Research. Customer validation is important, but in the information age, most ideas can be validated, refined, and even tested by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Blake Marggraff sits at the intersection of research and entrepreneurship. In 2015, Blake was named to the St. Louis 30 Under 30 and St. Louis Top 35 Innovator lists and was the youngest honoree on both. An active member of the St. Louis community, Blake advises technology and biotechnology startups, working with founders of all ages and backgrounds to identify and optimize products and pitches.

Prior to founding Epharmix, Blake co-founded the nationally recognized education technology company Betaversity, the maker of Betabox Labs, which was recognized by Popular Mechanics and Inc. as a top student-founded startup. Blake has spoken at summits and conferences including the Intersection Event at Google and Compass Summit at Terranea Resort in California. Blake also presents regularly to high school students.

Originally from the Bay Area, Blake enjoys seeking out the most challenging hikes in California and Missouri and connecting with entrepreneurs around the world on Saturday afternoon Skype sessions.

Where did the idea for Epharmix come from?

Epharmix started as a research project after Avik Som, now the chief medical officer of Epharmix, mentioned offhand that physicians frequently prescribe “going to the gym” to patients. This struck me as a hugely compelling product adoption mechanism and quickly led to the question: What would it take for the sustainable, prescription-driven adoption of a pure technology product? The concept for Epharmix arose when Avik and I began setting extreme constraints on our imaginary product. It would have to generate revenue for healthcare providers, work for every patient with no sunk cost in new hardware, be clinically proven to affect quantitative clinical outcomes, and save time in the average clinical workflow. And that’s no simple feat in a slow-moving, technology-averse industry.

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

Mornings begin with coffee (always) and mindfulness meditation (most of the time). I schedule the most complex and important meetings first and burn through email and Slack during any open windows.

Sales demos, meetings, and other calls are scheduled throughout the day. Lunchtime is usually the most productive for multi-hour projects. Another cup of coffee and a bottle of Soylent keep me going.

Depending on the day of the week, our team has senior staff, clinical, dev review, and adviser meetings around 6 p.m. Without fail, everyone working on a large account joins a conference call at 7 p.m. each weekday evening to share updates, request any support, and determine actionable goals for the coming days.

I wrap up by 10 p.m. and almost always get a full 7 1/2 hours of sleep.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Research. Customer validation is important, but in the information age, most ideas can be validated, refined, and even tested by standing on the shoulders of giants.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The gamification of everyday life. Virtual reality, commoditized deep learning, and a firm understanding of gamification will soon lead to the average worker’s day becoming rewarding — maybe even inspiring.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I aggressively identify unknowns and blind spots. Unknowns stem from a lack of familiarity or factual knowledge. Thus, unknowns can be resolved through research and learning. Blind spots, however, result from the ignorance of not knowing what you don’t know. Blind spots kill productivity and frequently result in the reinvention of the wheel. When my team and I recognize that we have a collective blind spot, we do whatever is required to find the best possible expert to fill the void.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

I held a customer-facing sales position for part of one high school summer and quickly became relatively talented at optimizing chances for a purchase. Get the name, empathize with the situation, match implied need with your solution, and you’re off to the races. But toward the end of a long week, I arrived at a startling realization: No matter how talented I became, I was never going to break past the asymptote of performance and compensation that I was already approaching. “Room to grow” took on an entirely new meaning. That experience continues to inform both my personal ambitions and the environment I strive to create for my team.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Move even faster. Make decisions sooner with less data, and make corrections when necessary. Not only is the world imperfect, but it’s also always changing.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I find opportunities to push myself physically, usually by beating past records in hiking distance and elevation over time. When a day becomes particularly challenging, I think back to the times that I’ve questioned my own ability to keep moving and embrace the punishment with a sense of inexorability.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Defining the optimal outcome before going into every meeting. I realized that once my team and I gave ourselves permission to define the best possible results for a given meeting, not only did we have a clear sense of direction, but we also wound up identifying opportunities for mutual benefit that we might otherwise have overlooked.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Particularly during my time as a full-time student and founding team member of Betaversity, I would burn out every few months. I would hit a wall and need a few days of startup-free life. The fact that I didn’t plan for this part of the cycle resulted in an unfair amount of work for the rest of the team. I think this is all too common in startup teams, and it’s also generally unnecessary. By building a strategy for balance, founders can (and should) avoid burdening their teams.

The strategy can be surprisingly simple. Mine, for instance, consists of completely detaching from technology (even Slack) on Saturday mornings until noon PST.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Create a lightweight system for gamification-based productivity optimization in industries known for “busy work.” Here’s how you do it:

1. Read “Gamification by Design” by Christopher Cunningham and Gabe Zichermann.
2. Create a simple reporting system for authenticatable task completion, such as a Google Form.
3. Define and offer a variable ratio reinforcement schedule for task completion, and add a public praise aspect by linking to a Twitter account.
4. Run an informal, randomized controlled study with half of the workers reporting their outcomes with no variable ratio schedule or public praise; the other half is your experimental group.
5. Quantify the ROI by increased productivity, and use this to demonstrate a value increase of greater than 10 times (even after the cost of the reward).
6. Go to potential customers asking, “At what point would you pay for this?”
7. Once you have 10 groups willing to pay, slap together a simple product and sell it.

What is the best $100 you recently spent?

TSA Precheck. No security lines at most U.S. airports. The opportunity cost justified the purchase within two trips.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

We’re a Slack and Salesforce company. Confluence (by Atlassian) keeps our development, clinical product design, and sales processes clearly documented and readily accessible by team members and investors.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Read “Prometheans in the Lab. (” Inasmuch as startups are driving innovative products today, chemistry drove the products and inventions of decades past. Sharon McGrayne captures the compelling anthropomorphism behind the world’s greatest innovations.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Both Sides of the Table (written by entrepreneur-turned-investor Mark Suster) changed my life. I read every article during freshman year of college and still reference Suster’s anecdotes in sales, fundraising, hiring, and product development.

Paul Graham’s article “Do Things That Don’t Scale” is similarly impactful in shaping how I approach day-to-day challenges and solutions. The underlying rationale is simple: First, prove it works. Then, systematize and scale.


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