Were you really in a startup?

Exams have been strenuous. On the day of my birthday, I found myself sitting in an exam hall trying to work out the derivations on non-linear acoustics in ultrasound and feeling like the stupidest guy on earth. For a birthday celebration I met up with a friend and we walked along the river before I went back to revise for the next exam. He had been filtering job applications for a position in the NHS. He had been doing this for a couple of years now but this year he had noticed something different.

About 60 had applied for the job. Nothing new there. The difference was that he noticed that roughly half had noted in their CV that they were involved in developing an app, they were CEO of a startup, or that they were “involved” in a startup. Now the job wasn’t tech based so it wasn’t really relevant. However, I can see how having an active role in developing an app or startup can demonstrate some transferable skills. The thing is that none of them actually said what they did, what skills they learned, or what problems they solved. I too have noticed this weird trend. It seems to be the fashionable thing to say nowadays. However you feel about this, the bottom line is that he wasn’t impressed. In fact, he spoke about it with slight annoyance. Whether the applicants thought that this was right or wrong is neither here nor there, they were selling themselves to him. I’m sure these people are skilled and have a lot to offer people, it’s a shame when they give off the impression that they don’t.

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My friend expanded on his frustration with Uber. No doubt Uber consulted taxi drivers when developing their platform, but he highly doubted that there was taxi drivers flaunting around saying that they were “involved in a startup”. But for some reason the medical profession has seemed to have spun focus group participation as an integral role when in reality the startup could have chucked a bit of cash at most other medics, they just needed service user input.

People put this sort of stuff on their CV to impress. If it does the opposite then it’s only hurting the person who’s trying to sell themselves. Truth be told I have similar feelings. When a medic tells me flatly that they are “involved” in a startup my mind jumps to a medical student I met when I was teaching computational medicine. She couldn’t get her head around loops within loops, she couldn’t develop the most basic functions but she left the introductory to coding class stating that she was going to code an app. I bumped into her a few times around the hospital and she told me tales that over the summer she was going to manage a team of engineers at silicone valley. The girl had little to no life experience, no technical ability, and hadn’t finished her undergrad yet. She may have managed to secure some work experience but the tales of involvement with no listing of skills or particular project details just ended up annoying me. Is it irrational? Yes, she could be telling the truth, however, I just couldn’t instinctively believe her. Irrational or not I, my friend, and others I know who look at CVs feel the same way.

So what are you supposed to do? Maybe you did get “involved” in a startup and spent a lot of time and were a valuable member of the team. Maybe you did more than telling the developers: “Medics usually do this”. My advice is to be specific and play it down. For instance, let’s look at two projects I usually site when communicating over a project. I coded the iPhone app: Medical Matrix in swift and objective-C and it’s now in the app store. I do not claim it’s a startup, it isn’t. It is not a revolutionary app. I do not say something pompous like: “I am the CEO of Medical Matrix”. I say that in my spare time I coded a simple app to get a familiarity with smartphone structures and the operating system, as web apps will connect with them through API when the ecosystem of a project develops. If I exaggerate the app, they download it and they are not impressed (which is most likely as it’s a basic app), then I look like someone who has such little ability that I think that it’s amazing, or I look like someone who is trying to deceive them, neither is a good outcome.

What about titles? As for MyGPevents, I coded this with Shubz and it has some paying customers. Again neither of us brandish the title CEO. It’s a small 2-man operation. When I site it I say that I coded the object orientated SQL data structure, and coded the search function in Python in a Django framework. We would only consider such titles if we got VC funding, a serious cash flow and we need to consider legal frameworks. Anyone can be CEO of a failed or worthless company. Putting this as the title in your CV doesn’t impress anyone, and it doesn’t demonstrate that you have amazing abilities. However, it does run the risk of implying that you’re pompous, or that you’re trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. It can never go well and only increase the risk of annoying someone. Only give yourself a title if you have to due to legal reasons or when your company is a success.

