One of the fundaments of entrepreneurship is its inherent risk. When a passionate person with a big idea takes a chance knowing they might lose a lot, they have the spirit of an entrepreneur, and they have major potential to grow.
Although there’s no reward without the risk, there are some key skills any entrepreneur can work on to strengthen their chances of succeeding.
By building a strong company culture, aligning your teams, doing proper research, hiring the right people, and staying true to your start-up's core DNA, you’re on the right track to becoming a strong leader who can appropriately grow your business.“So a lot of times, money is great, and I highly recommend working with great VCs out there. The one thing is, is try to not let it, it will, but try to not let it change your DNA too much in how you're growing, and grow appropriately.”
What Every Entrepreneur Needs to Know
In this week’s Growth Marketing Chat episode, Dr. Ryan Hungate, founder and CEO of Simplifeye, shares his unconventional journey from orthodontist to business founder and describes what every entrepreneur needs to do to succeed.
He highlights the importance of:
Building a strong work culture with smart, passionate people who will own up to mistakes
Cleaning up your ideas to make them presentable
Having strong mentors who will guide you
If you’re an entrepreneur, you truly are a jack of all trades. With the right skill set and focus, you can scale your business and see measurable success that can be personally and financially fulfilling.
Watch the full interview now to find out if you’ve got the skills to become an accomplished leader and entrepreneur!
CAROLINE: Hi, welcome to "Growth Marketing Chat." Today I'm here with Dr. Ryan Hungate, is the CEO and founder of Simplifeye. Ryan, thank you so much for being with me today.
RYAN: Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.
CAROLINE: So I love interviewing founders. And my favorite question for founders is like, can you tell me more about your journey and how you became an entrepreneur?
RYAN: Yeah, I've got a very odd background. So, I'm an orthodontist. So that's one of the weird, rare things, I guess, about me. But prior to all of that, I actually worked at a small company called Apple. So I was out in Cupertino and worked directly for a gentleman named Ron Johnson. It was a lot of fun. I was there during a pretty cool time, from 2007 to 2008. And for all of the Apple historians out there, that was when the iPhone came out. So we went from having a decent amount of people in our stores to an insane amount of people in our stores. And there was like this crazy growth period while we were there.
So I was directly responsible for the Apple retail workflow upfront. So when I first got there, our number one-complaint was I can't find anybody to help me within the store. And it just didn't make a lot of sense to me because we had 40 people working upfront in every single store. So being a pre-med major at Ball State, I thought, well, hospitals have figured this out. They have triage. What if we triage people? And so we started with a couple of stores, we started setting people up front. We would ask them what they wanted. We would use walkie-talkies at the time. We didn't have iPhones with app stores or iPads or anything like that. So we used limo signs, and where basically I would say, hey, Tom Smith wants an iPhone. Somebody, whoever was on iPhone, they would write it really quick on a sign, hold up the sign, just like a limo driver. And we would run over to them. And we found that helped get people more attention. There was still some people that would slip through the cracks, but it was kind of intentional. So we would do that.
Then we still had a checkout line while we were there. So I thought that's ridiculous. Why do we make people check out? Because we would find that when we put people in the checkout line, they would just leave. They would have what was called a dropped cart. And we started to make everybody a checkout line. So we'd give them these little PC things. And it was funny because they ran on Pocket PC at the time. And we'd always say, "Oh, sorry, that's a Windows problem," if it'd ever screw up. But, basically, we would turn everybody into a checkout line. We mounted receipt printers underneath desks, so you didn't have to leave. And that helped get people to checkout faster, and everybody was happier. And then the last piece was, which is probably my favorite, is that people would stick around in the store too long, meaning that when you would buy $600 worth of something, you more than likely didn't have another $600 to spend. But you wanted to hang around and play with all the toys, but that would just make it more of a cluster in there, and people would get intimidated to walk in. So we started to walk toward the front to signal, hey, maybe you should leave.
