In about two weeks time, I will have the honour to represent Finland and toe the line with some of the best mountain ultra marathoners in the world in the IAU Trail World Championships in Annecy, France. On the surface, running very long distances and building a startup company might not seem to have much in common, but there are quite a few things that are similar. Let me explain.
Let’s start with preparation. I wasn’t selected into the Finnish team because I was lucky or born with the physical and mental performance already built-in. It’s taken some serious dedication to work on all aspects of my performance including nutrition, endurance, strength, skill, tolerance for pain or patience. Same goes for building a technology company in the clinical trials industry. You must prepare the whole company to be ready to execute your vision. You need a solid Quality Management System (QMS) and writing piles of documents and processes isn’t always fun. Focusing on athletic weaknesses is not always fun either. Just like having a great product without a proper QMS is pointless, it’s not enough to be a fast runner if you can’t handle the distance or stumble on every rock in front of you.
One factor that can help (and has helped me) is almost blind belief in your team to accomplish what you set out to do and be successful against all the odds. At the time when I decided to become a mountain ultra-trail runner, I was struggling to finish road marathons and was totally wrecked after I did. Just the thought of running 100 kilometers instead of just 42, through the mountains and sometimes at night sounded impossible. Being competitive at doing so was a ridiculous idea. The starting point for a technology company in this space is even more difficult. All you have to start with is a few smart and passionate guys taking on multi-billion dollar established companies in a very conservative industry. The proverbial mountain to climb seems even higher than in my running career. Luckily for me, I’ve never been much of a believer in odds and it sometimes helps you sleep better at night when you just ignore some of the facts and simply start executing. In my view of the world, issues usually do sort out at the end and it’s better to focus on things that you can do something about right then and there.
Once you get started, you want to have some small victories and achievable goals. Just ignore the big stuff until the odds start to make sense. I didn’t set out training expecting to win an ultra race the first year. In fact, I didn’t even run any real ultras in the first year, just like we didn’t take on any real customers using the product in the first year. In my running, I wanted to first transform from the roads into a trail runner and focus on shorter races. I was very positively surprised with some early podium finishes in the easier and flatter courses that suited my then-present skillset. This was a big confidence boost and the odds started to change … I could see the path in front of me, it would take a lot of effort, but I felt that this was doable and I loved it. With eClinicalHealth, one of the first challenges we had to tackle was to get some funding, so that we could build up the team and really put our plans into motion. We also needed external feedback. We thought we definitely were on the right path, but were keen to validate this. Closing our seed funding was very much like those early podiums. It’s no longer just you believing in it, but now others also do. In fact, our first seed investor – Karl Landert – ended up becoming part of the company.
Getting through the initial hurdles is the beginning of the building or training period. A training plan is not much different from a business plan. You now have the basics in place to start executing and this is the critical time. In running, you need to focus on many different areas, but only have so much time. The early days of startups are also very chaotic and full of distractions. There are lots of interesting conferences, potential customers to talk to, investors, recruiting staff, sorting out office space and lots of things you didn’t even think about. Sticking to a well thought out training plan is not always easy and making sure that everyone focuses on the critical aspects of the business plan is also challenging. You have to make some difficult choices. Is it the right time to approach my favourite customer? Should I spend four days out of my calendar going to this conference or should we focus on recruiting those new developers instead?
Once we’d put in the work (the right kind of work, of course), we were ready to step up the game. The build-up period with Clinpal has been several years, but we didn’t set out to build a one-off product, we set out to build a future-proof, next-generation platform with the potential to change the entire clinical trial process from the beginning to the end. That goal is not much unlike a sort-of-there road runner wanting to become a competitive ultra-distance mountain athlete. In my running, the first step up was to tackle the 50km distance and move towards more technical and mountainous terrain. I was humbled with some of my early experiences, such as my first 50km race in Asturias, where I was still a bit of a fish out of water in the middle of folks who I was certain were all born on the side of the mountain. I couldn’t believe my eyes when everyone just ran up the first 20km of the mountain. I wasn’t discouraged, I just knew I had some more work to do and soon started getting regular podium finishes in these longer races as well. With Clinpal, we have similar experiences in our first projects. They all achieved their goals, but with important lessons learned on the way. It’s usually easy to plan to run through mountains, but it’s a different thing to actually do so. It is the same with technology – once you have real live users, you have to deal with all of the practical issues like user management, making sure the different stakeholders have the reporting they need in order to be effective at doing their jobs, getting patient input, etc. In both cases, it’s a matter of working through the challenges. And you’ll end up with a medal around your neck in the end, and it’s all worth it.
I personally feel ready for the world stage and already have one victory under my belt in a relatively big 100km mountain race. This is pretty much the end game for me and I’ve already achieved far beyond what I ever set out to do in my running plans. Clinpal is now also ready to take on the world and the odds have turned. We now have a stable, modern, efficient and still evolving platform that has achieved excellent reception and commercial success in the industry. It has taken a massive effort from a number of people to get here, and it is humbling to think about where we started from. Just like the top runners here in Catalonia have been surprised by this strange Finnish person that’s suddenly turned up to take podium spots in their home ground, we now also have many of the multi-billion dollar companies raising their eyebrows at Clinpal. The one big difference between our young company and my running career is that for Clinpal, the best years are still yet to come …