A Slice on Sean Mehra, Co-Founder and CEO HealthTap
Sean Mehra initially set out to be a doctor, studying Biomedical Engineering and Pre-Medicine at Yale before finding his true passion: coding websites and apps. He then became a serial technology entrepreneur, moved to the Bay Area, got his MBA, and eventually found himself “at the intersection of healthcare and technology” when he joined the founding team of HealthTap in 2011. 10 years later, the company has raised over $100M in funding with more than 200 employees and staff doctors.
While at Yale, Mehra started a company he describes as “Google Calendar meets Facebook Groups for college campuses”, called Student-Planlt. This was back when Facebook itself was very young, and Mehra actually received a message from Mark Zuckerberg. “I think he saw a Yale Daily News article and he was like, ‘Sean, heard about your startup, sounds great. Good luck, let me know if you ever want to chat.’ And I said, ‘Good luck with your startup.’ And I guess the rest is history.”
Mehra soon decided he wanted to take a stab at something else, originally thinking something with medical devices, which he ruled out for its long. One of his friends then approached him with a fun idea based off the board game Risk: a digital map of college campuses with teams of students trying to take over the campus. They launched GoCrossCampus, taking it to , where it became a hit and went viral. The game was featured on the front page of the New York Times Business section, with “20% of the Ivy League logging in every day at one point.” They were on an upward trajectory until the 2008 recession hit, making it difficult to monetize the game and ultimately leading to its end (an experience Mehra calls his “first battle scars as an entrepreneur”).
After a couple more gaming ventures, Mehra had an epiphany, “This [creating entertainment products] is not what my life is destined to do. I want to do something that appeals to me in the way becoming a doctor or a scientist originally appealed to me.” With this realization, Mehra went back to school to get his MBA from Stanford, in the “heart of Silicon Valley where some of the best ideas brew before anywhere else.”
While attending a healthcare event at Stanford, Mehra met a group of technologists looking for someone who could help them turn a vision for healthcare into a consumer product. With a background in just that, Mehra joined the team and HealthTap was born. “I was fortunate people … The nugget of insight we had was that there has to be a new and better way people can get answers to health questions on the internet.”
They started out as a direct-to-consumer (DTC) product for people to get answers to their health questions but noticed a new market they could tap into. “We got all this interest from insurance companies, and governments and health systems who said, ‘We love your apps, can you work with us to take those apps and give them out to our members and doctors?” Though this wasn’t their “DNA”, Mehra and his team decided to test it out. After seven years, they decided to switch back to their original DTC model. “There were a lot of challenges to being an enterprise company. We overestimated the effort it requires to deliver software in different languages, different countries and different regulatory markets. Here we are a small group of people trying to boil the ocean and make software for everyone.”
Some may have given up after spending seven years on what ended up being the wrong market, but Mehra saw this as an important part of their startup journey. “We usually put a magnifying lens on the success stories and the milestones that people achieve at the end of it all. Entrepreneurs’ stories are much more meandering journeys and not a straight line to success. It’s not always clear what your go-to-market is or what your business model will be, there’s a lot of trial and error… Maybe we didn’t get as far along in those 10 years commercially as we wanted but at the same time, we built a lot of ‘goodness’. .” This is our moment and this is where we are today. It took 10 years to get here, but now we’re finally seeing the growth and exciting momentum that this company has always been destined for.”
From his long and winding journey with HealthTap, Mehra took away another valuable lesson. “The right solution is not the right solution at all times. Startups can be too early for the market, too late for the market or they can be in the right spot. If you’re too early, the name of the game is just staying in the fight long enough for that moment to come, where you can finally seize your destiny… There are a lot of companies that have this ‘second life’ and part of it is just staying in the game long enough. Most things you’re going to try are not going to work on the first try.” For HealthTap, they had to stick it out through their detour into the commercial space, and are now finding their place in DTC.
With COVID-19 pushing everything online, virtual care has lost some of its prior stigma. People have realized what’s possible to do from their homes. Mehra observes this as a “change in our awareness”, and that the pandemic has been a “catalyst for the right kind of change” in business, healthcare especially. Mehra and his team at HealthTap are passionate about changing the U.S. healthcare system by putting an “affordable, quality, personal care doctor in every American’s fingertips.” Mehra is motivated by the impact he can have as an entrepreneur in healthcare, “When you create a vehicle, an organization, a team and a calling that is bigger than any one individual, collectively, that entity can have a greater scale of impact than any one individual alone.”
Sean Mehra is Co-Founder and CEO of HealthTap, a virtual-first, affordable urgent and primary care clinic that focuses on affordability for all Americans with or without insurance. Mehra is Ivy-educated and founded the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, now known as TSAI City, the official entrepreneurship center and incubator program at Yale. He is a serial entrepreneur and is working to rewire healthcare. Connect with Mehra on LinkedIn.