Interview for the projet Younghumansofscience with Landon McKenna president and chief commercial officer at Qmenta. This interview can also be found in podcast format.
Adam: How did you get into this company?
I met Vesna my cofounder in Boston when she was working in Harvard and there she told me about the project she had started with Paolo and with which they had been accepted by Wayra, Telefonica’s accelerator.I joined them because it was personal, my father has parkinson’s and we wanted to help advance the field of prevention and treatment of brain diseases.
Adam: How was it to join healthcare, or did you have some previous experience in this field?
It was my first experience in healthcare, it’s a lot different than other industries things move slower but it makes sense since people’s lives are at stake and this makes it take longer compared to the other two businesses I had.
When I was 16 I started a painting company, my parents had a paint manufacturer, and I saw that my cousin was doing better with this than with other jobs so I decided to start putting ads on the newspaper and built it from there for about 7 years and went up to 32 people.
I started it because I worked mowing lawns, at a gas station and at a Dunkin Donuts among others and I wanted to do something different. I didn’t start it with the intention of building a company, I thought that I would just start painting some houses and that I could make more money that way, but I caught some lucky breaks and it grew
Adam: How was the journey during those 7 years?
It was not the easiest thing but it was much easier, there wasn’t as much responsibility, I was just doing it for fun and ended up doing good money and as it grew I started to have more responsibility, to do the books to make sure that everybody has what they need and it’s a lot different than what we do now.
I started with ads and then I started getting referrals from the jobs I did and my parents knew someone who had a car dealership and needed painting and it was a lucky break, I just continued to build and it just expanded like that. Referrals are the best way to go for any business.
Adam: How was it after this journey?
After 7 years I sold the painting company and started working in finance and I did that for a few years but it was a bad time, there was a crash in the US and I decided to go surfing in South America and during that trip, I fell in love with Costa Rica and I wanted to stay so I asked them what it was that they needed there and they told me that it was cars because they get beat up because of the state of the roads.
I shipped the car, I bought a 1995 Path Finder put it on the boat and brought it to San Jose and after that I took to the capital after figuring how to get it past customs and I sold it for around 10.000.
I made good money and did it for a while and then I got a partner and then it became easier because I didn’t have to go back every time and then we expanded to motor bikes, and in the end even to tea and then I sold the company and went back to Boston.
Then things happened, I met Vesna, and from there we ended up building the business.
Adam: I suppose it was a fun journey
Yeah, it was not easy you have to work a lot and there is a reason why not everybody does it, you have to really want it, you have to work and if you want it bad enough you will be able to get it. It may not be on your first business, but you learn a lot from these experiences and if you want it bad enough, you’ll do it.
Adam: How did you face the excuses and what brought you back to starting a company?
The other businesses were easier to build, it’s never going to grow up to a 100 million dollars but they are more consistent, you have a product you move it somewhere else and get money from that and reinvest it.
A startup is different you need to build the company, have the capital to survive for the time frame needed until you get the product.
It takes a lot of perseverance, a lot of drive and it hasn’t been easy, it takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of hours and you can’t give up, it’s easy to make excuses but you have to decide that you want to do it
Adam: How did you develop this kind of mental toughness?
My father had his own business and he built his own company from nothing, my grandparents also and I just grew up in an environment with that kind of mentality.
The options were you work for someone else or you work for yourself and I understand wanting to go with a job from 9 to 5 but even when here you can’t stop thinking about your business even when holidays aren’t really holidays because you still have to answer emails, think about the business
It’s your baby you have to give it everything, if you stop looking at it you might lose it and this is why you can’t walk away for 2 weeks and not do anything
Adam: How do you prevent burnout?
You have to do something that you want to do, you have to do something that you like to do because if you don’t it’s very easy to get burnedout quickly, and I won’t lie, even when you are doing something you like you can end up burned out I have, in some instances and at those times I just take time for myself do my own things and get back at it, because when you get burned out you have two alternatives, you say I’m burned out and you give up, or you don’t.
I look at it and think, have I spent the last seven years of my life doing something just to give up? And this questions changes depending on the time period but the essence is the same.
Adam: How did you develop the tenacity?
Actually when I was young I was tenacious with things I really liked and I was competitive but there were things that I didn’t work as hard for, and it was only as I worked for other people, and tried different options that I noticed that it wasn’t my thing and that I would rather work for myself.
