Ryan Haynes

Co-Founder of Osmosis

Ryan Haynes is co-founder and CTO of Osmosis, a leading health education platform with an audience of millions of current & future clinicians as well as their patients and family members. Ryan started Osmosis with Shiv Gaglani when both were in medical school at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Ryan also has a PhD in Neuroscience and a Master of Philosophy from University of Cambridge.

Where did the idea for Osmosis come from?

The phrase “started in a dorm room” comes to mind when thinking about the early days at Osmosis. My co-founder Shiv Gaglani and I had just finished an 8 week anatomy course at Johns Hopkins when he asked me “what nerve innervates the muscles that lift the foot?” While my brain said “that’s easy”, I couldn’t actually come up with the name even though we had been tested on it a few weeks earlier. We looked into studies around knowledge retention in med students and found that up to 50% of what is taught is forgotten. In most fields, forgetting is an inconvenience, but in medicine it can potentially affect a life or death decision. We started looking for ways to solve the problem. Cognitive science offers several techniques like spaced repetition, test-enhanced learning, and memory anchors that we incorporated into version 1.0 of Osmosis. We extended that vision from our early days in order to create a platform that provides the most efficient learning experience possible for future clinicians through high quality instructional design enhanced by a web and mobile platform that delivers the right content and motivational triggers to students to help them optimize their study time.

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

A typical day balances meetings, focused work, and reading. I’m the most productive at focused work so I like to maximize the time I have for it as much as possible. The key to doing that for me is minimizing context switching. I try to schedule all meetings in the morning because Osmosis is a completely remote company with employees across time zones all over the world. I try to have bi-weekly meetings that alternate time slots because this doubles the number of people you can meet with and also gives them time between meetings to make progress on their goals (not to mention reduces the ability to micromanage). My focused work period consists of thinking about high level strategy and additionally a fair amount of hands on work in the codebase. Finally, I read each day. This is often articles from Hacker News but also news and relevant blog articles in addition to whatever book I’m currently reading.

How do you bring ideas to life?

For a technical co-founder, the answer originally was that I have an idea, talk it over with a few people, and then write the code to build it. To me, there are few things as rewarding as creating something that others can use and benefit from. At some point, however, you get too many ideas to bring them all to life yourself. That’s when you have to learn how to communicate those ideas and test them before time is spent bringing them to life so you can narrow down what to focus on. After that you have to build a team you trust and have trained to execute on those ideas. If you’re used to building things yourself, this won’t be easy, but it’s critical if you want to scale the impact of your ideas, and it also allows your team to share in the excitement and fulfillment of seeing an idea become a real product in the hands of users.

What’s one trend that excites you?

For good reason, this year has seen an explosion in interest in online education. We’ve seen both the good side with students who were previously struggling or anxious in a classroom setting who now thrive in remote learning as well as the bad side with students who are now falling behind academically. None of this is particularly surprising to those who work in online education, but it’s now visible to everyone which could drive demand for change. Students who were previously struggling in a traditional classroom can now be identified early and can try out self-paced learning methodologies. Similarly, as more school systems become aware that online education requires careful instructional design to be effective, online teaching methodologies will be more carefully studied and understood which will lead to a body of knowledge that can be applied to educational products much like we did with cognitive science techniques at Osmosis.

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

Focus on what you’re great at and what you love doing. When you’re a startup founder you have to wear many hats. If you don’t already know what you’re great at and what you love, you’ll quickly find out. The key to a productive day is to focus on those things because every hour you spend will be a force multiplier beyond the other activities that you may just be average at. Those other activities still need to get done so you have to find the people who are great at those tasks and who are passionate about doing them well.

What advice would you give your younger self?

There’s so much. Probably the biggest is that success is a long game. The difference between success and failure isn’t any one particular success or failure but whether or not you’ve managed to pick yourself up after each failure and stay in the game. You take what you’ve learned, you try again, and then you’ll probably fail again several more times before you get it right. But eventually you’ll start to notice patterns of things you’ve seen before and you’ll know what works and what doesn’t. As these moments add up, you’ll find what, in retrospect, people brand as “success” but in reality is just a long series of repeated experiments and knowledge gained from mistakes. The key is to take measured risks early in life because if you fail fast you have more chances to try again.

