by: Craig Monsen, MS

[Ed. This is the first part of a two part series. Craig Monsen is a medical student at Johns Hopkins and co-creator of Symcat, a next generation symptom checker for crowd-sourced diagnosis. He and David Do are currently developing Symcat at the Blueprint Health startup accelerator in NYC. ]

You’ve got this great idea for a medical app that will transform health care (or at least a chunk of it).

Now what?

There is no one path to executing your idea. Particularly for those of us in medicine where the course is clearly delineated (pre-med, med school, residency, etc), acknowledging this fact can be disorienting. My goal here is to suggest one path that has helped me personally get beyond the ideation phase.

1. Find a friend

In the future, this person will be called your co-founder. For now, it is a buddy with whom you like to work and share common interests. In truth, you can probably complete all the following steps without this, but, like a tough workout routine, it is much easier to get through the hard parts when you have someone that shares your goal and can help take some of the weight off of your shoulders.

Recognize that great ideas die the moment the vision is lost. It is like a fire that needs constant fanning. I consider myself highly motivated and still, on a regular basis, I want to quit either because “someone has already done it” or “it is impossible.” The same is true for my co-founder, David. Fortunately, and I can only theorize why it works out this way, David and I find ourselves perfectly out of phase, fanning the fire constantly.

2. Learn to code

If you already know how to code, great. If you don’t, you should learn. Just enough to get you by. There are a bunch of reasons why this is a good idea.

  • To evaluate other developers
  • To run early experiments (see step #4)
  • To understand what technical challenges your idea faces
  • To be taken seriously

Fortunately, there are only two things you need in order to learn how to code.

  • A partner (for the reasons in step #1)
  • A (series of) project(s)

The second point requires some explanation. The best way to learn to code is to do it and the only way to make learning tolerable is to have a project you want to see completed. I suggest you (with a friend):

  1. Read How I Failed, Failed, and Finally Succeeded at Learning How to Code
  2. Do a few (short) projects on ProjectEuler or Codecademy
  3. Take David Malan’s free (Harvard) course Building Dynamic Websites
  4. Do a simple project that you are interested in (our first one was a facebook app that transferred friends’ birthdays to your google calendar). This may be your app.

It is more important that you learn how to build something then that you learn a particular language. That said, I would suggest learning Ruby on Rails.

3. Do your research

If you are serious about your idea, you need to make sure that it has not already been created. Chances are good that there is something out there that at least resembles what you are doing. You should do a web search and search the app stores. Google Scholar may also be relevant. It is worth going past the first few results and trying anything that seems even remotely useful. Doing so may reveal clues as to what challenges you may have (eg distribution, keeping people engaged, technical issues).

Moreover, people will ask (either in person or as a user) how you are different or where your competition is. Here is where you get your ammunition to answer those questions.

4. Validate your idea

Entrepreneurship is a series of experiments. You want to perform the cheapest experiments possible early on and scale them up as you make progress. This is part of “Lean Startup Methodology” and is the philosophical offspring of the Toyota Production System.

Sometimes this means you have to build a version of your app and sometimes not. For example, you may be able to build a landing page that describes only what your app does using a LaunchRock or similar service in order to collect emails. This may be the easiest way to test if people are interested in using your app, which would be helpful to know before you actually start to build anything.

Related to this, I suggest you get comfortable sharing your idea with others. It is often feared that sharing your idea makes it easy for others to steal. I suppose there is that risk. However, far outweighing that is the fact that sharing it widely allows you to get valuable feedback.

5. Secure your resources (time and money)

You can probably do some early experiments while you still have a day job. Ultimately, though, you have to take the plunge and commit some real time to it. Jumping off at “The Right Time” is a leap of faith. It is also a very personal decision highly sensitive to individual circumstance. For David and I, taking time off between the third and fourth year of medical school made a lot of sense because we do not have additional obligations to patients or dependents.

The decision to take some time can be made much easier, though, if you are promised funding. There are a number of ways to obtain funding and this is the subject for my next blog post.

[Stay tuned for part two of this series!]