Joe Tuan
Joe Tuan
Founder, Topflight Apps
January 10, 2019

“What’s the point?!” It’s a question I found myself asking during a moribund business school lecture; the question that got me started on the path to healthcare app development.

It’s true. No matter where I’ve been since then–where I’ve applied myself–I’ve always continued to keep my nose pointed in the direction of healthcare. Even coming down with a life-threatening chronic illness only gave me more vested interest in taking care of others; I simply had more first-hand experience than some of my colleagues and competitors.

Over the last ten years I’ve continued to improve my skills as a health practitioner. I’ve gone to school for Public Health and Public Policy, consulted top medical professionals, founded health startups, and most recently, have been helping clients build their healthcare apps with Topflight Apps, the cumulation of all my healthcare-oriented efforts. And in all that time, only once have I considered quitting. Just stopping it all and giving up.

The name of the startup was MyPatientMatch (MPM). The blank canvas it offered was the culmination of my hopes and dreams. All my pent up anger toward healthcare regulations and inefficiencies, the oft-found lack of research, and always, the eternal lack of patient-centered care, all of that drove me for two years to create the best possible application I could create. I was a hellbent warrior with boundless physical and creative energy, and going that hard at the same problems every day was almost an out-of-body experience.

Don’t Let Your Startup Become Your Identity

I’m sure you’ve heard entrepreneurs say that you shouldn’t let your startup become your identity, and believe me, it’s for good reason. The Tasmanian force of nature that I was did not translate into company success. And if I am honest with myself, it was for that reason that I spent my last year with the company in a pretty dark place.

Looking back, I think if it were a non-healthcare startup, I likely would’ve left much earlier. When you care deeply about something–have more domain experience in that thing than anything else, commit every day of 2 years to this thing–and still end up not really moving the needle, it’s impossible to not feel like failure incarnate when it’s over. And of course, it always takes longer to stop loving something you thought you would “be with” forever.

If I can fully capture for you how emotionally devastating this was, I even stopped talking to the patients that used to be my tribe, because they began to remind me of my shortcomings.

So, I left. I decided not to do another healthcare startup. Instead, I got started with freelancing for digital agencies and soon after founded my own agency in Topflight. Although my original motivation for starting my own agency was more about rebounding financially (e.g. “Time for steady paycheck after not taking a dime for 2 years”) and emotionally (e.g. “Let’s work on something I have zero emotional attachment to”), over time it’s actually become a place of constructive rehabilitation to get back to where I belong.

Initially, I avoided healthcare clients, but slowly…somehow (like it was calling to me) I found the courage to ease my way back in. From deep within me, my need to tackle the most critical healthcare inefficiencies outweighed everything else. And now, able to do it on my terms, detached, without fear, that stagnant needle that we couldn’t move with MPM, was now starting to wiggle.

Redemption: 1, Ego: 0.

Nowadays, I help well-funded entities like university researchers and hospitals improve their digital strategies and mobile app experiences. I’m learning that working with high-caliber clients allows me to do with them what I could not do on my own. I learned that in order to succeed, that I needed people around me who were going to elevate that success–make it more possible. It felt good, to give in. To trust others in the work I was so sure only I could complete. Suddenly, I was more than my startup. I was a leader. A leader who knew how to take care of the people who needed me most–even if that person was sometimes myself.

Of course, there are still times when I want to leave healthcare altogether. When a lead from a large hospital ghosts me or turns down a project after I invest weeks into scoping the perfect app, or when I fail to help a healthcare client get enough users or hit their engagement metrics. These failures affect me 10x more than when I’m working on non-healthcare projects.

I can think of one time, I almost managed a million-dollar budget for a company that co-created Blue Button, but ultimately couldn’t meet their demands due to my chronic illness. It was the sort of day where I felt like Icarus for flying too close to my dream project. But I learned to accept that the hurt will keep on coming as long as I care deeply about the results. The point is to be ok with this.

Don’t get too high, and don’t get too low.

When I look back at the last 10 years, I feel blessed that I’m still working in healthcare and I sometimes grin, finding myself still wanting to be here. And when I’m honest with myself, I know that everything I’m doing now has something to do with my previous hardships. If we hadn’t run out of money during year two at MPM, thus forcing me to learn to code, I probably wouldn’t be building healthcare apps with the team I have now.

What’s more? I’ve gained a more spiritual view of my place in time: I believe I am where I’m supposed to be (roughly illustrated below), and that nothing happens according to my plan. The only keys to moving forward are always choosing the harder project, facing each day with a little more bravery than fear, and reminding myself that there will be many more failures in the business of moving needles.

But oh, is it ever sweet when we move them.

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Joe Tuan

Founder, Topflight Apps
Founder of Topflight Apps. We built apps that raised $165M+ till date. On a mission to fast-forward human progress by decentralizing healthcare and fintech.
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