Larry Istrail

I think “analysis paralysis” really halts people and prevents them from pursuing their ideas. You just have to start, even if you don’t have all the required knowledge. And as you will learn, no one does!


Larry Istrail is a physician and entrepreneur in the DC area. He has started multiple companies ranging from food journal apps, crowd-sourced research services, medical SMS apps, and now a coffee company.

He enjoys starting businesses, seeing patients in the hospital, and trying to create technologies that will help people live longer and be healthier.

Where did the idea for Pheo Coffee come from?

As a resident I was rotating on the endocrinology consult service at the hospital when we were asked to see a patient with uncontrolled high blood pressure. When we entered the room, she was noticeably jittery. She told us she sometimes has palpitations, and has been having this jittery sensation for the past few months.

Upon exiting the room we had a suspicion she may have a condition called a pheochromocytoma (“pheo” for short), in which your adrenal glands produce an abnormal amount of adrenaline which give you the symptoms of high blood pressure, palpitations and jitters. I realized that these symptoms are similar to when someone has a really strong cup of coffee. I jokingly thought a good name for a coffee company would be Pheo Coffee.

I told some friends about this name and they loved it. I started looking into wholesale coffee beans and how I could turn this idea into a business that would help people around the world.

This is how Pheo Coffee was created. It is now molding into an excellent place for gifts for health professionals. A large percentage of our customers are people who want to buy gifts for doctors or nurses. The nurses and doctors that receive these gifts often post photos online with spontaneous outpourings of joy, which tells us we are on the right track.

We also now have an etsy store in which many of our gifts for nurses and doctors can be purchased as well.

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

As a hospitalist, my working days are very busy and my days off are free. On a working day I am seeing patients, diagnosing diseases, ultrasounding hearts, coordinating care with other doctors, and drinking Pheo Coffee of course.

Fortunately the hospitalist job offers many days off without taking calls. On these days I work on Pheo Coffee. Whether it is creating a new gift box for doctors or nurses, coming up with the story for a new coffee, or funding new patients via Watsi, my days outside the hospital are filled with all things related to running Pheo Coffee.

With each coffee purchased, a portion goes to fund someone’s healthcare in the developing world. When you buy Pheo Coffee as a gift for a nurse or doctor, they will receive a card with the photo and story of an actual person their coffee gift will help.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I think “analysis paralysis” really halts people and prevents them from pursuing their ideas. You just have to start, even if you don’t have all the required knowledge. And as you will learn, no one does!

Create the minimum viable product and then hone it overtime. After a few months you will look back and say, “wow my first design sucked! But now its so much better.”

What’s one trend that excites you?

Third wave coffee movement, as well as the growing number of for profit companies with a social mission. The third wave coffee movement is a growing appreciation for high quality coffee. There is an enormous difference between drinking coffee roasted yesterday vs roasted 3 months ago.

Unfortunately all prepackaged coffee you may buy at the supermarket is in the latter group. At Pheo Coffee we send you coffee roasted the 1-2 days prior. When the coffee arrives, the aroma is literally exuding from the box, something people aren’t used to. As one customer described Pheo Coffee, “Um, you guys…this coffee is what my soul has been searching for. My husband and I could smell it through the box. It was packaged beautifully and it TASTES AMAZING.”

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

Batching. As much as you can, I think it is critical to build a business with tasks that are batch-able. If it is a content based business, finding a way to write all your blog posts in a day for that week will save you enormous amounts of time. Or with Pheo Coffee, it means taking batched periods of time to just answer emails, or just work on instagram advertising. If you instead try to tackle everything that your company needs to do each day, you won’t get anywhere.

What advice would you give your younger self?

It’s ok to just try to be very good at one thing, instead of pretty good at many things. I am very intrigued by polymaths, or renaissance men and women. People who are good at everything. I had a mentor in medical school who knew everything about everything and it was inspiring to work with him.

But not everyone is built to do that, and so just focusing on 1 or 2 things that you like and becoming really good at them is also an honorable pursuit. Right now I am focused on becoming an excellent doctor, learning ultrasound techniques, and making the perfect coffee gifts for doctors and nurses. So maybe I am not taking my own advice…

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Everyone should follow reasonable people with opposing political views on Twitter for 6 months. It will give you incredible perspective of the news headlines of the day.

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

Constantly question everything. Why do people do things the way they do? Sometimes it is because it is the best way to do it, but many times it is because that’s how they were taught to do it. Constantly questioning the world will help you come up with many new business ideas.

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

As a medical themed coffee company I believe my initial niche will be with healthcare professionals. I want Pheo Coffee to be the go to spot for gifts for nurses and doctors. For this reason, I started my marketing efforts on instagram, by partnering with influential doctors and nurses online. I would send them coffee samples which they would often times post on their instagrams and help us grow.

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

When I first started Pheo Coffee, I thought I could roast all the beans by myself. However after about 150 tries, I realized that roasting coffee beans in an iron skillet – no matter how scientific I was about it – could not produce the same flavor as a professional could do in a real coffee roaster. So I reached out to dozens of roasters in the area and found one that I could work with.

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

Potting planters that collect rain in a reservoir and then water your plants on the sunny days.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Slightly more than $100 but I bought some noise canceling headphones. I tend to get distracted very easily by ambient noises, and I was shocked to see how much more focused I could be when I wear them.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

ZipBooks is by far the best accounting software I’ve ever used. I never thought I’d actually enjoy categorizing my business expenses and revenue. It is such a clean, beautiful interface and they do a phenomenal job.

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

The Fish That Ate the Whale“. Just a really cool rags to riches book about how anyone can make it with grit and hardwork.

What is your favorite quote?

“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.
The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.
I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
-Steve Jobs

Key learnings:

  • Avoid analysis paralysis by just creating something, no matter how bad it is at first
  • Batch your work to be more efficient
  • Constantly ask why to find your next business idea
  • Companies with a social good benefit everyone involved


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