And we would kind of use the stuff you just bought, as you can almost say, like a treat of sorts. And we would hand it to you when you got close enough to the front door, and out the front door, you would walk. So that started to make stores look a little bit more empty, people less intimidated to walk in. And I got to deploy that in about 300 stores-plus worldwide, which was really exciting. And a lot of people still do this to this, they all still use that system to this day except now we have iPads and iPhones and other cool things.
CAROLINE: That's amazing.
RYAN: Right? And it was fun because I got to work directly with Ron Johnson. Ron Johnson was the ex-CEO of Target. He's the reason that Targets are really cool and not really awful. A lot of people don't remember that Target used to be really bad.
CAROLINE: Oh really?
RYAN: And then Ron came along. Oh yeah, Target was like a dingy, dark place. It was like a Walmart minus, right? Some other things.
CAROLINE: That's crazy.
RYAN: Yeah, everybody forgets that. And he came in, deleted half the aisles, marked up the prices by 30%, and made really bright lights. And that's what you know today. You know that Target is the nice place to go. And it's brilliant. Yeah, they were really struggling at one point in time, and he really flipped that around.
So he really applied, I got to learn a lot from him and his practices over those times. And it was about all that time where, because I was pre-med, pre-dent at Ball State, all of my friends who were pre-med as well were getting into dental school and medical school. And I remember them because I was the, quote, nerd of the group, you could say.My friends had no clue what I was doing at Apple. But at the same time, they would show me their software. And I remember looking at the software and thinking, oh man, you guys gotta update. This looks like it was built in the '90s, and it was, and it was brand new. And it's one of those things where if you look at any electronic health record now, I don't care whether it's the best of the best in EPIC or the oldest of the oldest in the retail healthcare space. They all look the same. They're all terrible, every single one of them. And still to this day, they're all terrible. And it makes sense because if you change, make a drastic change on any one of those electronic health records, it's not like Snapchat changing their UI overnight, where, okay, I gotta find a different way to swipe and get my lens for my photo, and you want to figure that out. People actually die, right?
I would miss a latex allergy or a penicillin allergy, or I would miss a pre-existing condition if I shifted that around and automated it. Even though it might end up being better, legacy users are not used to that. So what happens is, is they will either complain, and it will be reverted back, or it has to be super small, incremental changes or gigantic changes. So what happens is there's a lot of good electronic health records out there that actually take workflows into consideration. But now I walk up to a practice and go, hey, do me a favor and change your electronic health record. People will quit. Doctors retire because of this, where they go, "I'm good. I don't wanna learn any of this ever again. I already hate my existing one. Paper's way better. I'm done. I'm out." So you're left with having to find something in between, and I didn't know any of that, by the way, going in. I just thought that we could fix it with a better electronic health record. I decided to go to dental school because I noticed that, so my dad's a golf pro. My mom's a nurse. But I noticed it whenever my dad was out at the golf course, all of the dentists were there on Wednesdays taking the full day off and half day on Fridays. And I'm like, this is the profession for me 'cause all the MDs are working 24-7 and on the weekends. I don't wanna be that person.
So, anyway, decided to go to dental school, realized very quickly that we don't learn any business at all. I had 11 years of school, and the only business class I ever had was economics at Ball State University. And that really didn't take too much back then. So that's scary because all of us go on to literally start million-dollar businesses. It's the only place where you can actually have no clue about business and start a million dollar business on accident, right? Anywhere else, if you do something like that, like a coffee shop, your world falls apart, right? You go out of business like a light, not a doctor. People are always hurting. So that's something we have, but there's so many inefficiencies in between that maybe a $1 million practice could be a two or a three, even a four. Who knows what happens there. But at the same time, you're not going to teach them business. You're not going to give somebody an MBA unless it's their passion. I realized over time you have to automate this with software or whatever it might be. So, started to develop this concept behind Simplifeye, realized I'm not gonna change electronic health records. So I need to layer on top of that and modify from the outside in. Don't change a thing in your practice. Graduated from U, so went from Indiana dental to USC ortho, limped along because it was one of those things where I had my current job as an orthodontist and was doing great.
