Back in 2008, in my pre-entrepreneurial days as a journalist, I wrote about a cool new company called PatientsLikeMe. The founders, Ben and Jamie Heywood and Jeff Cole, hit on the idea of crowdsourcing patients' experiences with various diseases to gain insights about which medical treatments work best and why.
Fast-forward to 2015. I am now the founder of Iodine, a company that's tapping people's experiences with various conditions and medications to gain insights about which treatments work best and why. Sound familiar?
In truth, there are significant differences between what PatientsLikeMe--which is flourishing--does and what Iodine does. For one thing, PatientsLikeMe demands dedication, asking its members to share their stories in great detail, down to the milligram of dosing. At Iodine, on the other hand, we ask people to contribute in quick, lightweight surveys. And while PatientsLikeMe is making prodigious progress demonstrating the clinical impact of its data, we're still trying to connect with our users as consumers. If it's the same spectrum, we're on opposite ends.
These distinctions have made it easy for me to stay in touch with the Heywoods. They've been generous with advice and guidance, and we've reciprocated with some introductions. But I was reminded recently that shifting from writing about entrepreneurs to being one can turn friends into frenemies fast.
In mid-February, PatientsLikeMe announced a partnership to share its community insights with a major retailer. It was a deal we at Iodine were considering pursuing. I realized that, for all our differences and distinctions, both companies have an appetite for the same sort of pie. Kudos to PatientsLikeMe, but nuts to us.
In fact, I am friends with or an acquaintance of founders at several companies in various stages of startup-hood that could be considered competition: HealthTap, Mango Health, Smart Patients. I greatly respect these entrepreneurs and what they're building. I'm also watching them closely and trying to learn from their successes and mistakes. I expect they're watching us too.
Of course, it's not unusual to have relationships, even friendships, with rival entrepreneurs. Google's Eric Schmidt was chummy enough with the founders of Apple to be on its board, until their competing enterprises made the relationship too close. And whether in Silicon Valley or Detroit, industries have been built on friendly (and sometimes formerly friendly) competitors finding their niche alongside, and sometimes at the expense of, erstwhile chums. The trick, it seems, is to help when you can, learn what you can, and know when business means business.
But the experience has been novel for me, and I've learned that the best way to navigate any awkwardness is to just own it. So I made sure to give Ben Heywood a call and congratulate him when the retailer deal was announced--and then asked his advice on landing our own partnership with another player. The deal PatientsLikeMe made creates a better marketplace for both of our products--and as soon as I read word of it, I sent emails to a range of potential partners suggesting they strike back at the competition and make a similar deal with us.
As far as Ben is concerned, Iodine has a lot of learning to do--and mistakes to make--before we're in the same league as his company. After all, it's been around for nearly a decade, while we're fresh out of the gate. "I like that you think we're competing," he chuckled. I laughed along. And, yeah, maybe he's right. For now.