Alex Mark is a designer and the founder of Truthly, a health research aggregator. In this interview he discusses the best way to gain startup experience, searching for a co-founder and talks about how Truthly gained 20,000 uniques after launch.
Alex, what was your pathway to becoming an interface designer?
I do think I took a pretty unconventional route become an interface designer. Then again, I don’t think there is a conventional route.
I started doing graphic design in high school. I started because I had a lot of free-time. I was into Photoshop, Illustrator and all of that jazz.
When I went to college I studied psychology, not design. When I graduated, I wanted to start a company, but I wanted to do it in a way where I would gain experience on the job. It was sort of a test run before starting a real business.
That lead to something called Impact Clothing Company. I ran the company for two years right after college. We raised enough money for a few villages in Uganda to get clean water. It was a good experience.
I used the design knowledge that I gained in high school to make it work, but it was really my first step into web design.
After that I realized that design was a skill I could leverage to make myself more valuable to startups. I started learning user interface design, and ended up starting a web design shop with a friend.
I did that for about three month before I became a Hackstar. Essentially, I willed my way into learning interface design.
Tell us more about Impact Clothing Company. We’re you running a screen printing shop? What types of clothing are you selling?
Back in college there were lots of fundraising events. Fraternities and other organizations had fund raisers. I hated it because most of the people participating in those events were doing it to put on their resume, and not because they actually cared.
I started Impact Clothing Company because I wanted to do something that was completely dedicated to the cause, and not to glory and profit. We ended up donating 100 percent of our profits to Charity Water. Things started out pretty small, but after a few years we were at an inflection point.
We could have gone from pre-designed, pre-cut clothing that we were screen printing, to a larger operation—we had a manufacturer lined up, clothing designs. We would have been able to cut and sow.
But I said, “No”.
This wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. It was too hard to make money. In the end we shut the operation down.
The home page of Alex Mark’s Truthly, which shows trending pieces of health research for the current week.
Do you think that starting that clothing business was the most valuable thing that you’ve done?
Interestingly, no. I’d say not at all.
There are a lot of people that say starting a business is the best experience you’ll have. I disagree. The best experience is going to work for a startup. Sure I learned about fashion, clothing design and other types of design. Those are great, but they are all specific skills.
I didn’t learn about business side of it. I didn’t know what it would take to succeed, because I didn’t succeed. I didn’t know the value of networking, or how hard it would be to donate all the money and have no cash reserves.
The best experience, for me, was being a Techstars Hackstar. It was working with ten early stage companies and seeing the struggles they went through—that was a lot more valuable.
That is interesting, because I learned so much from starting my business.
Now that I think about it, I went to go work for drchrono, which is a YC company, after I graduated from college. It was a business I knew nothing about, healthcare software. I learned an incredible amount while I was there.
I think people think you learn a lot from failure—which you do—but you learn so much from success, and being a part of success.
Tell me a little bit about being a Hackstar? What does that actually mean?
The Hackstar program is interesting. It’s essentially a single-founder program for Techstars. It’s a great system to learn with if you want to be an entrepreneur and you want to learn about starting company, raising funds, and about building a huge network. The program itself was a fire-hose of knowledge, information and networking.
During the Hackstar program, you work with other companies as a mercenary contractor. Companies will come to you and say that they need a design or feature in three weeks. You get to decide if you want to take that project or not.
You end up working closely with two or three different companies, working on a significant amount of product, and helping them move the ball forward.
You are not a part of any individual company while a Hackstar, are you an employee of Techstars?
Yes, you’re an independent contractor for Techstars. Essentially you’re someone that Techstars has brought in and vetted.
At the same time. you go through the program as a founder would.
It’s hard, especially in San Francisco, because you see a lot of developers that jump ship to start their own thing—that’s just how things are there.
So Truthly is a health research aggregator. Could you go into a bit of detail and tell us more about it?
I’ve had my own health issues, and I realized that it was really difficult to find trust-worthy, personalized, accurate health information online. You’ll mainly find blogs and slideshows—healthcare content is terrible. We’re trying to disrupt that with a platform that connects consumers to health research.
Imagine Stack Overflow. A user can search for a health issue, and then filter by different variables. I can search for heart desease, and then filter by Omega-3 and over 50-years-old. Then we make a list of these findings that are all research-backed. It isn’t a question-answer format like Stack Overflow, but it contains research-validated content.
I was looking at the Truthly app. It appears to have a clean interface and information is well organized. How do you differentiate the Truthly app when compared to the bigger competitors like WebMD?
WebMD is great for diagnosis. If you have a skin rash, it tells you what it’s all about. However, WebMD is not good for wellness, nutrition or fitness.
