Georgia Tech Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) alumnus Andy Ibbotson has been called a “serial entrepreneur,” having started and sold multiple successful companies. He most recently founded Digital Assent, a health care technology company that is now a division of the publicly traded National Research Corporation (NRC), having been recently purchased. Ibbotson is also a member of the ISyE Advisory Board.
In this Q&A, he talks about his interest in entrepreneurship, the lessons he’s learned by starting his own companies, and the advice he would give to his younger self.
Why did you decide to attend Georgia Tech for college?
Georgia Tech was attractive to me for several reasons, including its strong reputation as a top engineering school, and the co-op program that would help me get some real world experience and figure out what I wanted to do professionally. It also didn’t hurt that Georgia has a much better climate than all of the other schools I applied to, most of which were in the Northeast.
What made you choose ISyE for your major?
I came into Tech as a mechanical engineering major, but I didn’t really know what that meant. After my first quarter, I landed a great co-op job with Yamaha Motor Manufacturing, about 45 minutes south of Atlanta in Newnan, GA. I commuted from the Tech campus for two quarters and had a fantastic work experience, which included getting to test-ride prototype wave runners and Jet Skis in St. Augustine and the Florida Keys. However, I quickly realized that I didn’t want to spend my career in manufacturing and promptly switched majors to ISyE.
In my mind, ISyE offered the most breadth, with a curriculum that allowed me to take courses from other engineering and non-engineering disciplines, ranging from electrical and mechanical engineering labs to database design and industrial psychology.
You’ve been called a “serial entrepreneur.” What lights that perpetual spark for you?
The reason I decided to pursue entrepreneurship at a very early age is the same reason I was attracted to engineering, Georgia Tech, and ISyE: I love solving problems. And as a technology entrepreneur, I love the challenge of trying to solve problems in a way that hasn’t been done before.
What is it about startups specifically that interests you?
Creating solutions to problems that no one has successfully brought to market can be exceptionally challenging and fulfilling – all at the same time.
Building and growing a team can be equally stressful and rewarding. I particularly enjoy helping younger employees develop and watching them grow.
Seeing the idea your team sketched out on a napkin come to life is exciting, but what makes all of the hard work and sacrifice worthwhile is when you’re able to effect positive change on a large scale, like we’re doing today by bringing increased transparency to the health care industry and transforming the way patients choose doctors, with the technology we developed at Digital Assent.
What initially lit the entrepreneurial spark for you?
I always knew I would start my own business. When I was little, I remember asking my parents why people didn’t just start their career as president or CEO of a company. If that’s what you want to be when you grow up, why start out doing something else?
As I got older, I realized the huge difference between working for someone else and having other people work for you. But I was still very naïve in thinking that any combination of smart Georgia Tech grads could pick an industry and a business concept and make it successful with enough hard work and dedication.
Little did I know that my first business partner and I would have to endure two to three years of making no money, while paying our employees market salaries, in order to keep our first startup alive through the “nuclear winter” that followed the dot-com bubble in the early 2000’s.
You have chosen to focus much of your energy in the health care industry. Why is this sector so attractive to you?
My first company, which took 10 years to go from startup to a successful exit, was not in health care. However, my most recent company (Digital Assent), and the company that acquired us (NRC), operate exclusively in the health care industry. The reason we chose health care when I started Digital Assent was largely due to timing. It was 2009, right before the last economic downturn, and every other industry we evaluated was struggling, except health care.
Health care, at that time, had $36 billion in federal stimulus funds to help fund an industry-wide conversion from paper to electronic health records (EHRs). We knew there would be a lot of opportunity in health care, and that’s continued to be the case. Atlanta’s health care technology companies are growing fast, and I don’t see it slowing down any time soon.
What does Digital Assent or NRC do that is so vital to the health care industry?
Our team helps large hospitals and health systems embrace the movement toward health care consumerism and increased transparency. As consumers spend more of their own money on health care – and have more choice and more access to information than ever before, they are shopping around for quality and value.
We take the patient satisfaction survey data that hospitals already collect and convert it into online ratings and reviews that are published – good and bad – to the hospital’s own website and to each doctor’s profile page. This is similar to what you see on websites like Amazon, TripAdvisor, and Yelp! – to help consumers make more informed decisions when selecting a new provider.
By tapping into these federally mandated in-depth patient satisfaction surveys, we’re able to guarantee that the millions of ratings we publish each year are all from verified patients who have seen a doctor at a particular hospital or clinic in the past 12 months.
Many of the health systems that have implemented our Transparency solution have experienced a 10 to 20 percent improvement in their patient experience scores and a significant increase in the number of patients scheduling new appointments with their doctors.
The health systems who have selected us as their transparency partner, including world-renowned organizations like Johns Hopkins and the Cleveland Clinic, collectively operate more than 300 hospitals and employ over 70,000 physicians.
Can you share an anecdote about one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your professional career?
A constant recurring challenge as a startup entrepreneur is not running out of money. It’s not a discrete event, it’s constant. Even after raising an initial $12 million to launch my last company – you’re still constantly worried about running out of money.
When you raised a lot of money, expectations for the speed and success of your business are also raised. You’re expected to move faster, which means a bigger burn rate. And, more often than not, figuring things out takes longer and costs more than you initially projected. It’s basically a race against the clock to figure out a viable, scalable business model before you run out of money – or have to go out and raise more money.
So, yes, there were many instances where we had months’ or weeks’ worth of cash left in the bank, and we needed to make something happen in order to keep the company going.
Most entrepreneurs will have experienced this at least once – probably many times over. It’s a roller coaster ride, unless you get lucky and knock it out of the park the first time, which rarely happens. It’s often one step forward and two steps back, which keeps things interesting.
If creating a successful startup was easy, everyone would do it.
If you could travel back in time to your time at Tech, what advice would you give your younger self?
Seek out one or two good mentors early in your career who share common interests and goals, even if they’re only a few years older than you. Over time, surround yourself with advisors and mentors who will help you become a better business person and a stronger leader.
Try to figure out the things you’re not good at and stop doing them. I wasted a lot of time early in my career doing things that others could have done better and faster. Instead, try to surround yourself with people who are better than you in those areas.
Network with people of all different backgrounds and industries – I’m constantly surprised at the knowledge, insights and connections that weren’t initially apparent or obvious when I first met someone.
Don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t be afraid to ask questions – it’s the fastest way to learn. You can’t worry about sounding stupid.
If you’re interested in entrepreneurship, take advantage of all of the great resources available to you through Georgia Tech and in the Atlanta community. There wasn’t a big emphasis on entrepreneurship when I was starting out. Today, there are a rapidly growing number of incubators, accelerator programs, workshops, networking opportunities, and funding sources.