In this series, The Peak shares a meal or a drink with the CEO at his or her favourite eating or drinking place. DocDoc CEO Cole Sirucek chose Bee’s Knees, a cafe at the Singapore Botanic Garden.
Cole Sirucek and I are at Bee’s Knees at Botanic Gardens, sharing a bowl of tater tots and discussing the business acumen of the infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. His immoral actions aside, “Escobar, like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, started new product categories”.
According to Sirucek, there are two kinds of entrepreneurs: those with the little E and others with the big E. “Starting a venture fund or a hedge fund; creating a product in an established category, these are little E entrepreneurial initiatives. That’s different from doing something that has never been done before.” Escobar, Musk, Bezos? Big Es, says Sirucek.
And where would you put yourself and DocDoc? He replies immediately: “I would have become a little E entrepreneur. My daughter created the big E for my wife and me.”
A Bumpy Road
The genesis of DocDoc, a platform that uses artificial intelligence to parse extensive healthcare data and provide relevant information to patients and users, has been well-documented in the media. Just over seven years ago, a doctor told Sirucek and his partner Grace Park that their three-month-old daughter had to undergo a life-threatening liver transplant. Sirucek and Park grilled him; the doctor dismissed their queries and concerns. They got a second opinion from a friend, did an international search and found another surgeon with more experience in Japan who was charging less. The operation was a success, and the duo realised they didn’t want anyone else to go through the experience they did.
“What happened to my daughter defined this life for me. I have no need for healthcare and insurance tech. In fact, I think it’s the worst place to start a business given all the entrenched special interests. But it was a problem that the universe put in front of me that would define me by my failure or success to overcome,” says Sirucek.
(Related: Drinks with… CIMB Singapore CEO Victor Lee)
It has been an extremely bumpy road, Sirucek admits. He tells me about “four financing deals” that exploded in his face after the term sheets were signed. He shares his experiences with people who have lied to him, saying one thing and doing another. He reveals his struggles with “big companies in legacy industries who don’t want to be disrupted”.
But he remains positive.
Munching on a tater tot, Sirucek says: “Starting a company and keeping it running is hard. I thought that having ironclad proof of exceptional value validated by customers would be enough to unleash explosive growth. I didn’t realise that in the insurance industry, it would not be enough.”
He’s not wrong. In 2019, The Economist released the results of an innovation survey that revealed that the insurance industry was behind many other sectors for embracing artificial intelligence and big data in their businesses. “The healthcare and insurance industries don’t move like glaciers; they move at the speed of tectonic plates,” Sirucek jokes.
That inertia is suffocating. DocDoc is still unprofitable after seven years although Sirucek says that every funding round has been “at a higher price per share than the previous one.” He notes: “Has it gone up as fast as I would like? No. I would have preferred DocDoc to be where it is today five years ago. When we started this, we didn’t think it would take this long or be this hard. But it doesn’t matter. It only matters that we win. We’re getting greedy if we try to pick the date.”
“Starting a company and keeping it running is hard. I thought that having ironclad proof of exceptional value validated by customers would be enough to unleash explosive growth. I didn’t realise that in the insurance industry, it would not be enough.”
DocDoc CEO Cole Sirucek on the difficulties that he has faced in the past seven years
In The Pipeline
According to Sirucek, however, there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel. He says that DocDoc is now in talks with multiple governments and insurance companies around the world, specifically at the RFP (request for proposal) stages. “DocDoc is failing upwards brilliantly,” says Sirucek with a wry smile. “We have tens of billions worth of contracts in the pipeline, but it’s a long sales process.”
The Covid-19 pandemic sped up these conversations by highlighting the gaping cracks in the healthcare infrastructure of many countries. Singapore is an example. Over the past two decades, medical inflation has risen nearly 80 per cent, around 2.9 per cent per annum. The Ministry of Health also revealed that between 2007 and 2017, private healthcare costs rose 9 per cent per annum, almost double that of public hospitals.
Sirucek believes DocDoc can help with this, thanks to their technology. “We have seven years of really solid technical build. We’ve kept our cash burn lean to keep building until we have the capabilities to get into the big game. It’s going to take a long time but if you build towards the path of inevitability, you become an inevitable success.”
Sirucek understands that there are people out there who doubt DocDoc’s ability to be successful. But he doesn’t pay heed to them. He’s focused on staying true to the vision and winning the battle. “Amor fati; it’s Latin for love of one’s fate. It essentially means that it’s not enough that you bear or endure your problems. You must learn to love it. Committed founders find ways to win.”