Special feature: Solid State Group talk healthcare and entrepreneurship

29 January 2019

Sara Jones, Solid State Group, and Kim Guest, Isoshealth

PPL are proud to bring you a featured guest blog from Sara Jones at Solid State Group, one of our partner organisations with specialisms in technology and innovation. We are featuring this blog as part of our series on entrepreneurship in healthcare. Sara has profiled entrepreneurs whom Solid State Group admire, especially those who’ve made the leap from corporate life to founding their own businesses, or go above and beyond to support London’s tech industry. Here she interviews Kim Guest, founder of Isoshealth. For more on entrepreneurship and setting out on your own, see SSG’s full interview series here.

Kim Guest has had a very successful corporate career, she’s sat in the corner office, she’s smashed the glass ceiling. Yet, all that pales in comparison with her startup journey. It’s been a tough road with bereavement and setbacks, but Kim’s built a mission-driven platform dedicated to helping people change their health and their lives. Her journey is by no means a typical one, it serves as a great example to any professional toying with their own mission-driven startup but lacking the contacts, strategy and technical team to build it. Here’s how Kim did it.

Sara: Let’s set the context, how have you ended up here?

Kim: I hope I haven’t ended and I’ve just begun! I was a Commercial Director for Telefonica O2 and when they started their accelerator Wayra I volunteered to do mentoring with the startups there. It gave me a window into that world and then also I met my original cofounder there. She has now passed away so I decided to put all of what I care about into the business and I am now the sole founder. When Abby passed away I did an accelerator which was incredibly intense and it made me focus on what was the very very best value we could provide at Isoshealth. I really challenged myself.

S: What’s been a great moment for you, when you realised you were achieving what you’d set out to do?

K: I stay in touch with Abby’s family, she had children under the age of ten when she passed away. I realised I was putting something on the map that her children could point to and say “my mum was part of that”. It’s an opportunity to build something like that to keep her alive. Skin in the game is what you need. Also, the very first time someone who I didn’t know, and a trialist who I didn’t know, worked with three practitioners that I also didn’t know, and all I did was put them together on the platform and that patient in twelve weeks lost 7 kilos and ran a 10k race. And I helped bring that about. What a privilege.

S: You were working in senior roles at big companies, what was going through your mind on Day 1 of your startup?

K: My approach was who do I need, who do I know, I’m not doing this by myself. So I have an amazing group of people and I’ve also said no to significant people too. I’m particular about who I work with because I know I will have bad days where I will have to pick up the phone and feel responsible in a way I’ve never felt responsible before, so whoever is on that phone needs to be one I can dial. That’s my litmus test. It can’t be a number I want to avoid ringing. Do trust your instincts from day 1. The Ex-CEO of Bupa is my chairman and they’re like a fairy godmother. Don’t underestimate how much your board-members will value their reputation because it’s a big thing to them and it can help you too. I also have Paula Radcliffe on my board. She knows how important Isoshealth is because she’s asthmatic. Skin in the game is what you need.

S: When was the right time for you to be an entrepreneur, how did you know?

K: I’ve held some very senior roles, I’ve been a Managing Director, a P & L holder for Telefonica and so on, and yet, the difference between that and this is that my partner said “who’d have thought you could achieve this”! A corporate role is so limiting because it’s this little square box and I’d go into a room and shake people’s hands and say “Hi I’m Kim Guest, I’m Commercial Director for Telefonica” and you’re so defined by one job title. Now I can bring all of myself, all of my social care journey, my journey as a mum. You know, my husband was blind when our kids were born, and I know how powerful the relationship between the clinician and the patient is. I get to bring all of that and give value and know the impact. It’s been life changing. My team all say that I am a master of getting people to do things for me. At the time I had a perfect storm, my children had left home and empty nest is a thing let me tell you! I would go to the supermarket and not know what to buy because for decades I had bought what everyone else wanted, suddenly I just had to buy for me. I also felt that professionally, being an MD wasn’t actually fun. I got there quickly and suddenly I was getting my lunch brought to me, things like that. I couldn’t cope with that, I’m not cut out for that level of isolation. I’d made sure to retain Sales and Marketing functions in my role so I knew the more customer-facing, grittier leadership role was interesting to me. So everything was shifting in my life and then Abby came to me, and our relationship evolved into “will you come and work with me”. So I did.

S: What skills from your corporate life do you rely heavily on now?

There’s one skill which I can finally see now. My investors and colleagues and my team all say that I am a master of getting people to do things for me. In big corporates you soon get good at getting everyone collaborating, getting the finance department and the marketing department and so on. I’m good at finding “the person”. “The person” at the accelerator to help me draw up a business model, or the killer chairman can really make the difference. It’s much better to do those things sooner rather than later before your contacts book runs cold.

S: Have you had to hire technical talent and if so, how ready did you feel you were to do that well?

K: I was very used to being responsible for tech teams but I can’t code myself. I know three ways of getting technical teams. You can outsource it but you may only get what you asked for, and no startup knows what they want to ask for. Second is getting a CTO, and having lost my cofounder I wasn’t in the best frame of mind to go recruiting. The third option was to hunt someone down who could keep me in an accelerator type space with coding functionality. I found Activate Capital who were amazing guys, they did my design, my dev, an interim CTO, and even a lead investor.

S: What makes a technical team standout for you?

K: On a business front, they need to be really well rounded. They maintain - and invest in maintaining - business links, through to strategy specialisms, marketing specialisms, not just technology. The team I have, as people, they are massively diverse but I’ve really noticed that when they work together they are respected experts in their own right. There’s no “decision by committee”, they might spend three days disagreeing but everyone wants the best possible solution. And everyone gets to say their bit, everyone gets heard, which is so different to corporate life where there’s hierarchy and decision by committee. Corporate life does not deal with controversy well because you can’t be that open because every word is managing your career. That’s the elephant in the room, your career. Whereas these guys have already achieved their expertise and their only motivation is to do their job. There’s still a bit of politics, we’re human! But in order to learn how to deal with disagreements, you have to disagree in the first place. Also my team deeply immerses themselves in the challenges. It’s not just what your platform will look like, it’s what’s your mission! I also recommend that when looking to hire a team, look at the collaboration between design and dev in the team, ask where do those two sit together, what tools do they use. If they only use github and never talk to each other that won’t work. My team is international, in Rio, in Delhi, in London, but practical stuff was never an issue because they communicated. In fact, I would change my younger self to have this experience building a product and working with a technical team and include it in my career much earlier on. Have a bit more fun!