In 1996, after many years on the faculty of Tufts University School of Medicine, I became Senior Medical Editor at ZonePerfect Nutrition Company, a nutraceutical start-up. Warp-speed growth created an all-hands-on-deck atmosphere in which we were asked to do whatever our skill sets qualified us to do. Because I had taught expository writing at Harvard and Brandeis, I was elected to write copy for bottles of fish oil. A lifetime as a foodie-cook made me the logical choice for website food columnist and cookbook reviewer. And my MD-in-an-apron persona earned me a starring role in a series of infomercial cooking demos. By the time ZonePerfect was acquired by Abbott Laboratories in 2003, I had published a successful cookbook and established a reputation in healthy cooking circles. But nothing prepared me for what I went on to do: start my own business.
The process began with a food blog (www.aDoctorsKitchen.com ), which took off as a how-to healthy cooking app (Trufflehead: New & Noteworthy, What’s Hot, Top 25 Lifestyle 2012). Then I leveraged Trufflehead’s success by founding Mobile Skillet, a digital media company devoted to the production of recipe apps. I learned everything the hard way. So that you don’t repeat my mistakes, I’d like to share my top three lessons.
1. Newcorn’s Sign
When I was a psychiatric resident, my psychiatrist husband shared a tip for evaluating suicide risk. A colleague of his, Jeff Newcorn, had observed that a previous suicide attempt was the best predictor of a future one. Consequently, any patient with a prior attempt (“Newcorn’s sign”) had to be treated with special caution.
Newcorn’s sign comes in handy in the workplace too. For example, failure to meet deadlines is destructive behavior that can wreak havoc in a business. Stuff happens, of course. But when an employee or independent contractor misses a deadline, take note! A second missed deadline is more likely to occur, and—if it does—accept the fact that you’re dealing with chronic behavior. Act fast to cut losses, limit aggravation, and minimize risk going forward.
2. Lawyers and Contracts
To keep my costs down, I signed my very first contract without having a lawyer review it. Big mistake!! Down the road, when the other party was in breach, I found I had little recourse and ended up having to pay my way out of the agreement. I lost several times what I would have paid for a proper legal review. If you can’t afford to have a lawyer go over your contracts, you probably shouldn’t be in business.
3. Damage Control
When my Trufflehead app first launched, a bug caused the server to crash every 40 seconds (not an exaggeration). Naturally, users were furious. It turned out that a recently-fired development team had set the maximum number of simultaneous users to 2! Before we fixed it, I got blasted with angry feedback and negative reviews. I responded personally and immediately to every complaint, apologized profusely, explained the situation, and offered to refund payments. Users were extremely forgiving, few accepted refunds, and some even amended their negative reviews to compliment Mobile Skillet on its responsiveness. When you make a mistake, own it, apologize for it, and do whatever you can to make your customers happy.
Deborah Chud, MD was a medical educator and member of the faculty at Tufts University School of Medicine for many years. In February 2012, Chud founded Mobile Skillet, one of the only digital media companies devoted exclusively to producing high-quality, affordable cooking apps. Chud is a graduate of Harvard College and Boston University School of Medicine.