Startup of the Week: Going private with Zesty

For me, startups are the lifeblood of the tech sector. Passionate, hungry for investment and highly agile, the people behind them are always full of beans and full of interesting tales. And that's why this very feature exists - to bring their startup stories to you.

This week I spoke to Lloyd Price, co-founder of Zesty, who jovially walked me through the joys, surprises, trials and tribulations of the company's journey from his kitchen table, to the operating table. The online booking service, that he and the Zesty team have created, has seen adoption by both practices and patients across London, and has used consumer feedback to develop its offering. More than 2,000 healthcare providers have signed up so far, with thousands of individuals using the startup's booking service.

Read on to see how it all happened.

The idea

How did the idea behind Zesty come about?

The idea came about in two different ways really. I was at a company called Badoo, a kind of social networking/dating site, and I was over in New York – we were at a technology conference – and one of the presenters was a company called ZocDoc, and essentially they're a kind of online healthcare booking service in the US, and I first saw them and thought "Wow, imagine the potential of building a business like that," and then didn't really think about it for a while. Then I moved to Wimbledon, where I live now, and I had to find a new dentist and I was searching on Google and trying to find reviews, and I didn't understand who's NHS and who's private, what do I have to pay for? I just thought it was a very confusing, longwinded process, and I just thought, "This is really overcomplicated and not a good use of people's time." I'd been at a company called Kelkoo since 1999, where we launched the first price comparison site in the UK, and I just thought "Why can't we build an aggregator in healthcare?"

I then started talking to James, my co-founder. He's a serial web entrepreneur and was up working for Shop Direct and Littlewoods at the time, and we just started chatting. He also moved from Dorset to Liverpool where Shop Direct are. He said, "Look, I've just had a nightmare experience trying to find a dentist." His wife is a physiotherapist and she said how it's ridiculous that even the dentists and doctors the school recommended were full. So we got chatting about it, then sat at my kitchen table, started to do some research and started to write a business plan. And that was in August 2012.

We read an Office for National Statistics (ONS) report, which said that the amount of money we spend on dentistry in the UK is £8 billion, and we were both blown away by that. It was like, wow, £8 billion spent on dentistry, and it employs 100,000 people. We started to think how it's a massive, massive market. Then we looked on Google Maps and started to plot where all the practices were, and you quickly realise they're all on the high street so it's not that difficult to go and meet them all, and call them all. Suddenly we got to this point where we realised patients want to book, and practices want more patients, so we just needed to build a service connecting the two, and so we built a prototype. We raised some seed money from a venture capital firm called Mangrove Capital, out in Luxembourg, then we built the product, got it going, people signed up and started booking, and off we went.

The development

How did the business develop?

Basically we started to look at the other markets. There were two things that were very important to us, in terms of developing the product. The first was that we went after this hyper-local experience. We wanted to stay in London and we basically wanted to build a search experience whereby whatever postcode, borough or area you put in to the search, you get clinics and you get available appointments. What we started to see was consumers calling in and asking if we offered doctors, podiatrists, chiropodists, physiotherapists, and so on. So the way the business developed was that we started in dental, then we launched into the other verticals, and now we're now in seven markets, purely from consumer demand.

It wasn't all plain sailing. A lot of people thought we were offering NHS appointments, which we don't offer, so there was a kind of re-education of the market. We probably get around 100 phone calls a day from people asking if we do laser eye surgery, or mental health, or botox. Now that we've built up the early signs of a healthcare brand, we start to get all kinds of different calls. One thing we haven't done is gone after cosmetic surgery and all that kind of stuff, because we haven't seen any interest in that.

So yeah, we've developed by staying close to our customers, listening to our users, and just looking constantly at the Google data on the site, off the site, what people are typing in, what people are looking for. I think the beauty of Zesty is that we're not trying to build a market – people are already booking thousands of healthcare appointments a day. I'd use the Hailo/Uber analogy. They didn't have to teach people how to book a taxi, they just used technology to make it a much more streamlined, efficient, and easier process, and that's kind of what we're doing in healthcare.

I think also, two years ago we had the early signs of all these on-demand services. You know, things like Hailo. Obviously Netflix and Apple TV have been around for a longer time, but there's also these on-demand marketplaces. Now there's a lot of cleaning apps – suddenly everything's on-demand at the touch of a button.

The other way we've actually developed the business – and this wasn't planned, it just kinda happened – is that people have two needs. One is that they want to find a dentist of a doctor near their home, and the other is near the office, and that caught us by surprise because we didn't think there would be two markets effectively. We also had quite a lot of hotels calling us in the early days, saying that guests are sick and they're looking for a doctor or dentist. So yeah, that's just another example of how we've listened to the market and we've developed the product according to where the demand has come from.

We get asked questions like 'Are you going to develop a corporate, enterprise solution?' 'Are you going to develop a kind of intranet that you can put on your company's website and are you going to offer consumers or employees discounts?' And that's one direction we haven't gone in because we haven't seen any demand and no-one's approached us about that.

