Landing Your Dream Job When You Least Expect It
Originally from Pennsylvania, David attended Drexel University College of Medicine, and completed his residency at Duke University School of Medicine.
After retiring from running a radiology practice for 30 years, David Handel rekindled his love for software and his addiction to entrepreneurship by co-founding two tech startups. He currently serves as the COO of AYTM, and is launching a second startup, I Do Recall.
David Handel discusses his fascinating career with FundersClub’s Christine Georghiou below (questions in bold):
I noticed that you practiced radiology for 30 years, and have also founded multiple companies over the years. Can you tell me more about that?
Entrepreneurship is an addiction. Once founders start their first company, they keep chasing that adrenaline rush, even if they’ve already made enough money to last them the rest of their lives.
My first company failed. I founded Chameleon Heels, a startup which made an adjustable-height-heeled shoe.
That's so interesting. How does one adjust the heel height?
The adjustable heel works similarly to a switchblade. I got a patent for the mechanism in the 90s, and then worked with an industrial design firm to bring the shoe to market.
Back then, women would walk to work in sneakers with very thick socks, and carry their high heels in a small brown paper bag to change into. My sons were young at the time, and I thought, "If there are Transformer toys, why don’t they make Transformer shoes?"
We ended up on Good Morning America a few times, and Tyra Banks wore the shoes on her show once. It was kind of a meteoric thing, but the company ultimately failed. The adjustable heels were made in China, and the shoes were made in Italy. It was very hard to grow the company in a scalable way, and I always had a passion for software.
In fact, I started a software business that grew to 30 employees when I was completing my residency at Duke.
Which company was that?
It was called ScreenPlay. Our initial product was an online training platform that helped people go into casinos and win at Blackjack. I was watching "60 Minutes" one night, in 1980 or '81, when Ken Uston came on. He told the story about how he had won around $5 million counting cards, kind of like what the MIT students did in that film “21”.
I contacted him immediately, and he signed a licensing deal to let me build a software training program around his card counting techniques.
That was a fun time, but I sold my part of the company when I moved to New Jersey to practice radiology, and I got away from software for a long time after that.
How were you re-introduced to software after so many years of practicing medicine?
Software was always a passion of mine – I actually went to engineering school at George Washington for a year in 1970, before I went into medicine.
I got interested in software again in 2007, when I attended a Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco. I had become close friends with Lev Mazin, the guy who did the branding for Chameleon Heels, and we decided we wanted to start a software company.
Finally I asked the fateful question: How do entrepreneurs learn what people want?
There wasn't a lean approach back then. I had done some market research to help choose the locations for an imaging center in my practice. I wanted to know who the top competitors were within the county I was thinking of expanding my practice into.
I wondered, why hasn't someone built a survey tool to help with this? This was a new thing; SurveyMonkey and Audience didn’t exist then. So, Lev and I co-founded AskYourTargetMarket.com. We later shortened the name to AYTM, because everybody started calling us by our acronym.
Our tools are far more sophisticated and give you deeper insights than you could glean with Google Customer Surveys or SurveyMonkey. We collect personality data on each person who takes the survey, so you can determine whether people’s answers are connected to their traits.
Could you share an example of a connection you’ve uncovered between a segment of the population and a particular brand or product?
When we first released AYTM, we did our own survey of different fast food brands and analyzed the personas of people who liked the different brands.
Some of the stuff was very obvious, like Chik-fil-A fans often like Christian music and listen to Christian radio. We found similar correlations between people who like to eat at McDonald's or Subway, as well.
Do you have a set of criteria stemming from your experience as a startup founder that you take into consideration when making investment decisions?
I like to have some background knowledge about the space the startup is in. I also look at the lead investor, and at the investors in earlier rounds. Then I look at the business model and try to figure out if it's sensible, because I'm really into having a great business model from the start.
I would never invest in a company if the path to monetization wasn’t clearly defined in the business model.
I see that you’re currently launching another startup, I Do Recall. The description says that it enables human memory rather than replacing it. How does that work?
I Do Recall is a web app that enables students and lifelong learners to manage and retain information using spaced-repetition flashcards.It's a very simple, proven technique. We also leverage all of the key learning strategies discussed in Coursera’s “Learning How to Learn” course, and go way beyond the techniques that you’ll find in existing spaced-repetition apps.
(Note to Reader: spaced-repetition is a learning technique based off of the spacing effect, a psychological principle that demonstrates that spacing out learning over a longer period of time helps one retain information better than condensing learning into a single session. The spaced-repetition technique involves reviewing previously learned material at increasing intervals.)
I've been thinking about how to make it easier to help students retain large amounts of information since medical school. I wanted to create a tool that leverages all the research available about how people learn to try and make the process a lot more efficient and effective.
I finished number one in my class in medical school, but I studied for a ridiculous amount of time every day. I didn’t attend classes most of the time, because we had a note-taking service, so I got verbatim transcripts of all the lectures. I would go in twice a week to pick up the latest pile of notes, go back home, study the notes, and read my textbooks. I could have done it more efficiently if I'd had something like I Do Recall.
There are a lot of ways to study smarter rather than studying harder.
I'm so passionate about this project. I've never been so passionate about a startup in all of my life. Helping students become efficient and successful has always been a dream of mine.
Are there any particular startup trends right now that currently hold your interest?
Definitely AI (Artificial Intelligence), because it's obviously going to change the world as we know it even more dramatically than anything has thus far. The advancements in medicine due to CRISPR technology are fascinating as well.
If you had followed your childhood dream job, what do you think you would be doing right now?
I have my dream job right now. I was retired for two years, aside from giving high-level direction at I Do Recall, but I recently stepped in as COO of AYTM. I’m now working more than 50 hours a week while fully “retired,” helping Lev and our employees – we have great employees – take this company forward to make it as big as it really deserves to be. I just ended a two-year vacation in the process.
Is there anyone who has influenced you throughout your career?
Within the tech space, no one has influenced me more than my co-founder, Lev.
He’s just a very lovely person. I consider him my best friend. He's so intelligent and creative; he designed everything you see when you go to the AYTM site, and he’s the AYTM CEO and effectively the VP of Product. He drives the entire engineering team and brings everything to life.
I always tell him I've been lucky to ride on his coattails all through AYTM. Sure, maybe I had the fundamental idea, but he's contributed his ideas, and he’s delivered on the execution. And execution trumps ideas more than 90% of the time.