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From Launching Blackberry's BBM Service To Creating An Award-Winning Healthcare Startup, Balaji Gopalan Shares Insights From A Decade Of Startup Experiences
Balaji Gopalan leads business development and strategy as the Co-Founder and CEO at MedStack, a digital app for the healthcare industry. Prior to co-founding MedStack, he launched the BlackBerry BBM service and led platform strategy at D2L, Nymi and EventMobi.
Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host
Canada
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As an expert in product management and software platform ecosystem design, Balaji is a well-respected start-up educator, advisor and mentor. He is an advocate for the role of ecosystems in industry transformation and in tackling tough problems like improving healthcare. Prior to co-founding MedStack, he launched the BlackBerry BBM service and led platform strategy at D2L, Nymi and EventMobi.

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You worked at Blackberry in its infancy and up to around its peak in 2012/2013. I find it fascinating, as this was before the current startup boom happening in Canada, when Blackberry was our version of Apple, a rockstar tech company. How was that experience? What were your learnings?  

[BG] That was a lot of fun.  Certainly BlackBerry wasn't Canada's first big tech success (look at Nortel, Mitel, etc) but it really felt like we were carving out something new. I was enormously fortunate for that experience. I joined the company on a whim, which was a big gamble because I didn't have a background in software or even telecom (other than self-teaching myself programming in the 1980s), but had a relentless view towards customer and user proposition, which landed me a Product Management role, back when Product itself was a new function.

Not only was BlackBerry (then called Research In Motion) a uniquely innovative company, born and bred in the strongly innovation-first culture that is the University of Waterloo campus, but it was the way in which innovation was approached and executed that was core to the company's success:  everything we did was driven by a balance between user utility (and a rigorous definition of who our user was), buyer needs, and the pursuit of technical excellence, all of which was made by possible by the way the two co-CEOs were so different but so respectful of each other's strengths.

I joined the company in the fledgling "Retail Business Unit", which itself was a small, almost secret skunkworks organization within the larger company.  Many of the waters we charted were very much what it's like running an aggressively disruptive startup, challenging not only the status quo in our expected user experience and the industry we were in, but also the cultural frame within the company itself.

So much of what I think about in terms of customer-centric positioning, organizational and functional strategy etc is based on my experiences there.

How did you come up with the idea of Medstack?  I would imagine the idea of HIPAA-as-a-service would have been hard to pitch early on.  How did you manage to get someone like Maple on board?

[BG]  My career had been focused on product and ecosystem strategy and innovation process management. I've mentored many product managers, several of whom have moved on to very successful careers, some as founders themselves, and have designed a ground-up curriculum in product management and taught for several years. I developed early in my career a keen fascination in platform strategy, focused on how two business entities can collaborate over technology to deliver value to their mutual customers. I'd led platform strategy at several other companies but deep down, I knew we could do something bigger with it.

When my co-founder brought me the market problem that would form the basis of MedStack, I found myself in front of a very severe and urgent societal problem that could be addressed with a platform strategy. He had been running a software development services company, building healthcare apps, and was amazed at how much money and time was spent in building privacy compliance into commercializing these offerings. We spent the first several months validating the business hypothesis, with both sides of our ecosystem, and with a view towards putting a proposition in front of customers as quickly as possible, we launched our ongoing learning process.

We learned very quickly that the intersection of powering a transformation in healthcare, focusing on infrastructure technology and targeting early stage technology companies as customers was seen as unusual and a bit outside the norm, especially in combination, but we remained determined that this was the best way to achieve the outcomes we were after.  Fortunately, even with doubts around us, we managed to partner with likeminded individuals early on, including the founders of Maple, and joined forces in our mutual journeys.

Where do you see Medstack in the next 3-5 years?  Where do you see yourself in that same time period?

[BG] We have a vision to bring together a suite of partnerships, services and capabilities that can enable a defined path to success for digital health, starting with the automation for data privacy and security attestations as we do now. We would like to see MedStack integrated with healthcare buying entities as their onboarding framework, integrated with a marketplace of value-added service providers. It's a further extrapolation of platform strategy, one that I'd be happy to drive forward. 

