Life as a Startup CEO With Tourette's
The first time Jonathon Feit introduced a product at a large tech conference was in 2012. He had just five minutes for a demo. It was the perfect time limit. And not just because five minutes would be enough time to show off his new medical software.
For Feit, five minutes is exactly how long he can suppress the facial tics, nose sniffles, and shoulder shrugs that always seem to sit just beneath his skin. Feit has Tourette syndrome, the neurological disorder that causes his spasms.
"The MediView Platform from Beyond Lucid Technologies ..." Feit began under the hot stage lights. He remembers straining to hold back the torrent of muscle tics that threatened to fire. The demo was being video recorded, so if he could suppress his twitches now, he'd be doing himself a favor later. He hated seeing himself tic on video.
Soon, the five minutes were over and he had performed flawlessly. Not even a software bug had surfaced. He thanked the audience and walked off stage.
As he relaxed, his muscles released that flood of stored energy into a series of convulsions. Feit's co-founder has told him that when his tics return, it looks like a coil snapping back after being stretched too far.
Feit, 32, is CEO of Beyond Lucid Technologies, a company that created an electronic medical record for emergency response situations. The software, called MediView, allows first responders to populate a patient health record. Then it facilitates a quick handoff of that information to the emergency department where the patient will be treated.
The five-year old Concord, California-based company serves 10 agencies--including the U.S. Department of Defense--in nine states. This amounts to at least 450 to 500 vehicles using the system. Beyond Lucid has raised approximately $850,000 to date, and Feit expects that the company will be operationally profitable within the next 12 months. When he isn't on the road for work (about 25 percent of the year) or at the office, Feit is at his Bay Area home, which he shares with his wife of three years, Mabel Aldrete-Feit.
His company, by many measures, is a success. But as a founder with such a visible disability, Feit's path to this success has been anything but typical.
Coming to Terms
Tourette syndrome (TS) is a neurological disorder characterized by brief, involuntary movements in certain muscle groups. Commonly, those with TS exhibit tics like eye blinking, facial grimacing and shoulder shrugging. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke estimates that 200,000 Americans have the most severe form of TS and that as many as one in 100 experience less complex systems such as mild chronic motor or vocal tics.
For individuals in the former group, it's common for symptoms to peak in the teen years and then diminish in intensity and frequency over time. This has been true for Feit, but even still, "I'm a twitchy guy," as he puts it.
Early in life, Feit struggled to cope with the toll the disorder took on his confidence. His symptoms of twitching, writhing, sniffling and grunting led to numerous misdiagnoses, which included attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, extreme allergies, and schizophrenia.
Feit grew up in the Los Angeles area. His mother, Brenda, was a nurse, and his father, Harold--whom Feit inherited the entrepreneurial gene from--ran the family sewing machine business. By staying up late into the night, watching his father work when he was in grade school, Feit learned secondhand about bills, invoices, and every thing else required to run the family company.
In school, though, things were tough. The mystery of Feit's condition didn't make dealing with uncontrollable urges any easier. Especially when physical manifestations of his condition played out before the particularly scrutinizing eyes of his pre-teen classmates. Feit was withdrawn and often walked around with his head down and shoulders slumped.
Over time--and with tough love from a friend--Feit came to a realization. "People can be depressed. But I wasn't," he said. "I was feeling sorry for myself."
But the pivotal diagnosis came in 2000, the summer after his freshman year at Boston University. Feit, then 19, was interning with a personal mentor in a neuromuscular lab at Johns Hopkins University. One day, while walking through the neuromuscular ward, Feit passed a doctor in a neighboring research lab. The doctor looked at him and said, "You have Tourette's."
Feit didn't know what to say. So he blurted out, "No I don't." But with the quick exchange, he learned he had an incurable neurological defect. He made an appointment with another doctor to get an official diagnosis, but he already knew. He did have Tourette syndrome.
"As soon as I had the name for my condition, I swear to God, my skin felt like leather backed by steel," Feit said. "It was like there was nothing wrong with me anymore."
Becoming a Founder
The idea for Beyond Lucid was born five years ago at Carnegie Mellon University, where Feit and his co-founder Christian Witt met at business school. Feit originally teamed up with Witt, an engineer, to develop a diagnostic and therapeutic device for traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress. But after pitching their idea to the DoD, feedback from the department led them to pivot. The pair graduated in 2010 and brought their product, the MediView pre hospital medical record, to market in 2012.
As the CEO of a small startup, Feit is up nights worrying about checking off the innumerable administrative tasks needed to keep the lights on at Beyond Lucid. He spends most of the rest of his workdays behind a desk--on the phone for at least six hours a day, or on the computer, often hosting software training sessions.