It was in Manhattan Beach. It's amazing, right? Everybody's filthy rich in Manhattan Beach and pays cash It's awesome But at the same time, every time I was at work, I was thinking about Simplifeye. Every time I was at Simplifeye, I was thinking about my ortho practice. And I knew one had to give. And I learned that, I think, really valuable lesson that a lot of entrepreneurs learn the hard way, that splitting your time just doesn't work. And I think any good investor will also tell you that. At some stage they'll be like, yeah, you have to go full-time. Otherwise you're gonna hire a full-time CEO, or I'm not going to invest in this company. They know what that means to be a full-time CEO.
So I wanted to let somebody else decide for me because it was too difficult. So I decided to apply to the number-one accelerator in the world, and I'm not saying Y Combinator, right? I'm saying AngelPad because their track record is way better, and they only let 12 people in. Y Combinator has a big shotgun approach. AngelPad is very refined and concentrates more on enterprise SMB. So applied there thinking there's no way in hell, and I was just gonna be, I'll be fine with the rest of my life this way. And I got an interview, 15-minute interview, fly out, met Tomas and Carine. And I thought it went really well and didn't get a call. And I was like, aw, man, okay. Cool, moving on. Four weeks before AngelPad was supposed to star, I get a call. Hey, you're coming to New York to do this. I'm like, oh my God, like now I gotta quit my other job. And it was great because it was really my wife that said, "Look, I know you're gonna be the guy at the Thanksgiving table that if you don't do this, you'll always be wondering what if and telling stories of what if. We gotta go do this." So we decided to pack up, leave LA, go to New York City. And the rest is history. We came out number-one in the class, raised $3 million from huge, strategic investors out in Silicon valley with First Round Capital, Felicis Ventures, and what was SoftTech Ventures at the time and now Uncork ventures. And we've been off to the races ever since and just growing and really evolving the story of automation for retail healthcare.
CAROLINE: That's awesome. That's quite a story.
RYAN: Yeah, thanks. It feels like yesterday.
CAROLINE: I hope that your next company helps reorganize airports because-
RYAN: Oh my God, right? I agree.
CAROLINE: Cool, so, okay. So throughout your journey, you, as an entrepreneur, like all entrepreneurs, when you start, you kind of have to do so many things yourself that you probably don't know anything about. So what are the most important skills you had to learn along the way?
RYAN: It's interesting. So you learn every lesson the hard way is what I've found as an entrepreneur. The only thing that can help accelerate this is, honestly, like your mentors that can hopefully help you. This is why I say definitely get mentors along the way. Listen to them. Always take everything they say with a grain of salt because it's always based off of personal experience, and their experience will always be way different than yours. But it's good to get a good amount of people, kind of amalgamate that together, and move forward. This is where we were very fortunate to have those great investors early on, helped me figure out what it looks like to organize a board, create board meetings, professionalize the business, get good P and Ls together. There's a lot to that.
If you can walk into an investor meeting with those things, like I said, they don't teach that in ortho school, right? And you have to do a lot of that research. And what's nice is that when there's a thing called Google, or you can figure a lot of this stuff out, and then also if you get a good investor or just a great mentor, you can find a lot of that out. I think that one of the things that nobody really tells you, and I look at a lot of more amateur-facing companies like where they've got great ideas. And then I look at like their cap tableor their founding documents, and they either don't exist or it's just a mess. And I'm like, man, this is definitely a VC-backable company. But if you walked into anybody that's decent, they won't be able to do something until you clean this up. And I've helped a lot of different entrepreneurs with that. So, I think one of the things is when you are ready to get past maybe like a pre-seed round and back-of-napkin kind of thought process, and if you want really good seed investors, definitely clean everything up. Work with somebody who knows what they're talking about. They won't charge you for this, by the way. Your legal team will charge you, but somebody shouldn't charge you for this information. This is 101, and you should get that under your belt. And then afterwards, later on when they're giving you real business advice over and over again, sure. Give them dibs in the company.
