Detroit-native and University of Michigan alum, Brian L. Clark moved out to Silicon Valley a few year ago to live his entrepreneurial dream. If you’re a reader of this blog, I have been checking in with Clark periodically to see how the entrepreneurial pursuit is going-away from his hometown. To summarize, Clark abruptly left his corporate job and decided to move out West to live his dream.
From winning hack-a-thons to opening, closing and opening another business, Clark has gained more valuable experiences. He has used each as a building block for his next venture.
I recently talked to Clark to see where on his entreprepreneurial journey and to address the ups and downs experienced so far.
Lee: Let’s see, it’s been over a year since we’ve last talk talk and it’s my understanding a lot has happened. Please tell us.
Clark: A little over a year ago I was at a spot where I had just closed down my analytics venture and my latest business LinkTexting was just growing to the point where I could sustain some of my basic expenses, but not enough for me and my co-founder to live on. So we took a few small consulting jobs here and there from January to March and by the end of that we were generating enough money from LinkTexting to cover both of our base expenses (rent, health insurance, phone) but not enough to yet pay all our taxes and cover food.
Taking a step back though, in January of last year my co-founder and I sat down and talked about what we really wanted to work on. We knew we could grow LinkTexting to a nice passive income business to support us but it would never be a full fledged startup.
So over the last year, while researching the medical space, my co-founder and I formalized our consulting as a product launch agency and helped companies ranging from startups to Samsung launch their new apps. We also continued to grow LinkTexting to the point where just about all of our expenses were covered. In August/September of last year I went full time into the medical research startup, continually growing our knowledge and finding a problem worth solving that had a viable large business behind it.
Lee: So this year, you jumped into a new business concept.
Clark: We found a business problem worth pursuing, matching patients to clinical trials. While giving anonymized medical data to researchers to find a cure (which was my co-founders original idea) sounds great, it really isn’t a problem in the medical space and doesn’t result in meaningful research or business outcomes. What would help the researchers is bringing them people with certain medical conditions who would be willing to participate in clinical trials to try and find a cure for those diseases. Now, this is already a well-established need and it’s a big business for Pharma companies to pay for patient recruitment.
We want to flip this model on its head.
Lee: What’s your vision?
Clark: The vision for our company is to improve patient access to the latest medical research for their condition. Rather than helping the Pharma companies recruit a person for their trial, our goal is to become the central resource where individuals come to find all of their options for new medical research and let them and their doctor pick the best one for them, rather than recruit them for one specific trial.
In the last couple weeks we launched two tools to solve the problem. The first is our clinical trial matching service, and second is a medical research summarizer where anyone can send in complex medical research article about their condition and we’ll give you an easy to read summary to keep you up to date on the latest research.
We also received initial funding for this new venture and we’re extremely excited about the road ahead!
Lee: You’ve started, closed and started another business. Why?
Clark: #1 rule of business is never run out of money.
When the money left in the bank for a company is running out you have five options: 1) Get to profitability, 2) Raise money from Investors, 3) Pivot to another idea that will hopefully make enough money in time, 4) Get a job on the side and keep the business going, and 5) Give up and get a job full time
Profitability and investor funding can often not be a viable solution on the money you have left. If you can’t do either of those you have to either get a job and keep working on the idea on the side or try something new. For the businesses I closed down we weren’t getting to profitability soon and investors didn’t think we were far enough along to put in more money, so I did a mix of trying a new idea, saw it could get to profitability and added in some consulting to get us to sustainability.
Lee: At any point in time, have you thought about moving home to Detroit? Parents still fully supporting your efforts from here?
Clark: At this point in time no, fortunately my parents have supported me out here and a couple of times when I couldn’t make rent they’ve given me a small loan to get me through. One of the interesting things about the bay area is I can make about 4x’s as much money from consulting jobs than I can anywhere else. This certainly stems from the combination of having a specific skillset and finding a client who has a big immediate need for something to get done, but out here I’ve been able to readily find those opportunities.
Even though cost of living is much higher out here, having a bunch of roommates and not needing to own/maintain a car makes it not 4x’sas expensive to live so I come out ahead financially.
Lee: Regarding entrepreneurship, what’s been the allure of San Francisco?
Clark: It’s kind of a gathering place for anyone who is trying to build something. You may not be building a company out here, but it can really help having strong connections to the valley. Founders and strong engineers who haven’t found the right person to work with come out here for serendipitous meetings. Also the number of investors you can run into at various meetings or through friends is very high out here. While this isn’t the only place that this happens, there’s just a very high amount of both entrepreneurs and investors that it makes the likelihood of running into someone who can help you much higher.
That being said, once you have your initial team of people you like working with and have identified a worthwhile problem, growing a team outside the bay area in my opinion isn’t a big problem as long as you keep ties back to out here.
In my opinion there are advantages to building a company not in SF/Silicon Valley. Employee loyalty can be hard out here as there’s always the new hot company who has raised funding and if your company hits a tough spot those employees can hop ship to the next well paying job.
Lee: What’s your latest venture and is it turning a profit yet?
Clark: As I mentioned above, our medical research venture called HDP Health aims to help people learn about and participate in the latest medical research for their condition.
Not yet, we just went full time about a month or so ago but we did receive a small bit of funding and our other ventures are profitable/self-sustaining so we’re good for the next 4-5 months. In fact we just hired my younger brother to run LinkTexting.
Lee: Where do you get your new business ideas and how confident are you turning your latest venture into a successful one?
Clark: The importance of building something people can’t go without can’t be understated. If you can’t even get one person to love and need what you’re building what makes you think you can get to 10 or 100 or 1 million users. It’s important at first to identify something a small subset of people that absolutely need your product, then see if you can grow that to something that a large set of people absolutely need. And sometimes something won’t look like an absolute need at first (look at snapchat and facebook) but after months of use people would be in an uproar if those two went away.
With our latest venture we spent almost a year in the space talking to people to find out where the problems sit, with who, how big of a problem it is. Then we identified what specific subset of people really feel that problem so we know who to sell to first.
We also had a personal connection to the problem with my co-founders condition.
With all of that work we’re extremely confident that the market opportunity and customers are there, now it’s on us to execute on the vision we sell to our customers and investors.
Lee: You’re 26 now, but have had lifelong experiences in the entrepreneurial space. What advice would give others to others wanting to start a business, but may be concerned about the prospects for success?
Clark: And best advice is to start selling your business idea to potential customers immediately. In today’s age you can spin up a website on services such as instapage.com that can explain your business and take credit card payments in 20 minutes flat. Don’t wait and mull over your ideas and the market opportunity or whether to quit your job or not yet. Go sell your idea to potential customers today. The longer you wait to start doing that, the longer you’ll start to learn if your business is actually going to work.
Lee: Other thoughts?
Clark: This is a long, expensive, and often tiring journey, but if you really want to succeed you just have to find a way to keep going.
An article came out recently that said you should aim to be a cockroach not a unicorn. In Silicon Valley, Unicorns are defined as companies with greater than $1 billion valuation. These can often tend to be big and flashy and drive all the glitz/glam of entrepreneurship that can draw people who aren’t ready for the real work. Instead you should aim be like a cockroach, no matter how many hits your business takes, you never die and keep going.