How has COVID-19 impacted your businesses?  How have you adapted?

[BG] It is very tragic that the world is facing this crisis, and we are grateful to work in and power an industry that is responding to it and driving towards a "new normal" that will persist beyond the current environment.

When the pandemic was realized, we immediately took to financial conservatism, looking towards maintaining our business and ongoing delivery to customers who we knew would be doing the most important work of their careers. Some of our customers and opportunities slowed or dissipated, but mostly we saw a sharp spike upwards, because digital health would soon become the fastest-growing software category overall. More care delivery was needed in new innovative ways to deal with the pandemic itself, while other aspects of healthcare required support for continuity in a socially-distanced context. The result was a solid doubling of our business in 1 year. More urgency was required in the delivery of digital health, which means more of these companies and their applications had to commercialize faster, bringing to the forefront our enabling, automation technology. 

It seems like you are currently putting yourself out there in the Mentor roles in official capacities at The DMZ, Techstars and the Founder Institute.  How did you get these opportunities?

[BG] They developed over time ... I've really worked on honing my mentorship and management skills over the years. Rarely means I know more than anyone else, but most of what I do is simply play back what people say so they themselves can draw fresh, more objective conclusions.  I also really just love the startup adventure so when I'm in groups with other founders, I actively participate in discussions, which has worked in my favour.

A lot of my personal brand was also built out in my work teaching at Brainstation; my students are now in several places in our tech ecosystem and that's really helped tell my story. 

Do you have any mentors that have helped you in the progression of your career?  How does somebody find a mentor?

[BG] Mentors are very important and I've had many. As a teen I worked summer jobs at an industrial company, and my managers there pushed me very hard, making me understand that hours in a job don't matter, it's results that count, and if you earn them, you should can take ownership of them.

But I've overall been incredibly fortunate to have worked with some wonderful, trusting and collaborative managers and mentors. They've all been beneficial to us in different ways. A few of my ex-managers from BlackBerry I continue to reach out to to seek their counsel in people management, product strategy and just keeping up with pace.  With MedStack, we've been unspeakably fortunate with the investors we've had, who've never minced words in guiding us on what we're doing well and what should change, but also what they hope and expect we can do next.

Finally, I would like to actually call out my co-founder,Simon Woodside, as a mentor himself. I learn from him every day. We are very very different but the way we trust each other for ownership, feedback and counsel makes me a better manager and business lead.  The same actually holds true for the entire team. I have learned so much from them, in every way, driven by the learning-first nature of our team culture.

To find a mentor is simply to think about who you want to be or what you want to achieve, and find someone that emulates those things.  But always note that mentorship can be expensive in terms of the time and attention you're looking for from the mentor, so think through what you can do for them too in exchange.

As an entrepreneur, how do you handle work-life balance?  What advice would you give younger folks about this? Is this just a rite of passage in your career journey or would you do things differently if you were to do it all over again?

[BG] Admittedly I don't think I've quite hit this sweet spot yet but I'm working on it. The sooner you can learn that bad outcomes are almost always a big portion of bad luck, and it's good outcomes that should be focused on to drive improvement, the better. In my team we spend a lot of time talking about this:

Ours is a very fast-changing industry space given the way it's evolving away from long-standing legacy, and most certainly it's never the same day twice. We know however that pressures can be tremendous, and we place a very high premium on collaboration, transparency and balance in the team. We encourage each other to do what we need for mental health (our weekly demo day starts with a short group meditation), and this and family commitments always come first.

But we do forgive each other for giving in to stress, which we know will happen. Patience and empathy are our guiding forces.  For me personally, I have a few select things that are very different than my activities in a typical work day, and I try to turn to them on a regular basis to achieve my necessary reset.  These include cooking and baking, playing music, and focusing on my role as a father (though on some days that isn't that different than running a company!).

It helps to do what you love, of course. But always remind yourself that to do it really well, you need a clear, healthy mind and spirit.

Tell us about a major win that you’ve had so far that you’re proud of.

