The 7Ss of Digital Health Startup Success

Setting up a start-up is easier today than it’s ever been before.

In a couple of hours you could have yourself a web-domain, website, business e-mail address and an App Store account. If you’re tech savvy you could put together an app over a weekend and you’re ready to meet your customers.

If you’ve made something that people actually want then with a bit of social media know-how and some strategic use of your free first set of Google Adwords you might even get customers rolling in during that same weekend.


Then the hard work starts. You’ve started to realise your own potential. What if this could actually start becoming, y’know, a business?

But a start-up isn’t a large, multi-national organisation. They’re different beasts. It’s like in medicine – You don’t treat children like small adults! They have their own unique physiology and problems that we need to look out for and manage. Basically, few of the principles that consultants use for big business translate smoothly for start-ups. Despite all that, sometimes you find something that works and for me, and the digital health start-ups I advise, that’s McKinsey’s 7S Model based on the best selling book ‘In Search of Excellence’ by Peters and Waterman. Let’s dive into it!

1. Strategy

Whether you’ve got a business model or plan and whether you’ve just drawn it out on a napkin or its a spreadsheet you need to be constantly going back to it and asking yourself – What am I trying to achieve? What’s my goal? What makes me competitive and how do I keep it that way? Who are my customers and what are they saying?

In the fast paced world of digital healthcare you’ve got to realise that you’re creating value beyond just having an app or big data platform. It’s how you reach and talk to your customers whether they’re doctors or patients or otherwise that gives you your competitive advantage. How are you reaching out to the innovators and early adopters who are going to be your startup’s champions?

2. Structure

I’ve been there. A team of two trying to do everything, learning every skill under the sun but before we knew it our operations were growing and we needed to have a structure in place. At first it came about out of necessity but we understood that the way we structured our growing team was an essential part of our strategy to deliver value.

So ask yourself – Do I need formal project teams? Who’s responsible for what? e.g. customer relationships, accounts etc Is there a strict hierarchy or are things more free-form? How do you make sure everyone is talking to each other? Are we all on the same page? How do we make sure everyone is sharing great ideas as well as possible problems early?

There’s no right answer but the sooner you start thinking about it the sooner you’ll come up with something that works for your business.

3. Systems

It might sound too soon but eventually there’s going to be an end-game. Whether that’s becoming a huge, international mega corporation or selling up you need to be prepared. Have a system in place for managing and tracking customer databases, marketing and especially your financial accounts. Even consider starting to audit yourselves. I get all my start-ups to put together a file system ready for due diligence to happen at any time. Who knows when a venture capitalist might come knocking?

So those are the ‘Hard Elements’ of the 7S Model

Now Come the really hard Parts…

4. Staff

People are everything and don’t you forget it. I talk to a lot of investors and I hear it every time – ‘I’d rather invest in an A Team with a B Product rather than a B Team with an A Product. In symbols —> A+B > B+A

So start thinking from now. What skills do I have? What skills do I need? Where can I get them? At this point my startups start throwing their arms up in the air saying, ‘Errr Saif, I can’t afford to employ anyone…’, but you don’t have to!

When you’re starting out you’d be surprised a thet range of people in your personal network with great skills who’ll help you get on your feet. When you start getting some revenue there are great people out there who want to work with startups to get operational experience and where better than the frontlines of a startup! Other options include putting together an advisory board and thinking laterally for example there are incredibly skilled moms at home looking for part time work (accountants, marketers, designers, developers etc).

5. Skills

Of course you can’t employ every skill you need but you also don’t need every skill under the sun. Take a minute to think. What are the one or two things that you and your team want to be really good at? How can you enhance those skills? Courses, conferences, training programs? For example, I know an app developer who prides himself on understanding what works for patients’ because of his own personal experiences. Has he stopped there? No! He goes to patient groups seminars and conferences and makes sure he really understands his customers.

Now that’s a competitive advantage. What’s yours?

6. Style

Styles matter. Styles change. When you’re a startup it’s easy to sit in a loft with open spaces and have a great time growing your passion into a business. You’re all friends. You care and you share. On the other hand you might be super-competitive and your current environment might be super intense and that’s what you all thrive on to get your best work done.

Your environment represents you as a leader and entrepreneur. It’s central to what your startup will become. How are you going to keep that going when you have 10, 50 or 100 employees? It might come naturally to you but what about the other members of your team who are going to be representing you and leading new and junior employees?

You might be patient centered now but how are you going to make sure everyone else is too?

7. Shared Values

By now you can see that all these Ss come together to crystallise your vision around a set of values that you want your startup to embody and deliver. Often these come from the personal experiences, dreams and ambitions of founders. They’re an intrinsic part of the personality of every startup. You need to turn those thoughts and feelings into actions. Whether it’s creating an EHR system with the slickest, most user-friendly experience or an app that empowers patients’ to manage their chronic conditions you need to have a vision and a mission that everything else is centered around.

Call it a value proposition. Whatever it is though make sure everyone around you knows it, understands it and makes it central to their work. It goes a long to help you sell and even get funding and investment. Every action you take centers around your core values.

Act Big, Be Big

None of this needs to happen in order. It’s not a formula and by itself it’s only a model like any other. Running and growing a startup is exciting and chaotic at the best of times and there’s nothing like it. Every now and then though it helps to take a page out of the big boy’s books and use it for yourself. Use the 7S model to take your thoughts and feelings, as a founder, and inspire those around you to turn your plans and ambitions into a successful reality.

Are You a growing #DigitalHealth Startup or Investor? If you’ve enjoyed my article be sure to Share and ReTweet it! Reach me @Saif_Abed

Dr Saif F Abed
Foundering Partner
AbedGraham Healthcare Strategies Ltd