It was 2007 and Cyrus Massoumi was a few minutes into a flight from Seattle to New York City when he abruptly felt, as he puts it, “Someone jamming an ice pick into my ear.” In reality, his eardrum was rupturing.
Upon landing and arriving in his Manhattan apartment, he logged onto his health insurance website to find a doctor. Why didn’t he already have one? “Because I was 29 and immortal,” Massoumi now says. Finding an available appointment proved annoyingly difficult and it wasn’t until four days later that he was finally seen by a medical professional.
Feeling better, Massoumi went back to work as a consultant for McKinsey, a global management consulting firm. But his troublesome medical experience continued to bother him. A former entrepreneur whose company had crashed years earlier in the tech bubble, Massoumi decided to give it a go again and create ZocDoc, a site that would streamline the booking process by allowing patients to reserve appointments with doctors online.
Unlike his attempts to find a primary care physician, Massoumi knew exactly who to turn to when it came to starting his latest venture. He contacted Oliver Kharraz, a doctor who was working for McKinsey, to be ZocDoc’s domain expert. He then turned to Nick Ganju, a former colleague (“We shared a folding table for three months at a company after college,” he says), to be the engineering brains behind the operation.
They all quit their jobs, and by September 2007 ZocDoc was officially born. The early days were tough; Massoumi was in charge of sales, and convincing doctors to sign up for the service (doctors are charged $300 per month) was trying. “Security escorted me out of at least three offices,” he remembers.
The trio persevered and their hard work paid off. Today ZocDoc has more than 500 employees in New York (its headquarters); Scottsdale, Arizona; and Pune, India. With a reported $95 million in funding, the service is active in 1,900 cities across the United States, and more than 4 million people use ZocDoc on a monthly basis.
OPEN Forum recently spoke with Massoumi about his background, the early days of ZocDoc and his four-step formula for entrepreneurial success.
You had entrepreneurial experience before you started ZocDoc in 2007. What were you doing?
I graduated from Penn in 1998 and was recruited by Trilogy Software right out of school. They were amazing at recruiting; I swear everyone went there after school in the days before Facebook and Google. I was there for a year before I decided to go off on my own.
At 22 years old, I founded a company called OneSizeTooSmall. We sold software to e-commerce companies to help streamline the return process. The service would help print mailing labels on the Internet. But it died two years later, in 2001. The company just didn’t work out; we were a product of the bust.
How did you feel?
I was totally depressed. I remember being a 24-year-old, having been a CEO with 35 employees and VC investment, and calling my mom down in Florida. Without any irony in her voice, she said, “There is a hotel in town that is looking for bellboys; you might want to consider it.” Yeah, it was a low point.
I spent six months backpacking through China. I needed to find myself. I was only 24 but I looked like I was 50 because I’d gone through so much stress. Then I came back and went to Columbia Business School and then worked at McKinsey before coming up with the idea for ZocDoc. It ended up being seven years between companies.
What made you so sure ZocDoc would be a success?
We were solving a major problem. On average, doctors have a 10 to 20 percent cancellation rate. If we could connect patients with that cancellation, we would be solving a major marketplace inefficiency. Doctors’ time is so scarce and there is a hidden supply.
Given that knowledge, why was it so difficult to sign up doctors for the service?
A lot of offices hated the idea because they’d been booking appointments over the phone forever and they didn’t want to change. Before we really had any marketing materials, I would literally walk around with a PowerPoint and present it to any doctor who would listen. If I spoke with two doctors in a day, it was a huge win. About a year in, we raised an angel round and started hiring staff. We knew that if we got it to work, it would take off.
Crain’s New York Business named ZocDoc one of the best places to work in 2012. What makes your culture so great?
People realize that we are really making a different in patients’ lives, and we hire people who are passionate about our mission. We are saving lives, not just selling widgets. The people who work here possess something I call "humbition"—they are humble and ambitious.
What’s next for the company? Going public anytime soon?
We are only covering 40 percent of the U.S. right now. We want to take this service across the country, so that is where we are focused right now. About a year ago we introduced ZocDoc Check-In, which allows patients to fill out their paperwork in advance of their appointment, which we are excited about.
What advice can you offer entrepreneurs just starting out?
I have a formula for success: great people, hard work, focus and time. If you have all of those things, you will succeed in everything you do.
Your first 20 employees are the most important that you will ever hire. Work your tail off—we worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week for two years and haven’t really slowed down. Focus cannot be underestimated. I think that is a reason why some of the smartest people don’t become successful; they have a hard time focusing.
Combine all of that with a very large market, and you can build a great business.
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Photos: Getty Images, Courtesy Cyrus Massoumi