[BG]  I'm most proud of the work I've done as an educator and manager in end-to-end Product Management (created and taught a curriculum at a career advancement school), and having built an ecosystem platform company that is bringing more entrepreneurs and innovators to healthcare, and helping them be successful. And very proud of building an incredible, tenacious and humble team and the honours MedStack has earned (Canadian Innovation Exchange Top 20, Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance Award, named to PWC's list of top companies changing healthcare in Canada, TechCrunch Disrupt pick).

What is a failure you’ve experienced in the last 5-10 years that you’ve learned the most from?

[BG] There have been many, but the one common theme always is that sticking to the facts is what matters most. Information flow grows exponentially so ensuring that there is a flow of information in the organization and constantly optimizing that flow is always worth it. 

And of course some battles are worth fighting ... and some aren't. Everything is about ROI, and sunk cost is just that.

What is a great business idea or product that you would be working on if you weren’t focused on your current venture?  

[BG] My guiding purpose will always be built upon the dual ideas of solving big world problems, and using platform strategy to do so. I believe there are some very interesting opportunities that exist in the field of enabling people to be more contributory while also being more organized, perhaps in the way in which personal calendars are managed. There are some really interesting companies working in areas such as this, which I'm very excited about.

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What do you think you would tell 16-year Balaji looking back?

[BG] Be more adventurous. Take more risks. Experience more ... look up beyond your shoes and find out more about the world. 

How would you describe your dream life?  

[BG] I am very lucky with the one that I have, I'll admit. My children inspire me every single day ... my work is very precious to me, but so are they and so is everything I've been fortunate to do with music. A legacy is something I strive to achieve, one representing all the experiences I've had, and it would span all three of those. I'm generally restless and rarely satisfied (which is not to say I don't appreciate all my incredible gifts in this life) but that's what I want to get to. 

What is your favourite book(s) you’ve read recently and why?

[BG] Sadly, speaking of ideal life, I don't read these days nearly as much as I'd like, though I'm trying to amass information in other ways.  I read The Hard Thing About Hard Things a while back and it really reminded me of a number of important things for MedStack.  But ... whenever I feel like my perseverance is slowing, and I need a pick-me-up, I think back to reading The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, as a young person, and that book still changes my life, even from memory.

What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?

[BG] It is always about how you react. I've known that forever but I'm finding myself leaning into it more and more these days. 

If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?

[BG] I would dedicate focus towards empowering thinkers, innovators, artists and change-makers, from particularly disadvantaged backgrounds or upbringing, to drive their motivations to helping us address our challenges in the environment, economy, health and knowledge (and I believe they are all connected). 

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How connected are you to the Tamil community in Toronto?  How would you describe the Tamil community in Toronto (or Canada) based on your experience?

[BG] Somewhat, though I wasn't raised in Toronto proper. Both my and my wife's family are proud of their respective South Indian heritage (technically, my side of the family is Telegu though we have close ties with Tamil too) though in very different ways ... most importantly, our traditional arts and culture are a big part of my upbringing and we're proud to take part in it.  I was raised with our classical music, and music in general is a big part of our family life. My children have taken up dance and their performances enable us to engage with the community in a very wholesome manner. 

What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?

[BG] As mentioned, I consider myself very lucky in life and one reason is that my mother is an award-winning and very inspiring cook, and we are blessed to have my parents living with us even today, so we are very well-fed!  I'd say my favourite however has to be her spinach sambaar.  I get excited whenever it's made and go for seconds. 

What is your favourite Tamil movie?

[BG] Sadly I never really picked up on the Indian film industry too much ... but the environment has fond memories to me, the sights and sounds, even if I couldn't name a film. As a young boy, way before the days of current technology, I remember my Father renting a reel-to-reel projector and we'd actually play movies (on a film strip!) projected against a wall in our house, inviting immigrant university students to come over for a night of home cooking and fond familiar entertainment, and that is one of my happiest childhood memories.

What does Tamil culture mean to you?

[BG] Rich are we that embrace the diversity of senses and thoughts around us, and I'm so proud to live in one of the world's most multicultural cities. We value family, community, learning as a group, high standards, hard work and the best lessons we can bring from tradition, with a quiet demure that speaks to elevate tolerance and openness. This is what I draw from our culture and what I hope to instill in my children and then in theirs.

Connect with Balaji via his TC profile

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