Before launching the Relief Telemed app earlier this year, co-founders Vishal Vasanji and James Davis envisioned their on-demand care delivery platform as “the Waitr of health care.”
That makes sense, given how much similarity there is between the two business models. Both are Louisiana startups with on-demand delivery platforms and hyperlocal sales strategies, and they’re built for rapid consumer adoption. What restaurants and hungry customers are to Waitr, medical providers and sick patients are to Relief.
So when Vasanji and Davis began thinking about scaling up their business, who better to guide them, they thought, than the founder and former CEO of Waitr?
The pair set their sights on striking up a relationship with Chris Meaux, who not only expanded the Lake Charles-based food delivery app’s footprint throughout Louisiana, but later sold the company to a Houston billionaire for $308 million and watched it go public on the NASDAQ stock exchange last year.
But the timing never seemed right—that is, until August, when Meaux stepped down as Waitr’s CEO.
“After he stepped down as CEO, I said, ‘A guy like him is going to get bored,’” says Vasanji, previously co-founder and CEO of Patient Plus Urgent Care.
Seeing a window of opportunity, Vasanji took his chances and began regularly reaching out to Meaux, trying to nail down a time to meet. Admittedly out of a sense of obligation to Davis, whom he knew as the organizer of LSU’s Startup Weekend, Meaux put a meeting on his calendar.
However, upon seeing the various similarities between Relief’s concept and Waitr’s, Meaux realized he could offer the startup invaluable insight as an advisor.
“For me, the real attraction is that I didn’t get to stay around
long enough to really see my vision for Waitr as a fully
on-demand platform come to fruition.”
CHRIS MEAUX, WAITR founder, on advising Relief Telemed
Bigger picture, Meaux sees vast potential in the emerging telemedicine field, drawn by its time-saving and on-demand nature. Yet he also feels something of a kindred connection with Vasanji and Davis, telling them they’re at the same point in their entrepreneurial journey today that he was in 2014.
“For me, the real attraction is that I didn’t get to stay around long enough to really see my vision for Waitr as a fully on-demand platform come to fruition,” Meaux says. “Delivery and carry-out is part of it, but it could’ve been point-of-sale, we could’ve done loyalty rewards and it could’ve been a lot of other things—and it still can be. [Waitr CEO Adam Price] is doing a great job of maybe taking it there, but I saw a lot of growth opportunities for Relief.”
Thus, a partnership was born, with the three now regularly meeting at the Louisiana Technology Park—where Vasanji and Davis currently house Relief’s operations—and talking daily on the phone. At the center of their conversations are the lessons the Waitr experience has taught Meaux, which is helping Relief’s decision-making as it moves from the proof of concept phase to a greater marketing push near the second quarter of 2020.
“Chris will say things like, ‘I wish we would’ve done this on the Waitr platform from day one,’” says Davis, an LSU professor. “I’m absolutely taking notes as we’re building this from scratch.”
Today: Build to scale
Since launching in February, Relief has partnered with four urgent care clinics in Baton Rouge to attract close to 1,000 users. However, Vasanji and Davis are aiming by the end of next year to dramatically grow the number of Relief providers—and, consequently, app users and market footprint—while also driving up the frequency of repeat user visits, which is their measuring stick.
“The more you can think about upfront, the less hassles you have as you scale and grow,” advises Meaux. “If you don’t do it in the very beginning, you might never get the chance to put it in there.”
One of Meaux’s biggest regrets is not incorporating gift cards into the Waitr platform early on—a decision that’s made it nearly impossible to do so five years later. Now believing it would’ve been a “tremendous way” to acquire new customers, Meaux doesn’t want Relief to overlook future revenue generators when designing its platform.
Part of that comes with focusing on all aspects of the product; in other words, seeking perfection on all fronts before putting it to market. When developing the Waitr app, Meaux says his team focused solely on stability, which came at the expense of functionality. As a result, the app needed to be completely redeveloped three times, costing time and
dollars that could’ve otherwise been avoided.
Meaux’s counsel is helping guide Relief through a seemingly endless flurry of questions that continually arise. Vasanji says they’re in the process of tweaking the app’s design based on feedback from providers, who say they want greater customization, and patients, who want a more instantly user-friendly experience.
Furthermore, as they build a nurse network, Davis wonders: Should nurses be independent contractors or employees? And how will he and Vasanji finance nurse equipment without devouring all their capital? Another point of consideration is remaining compliant with federal HIPPA regulations—something Waitr did not have to navigate.
Obstacles aside, Meaux says figuring scale into product development isn’t necessarily about numbers, but about focusing on the quality and interactions among system stakeholders—patients, providers and nurses—to ensure they’re all working together smoothly.
Tomorrow: Hyperlocal focus
Providing the best patient experience requires Relief to get mass buy-in from medical providers. But selling the concept to urgent care clinics throughout the state is proving to be a challenge.
“Physicians are notorious for not having time in general, and they’re constantly getting hit up with sales reps at their door, so how do you cut through the noise so they give you the time?” Vasanji says. “We’re convinced that once we sit down with a doctor, we can convince them that our product makes their lives easier.”
But people don’t know what they want until it’s there, says Meaux, remembering the restaurant owners who, in the early days of Waitr, asked him why anyone would want to order food through an app rather than simply call a restaurant.
At the time, a trusted advisor told Meaux that all he’d need to be successful was “100 rabid fans,” or roughly 100 frequent app users who become the brand’s cheerleaders for those that follow. That was how Waitr grew, he says, and he expects Relief to similarly grow by focusing on its core base of early adopters.
He’s “pleasantly surprised” by how quick to listen Vasanji and Davis have been—a trait he acknowledges lacking in his early years as an entrepreneur. While seeing a lot of “peripheral opportunity” for Relief, Meaux says it’s important to initially stay focused on perfecting the product to better the user experience.
Key to Relief’s mission is developing a hyperlocal sales strategy, earning the loyalty of its so-called “100 rabid fans” and continuing to stay true to that base, even as the company grows its footprint.
Meaux’s commitment to the strategy begs the question: Did Waitr scale up too fast? He doesn’t think so, saying entrepreneurs either create scalable businesses or lifestyle businesses—and when they’re the former, growth becomes a necessity.
“I don’t pay attention to whether people say we got too big too fast and quit caring about our customers—that’s all B.S.,” Meaux says. “We always cared about them, even as we were scaling; we just didn’t do a good job of balancing the two. But I hope these guys can, because you just have to grow.”
For Relief, exactly how big and exactly how quickly are questions Vasanji and Davis are still asking themselves. But, with an ultimate vision for patients to no longer need to step into a doctor’s office—and for doctors, in turn, to save time by diagnosing and prescribing patients medications through their app—the effects could be game-changing.
Says Vasanji, “I want us to be bigger than Waitr.”