It is the drive to want to be successful that is what helps you have that tenacity, and no matter what you do and what motivation you have, it all depends on how driven, how motivated you are and I learned this from my father.
My father had a business in financial consulting, and he used to manage the money of wealthy people and he asked me,
What do you think that all of my clients have in common?
They all work in finance?
No, there are all sorts of people, and the only thing they all have in common is drive.
What is important is to be willing to continue with it even when it is hard and you want to give up, and it might not be the first time that it works, it might not be the right time, but when you think about what you are trying to do, what you are trying to create you can push forward.
It’s not about creating a market need, you can try to fix an existing need and even then it will be hard but if you continue enough even if not on the first or on the second, on the third you might achieve it.
Adam: Which advice would you have for someone starting on their own path?
If I had to come back to a single thing, if you want it bad enough you will be able to accomplish iti. This is what it all comes down to.
If you like to do what you are doing it is easier, it becomes easier to find a reason to continue and the only options are really starting another company or working for someone else. It’s not an easy journey at all.
I had to leave my daughter and travel even when she was young to go pitch on the other side of the world, I had to bring her to work when we were trying to finish things for deadlines and had to stay late at night.
You can do whatever you want to do if you believe in it and you really want to do it, and many people think that they want to do it, but how many actually want to?
It’s easy to throw in the towel when things are tough, when you are burned out, going all in again or leaving is your choice to make
There are times when it’s really hard, times when you have to travel from one meeting to the other without sleep, where you have to move offices and you have to do it all yourself because you can’t afford to pay for it.
Times where you have to build the material for conferences yourself, there are times when it is really tough and it’s only the reward of seeing the change it is making on the field that makes it worth it.
Adam: How is it to see the change that you wish to make start to become a reality?
It is still in the process because healthcare is a slow field, but we are gradually making it work, we are working with clinical trials and in the clinical care area but it is still a complex field, you have to be able to work in the research side and diagnose earlier in order to be able to start with the therapies earlier and the brain is really complex, and we are still trying to figure out how it works
And with our tools we can show how it is actually changing, how the brain is changing based on the treatments we can show in a quantitative way how it is evolving, and this gives a lot more information to know whether something is working, this way we can have additional information that comes straight from the source.
If it has to stop brain atrophy we can see if it is actually doing it and we can see where people are and whether there is too severe of a change and this way give them certain treatments.
Our objective is that by the end, by using pictures we should be able to tell if someone has alzheimer, if a treatment is working for them just from that single source
In the research setting we are also helping with organizing the data, so that we can make it easier to get reproducible results. Most of the researchers spend half the time storing the data and sometimes when the person leaves the work there can be problems finding the data finding how it is stored and this can save a lot of time and help make the R&D process easier so that we can focus on understanding the disease itself.
Adam: Which kind of skills would you recommend for someone starting their own company?
They have to want it bad enough because if you don’t you will end up burned out. But if you really want to do it, read books, take advice from others go to events and try to learn from people’s mistakes, even when we know that we have a hard time learning from things that are easy, still try to learn as much as you can from other people’s mistakes.
You have to understand what you are trying to do and what are your strengths and your weaknesses, because you have to do everything when you start but as you go on you should find your strengths and go for them because that way you won’t procrastinate and you will feel more fulfilled.
When you start you have to be able to do the legal stuff, the finances and hire people, and this last one is the hardest because no matter how alike you are and how easy it might seem to communicate, in the end you are different people and you will have different perspectives
It’s good to listen to other people’s point of view and find others who have the skills that you need, because for this kind of projects you need complementary skills and distribute the tasks because it is hard to be good at everything. Many companies struggle because they have cofounders that are too technical and this can make companies fail because 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing
And another important part is to find funding, and in our case we went with seed (car noise) funding because with this instead of having only a few people you create a community where they are all invested and they want to share it with their own communities and anybody can contribute.
And this is important because sometimes you can make the mistake of going with the wrong investors, we had a time where we had financial difficulties with the funding and we got offered an investment of 50.000 but the conditions where sketchy and we had to struggle and reject it and the next week we managed to get funding from a Nobel Prize that let us continue with this project.
Finding the wrong investor could really cripple your project and it could leave you out so one piece of advice would be to be careful and you should only go for it if it fits the vision and project you have.
Adam: How did you decide not to go for the investment?
It was based on experience, when you read and see how they are setting the terms and when you see that they are being really difficult to deal with even before signing you can expect it to be worse once they are your partner so be careful of who you get with you.
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