduced me to one of his friends who was a seasoned entrepreneur and became one of our first advisors. We founded the company, built a proof of concept, raised money from friends and family, and were off to the races.
The Silicon Valley ecosystem was essential in getting the business off the ground. And, it never would have happened if I had not been doing my residency at Stanford.
Without a doubt, being in the right place at the right time, and recognizing the potential opportunity before me, really helped me to forge ahead during times of tremendous self-doubt and discouragement.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Great! We are now working with more than 150 top medical institutions including Stanford, UCSF, Johns Hopkins, The Mayo Clinic, and The Cleveland Clinic as well as tens of thousands of new physicians. Our software is consistently rated as the top solution in the marketplace by residency applicants and hospital administrators across the country.
We were fortunate to be accepted into Jason Calcanis’ Launch Accelerator in February of 2019 and finished as the top company in our cohort. In July of 2019 we were able to close a $1.5M seed round of investment led by Fresco VC, 37 Angels, Kapor Capital and the Launch Syndicate. Since then, we have added a number of exceptional team members and are focusing on rapidly scaling our product.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The startup ecosystem of Silicon Valley was built to allow founders to start companies based on innovative ideas. After moving here I quickly realized that this was where I needed to be in order to get the company off the ground.
I often tell my friends that living in Silicon Valley is actually a lot like the satirical HBO series “Silicon Valley,” which follows a group of brilliant nerds as they struggle to launch their startup technology company. In fact, during the early stages of Thalamus, I often watched the show to learn from their mistakes.
In episode two, the leader of the group, Richard Hendricks, receives a $200,000 check from his very first investor. He is exhilarated and runs to the bank in amazement. But since the check is made out to his company, which has yet to be founded, Hendricks has problems depositing the money.
When I received a $10,000 check from our very first investor it was the largest sum I had ever held in my hands. I felt the same kind of euphoria as Hendricks. We had just opened an account at a local bank specializing in startups and I took the check to their “branch,” which was really just two people in a nondescript office sitting behind a wood-toned Formica desk. One of the bankers asked me for the name of my company and to see some identification. He then simply took the check, placed it in a large pile of other checks and said “Ok, we’ll deposit it.”
He handed me a deposit slip and I left.
I was stunned. Watching the largest check I had ever seen get tossed onto a pile of other checks worth millions, only to be told that it would be deposited “later,” was a stark reminder that I was in the best place in the world to start a company.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Thalamus has brought Silicon Valley innovation and SaaS technology into the medical education space, which is a market that is notoriously resistant to change.
Our significant industry expertise combined with amazing technological prowess really sets us apart from the competition. Our senior leadership team has personally been impacted by the inefficiencies in the medical residency application process that we are working to solve. This in-depth understanding of the end-user gives us exceptional perspective that we can share with our technology team.
Nearly everyone who sees our product is amazed at its sophistication and design. On the surface it looks like cool scheduling software. But under the hood, we have packed the platform with logic, mathematics and infinitely customizable components that speak to a range of applications and industries. Now, as a result of COVID-19 we are also working on innovative virtual interview solutions for this upcoming application season.
Our competitors are comprised of more traditional medical and healthcare organizations. They have responded by labeling our company as “disruptive,” which has a very negative connotation in the medical and scientific community. However, in Silicon Valley being disruptive is quite the compliment, so we wear it as a badge of honor and it fuels our determination to succeed.
We are definitely disruptive, but we are also innovative, adaptable and hungry, which helps us stay in front of our competition.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The single most important piece of advice I can give to other SaaS developers is to listen to their customers. I’ve seen first-hand how customers will tell you exactly what needs to be built. And this has been our secret sauce.
In our case, our software is designed to manage the medical residency application process. This process is overseen inside medical institutions by program coordinators who are critically important, but receive very little recognition and acknowledgement for their efforts.
As I developed our product, I began to personally build relationships with hundreds of coordinators at residency programs around the country. As the company grew, cultivating close ties with these coordinators has been the central component of our business development strategy. As a result, a significant portion of our marketing effort is now spent on communicating directly with the program coordinators at every one of the hospitals that use our platform.
It has become a running joke in our company that we measure success by how many hugs and selfies we get at the leading medical education conference every year. We know in our hearts that we are solving a real problem because of the emotional response generated when we meet a user face to face.