The other thing a lot of people don't really understand until they look a bit deeper into marketplaces, or businesses like ours, is that you're actually running two businesses. You're running a B2B by signing up all the supply and all the healthcare professionals, all the doctors, and then you're running a B2C business, which is building a consumer brand, active on social media channels, doing an SEO strategy, going above the line, doing PR. So again, you have to develop your time and resources. You've got to constantly satisfy your supply and demand, both sides.

The impact

What does a marketplace like this mean for the private healthcare industry?

I think what it means for private healthcare is that they are now seeing an increase in business, for a couple of different reasons. I think the first reason is that we're educating the market, and the word I use often is "demystifying". There's a bit of a misconception that healthcare is very expensive. Everyone thinks "Oh my God, private is like John Lewis, Ocado" – mega expensive. The truth is, it's not. You can go and see a private doctor or private dentist for 45 to 60 quid. What we often talk about is how much do you spend going to the hairdresser? How much do people spend on new Nike Air Max trainers? How much do people spend on iPhones? So, what it means for private healthcare is that a lot more people are booking because a lot more people are understanding that it's not as expensive as you think.

The other thing it means is that some of these clinics are open from 8am to 10pm, so what they're seeing is that through technology more people are booking because they didn't realise that you can go before or after work. Further, these are doctors and dentists – they're not marketing or Internet specialists, and what the industry has been waiting for is a kind of marketing partner or channel to generate new patients. I guess what we've done is "consumerised" the healthcare industry, because before there hasn't been a portal or an app where you can search in your area, get ratings and reviews, see the prices and so on.

We're building out a whole kind of data analytics platform so people can see how if a practice stayed open a couple of hours later, it could have six to 10 more patients. I mean, a lot of people in the industry talk about big data and analysing it, and I think this is actually an example of how effective the data can be. We've already had clinics say to us that they've changed their opening hours and actually hired people to cover the busy times. That's a real positive that we're giving them more insight into when people are searching.

The challenges

What were the challenges in getting Zesty together?

There were a lot of challenges. The first big one was trust and awareness. I've worked in retail and at Kelkoo I was in marketing for six or seven years, and one thing that I learned very quickly in healthcare was that it's a very traditional, conservative industry. You need trust, you need credibility, you need awareness. If people haven't heard of you then they're like "Who's on the platform? Who are you working with?" So, to counteract that we spent a lot of time writing blog posts, we spent a lot of time on trade PR, going to the trade shows, talking to the clinics, slowly getting our name out there and meeting people.

Another big challenge was hiring people, because we're the first mover in this space and no-one's ever built a marketplace in healthcare before. So we didn't really have anyone we could hire or anyone we could talk to around it. In the early days we just didn't have that previous knowledge.

Another big challenge we have in healthcare is a contact strategy. Another big challenge in healthcare is what we call a contact strategy. The guys are always in surgery, they're always treating people, and when you walk into a doctor's or a dentist's, it's not like they have an office with a computer where you can sit down and explain the service. So, the amount of times in the early days where we'd stand around the reception area or the waiting room, get our iPhones out and pitch. A huge issue we had is that in a lot of clinics there's no Wi-Fi because of the x-ray machine! You can't walk in and have an iPad with a 3G SIM in, and you can't tap into the wireless network on a laptop. You have to do everything on their actual computer and it's typically very slow dial-up. So one of the challenges in the early days was showing the product live. And when you go down Harley St, a lot of these guys literally have a pen and paper. They have an old-fashioned diary. They don't even have a laptop in the surgery. They have a telephone and a pen and paper and all their medical records. In the early days, 20 to 30 per cent of the people we met, we just couldn't show them anything!

The lesson

Do you have any advice for would-be startups?

Follow up every lead that comes in, and what I mean by that is that you never ever know where an email or a phone call could lead. I can give you a couple of examples of how we were like, "Oh I can't understand how that company can work with us," but it turned out to be the best thing that we ever did. Don't dismiss anything in the early days because you don't know where it could lead.

Hire for passion. Hire passionate people. From my experience I've seen that passion solves problems. When you're passionate you tend to be a lot more committed and that is how people find their way through, and in a startup you need passionate people that solve problems and just think about things differently.

Don't ever forget that you're always selling, whether you're selling to a potential employee because you're trying to hire them, whether you're selling at a conference or event to sign up more people, whether you're selling to journalists to try and get coverage in the early days, or whether you're trying to find investors, don't ever forget that you're always selling. I think in startups you've got to get traction, you've got to get out the gates. My point is, don't hire 25 technical guys, remember you've got to have sales people, and you yourself as a founder, as an entrepreneur, you've got to be selling all the time. You can't just focus on the product. You can't just try and build the best app in the world. You've got to get out there and you've got to let people know who you are and what you're doing.

Zesty is available within Greater London and works with private and NHS dentists, private doctors, private physiotherapists, osteopaths, chiropractors and podiatrists. It is available on desktop and mobile.

Look out for our next Startup of the Week feature, next week, and of course if you're part of a growing business yourself, let us know using the Contact tab below.