What about “getting involved”? I was paid to help clinicians get to grips with the new computer system Cerner when it was introduced in the hospital. I rarely bring this up when communicating with people because most of the time, the skill set I demonstrated in this venture is not relevant to what we’re talking about. I would only bring it up if I were trying to demonstrate that I had experience in educating new users to a product. Very rarely does this go on written communication. It might get brought up in conversation if the conversation is steering to getting users grounded in a new product. Forcefully inserting something where it’s not really relevant makes it look like you don’t have much to offer and you’re trying to force the limited skillset/ experience down the other guy’s throat.

The take home message here is that every man and their dog is now stating that they are the CEO of a startup, or that they’re “involved” in developing an app/ startup. If you can’t be specific don’t bother saying it.

10 thoughts on “Were you really in a startup?

  1. I’m not really sure what you’re really blogging about here. Seems needlessly negative! If medics or other health care workers feel they want to talk about their role in a start up – bully to them. If they are foolish enough to call themselves a CEO when it’s a one man failing business, then they are welcome to. The rest of their CV will probably give the game away. Anyway, thought I’d chuck in my two pence. My thoughts are also if you are an ideas person, a self starter or have the impetus to start up a business, then you are entitled to mention it in a CV. Whether you do the coding yourself or not may well be irrelevant. My personal opinion is that medically trained individuals would be better off partnering with a technology firm and investors, and use their skills to direct the operation. Many other people are far better placed to do the technical ‘grunt work’ and you will hopefully end up with a better product.


    1. Generally, this blog is about giving clinicians advice on tech. Hopefully, some readers who think that calling themselves a CEO will think twice before doing so when applying for jobs. In terms of the ideas person, this is probably where we differ. Maybe I should have been more clear. Just being an ideas person is fairly useless. I’ve met people who cannot code but they are invaluable to their business. However, they have usually spent extra time and training in business, law etc, and still, put the miles in when it comes to legal frameworks, contracts, writing policy etc. The concern is that there has been an explosion of clinicians fancying themselves as assets because they say “in clinical practice, we do this”. Hopefully, you haven’t taken this personally. I want people to succeed which is why I’ve spent hours writing posts for this blog for no pay at all. This post highlights that there are people in the NHS looking at the CVs and getting turned off when they see certain buzzwords because these buzzwords have been abused. The take home message from this post is that certain buzzwords may have got you places 3 years ago but now they are starting to have negative associations with them, so in order to sell yourself, focus on the specifics that you did. I wrote it because I don’t want people who have done great things, be wrongly dismissed as a fraud by someone who is spending 2 minutes scanning their CV. I had these feelings myself for a long time but I only felt the urge to write this post when I spoke to people who were hiring in the NHS and getting turned off with these buzzwords.


  2. I just had the impression the blog was needlessly superior. I agree – ideas mean nothing without action. But ideas are also the spark behind any great invention. I always love to work with ‘ideas’ people. And I disagree that you need further training in law, business etc. If you are an intelligent person these can all be self taught or achieved through collaboration. Anyway, I’m not in recruitment, so I wouldn’t know what people put on their CVs. Just thought it could sound a bit less negative!


    1. Yeah, the unfortunate thing about writing about a negative concept is that you will write some negative things. Just pointing out that something is negative without giving examples or elaborating on points you’re making is being needlessly negative. Also, refrain from using exclamation marks. It’s hypocritical when trying to police someone else’s tone. If you can provide examples of the needlessly superior sentences or where I am being excessively negative then I could explain them to you or alter my writing in the future. Just saying it means very little.


    2. I forgot to add that all I said was extra training, that doesn’t mean that I advocate that they have to go back to university. I taught myself to code. I now have an internship developing machine learning algorithms for a financial tech firm in Mayfair. I also give up my free time to teach other clinicians how to code. I have worked clinicians who have taught themselves all sorts of skills. Some of your interpretation of what I’m saying may say more about you than what’s being said.


      1. Honestly, I haven’t drawn any personal offence at all. I too have a diverse portfolio, and am very happy with my career. I have no axe to grind, except I passionately believe in supporting people with a mind to improve the NHS, and I hoped to read a more positive blog about clinicians working in start ups.


