When Charu Ramanathan saw an opportunity to revolutionize the world’s cardiac care, she didn’t wait for someone else to make it happen.
“The key thing I grew up with, particularly from my parents, was the importance of being original and trying to find your own solutions,” says Ramanathan, who co-founded CardioInsight with fellow Case Western Reserve University doctoral student Ping Jia in 2005. “Stop whining about problems. If there is a problem, you need to figure out how to solve it on your own and in your own way.”
Through support from JumpStart, Ramanathan and Jia raised more than $35 million before launching their first product. In June 2015, Medtronic acquired the electrocardiographic mapping technology company in a deal worth more than $90 million.
Ramanathan is now co-founder and CEO at vitalxchange, which aims to boost health literacy. Dealmakers spoke with her about the value of following your instincts and the real skills entrepreneurs need to succeed.
How have you evolved as an entrepreneur?
I come from a culture that respects age and experience a lot. In my younger days, especially through my transition from an academic setting into the business world, I deferred a lot more to experience than trusting myself. At the end of the day, this was my vision. I had put everything at risk. I needed to have more confidence, more conviction, more courage that my vision and my passion was what was driving this business forward. It took me a while to gain that self-confidence.
I’ve become a very introspective person. If you can’t figure something out, it’s OK to reach out and surround yourself with people who are mentors, people who bring a skill set that you don’t have. Give people an opportunity to marry their strengths and make up for your weaknesses as a leader. The sooner you recognize that, the better it is for your company and the better it is for achieving success.
It was really hard. I came from an academic setting where you’re doing your own thing. Everybody is publishing their own paper and they’re trying to capture a piece of their own fame. When you’re building a product and you’re trying to establish a market and convince your customers that it’s worth paying for, there’s a lot of failure. It’s important to build a team that can help make it a smart business.
What is your approach to strategic planning?
You need somebody you respect enough who is willing to criticize your plan and tell you about the things you haven’t thought about. Getting those mentors in place is extremely important. You also want to strategically landscape all aspects of the business. If you had limitless money and limitless resources, how would you put it all together? Narrate that story multiple times to people around you who are really close to you, as well as your mentors. It really helps clear your head.
A lot of people know the first couple of steps to take because they thought that through. But they think, ‘OK, we’ll stumble along when we reach that point.’ That’s often costly versus landscaping the whole thing. Chances are when you get to a point, you may have to change course. If you understand it thoroughly, you’re making a more educated decision. You’ve been very strategic about understanding all the risks and the barriers without being very wishful in your thinking.
What’s a common mistake when gauging a product’s viability?
You want to tenaciously think about the problem at hand. Which market are you going to enter? What are the barriers to entry? It’s really important to understand the idiosyncrasies of adoption in the market. Let’s say you have a technical solution; you’re building a better mousetrap. You’re probably more interested in how that works and how you put it together and how you can contract in China to get it done. It’s actually more challenging to say, ‘Who will buy this? What will they pay for it? How do buyers in the U.S. make those decisions? Why would they consider me?’ That’s a harder question to answer. But absolutely, you need to have clear ideas on how that is done.
What skills does an entrepreneur need to succeed?
Having a formal business education is kind of in your way. It’s too structured.
You have a lemonade stand. Where do you want to position it? You obviously don’t want to position it in a deep cul-de-sac. No one is going to come there. It’s really common sense that a lot of entrepreneurs cloud with too much structure, too much MBA thinking. If my life depends on this lemonade stand, who is going to be my customer? What should be my price point be? At what temperature should I put it out there? That’s a business plan. That pragmatic survival mode element of human beings is what business is in my opinion. If you’re tenacious enough and you’re willing to take criticism and learn from it, anybody can start a business.