Munjal Shah’s leadership and engineering management philosophy can be defined by one action.
Before founding HealthIQ, Shah was the co-founder & CEO of Like.com (computer vision/machine learning company sold to Google) & co-founder & CEO of Andale (eventually sold to Alibaba). That alone is plenty to celebrate, but he didn’t stop there. While the founding goals for Like.com and Andale were to build businesses that fulfilled customer needs while building a product that would be interesting for larger companies from a technology standpoint, he founded HealthIQ as his life’s work – a stand alone entity that he would lead for the rest of his professional career. That perspective and attitude shift made him make a lot of decisions differently. “It’s a different lens and it’s allowed me to make decisions that are more focused on the long term – much better for the long term,” he says.
Lesson #1: Continue to Reinvent how you Build Culture
Shah would have never told you this had you asked him before, but he 100% believes the way you demonstrate and build culture has to be reinvented again and again and again. “Our cultural tenets haven’t changed, but how we build and drive that culture has changed significantly. In the early days of HealthIQ, we had a lot of things we did that were AWESOME in building culture and camaraderie. But those things were done on a concrete level – being together and having focused moments of celebration. In our daily standups, everyone in the company, regardless of position, would share something they accomplished the day before. With 50 people, you could go around the room in 30 minutes, everyone had time to share and it was fantastic,” he says.
When they moved to a second office, the excitement and enthusiasm for accomplishments just didn’t come across. So they had to reinvent themselves, from onboarding to celebrating birthdays to celebrating company wins. As they scaled, the things that previously had an enormous, positive impact on the culture weren’t viable any more.
Shah continues, “Not realizing how hard it is to keep those traditions going and how important they are to the culture was one of our biggest challenges. Slack emojis don’t cut it compared to an entire room of people clapping for you.”
The important foundation of HealthIQ’s culture is they consistently celebrate the achievements of 20+ individuals at each week’s standup. “Some people feel that if you recognize too many people, you devalue the recognition. We don’t believe that. Recognition is an infinite resource and can be used to power a celebration culture. Everyone’s greatest, secret fear is that they might toil in obscurity. We do our best to ensure that at HealthIQ, you will be recognized for that hard work,“ he says. It’s the same philosophy that is in the HealthIQ product: the company gives discounts to seniors that are taking care of their health. The discounts are a form of celebration that you get in the form of savings each month.
“Staying focused on positivity and celebration is incredibly powerful,” he says.
Celebration is a company-wide habit that Shah is constantly reinforcing.
Lesson #2: The Power of Optimism
The one question Shah is often asked that has a surprising answer, tying into their culture, is What is the best way to get promoted at HealthIQ?
His answer: Be optimistic.
“Engineering managers often want to paint themselves as the devil’s advocate, being the voice of reason in the room. There is definitely a value to that, but not necessarily from the engineering leader. Do you remember any of the world’s greatest leaders being that way? Martin Luther King, Jr. was incredibly inspiring, as was Gandhi. At no point was Gandhi like, ‘I know we’re striving for independence, but I just want to keep expectations low: Underpromise, overdeliver, just in case this doesn’t work out. The Brits are pretty powerful. I just want to make sure everyone knows what we can realistically achieve.’ Of course not! No one is going to follow that person. That person has utility in the world, but you’re never going to follow them,” says Shah.
He continues, “The true leaders are the optimists. Can they be over optimistic? Sure. But the positivity that comes from that is a very, very powerful idea. It’s a very powerful leadership metaphor. Celebration combined with optimism makes HealthIQ tick from a culture perspective. Our definition of our culture is our definition of what we want from our leaders. We want those same things from everyone that wants to someday be an organizational leader too.”
Lesson #3: Be Close to the Sheet Metal
Really knowing your business is paramount to current and future success. “We always say, ‘Be close to the sheet metal.’ Know your numbers. Live in them each day. Everyone from our executive team on down that doesn’t know their numbers just isn’t going to be a great fit at HealthIQ. There is greatness in detail, so we look for that greatness in detail as well,” says Shah.
Lesson #4: Celebrate Engineering Success
With marketing and sales, celebrating wins is somewhat obvious because you have a win with every dollar that comes in the door. With a focus on celebration, HealthIQ has created a celebration culture in Engineering as well. How, you ask? By naming each product by the Engineer that built it. “We built an in-house CRM and an engineer named Tom is the one who owned the project, so our CRM is called TRM, which stands for Tom’s CRM. We have other products that our engineers have named, whether it’s named after them, their kids, or something that’s important to them. They get naming rights. What’s neat about it is it drives ownership and it’s a fascinating celebration tool. The permanence and legacy there is powerful. Even if they leave the company, forever more their imprint is on the company. The same way salespeople have a giant award board on a wall that’s permanently celebrating their success, we want our engineers to know they came, they saw, they contributed and they made HealthIQ better because of their efforts and commitment. And we haven’t forgotten what you did here. We all want permanence and to know we contributed to something great,” he says.
Lesson #5: Maintain a High Bar with Hiring
HealthIQ has always had a focused, high bar when hiring, but there have been critical lessons learned as they have scaled over the past year. “With all the challenges brought about by Covid, it did present a new opportunity for us to begin recruiting and hiring all over the country. That has definitely increased the level of talent we’ve been able to bring to our team. Before, we were limited to how many candidates had the skills we needed in both the Bay and in San Diego (or were willing to move to either area). Being able to hire everywhere has been one of our keys to success,” says Shah.