If I’m researching nutrition or fitness, I mainly get articles. These articles are written by people who may or may not know what they are talking about. They reference other articles that have authors they may or may not know what they are talking about. You have to wade through all this misinformation.
The other problem with WebMD is that it only gives you a diagnosis. I know that I have a myocardial infraction, what do I do after that? There are things that I can do, treatments and medicine I can take, there are lifestyle changes I can make. Where can I go to find that information?
I was actually talking to a doctor, one of our mentors, about a week ago. She has Multiple Sclerosis and couldn’t walk for 4 years. She had to use a cane. She was on MS drugs. At some point she realized that there’s a research on diet and nutrition in MS. She changed her diet, and she’s been totally symptom-free for the last 6 years.
This is an example of a doctor that should have known about this research, and literally had no access to this information—life-changing information!
What we’re doing is bringing that to the surface, and making that available. We’ve got a platform that makes easy to cross reference information. She can look at MS diet as it relates to her.
Many of these research papers are incredibly in-depth, and can be difficult to read and understand. What are you guys doing, visually, to help organize this information?
Again, imagine this is Stack Overflow. Everything in Stack Overflow is based around a question and an answer. For us, it’s the research paper and an answer.
The research paper is the backing idea for whatever piece of content or whatever knowledge we’re trying to distribute. On top of that our content team actually reads that research, summarizes it, and makes it easy to understand. Then we tag it so you can sort that information.
And in the future, we are actually going to build personalized information for you. Again, a diet for MS for women is totally different than diet in MS for men. The dietary changes you need to make are truly different depending on the person. Combining the demographic of a research study and a user’s health history, we can actually match that up and give you the most accurate, and the most trustworthy research-backed information.
If you’re just a business guy, it’s really hard to get people to work with you. If you have other skills, people are a lot more willing to take a chance.
Truthly is in alpha, is it just you working on or do you have a team that’s working on it?
It’s just me right now. I’m actually looking for a co-founder, but I’m super picky.
I have a content team who’s doing the research. They’re a bunch of students who’ve done research, so they know what they’re talking about.
I’ve been able to get this off the ground. We launched Truthly Alpha 3 weeks ago. We’ve seen a ton of traction—over 20,000 unique in just a week. We’re really focusing in validating to that people who want this content. I think we’ve done that.
Co-founders are extremely important, and I’m not going to take this journey alone, but right now that’s where I’m at.
Why do you feel like you need a co-founder in your company?
I guess for people who don’t understand startups as well, co-founders are really important. You need someone to bounce ideas off of. If you’re in your head the whole time, eventually you’ll be led astray.
The second reason is to delegate tasks. I need someone to build product, while I’m raising money, networking or designing.
Also, accelerators won’t give you a look unless you have a cofounder.
You mentioned that you’ve got about 20,000 uniques . What activities did you do when you guys do at launch?
Initially we focused on a health segment that was small, but active, and had no solution to their problem.
We chose two skin disorders, Rosacea and Acne. People were posting information and links to articles on forums. There was actually one forum post that said, “Can we get all this research in one place?” We figured that was a good community to start with.
We focused on a community-based user acquisition model. A lot of time was spent interacting on forums, and we’d occasionally link back to these articles. The same thing was done one reddit, and we actually had a reddit post go viral, and ended up on the second page.
It was all manual in the beginning, but now we’re testing a secondary, social user acquisition model using Pinterest, Twitter. We’re seeing a pretty high conversion rate, and are seeing a difference between the targeted traffic and social traffic.
I think people think you learn a lot from failure—which you do—but you learn so much from success, and being a part of success.
We want to figure out how much traffic do we get with 150 Twitter followers. What happens when we model that with 1,000 Twitter followers? How long will it take us to get there, and how much traffic will that send continually? What do we need to do to get to 1 million users?
Interesting, so are you seeing people tweeting about these articles?
Anecdotally, I’d think searching for and sharing healthcare conditions are something people would want to keep private, but you guys have found otherwise.
Well, there are a few things that we’ve found.
People are into ground-breaking information. People want to share things when they find something that changes their perception. We’ve got titles that are easy to share—that’s where we see reddit and other social communities getting excited.
If you go on Twitter and do a search for Acne or other science-based information, people will often post links to a piece of content discussing a scientific finding. Those do really, really well on Twitter. Another example is I Fucking Love Science. They have more than 12 million followers on Facebook.
Thinking ahead, what obstacles do you see?
Obviously, this is a tough problem. It probably would have been solved before if it was easy.
We’ve got science, which is so dense and so difficult to parse through. We just can’t develop an algorithm then translate that into human speak. That has to be done manually. We have a model for scaling, but that’s just one of the main obstacles, turning this information into something that humans can understand.
