Say you need a doctor appointment. And the type of doctor you need—one who takes the kind of insurance you have—has a cancellation that very day, or the next. Wouldn’t it be great if there were an online service that could put the two of you together?
There is, and it’s called ZocDoc—the brainchild of CEO Cyrus Massoumi, 36, a former consultant at McKinsey & Company. Along with co-founders—Oliver Kharraz, MD, a health care IT consultant, and Nick Ganju, a CTO in a financial consulting firm—Massoumi launched the service in 2007 with just 10 New York–based dentists in its roster. Today, ZocDoc covers 40 percent of the US population in more than 1,700 cities and towns.
ZocDoc is one of those brilliantly simple ideas that, in retrospect, seems obvious. A consumer goes to ZocDoc.com, inputs his zip code, insurance information, and physician need, and a screen full of possible appointment times appears. Clearly, ZocDoc serves the needs of ailing or impatient patients. It also dovetails with major market trends that will only intensify: a looming doctor shortage, greater demand because of an aging population, and the increased emphasis on preventive care mandated by the Affordable Care Act.
And, just as important, ZocDoc serves the needs of medical practices, which pay $300 monthly to be included in the service. Operating on ever-thinner profit margins, they can’t afford empty spaces in their schedules caused by last-minute cancellations.
In its six years of existence, ZocDoc has gained an impressive roster of investors (including Khosla Ventures, Bezos Expeditions, and Marc Benioff) as well as acclaim on national lists of best websites, best places to work, most valuable private tech companies, and so on. Nonetheless, the start up was fraught with all the obstacles an entrepreneur can face: technical issues, hard-won sales, funding problems, a skeptical market, and lots of long, late nights. In an interview with NYER senior editor Lee Lusardi Connor, Massoumi reflected on his company’s journey—and its almost limitless future.
Lee Lusardi Connor: What gave you the idea for ZocDoc?
Cyrus Massoumi: I was flying cross-country with a bad sinus infection, and my eardrum ruptured. When I landed in New York I started looking for an ear, nose, and throat doctor from the list on my insurance company’s website. It ultimately took me four days to get an appointment, and I thought that was ridiculous.
My whole family is in health care, so I knew that doctors have a lot of last-minute cancellations. So I talked to my colleague at McKinsey & Company, Oliver Kharraz, who is a doctor and an expert on electronic health records and practice management systems. I said, “Oliver, why can’t I book a doctor online the same way I can book a flight or a restaurant or buy groceries or buy clothes? Why does it have to be so difficult?” And he said, “You’re right. We should quit our jobs and start this company.”
LLC: But what got you thinking that way—that this personal problem could be a business? After all, a lot of people have trouble getting doctor appointments.
CM: It’s just the way that I’m wired. I’m a problem-solver. I’m constantly trying to optimize my life.
My personal experience was also the basis for the first company I started, called One Size Too Small, which made software to help e-commerce companies manage their online returns. This was in the late ’90s, when there were no e-commerce packages—you would literally have to hire 30 developers to build your shopping cart, the security layer, the infrastructure, and so on. There were no pre-printed return labels, nothing like that, so returning something was a huge hassle. And I knew this because I have huge feet so I have to buy shoes online, and I was having a problem returning stuff.
So we worked with the U.S. Postal Service and with UPS, and worked with e-commerce companies to create returns module for their sites, which we would sell as a service to them. I ran that company for three years, but it did not have as great an ending as I had hoped.
LLC: What did you learn from that experience that influenced the building of ZocDoc?
CM: I learned that I always wanted to solve the number one need of a client. These days, customer service, as with Zappos, is in the spotlight. But back then increasing revenue was the priority. In fact, some executives of high-profile sites actually asked me, “Why would I ever want to make returns easier?”
Another thing I learned was that I wanted to sell something that didn’t have a limited window. Back then, you could only sell technology to retailers a few months out of the year, between February and June. Come July, they wouldn’t deploy new technology because God forbid December has a glitch, you’re done.
The third thing I learned was that I wanted to be in a business that wasn’t hit-driven; wasn’t a function of being trendy.
I think being an entrepreneur is like giving birth to a child: you have to put literally everything you have into it, and there is so much sacrifice. Not having that company succeed was horrible. But as they say, sometimes you learn more through failure than you do from success.
LLC: So with ZocDoc, you were aiming to address a need that was widespread and perennial. How did investors and potential clients respond to your pitch?
Lee Lusardi Connor is a business writer and editor. She can be reached at LeeLusardi@gmail.com.