But that's one of the big things that I realized. And it's funny that you say you kind of have to do everything as an entrepreneur. You're right. I was the first at every single job in our company. I was the salesman. I was CS. I was tech, like all along the way. I'll tell you one of the things I wish I had. I wish I had a technical co-founder. That would've been really cool because I think that founders find themselves wanting to stay up endless hours and bust it on their startup. And I would get the business in order, the marketing, CS, like everything, like how you talk to the doctors. We would have all that stuff ready. What can I do coding wise? I literally can't. I could growth hack some stuff together with Zapier and Google Docs and other things like that. And it's easier now with no code environments than ever, but you have to have somebody technical, and whether that's a technical co-founder or not, man, those guys and gals have huge legs up in that world because then you have somebody staying up through the night that cares so much about that product. And even now where I have 35, now almost 40 engineers, a majority of them are nine-to-five engineers, which is fine. That's what you need. But if crap hits the fan in the middle of the night, who is the one that wants to wake up and fix that?
You need somebody like that. So I'd highly recommend that. And the way I compare it on entrepreneurs is that we have, our company is kind of like our heart, right? And what I do is eventually, I trust you enough. Let's say I hire you. I trust you enough to take a piece of my heart and hand it to you and say don't screw it up, right? And you know they will. That's the worst part about it. And you hire people. That's why I always tell people hire people that are way smarter than you on whatever position you're hiring because you are, you're handing them a piece of your heart, and you know they're gonna screw it up. And you're always gonna have in the back of your head, whenever that does screw up, I would have done it different. Would you have? Would you really done it different with the variables that you had? Maybe, but you have to be okay with that because otherwise you're not going to scale your business. That's the other piece. And I think that's the blessing and the curse of an entrepreneur, is that we like to do everything. We love it. We love to build everything from scratch ourselves so it is perfect.
But one of the examples I use is if you gave me $20 million, $50 million, I could probably build you one flying car. I could probably do it, one time. Now to build 100,000 flying cars and sell them and market them and get the cost low enough so people can afford it, that's the difficult part. Ask Tesla. Anybody can do something once, same thing with software as a service. I could do it and scrape it together with sticks and glue with Zapier and those other things I was talking about. Making it so 10,000 people or 100,000 people can use it, that's a completely different story. And, honestly, scaling at the end of the day is the hardest thing in any business, especially if you see-
CAROLINE: Yeah. Yeah, so that's really interesting because, so managing your team, like things change drastically as you grow and as you hire. At first, you hire everybody yourself. You're in every single interview, who you're hiring and same for training. And then you grow to like, how big is your team now?
RYAN: We now have about 250 people throughout the world.
CAROLINE: All right, so you're not interviewing everybody yourself, right?
RYAN: No. No. Yeah, and it's tough. You're right. It's tough. You want to because sometimes you'll see when something screws up, and you're like, how the hell did you not see this in this interview? It's very hard, and all you can do is try to embed culture into everything because what happens is like usually attracts like, is what I end up finding unless you're putting undue pressure on growth. So every so often, like let's say, I'm like, I gotta hire 90 salespeople between now and this time next year. What happens is is if you say that, I have to have 90, then what you concentrate on is you concentrate on the number, not the quality. And I've made that mistake before. So I think that the more people can hire, and that's obviously from undue pressure from VCs, right? They expect you to grow revenue, how it is.
So a lot of times, money is great, and I highly recommend working with great VCs out there. The one thing is, is try to not let it, it will, but try to not let it change your DNA too much in how you're growing, and grow appropriately.
