Baby's Next Doctor Visit -- Through Instant Message?
McKay Thomas's business life has, to a certain degree, paralleled his personal life. First there was PoolTables.com, a company Thomas helped launch with two friends straight out of high school. In 2011, they sold that company to Billiards.com and went looking for the next big idea. "At the time Brazil was on everyone's map," says Thomas, 28. "All of us were parents and knew the baby space well." Ready for an adventure, Thomas moved his family to Sao Paulo to help build Baby.com.br. into what is now a 350-employee company with a million moms in its online community.
Thomas's newest venture, First Opinion, aims to solve a different need for new parents -- a direct line to doctors who can answer questions about everything from nutrition to childhood development. Backed by $1.2 million in funding from the likes of Greylock Partners and Felicis Ventures, the San Francisco-based company connects moms to a network of full-time doctors, who are also moms, via its free app and $9 monthly subscription service. Entrepreneur spoke with Thomas about how technology can reinvent the doctor visit.
ENTREPRENEUR: You're a father of two young children. Did your own experience as a parent inspire First Opinion?
Thomas: Definitely. My wife and I were living in Brazil with our daughter, who was one at the time, and all of a sudden we're pregnant with our second child in a foreign country and in a foreign language. We went through five doctors trying to find someone who was a good fit. Meanwhile, on Baby.com.br there were all these moms on our community page looking to discuss health and child development. I started putting two and two together and realized there had to be a better way to give people a real, personal doctor experience.
#insert related here#ENTREPRENEUR: What are moms not getting from traditional doctor relationships?
Thomas: When most people go to the doctor they hear, "Come back if it gets worse." It's very transactional. The average face-to-face doctor time is seven minutes. People are paying $30 to $100 co-payments for seven minutes of face time with a doctor, and most of those visits are purely informational.
The other option is to look for information online, but that's often the worst thing you can do. One of the first jokes I heard when I got into the healthcare business is "Dr. Google is an Oncologist," because everyone who searches online ends up thinking they have cancer. What people need is someone to help them interpret the information.
ENTREPRENEUR: You put a lot of emphasis on your doctors being moms. Why is that so important?
Thomas: All of our doctors are moms because initially we are focusing on moms as a customer. As we expand demographics we'll expand doctors. If we get into, say, athletics later on, then your doctor will also have experience in athletics. It only makes sense that your doctor shares experiences with you.
ENTREPRENEUR: Yet, all of your doctors are in India. Many Americans complain about talking to overseas customer service representatives for things like airline tickets. Are your customers comfortable talking to doctors who are thousands of miles away?
Thomas: When I started looking to build a network of doctors I realized that about a third of all practicing doctors in the United States come from overseas. I went to India and started getting to know these doctors and realized that India is an amazing place for doctors. The people you're talking about are customer service representatives; in contrast, these are highly educated, English-speaking doctors who come from the same medical schools that supply doctors to the United States.
We also tested it and found that people are location agnostic as long as they can relate to their doctor. We said we have this guy in Florida who is a doctor and we have this mom in India who is a doctor. As long as the doctor in India was well reviewed people were choosing them. Turns out speaking with a doctor who is a mom, who's been there before, is pretty powerful.
ENTREPRENEUR: How are customers interacting with their doctors?
Thomas: We tested video chat, phone calls and emails. They all tested pretty ho hum. That left us with instant messaging. As soon as we started testing this the light appeared. We don't send your message out into the void. You get matched with one doctor and all the messages go to the same doctor via our mobile app. This is a person who gets to know you and your kids.
ENTREPRENEUR: What are the most common questions?
Thomas: We have several thousand users and the types of questions we see are focused on nutrition, fertility, pregnancy and childhood development. Two-thirds of the conversations have nothing to do with illness, pain or injury. These are mom-to-mom conversations, but one of them happens to have a medical background.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Sarah Max is a freelance writer in Bend, Ore. She has covered business and personal finance for more than a decade for such publications as Barron's, Money, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. In 2009 Sarah got a first-hand look at the ups and downs of entrepreneurship when she helped launch 1859 Oregon'’s Magazine, a bimonthly print and digital magazine for which she is editor at large.