The second obstacle is some of the data visualization, and analyzing this database of research that we’re going to have. We’re going to need some quality data analysts.
Finding a co-founder obviously is a big obstacle, but not an insurmountable one. We’ll need to find people who understand the spaces that we’re in. We have Science and Research on one side, which is being disrupted as we speak. I know the founder of ScienceScape, there’s ResearchScape and Mendeley. Mendeley was acquired by Elsevier for $100 million. Then on the other side there is health and consumer, all of which are exploding.
Finding someone—investors, co-founders—people who understand all these spaces are almost impossible to find.
Who exactly are you looking for to join in your team? What type of person?
I do design and know a little bit of Rails, but backend is a big need. We have to keep the product moving forward. That person has to be strategic, intelligent—I need someone to bounce ideas off of and help develop vision for the startup.
Secondly, I would look for somebody who understands health research, and can build a content team, and figure out how to scale. We’re going to do some algorithmic things, and will need to make sure that the quality of information presented is not only the highest quality, but is also understandable for the user.
Obviously, you’ve very involved with TechStars and other things. Are you asking friends of friends, are you posting on forums, where will you find a co-founder?
I am constantly meeting with friends of friends, and people introducing me to prospects. You honestly have to talk about it as much as possible, and hope something serendipitous happens. You’ve got to find somebody that sees your vision.
It’s hard, especially in San Francisco, because you see a lot of developers that jump ship to start their own thing—that’s just how things are there. Here in Boulder people are a bit more conservative. Also, there’s usuallly an age gap between me and most of the developers that are potential co-founders.
When you find someone you think might be interesting, build a relationship with them long-term. It can’t be done in a day, or even a couple of meetings.
Some founders are engineers, others are marketing guys. What is the distinctive advantage of being a designer and a founder?
I think the distinctive advantage of being a developer is that you can build. You get shit done.
As a designer, I think you have a better understanding of product. Especially as someone who is a user experience and visual designer. Developers come to the table looking at things in a very detailed manner—seeing trees instead of forests, if you will. Designers see the whole picture, and in the end, it makes the product better.
I think beauty in product and beautiful user experiences are really important. That is part of the reason I became a web designer in the first place. If you’re just a business guy, it’s really hard to get people to work with you. If you have other skills, people are a lot more willing to take a chance on you.
Early in the interview you said that the best way to gain experience was by working at a successful startup. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned when you were working with Techstars?
I learned to always be upfront with your employees. I had some issues with a founder in—well, I don’t want to go into it—I was unhappy with the path that we took, it was really a negative experience, and it made me not want to be committed to the startup.
I also learned to have a strong vision. You can delegate your task as a founder and allow your employees to have a vision and execute on it, or you can have the vision and delegate your employees to execute on it. You can’t do one or the other. If you’re in the middle, you don’t have a vision but you just can’t delegate that vision, you’re not going to get quick work product out of your employees, and they’re not going to be satisfied.
So those are big ones. Another big one is to run a marathon, not a sprint. You have to work and hustle. If you are a Techstars or YC company, you just can’t sit back and take it easy.
The number one key to success is networking your ass off.
Having a good culture is really important. I think a lot of people know that.
I think being clear in your objectives—weekly sprints, monthly sprints, you’ve got to be very clear about what needs to be done. Everyone has to be on the same page.
Also, you need to listen to your employees when they tell you what is needed. As a founder, if they are telling you that something is important, you have to listen to them.
What is the vision or end goal of Truthly?
The vision of Truthly is to be the trusted source for health information.
WebMD is the most trusted source for diagnosis, but for all of the health content like wellness and treatment, there’s really no trusted source yet. We want to be that first or second Google result for any kind health query. People will know that when you go to Truthly, you’re going to get research back, and quick, quality information. That’s really powerful, and that’s our first goal.
The second goal is to be the analysis platform for health information. We’re trying to analyze the relativity between a user’s history and research, and trends across several studies. Right now a doctor reads 10 to 50 pieces of research and makes an assertion based on that. We’ll be able to do that assertion in minutes with the data we’ll have.
We’re reaching the end of the interview. You’ve been incredibly insightful. Is there anything left that you’d like to tell the entrepreneurs watching this?
If you are young and ambitious and the thing you want to do is a startup, realize first that it’s not easy and it’s not always fun.
Second, hit the streets and meet as many people as you can. The number one key to success is networking your ass off.
Third thing is to develop a skill. You can work with a skill set, which you can market, and be a part of the founding team.
And the fourth is love what you do. Everyone says it, but it’s true.
I’ve been getting a ton of job offers. They are tough to turn down when I’ve been making negative money. I just think that what we’re building is important to have in the world, because I think humanity will benefit from it.