For SaaS developers, nothing can substitute a deep connection to the customer.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My Co-Founder, Dr. Suzanne Karan, has been indispensable to the success of our company. A residency program director and a medical student are not a typical pair to start a venture. But Suzie and I believed in each other and our strengths are complimentary. She trusted me enough as a medical student to start out on this wild ride together. I found the developers and she convinced her counterparts at other hospitals to beta test our software. She took a chance on altering a time-tested, almost sacred, process that had no room for error and had remained unchanged for decades. She has supported our research initiatives and provided incredible insight into the design of the product. Most importantly, she has trusted me enough to run the majority of day-to-day operations.
Even today, Suzie and I speak at least three times a week despite the fact that she is an accomplished physician practicing on the front lines of COVID-19 and a mother of four. Not all professors would believe in their students enough to start a business. But Suzie and I have developed an incredible bond of trust, a deep friendship, and a business partnership that has formed the backbone of our organization.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
We work with more than 150 hospitals in the United States. Our platform is used by more than 700 individual residency and fellowship programs across more than 100 medical specialties. Approximately 80% of all graduating medical students now use Thalamus each year.
As of today, more than 125,000 practicing physicians have used Thalamus at some point in their training.
The most important step we took to grow our community was building our product with the end user in mind. I was a medical residency applicant and Suzie was the program director at a major healthcare institution, so even in the earliest stages of the company we already had a head start on understanding both ends of our user experience.
Secondly, we frequently survey and contact our customers to ensure we are hitting the mark with our product. Most recently we issued a survey to 20,000 users and asked them to describe their experience with the platform. More than 40% responded and shared their thoughts about the product, which is a very strong indicator of success.
Similarly, we ran an appreciation event for hospital program coordinators at a major medical education event this year. More than 150 coordinators attended and personally thanked us for the work we were doing. That was a really incredible and rewarding moment for my team.
Finally, we built our platform with flexibility in mind. We want to be able to respond to our users and satisfy their demands for a product that works best for them. Developers should never be asking their customers to change in order to use a new platform.
For instance, in light of COVID-19, most hospitals are transitioning to virtual interviews. In response, we built our own integrated video conferencing software to make it easier for our customers to conduct interviews online and brand their programs from a distance. We have added new tools for hospitals to better market themselves to residents online, such as hosting videos, virtual tours and integrating with social media platforms.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
We have a three pronged plan for growth. The first phase targets major teaching hospitals as our primary source of revenue. Initially, we charge hospitals an annual recurring licensing fee for our SaaS software. The applicant pays nothing to download and use the platform.
The second phase will focus on providing medical students with a unique analytics tools to enable them to apply smarter, while empowering hospitals to recruit in a more streamlined manner. Along the way, we believe each party will save money using our platform.
The third phase of our growth strategy will focus on extending our relationship with a physician over the course of their career. Our plan includes creating a platform similar to LinkedIn but exclusive to doctors. This extension will utilize data and other metrics to provide greater transparency, insight, and analytics to medical licensure throughout the career cycle of a physician.
We also have plans in the works to expand into other vertical industries. To this end, we work with some of the largest law firms in the United States in their efforts to recruit classes of associates. We believe there are other professional programs that could benefit from Thalamus and will be exploring many different potential markets as we ramp up.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.
The most important things I have observed over the years as an SaaS entrepreneur are:
– Keep an open mind and be creative. Ideas come in all shapes and sizes and from all corners of the organization.
– Take chances and find trusted advisors who can help you along the way.
– Understand the technology and, if necessary, hire exceptional technical people who will have your back and oversee product development.
– Build something you are personally passionate about, and deeply understand the problem you are trying to solve.
– Talk to your customers and develop close relationships with your end users. Use those relationships to create ongoing feedback loops.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
That’s a complex question because I can answer as a both business leader and as a medical professional. In order to provide the most good to the most people, I would find a way to allow doctors and other healthcare professionals to practice effectively outside of the bounds of the current healthcare system in the United States.
Physicians are incredible healers, and the current COVID-19 crisis is highlighting the personal sacrifices and commitment they bring to the job. Right now, the usual red tape that often exists in hospital bureaucracies is absent. As a result, healthcare teams are functioning like well-oiled machines with physicians, nurses, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, physical therapists, occupational therapists, nutritionists, all focused on helping patients rather than dealing with paperwork.
Whatever the healthcare system can do to provide the best patient care will ultimately allow healthcare workers to help more patients in need. So anything that can be done to assist in allowing medical professionals to help their patients is key.
While Thalamus isn’t directly involved in patient care, we believe we are helping the system by allowing doctors to move through the residency recruitment processes with a little less stress and anxiety. Anything that can be done to decrease physician burnout will have a measurable impact on patient care in the long run.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Personal Twitter: @jason.reminick
Company Twitter: @thalamusgme
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!