As the company's primary user experience designer, Feit spends a good amount of time trying to break their product. Then he hands it back to Witt and the engineering team to fix. In order to learn what flaws he's looking for, Feit spends time with first responders across the country sometimes doing ride alongs with agencies. These face-to-face visits are a large part of his sales and marketing efforts, too.
Feit says when he meets with EMTs, paramedics or firefighters in person, they react to his condition in one of three ways. One, they recognize that he has Tourette's, having seen it in other patients before. Two, they don't acknowledge it at all, likely, Feit said, because the nature of their job has desensitized them to medical anomalies.
Or three, they look at Feit and see a personal invitation to open up. Just by standing in the same room as Feit, you learn a part, albeit a small one, of his story. It's is written all over his exterior. Certainly this leaves Feit open to scrutiny, but, as he sees it, that doesn't make him much different from anyone else.
"We have to judge in order to have a conversation," Feit said. "You're a girl. I'm a guy. I'm tall, I'm short. I'm white, I'm black. Whatever. You have to do it. Or you can engage with people." And this can lead to amazing conversations.
"People whose livelihood is about running into burning buildings or pulling people out of cars. Or putting your mouth on somebody else's mouth so that you can bring them back to life. Or picking up an arm when it's been severed. These are people who see some really funky stuff," Feit said. "And they've got to have a personal reason why they're willing to put themselves out there. So when they see me, and they see my willingness to tell my story, they feel willing to do that, too."
The Dark Side
On the other hand, there are those who are less seasoned when it comes to interacting with people who exhibit signs of a disorder. Feit doesn't encounter uncomfortable situations very frequently, but when he does, he finds they tend to occur in the context of the venture capital world. Feit is currently seeking Series A funding.
Today he doesn't take the heavy sedatives that doctors prescribed him when he was younger. They largely suppress his brain's spasmodic firing, but at the expense of his normally animated personality. If he's having a "bad day," and the stakes for his company are high--when he's pitching to a room full of investors, for example--he'll sometimes step aside and let Witt take over.
In most cases though he'll pause, acknowledge his tics, deliver a one-liner explanation on his condition, and then continue. Recently, after pitching to a well-known Bay Area investment firm, Feit received a harsh reminder that this routine is all too necessary. Following their meeting, one of the investors contacted Beyond Lucid's Board Director Lisa Suennen. He wanted to know, what was wrong with Feit?
This was one of the few times that, for whatever reason, Feit hadn't prefaced the meeting with a short briefing about his medical condition. As he points out, the fact that he has Tourette's doesn't change his pitch. However, he acknowledged that if someone writes him off, it isn't "their loss."
It's also his loss. But even worse, it's his company's.
Feit might not be visibly shaken by these rare but bothersome episodes. But it's clear that these are some indelible learning moments for him. "I know now that I need to be more cautious. Because the time that I take for granted that someone's not going to care [about my condition], is the time that they do," he said.
Suennen, who is also an investor in Beyond Lucid, first met Feit in 2012. She watched him present at a pitch competition, which she helped to judge. "For me, that the fact he had Tourette's was obvious," Suennen said. "And then I said to myself, 'OK, that's a bummer. But is he a good CEO or not? Does he have what it takes or not?'"
The judges ultimately named Beyond Lucid the winner of the competition. "Tourette's, Schmourettes--he is an animal," Suennen said. "No one works as hard as him or wants it as bad."
The Road Ahead
Beyond Lucid Technologies is growing, but Feit sees that his work is cut out for him. He's encountered people in the industry that know of the company name but assume it doesn't have clients. Part of that, Feit said, is due to that fact that he needs to step up his marketing efforts. For help with this, he plans to bring on at least five more employees within the next 12 months.
But Feit also said he's been consciously reserved. He subscribes to a certain Al Pacino philosophy--one in particular that comes from one of Feit's favorite movies, "Devil's Advocate." Pacino plays John Milton, a senior partner at a law firm.
Talking to Keanu Reeves' character, Kevin Lomax, Pacino says, "Don't get too cocky my boy. No matter how good you are don't ever let them see you coming. That's the gaffe my friend. You gotta keep yourself small. Innocuous. Be the little guy. You know, the nerd, the leper, shit-kickin' surfer."
Feit marvels at Pacino's character. "You look over at him and you think how on earth did I miss you? And it's because he's sneaky!" he said. This is amusing to Feit, who has been underestimated a time or two in his life.
"Sometimes you need to burn a little bit and generate some heat. And only at that point can you be a threat," Feit said, reflecting on his company's progress. "If you're a spark, nobody's going to care. But if you're a slow burning ember, slowly catching fire, and you don't notice me until I'm running up your pant leg--that's more concerning."
"That's a bit of a weird analogy." Feit lets out a belly laugh. "You can use any appropriate version of that that you'd like."