  3. Hey, I’m sorry to offend. The problem with blogging is often readers draw a different inference from the one you intended. I thought the section about this girl ‘I bumped into her a few times around the hospital and she told me tales that over the summer she was going to manage a team of engineers at silicone valley. The girl had little to no life experience, no technical ability, and hadn’t finished her undergrad yet. She may have managed to secure some work experience but the tales of involvement with no listing of skills or particular project details just ended up annoying me. Is it irrational? Yes, she could be telling the truth, however, I just couldn’t instinctively believe her. Irrational or not I, my friend, and others I know who look at CVs feel the same way.’ did sound a little superior. Other readers may totally disagree. I’m sure you have a point, but to me, I read: ‘lots of people say they are doing start ups. You are all doing crap things and you shouldn’t even bother mentioning them. Come back when you can code.’ I don’t know if this is totally unfair, but I would sooner read a blog encouraging clinicians to act on their ideas, specify their start up experience or seek support from others who can help. A positive version. But, again, maybe I have been unfair and misjudged the main thrust of the blog.


    1. I’m glad you’re taking the time to write this. It’s always good to hear what others are thinking. If you’re reading it this way, then so are others. For this student I highlighted her technical abilities were terrible, but I also highlighted that she had no life experience. If I thought coding skills were the only thing then I would have just focused on the coding skills. Even if we’re not willing to accept this and say that the sentence infers that I only care about coding skills I go on and say that it’s her not listing what she was actually doing that annoyed me. I then go on to say that this is irrational but this is how it comes across to people. The main gyst of this post is: List what you did in the project. Just saying it rubs people up the wrong way, even if it’s irrational. We can conclude that I have to be clearer in my writing in the future. If it doesn’t convey fully what I’m trying to say then I need to improve. Thank you again for taking the time to point out what made you come to your conclusions. I genuinely appreciate it.


  4. Hmmmmm……while I understand what you’re trying to say here, I disagree with a lot of it.

    If you really are involved in a startup, then it’s actually very important to define who is the CEO, CFO etc. You would be insane/very naive to not have JV agreements and vested equity arrangements etc in place. Founder disagreements and breakups are one of the main reasons startups fail and these agreements offer a lot of protection in not completely destroying what you’ve worked so hard to build.

    Again, I get the gist of what you’re trying to say, but I think it’s important to not misinform people reading that it’s somehow wrong or not important to define what role each member in the founding team plays.

    (PS. it’s ironic that you used Uber as an example. Richard Howard was one of the key people who brought Uber to London. He was unemployed before he joined the company and just wanted to “get involved” in tech. 🙂 )


    1. Yes, you’ve misunderstood what’s being said. I’m focusing on attitude and realistic evaluation of current market value, not motivation. The issue is where someone has done nothing but “got involved”, has no skills to demonstrate, and is brandishing a title about an organization that hasn’t amounted to anything, however, they are brandishing it as if they expect you to be wowed. As for Richard Howard, it’s not ironic, he’s not a taxi driver who gave some advice, and then went around swanking, he was some benefit to the company. In-fact, it’s a great example of what I’m saying. I’m sure Richard would give you loads of examples of how he advanced the company with results…. OK let’s give your analysis a ton of leeway and assume that he’s going to be a complete douche and simply say “I just got involved” when you press him for details, or when he’s applying for a job. It still isn’t ironic, because Uber is such a success, it’s a result in itself. You’re raising this as an argument because Uber is a success, a result. As for defining roles I say in this post:

      “Only give yourself a title if you have to due to legal reasons or when your company is a success.”

      Do what you have to do behind closed doors. I explained what I did and why, and then focused on the fact that you shouldn’t thrust titles unless it’s legally viable or it gives you kudos due to a successful result. Every situation is different. You can have legally binding contracts on future prospects without registering the business. Hell, even an email can be a legally binding contract [link]. My agreement with Shubz has really worked for us. He is now a clinical lead for Adahealth and I write code for a financial tech firm in Holborn where we develop machine learning algorithms for loan risk defaults. myGPevents is now in talks with a bigger company. The take home message is that everyone is throwing these titles around doesn’t impress people and it’s annoying people including people who hire for the NHS. Just keep a hold on flaunting these titles until you’re a success. As for disagreements destroying ventures, there are also people who jump head first into contracts, then one of them becomes a dead weight and you’re locked down, these also kill ventures but you don’t hear about them because they’re not as dramatic and you’re less likely to take someone to court for not pulling their weight.


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