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January 29, 2009

A Healthy Entrepreneurial Spirit

Catherine New
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Your life may get a little healthier thanks to Cyrus Massoumi ’03, founder and CEO of ZocDoc. The company aims to change the way you find and book a doctor’s appointment. While the company is not even two years old, the accolades have come quickly. In 2007, it was named one of TechCrunch’s top 40 hottest startups, and last month it won Forbes.com’s “Boost Your Business” contest (check out their video pitch). Public Offering caught up with Massoumi to talk about life as an entrepreneur.

How did you get started?
Before I came to Columbia Business School, I ran a software company called OneSizeTooSmall in Austin. It was really helpful to bring that experience with me to Columbia. After School, I joined McKinsey & Company, and the idea for ZocDoc came about from a business trip. I was on an airplane and ruptured my eardrum, and I needed to find a doctor on short notice. After that experience, I talked to my coworker, Oliver Kharraz, who was the expert on electronic health records, and we both liked the idea of an online service to connect patients with doctors. Our third co-founder, Nick Ganju EMBA ’08, joined us next as the chief technology officer.

How did you know that it was the right idea at the right time?
You kind of know in your gut. At first this was just a pebble in my shoe and I kept thinking, Do I want to do another start-up? Is this the right one? But I couldn’t get away from it, and it came to a point where I knew it wouldn’t be successful unless we immersed ourselves completely. So that’s what we did.

So how do entrepreneurs know if now is the right time to start a venture?
Now is the best time to take that leap. Everything is cheaper to do, and resources are more readily available — real estate and hiring, in particular. Fewer hedge funds are competing for talent, so more really good people are available right now. The best businesses were built in recessions, so if you have capital or time to invest, that is a great thing. With so many companies contracting and worrying about survival, you can be more aggressive and actively pursue opportunities. It might sound risky, but great ideas transcend bad economies.

What advice do you have for Columbia MBAs?
In New York City there is so much access to people with practical knowledge and I tried to find classes that had a lot of guest speakers, like Leadership in Retail. I knew I didn’t want to go into retail, but the class had 20 CEOs coming in to speak. Hearing first-hand from someone who runs a company is good for an entrepreneur. There is really no other way to prepare to be one. Also, it’s not a joke that investors like to invest with other investors. Some people invested only because they knew me, even without a business plan. Many of my CBS classmates invested in ZocDoc, and that confidence has paid off, ultimately leading to us getting investments from people like Jeff Bezos. Having people regard you well in your class is important; they need to know they can count on you.

What is the toughest thing about being an entrepreneur?
It can be lonely. There are ups and downs and the buck always stops with you. It can be hard sometimes to lead the charge uphill while getting fired at non-stop, but that comes with the territory. The great thing about co-founders is you have that feeling a lot less.

…and the best thing?
It doesn’t seem like work anymore. I love my company and I enjoy coming in to work every day. I wouldn’t go home if I didn’t have to get some sleep.

This is the inaugural column in our Next Steps series, which will profile alumni in their first five years after Columbia Business School. Do you know someone we should write about? Tell us about other candidates.

Photo credit: Julie Galluzzo