From finally finding a co-founder that understands how you think, to working as a strong team, to figuring out how to draw the line between work and ‘free’ time, being two founders that also happen to be a couple can have many benefits as well as challenges.
Together with their third co-founder Barney Gilbert, co-founders Lydia Yarlott and Philip Mundy have created Pando, a revolutionary communications app for healthcare professionals. Already implemented by the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, it has transformed the day-to-day of 25,000 doctors, clinicians and all health professionals along the chain. Users can send instantly urgent messages, take pictures, and share sensitive patient information securely.
Lydia and Philip shared with us their founding story (moving from hospital to prototype), how their skills along with Barney’s complement each other, their work/life balance strategy and advice for other couples thinking of founding a startup together.
Hello, thanks for joining us! Could you tell us the story of Pando? How did you reach the point of starting up together, and how did you find the idea?
The “idea” was less of a lightbulb moment, and more of a quite sensible reaction to an obvious need – I was struggling to communicate effectively with colleagues in my work as an NHS doctor, leading to all sorts of frustrations for me and delays and inadequacies for my patients. Because we were dating at the time, it was affecting Philip’s life too. I would tell him I could meet him at 7pm and then arrive at 9:30pm.
I would spend cumulative hours per week waiting for someone across the hospital to answer their pager or on hold on a landline phone waiting for the switchboard operator to pick up or transfer my call – and there really was no alternative. Health professionals work in teams, and increasingly in large organisations, need to contact other departments and specialties to make effective decisions for the patients they look after. It was so clear that technology could bring about a better working environment and save hours of precious time for doctors, nurses, and the rest of the multidisciplinary team.
The difference between us was in our attitudes to the problem. I fully expected to put up with these challenges – I had already had years of exposure to the NHS at medical school and been somewhat inured to its inefficiencies and idiosyncrasies, whereas Philip saw the potential for things to be different. More importantly, he really believed we could make that happen ourselves. I’m jealous of that level of confidence! However, once I started to have faith in the project, and in us, it became clear that our mix of skills and experience were ideally suited for the challenge. From the very start, we realised that my inside knowledge of healthcare in combination with Philip’s entrepreneurial acumen were the ingredients required for change. And of course, we couldn’t have done without our third co-founder, Dr Barney Gilbert, who experienced all the same challenges as I did working on the frontline in the NHS and was motivated by the same sense of injustice and frustration, to try to solve the problem.
What benefits and challenges are there to being a founder couple?
It’s a privilege to share the things your partner is passionate about and motivated by, and to have the chance to help them achieve their goals and ambitions. We’re helping each other every day – as co-CEO of Pando, Philip is working on improving the quality of my working life as a clinician, and I’m leveraging my frontline insights to allow Philip and Barney to realise the company’s, and their own, potential. When we talk about work we understand each other’s aims, struggles, frustrations and relationships intimately and we both have more staked on Pando’s success than can be quantified in real terms. Pando represents us and what we can achieve together – sharing that is an amazing feeling. It wouldn’t exist without either one of us; in that way, it’s a bit like having a child, and certainly as absorbing and time consuming!
The challenges are huge, and predictable; we clash over issues within the company almost as regularly as we agree, because Pando is so important to both of us. Philip and I have a different approach to almost everything, whether it’s packing a suitcase or dissecting a new business model. Together, we often reach the same conclusion, but arrive by very different routes, and the journey can be stressful. Ultimately however, we’ll be judged by our results, and despite some struggles we’re both agreed that the outcome we’re working towards – transforming the lives of healthcare professionals and outcomes for millions of patients – is more than worth it.
How do your skills complement each other (or clash)?