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

I’ve found people have a hard time accepting that the concept of a job has to change in an increasingly automated economy. The common defense is that computers won’t replace all jobs because they’re good at routine tasks and very bad at creative tasks which means the solution is education and retraining. But today’s computers are good at routine tasks essentially because they’re just really fast versions of yesterday’s handheld calculators. Retraining will work but only until an innovator comes along and mimics architecture of the brain instead of the architecture of a calculator. Just as someone from the late 80s could not predict the implications of a world where pocket-sized computers create instant global connectedness with algorithms that shape preferences and opinions across regional and national boundaries, no one can predict what society will look like once this is a reality. But we can start responding to what is happening already: first with retraining into fields like healthcare that are currently resistant to automation and then with more innovative policy solutions around income.

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

Read. You probably won’t have enough time to sit down with a book when you’re building a company (or at least not enough time to get through all the books you need to), but audio books are an easy way to consume new knowledge. Make sure any routine task–driving, washing dishes, folding laundry–is also time you fill with an audio book. Keep in mind that you also need time to reflect and absorb what you’ve read so still allow time for your mind to wander but you have to make sure you challenge the boundaries of your own experience, and the only way to do that is to read constantly. If you’re wondering what to read, ask others what they’re reading or look for the titles that come up over and over again on forums and blogs.

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

For this, the credit goes to my co-founder Shiv Gaglani. Something that has been effective over and over is interviewing leaders who might be potential partners or customers in the space you’re in. It’s a great way to understand how they see the space and also how what you’re building or what you might build could help them, and it’s a great opportunity for those leaders to communicate their vision to your existing partners and customers as well.

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

An unnecessary transition to being a manager. As a startup grows, one assumption is that early employees will eventually assume management roles. I think this is because managers and leaders are often equated when they’re actually different. First, Break All the Rules points out that managers focus internally and optimize for the people on their teams while leaders focus externally and optimize for new opportunities. Prior to actually managing a team, I thought management was just a matter of splitting up tasks I was working on and delegating them to others. In fact, good managers are mentors who deeply understand each person’s unique motivations and goals and help them achieve autonomy and mastery over their job. Being a good manager is a talent just like coming up with ideas and creating something new is a talent. Given that a person is lucky in life to have just one truly great talent, my advice is if you’re a talented entrepreneur, hire talented managers and keep your focus on what you’re great at.

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

An app that allows custom logic and UIs to be created for internet-of-things-connected devices. This would be mostly aimed at hobby developers and the DIY crowd. I have so many internet-connected devices in my home that all have separate apps with UIs that aim for simplicity and the lowest common denominator for use cases. I keep saying that I’ll write my own script to do something custom with the thermostat or lights, but where would it live? How would my wife use it? An app could streamline all of this.

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

I’m going to go with the kit of Montessori toys that I just bought for my 1 month old daughter. I’m excited to watch her explore the world and grow into the person she’ll become.

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

Trello is my go-to for organization and productivity. I like its simplicity. I can create a card when I know something needs to get done or when I have an idea and then focus on what I’m currently working on to pick up tasks from the backlog when I’m done. The one downside is that ideas can collect and not turn into actions, but I carve out time every once in a while to look over old ideas and determine if now is the right time to test one out.

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

There are so many books to choose from and my best advice is to read many and then read the best ones over again, but I’ll pick two related ones to recommend. The first is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. The basic premise is that the brain evolved to create shortcuts that we sometimes rely on as “truths” but which in fact may just be unconscious biases. Before med school, I completed a PhD in neuroscience because I wanted to develop a deeper understanding of how the physical components of the brain give rise to the mind. I found Kahneman’s work in behavioral economics to be extremely useful can help in better understanding how decisions may be influenced by peculiarities of how our brains evolved.

The second book is Ray Dalio’s Principles. I recommend this book both because of its relevance to building a highly successful team of diverse personality types as well as Dalio’s appreciation for the neuroscience that underpins personality.

What is your favorite quote?

This has been my favorite quotation since high school and it has endured to today. I have come to appreciate it even more as I have gotten older.

“A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labours of others, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.” — Einstein

Key Learnings:

  • Fail fast. Learn from your mistakes. When you have an idea, come up with the simplest and fastest way to test it.
  • Learn more about the brain. There’s still a lot we don’t understand, but you’ll find many of the insights we’ve already gathered invaluable to understanding your and others’ decision making.
  • Learn as much as you can about what others have tried and what they have learned. Sometimes that will be from mentors and people in your network, but it’s also through reading and making those insights a part of your own experience.
  • Work only on what you love doing. You’ll become great at it because you’ll want to spend more time practicing it and that creates a positive feedback loop that leads to success.