CAROLINE: Mm-hm, yeah. That's a great point. Yeah, so I do have a question about marketing because it is "Growth Marketing," after all. So it's about sales and marketing, right? And it relates to culture. Really aligning sales and marketing is something so crucial to both sales and marketing success. And I wanted to ask you about your approach when you try to align sales and marketing teams.
RYAN: Yeah, so you just got to remember one thing, right? Marketing loves sales. Sales loves marketing, right? That's the culture you have to sow, in my opinion. And if they truly love one another, it'll work, but they have to truly love one another, and let me tell you what I mean by that. When we first started marketing, it kind of felt like it was on an island. So you had this island over here called marketing, and sales just expects marketing to do their job and shove leads in their face that are the easiest leads to close on Earth. And that's it. That's just how marketing works, of course.
CAROLINE: In 90% of the companies, this is exactly what's happening, more, 99% of the companies.
RYAN: Yeah, pre-qualified lead, registered, basically begging to buy your products. No, right? You will always have the lion's share of the work of the sales process on sales. It's going to be a thing like that, right? Will they be warmer and more knowledgeable about your product and a better pre-qualified lead? Yeah, we should be able to do that, but there are so many different sides to marketing, right? There's the marketing cash that you, quote, light on fire for branding. You have to do that. You literally have to do that. And I've gone from thinking like, okay, that's lighting, catch on fire. That's not, right? You have to build that brand. You have to do that. It might be farther down the line. Maybe you should start with marketing qualified leads and then move on to that. But one kind of feeds the other in that hand, as well. So the thing where we really started to accelerate was when we started to have weekly meetings between sales and marketing. And what we would do is marketing would tell everybody. And marketing kind of led sales in a way, I guess you could say, but meeting that they would say, look, here's what the market research is that we've done. Here's what we think our users would like to hear about our product.
So they know the forward, backward of the product. That's the other thing. Marketing has to understand the product just as well as sales. Everybody has to actually understand use cases, the whys, the wheres, the whos. All those things have to be understood uniformly in the exact same way from sales to marketing. The second piece is that once they do all of that information, like, research on marketing, they also have to tell them, these are the campaigns we're running. This is what the person will be thinking when they come in from that meeting. And then after they're done when they come in, here's how you're going to follow up. So they have to have follow-up campaigns ready to go. Like we utilize Pardot within Salesforce where they can do that. You can do it in HubSpot, whatever might be that you're gonna end up using, but you have to have follow-up campaigns so that they're calling in and saying the same thing.
So if a lead does come in, it's not just the same old pitch. So maybe marketing ran something where, would you like more, like take our company, for example. We want it to help doctors get more implant cases sometimes. Okay, if a person does that, and then you talk to them and go, hey, would you like more new patients? It's not as cool as saying, would you like more new implant patients, right? You have to be able to follow up in a perfect fluid way from marketing to sales. And when we finally started to have those conversations, sales finally understood and said, oh, you're teeing me up in a better way than I could have ever imagined. Yes, the doctor is a little bit more knowledgeable, or your customers are a little bit more knowledgeable about what you're talking about, but that's really all I needed. Our close rate went from 40% on a call to, all of a sudden, it jumps to 60%. I mean, that's an insane jump overnight.
