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Startup Secret 47: Do the right thing

A startup guy dips way too far into personal funds for his startup, but you can't argue with the outcome.

"We are fixing the wrong things."

--Ryan Howard, CEO, Practice Fusion

Entrepreneurship is really commitment. Passion. The putting aside of short-term comforts, or even needs, so the Idea can live.

Is there such a thing as too much commitment? The story of Ryan Howard might illustrate just that. I thought so, at first. But by the time I was finished talking to him about his company, Practice Fusion, I was glad he did the dumb things he did to keep his company alive in the dark days of its founding.

Practice Fusion is an electronic medical records service in the cloud. It lets medical personnel quickly pull up medical data from patients, and coordinate data across their practices. Patients get access to the data, too. It's free to use.

Ryan Howard of Practice Fusion Ryan Howard

The availability of electronic medical records isn't just a cost-saving scheme or an advertising vehicle, although those are parts of it. The company's mission is "Empowering doctors to save patient lives by making patient records available anytime, anywhere." Normally I scoff at mission statements, but Ryan's cause is just. Quick access to medical record saves lives; bad data kills people. Practice Fusion can, and has, kept people from dying. "This has to be done," he told me.

Ryan put himself through hell to realize his mission and get the company to where it is. He became so addicted to the concept of Practice Fusion that in the early days, he took rent from tenants in the house he owned to keep the company alive. The house went into foreclosure.

Later, a motorcycle accident left Ryan with a torn rotator cuff. The insurance money eventually came in and would have allowed Ryan to get the restorative surgery to undo the damage from the crash. But his company was struggling. He put the money to payroll. He never had the surgery.

Eventually, Ryan got funding, $40M from the Founder's Fund and elsewhere. The business is doing well now, and is in fact saving lives. Ryan says about 10% of the U.S. population has some medical data on Practice Fusion. And he now has enough money to meet payroll, pay rent, and buy himself the occasional Ducati.

But he's still beating the drum of doing important work. He says he was annoyed, at the Crunchies awards, to see so much attention paid to things like Pinterest, so much talk about revenues and user traffic, and so many engineers, he says, "working on pinboards instead of on homelessness or energy."

Ryan appears comfortable with the life choices he's made that even hindsight can't justify. I'm sure a big part of that is having a $40M funding cushion. But there is more here: Money doesn't feed the soul. Important work does.

You can see Ryan and me together on the NBC show Press: Here. Look for Episode 130.

Startup Secrets is based on personal interviews with people building companies, and from their blog posts and news stories. Subscribe to Startup Secrets on Twitter or come back to Rafe's Radar every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new one. See all the Startup Secrets.