Rules of Success: Find a Problem That Needs Solving

One of the biggest mistakes a new physician entrepreneur makes is to get all gung-ho about an idea for a service or gizmo. The more you fall in love with your own business idea, the greater your challenge will be to succeed. Instead, increase your odds of success by focusing on finding a problem that demands solving, and then try to solve it.

Last week, I wrote about commitment as Bill Murphy Jr.'s "The Intelligent Entrepreneur"'s Rule No. 1 for successful physician entrepreneurship. Now it's time to talk about a big business fundamental for Rule No. 2.

One of the biggest mistakes a new physician entrepreneur makes is to get all gung-ho about an idea for a gizmo -- the tool to slicken up an operation, the gadget to measure all blood chemistry without drawing blood, or the service that you know every patient needs to make his or her life better. The more you fall in love with your own business idea, the greater your challenge will be to succeed.

This is because you've come up with the idea first, and now you have to force the market "to buy into your enthusiasm." As some of you may have already discovered, this is like trying to roll a giant boulder up a steep hill strewn with rocks!

You will increase your odds of success dramatically if you focus on finding a problem that demands solving, and then set about solving it. You'll boost those odds even higher if the problem you're attempting to solve is something you actually know something about, or are highly motivated to solve. Perhaps it's a pain you experience on the job, or it's a headache for a near and dear relative, or something else that’s frustrating the heck out of a bunch of your friends.

Think of some of our greatest examples of medicine. Let's take the Fogarty catheter, invented by the great physician entrepreneur Thomas J. Fogarty.

From Wikipedia: "During Fogarty’s years at Good Samaritan Hospital, he witnessed many patients die from complications of blood-clot surgeries in their limbs. “Fifty percent of the patients died,” he said. “I thought there must be a better way.” Before Fogarty’s invention, surgeons had to use forceps to remove the blood clots only after a huge part of an artery had been cut open, and the patient would be under general anesthesia for hours. Blood flow is usually interrupted in the procedure, increasing the risk of the patient losing a limb.

At home, the ideas that went through Fogarty’s head concerned different ways of making the procedure better, concentrating on ways to avoid the risky incisions. He tinkered in his attic with a urethral catheter and a balloon. Because a catheter only required a small incision, it would be able to get to the clot without much trauma to the patient. The urethral catheter also is flexible yet strong enough to be pushed through a blood clot. As for the balloon, he basically cut off the tip of the pinky finger of a size 5 surgical latex glove and attempted to incorporate it onto the end of the catheter. The resulting balloon could be inflated with saline using a syringe, and once it expanded to the size of the artery, it could then be retracted, withdrawing the clot through the artery and out of the incision.

The main problem in building this device was the way the balloon could be attached to the catheter. Glue that could hold vinyl, the material making up a catheter, and latex, the type of glove used, was not available. Fogarty’s own take on the catheter came about because of fly fishing techniques he learned as a child. Precise hand-tying was needed in fly fishing, and with these techniques, he tied the balloon to the catheter. "I'd always tied flies and made lures, so it was just a natural thing," he said. His experimental balloon catheter, however, always seemed to burst when it was over inflated. It even broke when he dragged it through glass tubes filled with gelatin, a model he thought simulated a clot within an artery. After some time, he figured out the type and thickness of rubber that was firm enough when inflated to extract a clot and still flexible enough to move through without breaking. The device, made before Fogarty even received his medical degree from University of Cincinnati in 1960, became the first minimally invasive surgical device."

Fogarty’s story is instructive for several reasons:

• Thomas Fogarty recognized that there was a problem that needed solving.

• He tried to solve the problem, drawing on prior knowledge, skills and experiences.

• His experience made him eager to solve the problem, and his eagerness helped him stay committed, despite setbacks.

The Intelligent Entrepreneur's Rule No. 2 key questions for your successful entrepreneurial physician business, in order of importance, are:

1. What problem can you solve that will make a pain go away?

2. What problem can you solve that will increase pleasure for your target market?

3. What problem can you solve that your target market needs?

Take note -- this last one is where we can become the most deluded. People don't always buy what they "need." They're much more inclined to pay for solutions that decrease pain, and to a lesser extent, increase pleasure.

What has been your experience?