Randi Oster is Co-Founder and President of Help Me Health and author of Questioning Protocol, an award-winning book that helps patients navigate the healthcare system and medical professionals understand the patient perspective.
Randi spoke to Innovation Destination Hartford about her experience as a serial entrepreneur and how her book helped to shape her latest startup.
IDH: You have an extensive background launching startups and becoming a successful entrepreneur. Can you share a little about that journey?
RO: I have an electrical engineering degree. After I graduated from college, I started work right out of the box at General Electric. I worked in aerospace and was in charge of the new products for aircraft engines. I learned a lot about working with teams to come up with innovative new designs and work with innovative new materials.
From there, I went on to work at GE Capital, where I won the President’s Innovation Award in 1991. Back then we didn’t have the internet or apps to create. We had to rethink processes, products, and promotion to come up with new creative customer solutions. I became known as the innovation leader in the company and my passion moved from starting products to starting businesses.
IDH: Any takeaways from those experiences?
RO: Yes, the only time you fail is when you quit. Sometimes instead of quitting, take the time to learn and then redirect your efforts. I learned this approach works for all startups.
I launched many businesses and product business lines for GE Capital—from energy to consumer business. The product and customers may have varied but the formula for success didn’t vary. Listen to your customers. Find a way to meet their needs and then apply the key ingredient to ensure a successful launch. Persistence.
At GE Capital, they referred to me as an “intrapreneur,” which is someone who is an entrepreneur within a company. The process is incredibly similar to skunks tanks, where you put your business plan together, pitch to the CEO, get the money, and run with it.
There’s only one difference between being an intrapreneur and an entrepreneur. And it’s a major one. It is funding. Intrapreneurs get money from their company. Plus, I got paid a salary to start the business. If it failed I had no personal financial loss.
But all the other pieces of a startup were the same. It starts with a business plan. Once approved by management, I still had to market, build the product, and hire a sales force. Even as an intrapreneur, the initial team was small. So I had to get trademarks, outsource key vendors, and pick logos. But when my computer crashed, I got to call the company’s IT department.
I made mistakes but it was on the company’s dime. I think I learned more from the mistakes than I did from the successes. Mistakes require rethinking. Mistakes require an honest look at your approach. Mistakes require trying again. Mistakes require learning. Those lessons built my confidence to know that I am resilient. As an entrepreneur you need to know that you find ways overcome whatever issues you face. Your team will look to you for reassurance when things are harder than expected.
IDH: How did those experiences help you recognize a new business opportunity?
RO: At GE I learned how to discover market trends, develop innovative solutions for new product introductions, and motivate a team.
Back in 2009, my son was experiencing some complications from Crohn’s disease and I had to spend a lot of time with him in the hospital. I just assumed all business operated at the efficiency and productivity levels of GE.
After the third person asked my son the same question about allergies, I started to think of process improvements for the hospital. I remember, the more time I watched healthcare workers navigate their inefficient system, the more I thought: The planes would fall out of the sky if we did things like this.
I couldn’t believe the process. We didn’t know when the doctor was coming in. I don’t think they did either. We didn’t understand what was happening and it didn’t seem to be part of the process to explain it to us. My son was just so miserable. I told him: We are going to fix this. We are going to fix healthcare. They have to understand that this isn’t working for us.
I knew I had the skills to try to figure out how to improve the system. I started taking notes in the hospital. I have an MBA focused on operations. And I thought: I’ll just start to give the hospital some suggestions.
My son ended up with a complication from surgery. He was re-hospitalized three weeks later. I started to use my Six Sigma Quality hat to figure out what the hospital could do differently. The more I wrote the more I realized that the lessons I was sharing to improve my son’s hospital experience could help the hospital he was in as well as other healthcare institutions. Plus, the same techniques I used could help empower patients and loved ones to learn how to navigate the healthcare system with confidence. I turned my notes into a book called Questioning Protocol.
IDH: Tell us about the book and how it factors into Help Me Health.
RO: Sometimes our journey takes us on a path we do not expect. In this case, I wrote a Questioning Protocol and turned it into a business. The book is the personal story of how I helped my son build a high-performing healthcare team focused on his needs. The business trains employees to meet the needs of patients by understanding what they want.
This business side launched because Kathleen Cattrall, a trailblazer in customer experience and cultural change, read the book and got in touch with me. She told me: We can take everything you’ve talked about in Questioning Protocol and change the culture of hospitals so that they become more patient-centered.
As I talked to Kathleen on the phone, I believed her. Sometimes you take a risk. I could not pay her to develop the courses. We decided to join forces to develop training modules based on the book and industry best practices to improve the patient experience and the hospital bottom line.
In 2015, we combined Kathleen’s incredible background at Time Warner Cable and my background and started Help Me Health. We found other industry leaders to help us build our product.
The methodology we’re using at Help Me Health is a proven training system that really gets cultural change happening in a rapid, engaging way.
IDH: How are you working to achieve that?
RO: We have workshops that help train healthcare employees. The key to success is a quality product. Especially when you are new to a market and trying to sell into a customer base with established vendors. Therefore, you need visibility and results that can speak as testimonials.
For example, we’ve recently presented at the Planetree conference in Chicago and a representative from the Veteran Affairs Office said we were the best practice of the event. In December, the Connecticut Hospital Association had us do an afternoon workshop for area hospitals and our feedback score was 3.9 out of 4.
Our next step is to pilot with major hospitals and complete pre- and post-testing for patient satisfaction and employee engagement measures. Bottom line results are even better than testimonials.
IDH: Where do you see the company going in the next few years?
RO: We hope to be working with many hospitals on patient experience initiatives and helping them look at their processes from the patient perspective. We provide the tools for healthcare employees to develop successful strategies and tactics to improve the patient journey.
By facilitating the hospital employees’ hands-on learning about patients’ emotional needs the patients, we expect to be a major force to improve the culture within the healthcare system.
IDH: Any advice for those launching their own startups?
RO: There is a lot of noise when you’re starting a business. I think it’s hard to figure out how to focus. You need to focus very clearly on the right next step, otherwise you can dilute yourself and you won’t get where you need to go. That discipline is hard because there’s so much to do and you have to figure out what are the steps.
Think of it as concentric circles—small circles that get larger and larger. You can define the vision as the outer circle, but to get to that big vision—which is what we all have as entrepreneurs have—you have got to first get to the first circle. That’s the discipline. The entrepreneur is thinking about the big circle, but you have to start at that first circle and then grow and learn. That’s what has really helped us focus.
Learn more about Help Me Health at www.helpme-health.com.