We’re very different people, which is one of the reasons we find each other interesting! It’s also useful when it comes to running a company, but with difference comes inevitable disagreement, and that can be a big challenge (the good sort). As an entrepreneur, Philip is always pushing the boundaries, which is exactly what you need to get a new venture up and running. However, healthcare is also a sensitive sector, for good reason. As a doctor, I have been trained to be careful to the point of neuroticism – making a mistake in medicine can have a very high price. It’s the same with healthcare software – in our industry no-one can afford to take chances with reliability or security. In my opinion, you need both sides of the coin to innovate effectively in health – a willingness to try new things that may not work first time, courage to disrupt the status quo, but also a sense of the gravity of what you’re doing and an appreciation of the consequences of getting it wrong. The ideal model doesn’t compromise on speed of delivery, but monitors closely every step in the process to be able to iterate and adapt to the specific needs of the healthcare market. That’s where Philip, Barney and I intersect and part of the reason why this project has been successful, with wholly positive consequences for the NHS to date. I’m proud of our record of achieving meaningful impact without compromising safety, and that’s due to the principles we follow as a founding and wider team.
Being a founder of a technology company was never what I had in mind for the future as I slaved over my anatomy textbooks at university, but it’s introduced me to a world that, in my opinion, all clinicians should be involved in. We need startups and entrepreneurs to penetrate the healthcare sector, but the reality is it’s often really hard from the outside. Hospital walls are thick, and Philip would have had a hard time breaching them alone, but the combination of clinicians plus entrepreneur has helped bring those two planets together. There’s a force of gravity and occasionally, a magnetic repulsion, but ultimately we represent a union that’s long overdue.
What is your funding strategy? Have you faced any stigma from investors for being a couple?
We’re lucky enough to have investors on board that are open-minded enough to accept who we are as a founding team – imperfect as we are. We’re trying to do something hard here, and unconventional businesses need unconventional teams. If anything, I would see it as an advantage to invest in a couple (as long as they’re resilient) – because there’s more at stake for them. If only one partner is working on a problem, there may well be a sensible back up plan. If it’s both of you, everything is on the line, and that means you’ll put everything into getting there.
When building your team did you disclose your relationship from the beginning?
We’ve always been transparent about our relationship, but yes, it has raised an eyebrow. I expect there’s lots of speculation too! Because we take it for granted, we’re not always explicit about the fact that we’re a married couple, but we certainly talk about it openly given the opportunity. It’s interesting for us to know what others think too – there’s a danger of being in your own bubble, and as a founder couple you need to make sure that you’re aware of how your relationship is impacting others and adapt if necessary.
How does being a founder couple affect your work/life balance? Do you prefer to ‘switch off’ from the office, or do you prefer being able to bounce ideas around at any time?
Putting boundaries between work and our personal life is never something we’ve been very good at. Pando was our first and most important project together, and it’s really useful to be able to discuss aspects of the business at length in our time away from the office. We cover a lot more when there’s no time pressure, and can explore each of our opinions and instincts in greater detail. We’re very critical of each other on purpose, as candour is so important to good leadership, but keeping the balance between supporting one another and driving improvement can be difficult.
When we’re not at work or talking about work, we’re doing the things we love together – spending time with friends and family, running up hills, and debating everything from climate change to salad ingredients with voracity.
Who was behind your recent re-branding?
Rebranding was one of the most emotional challenges we have faced as a team. When we started this journey all we had was our name, so to change it was really tough. We were originally inspired by the challenges faced on the ward, but as we’ve grown it has become clear that we’re solving something that reaches beyond the walls of the hospital. To do that well we needed a name that was not just setting agnostic, but also unique. As the world’s largest root system we strongly resonated with Pando, it’s distinctive, and sets us up well for growing beyond the hospitals of the NHS.
Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs out there thinking of starting up together?
Probably don’t – it’s going to be tough! You will almost certainly tread on each other’s toes both professionally and personally, and work will blend into the rest of life and it will be increasingly impossible to unmix the two. It’s generally a terrible idea to work with someone you love, with someone for whom you feel the whole range of good, and sometimes bad, emotions, as your home life will very literally follow you to work when things get tough. But, if you’re a couple whose skill mix or ambitions overlap, you may not be able to fight the urge to tackle something big, new or important together. Couples can make excellent teams, because they have each other’s back, they understand one another, they are motivated by the same destination in life and, hopefully, share the same values and principles. It’ll be the best of times, and the worst of times. But if there’s something you want to work on together – my advice is to go for it. Parenthood is a great analogy – there’s no option other than to be “all in”!