The other thing they’ve realized is that there is a lot more value as the company gets bigger and bigger for employees that have done that exact job somewhere else. He continues, “The experience level matters immensely. In the early days of a company, you’re trying to figure out a new formula for a new thing and honestly, you just need the largest amount of intellectual horsepower that you can possibly get to try and solve it. Once you get the formula down, however, you need people that are great operators who know the role and have done it before. It’s ok if they developed a slightly different process somewhere else but have done something close to the role you need.”
“Even if it’s data mining or a data analysis skill set, having worked with a data set like our set has its own benefits. You know the flaws in the data set, the issues you need to normalize for, etc. There is deep knowledge that is a key to success, so we’ve definitely gone deeper in experience and broader across the country as we’ve continued to build our team,” says Shah.
Lesson #6: Focus on Data
At the core, HealthIQ is a data science company. They use Big Data to segment out the health conscious in society and give them lower rates on insurance. “There are lots of companies that have data science in their product. Our product IS data science. It’s digital data science wrapped in an insurance contract and the data drives the product. Not only that, the data can unravel the product. If runner’s don’t end up lower risk, we’re in trouble because we’re giving them a discount,” he says.
“The most important factor of the data scientists that we hire is that analysis is messy. A lot of people just want to run a clean algorithm on a bunch of data and they hit a button and are done. Our best data scientists are the ones that have done that but also bring a lot of creativity and understand how clean the data really needs to be. Pruning it, cleaning it, getting right. Making sure every definition is what you thought it was is one of the keys to great data science. It’s not using the fanciest algorithm out there because if you use it on garbage in data, you just get garbage out and it just doesn’t work,” says Shah.
Lesson #7: The Urgency / Patience paradox
Shah has an interesting take on patience, and he believes this paradox might make or break your company as you scale. “There is a weird paradox with patience as you build your business. You need to be urgent building your business every day, but you need to be patient building your business every year. Those two things are very hard to balance. Every day, you want to get everything done, from shipping the product, to pushing cycles faster so you can learn more and more from each one of them. You want to be really urgent on how you handle those things on a daily basis. But on the other hand, you have people that come to a company and they won’t realize the importance of building value over time. It takes a long time to build value and in fast growing companies, people don’t realize how critical it is. When a company is doubling every year, that last year, it’s added as much value as all of the prior years added together. The longer you stay, the more of that doubling you get to capture and I think that people don’t realize that building great things takes time,” he says.
Growing companies have challenges. Patience to finish through those challenges is key. Shah continues, “The people that are most rewarded are those that stuck around after tough challenges, picked up the pieces and figured out the next step. The bumps in the road aren’t as bad as you think. It takes A LOT to make a company stumble – TRULY stumble and fall – so you just need to persevere. All of life’s rewards go to who I call ‘The Finishers.’ Think about how many kids started piano lessons and how many finished and actually became concert pianists. The same thing for tennis, etc. The finishers are the ones that get a lot of rewards in life. Most people are starters and not finishers, and there is a unique patience needed to be a finisher.”
Final lesson: Act like an Owner
One intriguing perspective that Shah focused on is that when a company is smaller, it’s easy to act as an owner. Everyone has their sleeves rolled up and has some built in ownership that is organic because you fail without it. As you scale, this becomes more difficult simply because you have bigger teams around you. At HealthIQ, acting like an owner is not only encouraged, but it gets rewarded. “Recently, we identified 20 people out of our close to 500 employees that really act like owners, outside of the exec team. We gave them all a pretty special compensation change in the form of stock. They all previously had stock, so were literally owners, but we wanted to make them more of an owner because they truly acted like owners. The psychology that this is your company and you’ll do whatever it takes to succeed is important to reward and cultivate. We wanted to reward that as we have scaled up because it’s difficult to do, the larger you get. Rewarding leaders that are optimistic, have the celebration mentality and execute at a highly detailed level is important. Those people can do really great at HealthIQ,” he says.
Want to connect with Munjal Shah directly to learn more about HealthIQ? Please feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org !
Munjal Shah is the co-founder and CEO of Health IQ. Health IQ uses science and big data to provide special rate insurance for health conscious seniors. Munjal is a serial entrepreneur that has built many companies in the past. Prior to Health IQ, Munjal was co-founder & CEO of Like.com (computer vision/machine learning company sold to Google) & co-founder & CEO of Andale (eventually sold to Alibaba). Munjal has a Masters in CS from Stanford and a Bachelors in CS from UCSD.
In addition to his operating roles, Munjal is an advisor/investor in technology and digital health related companies including:
Rocketfuel (IPO), Meebo (sold to Google), Swell (Sold to Apple), Blindsight (Sold to Amazon), Kabam (Sold to NetMarble Games), TaskRabbit (Sold to IKEA), Gyft (sold to First Data), Refresh (Sold to LinkedIn), Pubmatic (IPO), ThirdLove, Alation, Benetic, Beagle, Scopely, Step Mobile, Turing, Blindsight, InterAxon, PatientPing, Retrace.AI, Canvas Medical, Counsyl (Sold to Myriad Genetics), LabDoor, Lift Labs (Sold to Google), Honor Health, Wildflower Health, Quantiome and more.