We also have to help explain those numbers to sales because their reaction is very binary, right? They look at it and they go, did I make a sale? Did I not make a sale? Marketing's not doing their job. No, like that's not how that works either. Sure, you can show them that your numbers are going up. We're getting more marketing qualified leads as time goes up. We're reaching out to more people. It's nice to show graphs in marketing meetings that look like this, right? That's another thing that I remind people, but you also have to explain that to them because some salespeople who are good at their job will go, well, those graphs are going up, but my sales are flat. So that makes no sense to me. And other people, you gotta say, whoa, whoa, whoa, that person was able to do it in the way that we explained. And that's why their sales numbers are going up. So, again, I think it's really explaining it, sorry, explaining it, to everybody. The example I always use is when, I don't know if you ever did the exercise back in the day, we did it in grade school where somebody teaches somebody how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When you really truly write out all the instructions for that, you have to tell somebody to pick up the knife, and you have to tell somebody to unscrew the lid. And everybody forgets about that because a lot of times, when you're a specialist in an area of marketing or sales, you assume the other person understands your job just as well as you. That is never the case. So you need to be okay with, especially in a startup, because you're doing things from scratch, explaining everything from start to finish. And if you do that, you're gonna get people that appreciate it. And you're gonna get uniform departments that like to work with each other more and more because you don't feel like you're shorting each other. But, yeah, remember, sales loves marketing. Marketing love sales. It's what you gotta do.
CAROLINE: Yeah, no, that's amazing. And this is what gets results. And most of the time, this is where things fall apart. You can have two incredible teams. If they don't work together, and just like everything you said, you really need to go into the details of it. Because otherwise you're not gonna get the return on investment. So, yeah, I really appreciate that you went through all of this.
RYAN: Of course.
CAROLINE: It was really helpful. All right, I have one more question. So, throughout your journey, what is the most valuable lesson you've learned?
RYAN: It's to literally treasure your culture more than anything else. So, you could call that people. You can call that whatever it might be when it comes to your team members. But when you focus on your culture, We've gone through some crazy. You go through some crazy stuff in a startup. All people see all day long is people ringing bells on Wall Street, and oh, man, this guy or gal is a unicorn. That's amazing. To get to that point, they had to see some serious shit, right? Like they had to see some seriously crazy things where they've more than likely, Who was it? Wesley Chan was telling me that almost all of the successful companies have seen two periods of time where they were on death's doorstep, almost all of them. And that's something, to say that those crazy good companies have almost died twice. And it makes sense. You have to go through some crazy stuff and learn scaling, like we were just talking about, and marketing. And there's times where you think you're killing it, and then you hit a wall, and then you gotta figure it out all over again in a completely different manner.
The only thing that's gonna get you through that, in my opinion, is to put a diehard team together and instill culture of, it's okay to do things for other people's job. Like the more not-my-job people that you have in your organization, the more you're gonna fight an uphill battle on instilling passion in people, and on top of that, getting people to help other people out. At Simplifeye, if somebody from CS sees somebody that needs help in operations, we go help them. We stop what we're doing, and/or we pause what we're doing, and we help that person, or we at least ask how we can do it for a multitude of reasons, right? One, it helps the business go faster, but, two, it also helps you learn. I think it's so cool, and that's one of the most fun things about startups, is that MBAs are great and highly recommend that people get them. But I would recommend joining a startup way more because you're going to learn more at a startup than you would ever even dream of at an MBA. Sure, Stanford MBA, go get it. But at the same time, a Simplifeye MBA, you're going to have more practical business knowledge than you would dream of, even if you were on CS or on sales or on operations, in engineering. It doesn't matter because it's a flatter organization, at least to start, and then you can learn from each other. And if you instill the culture of saying I see a piece of trash on the ground, I'll pick it up kind of deal, Yeah.
That's what you want. You want those people in your organization, and then you don't have to worry about sending somebody to a trade show and them not having the right light to hang on that and just going, ugh, and throwing up their hands and walking away. I never have to worry about that. It's fantastic. So if you have that instilled from the ground up, and that's what I recommend, and that really starts with the founder. If that's the attitude of the founder, it permeates through the entire organization. If it's not, if it's like I hire people, and I delegate down, and that's not my job, maybe there's a way to do that, but I don't see it. And I think that you see failure a lot with that. If my team members see me busting my ass day in and day out every single day, staying up late, they're much more likely to do the exact same.
CAROLINE: Yeah, yeah, exactly. All right, well, Ryan, this was a fantastic interview. Thank you so much for spending time and sharing your experience with us.
RYAN: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.