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My First Business Failed―Here’s What I Learned

I’ve had the chance to work with some incredible people, tackle many exciting challenges, and learn amazing things. Today, as the chief experience officer at Pluralsight, I help democratize technology skills, which is changing the world in a very real sense. As unlikely as it may sound, what set me on this journey was the impactful experience I gained working as an EMT for four years, making $7.14 an hour. The lessons I learned as a paramedic continue to influence my work every day and have transformed the way I see people and approach product development.

A Great Idea… In Theory

I was young and inexperienced, but I was passionate about my work. It amazed me that the same hands I used to save a life could also pour myself a bowl of cereal—and that both events would sometimes occur in the course of a normal day.

I loved being able to help people in some of their greatest times of need. But as much emphasis as the medical industry puts on helping the patients—and for good reason—there’s not a lot left over to care for the EMTs working the front lines. Being a paramedic is a physically demanding job, and I saw countless coworkers move to light duty or change jobs altogether because they had injured their lower back lifting, lowering, and carrying patients during their 12-hour shifts. Physically, the hardest calls were the ones with basements or multiple stories that required carrying patients in cots up or down stairs.

So, in my spare time, I tinkered in a coworker’s metal shop until I found the solution: a set of “tank tracks” that mounted to the bottom of an ambulance cot so I—and other paramedics—didn’t have to carry patients and risk hurting ourselves. I called it a descent control system, or DCS, and started a company called ParaMed around the idea. The other EMTs in my region loved the DCS, and so did a company called Boundtree Medical, which signed a five-year distribution agreement with ParaMed.

Not everybody loved it, though. The two largest manufacturers of ambulance cots put out a press release saying installing the DCS would void all cot warranties. I’d built the DCS for the problems I encountered as an EMT in Utah, but paramedics in New York City didn’t take hospital cots up brownstone apartment buildings, as I expected they would. Similarly, those down in Florida rarely dealt with carrying patients up stairs because the water table was too high for basements. Even EMTs in North and South Dakota couldn’t use the DCS because their weather became too cold for the metal I’d used to build the device.

The DCS was a product that filled a need and filled it well. But I had been so focused on solving that one problem that I hadn’t done enough research. I hadn’t thought to ask the EMTs across the country, the cot manufacturers, or my users—what they needed to see in the product. And that was a big mistake.

An Even Better Idea… In Practice

Almost 15 years later, the DCS debacle remains one of my biggest miscalculations—and greatest learning experiences. By critically examining my missteps, I learned a tremendous amount about product development and the need for a human-centered approach, and that has informed my career ever since.

I had the opportunity to use those lessons right away, too. Not long after hearing the feedback from EMTs around the country, I talked to an emergency medicine coordinator at Intermountain Medical Center, who mentioned trying to figure out how to get non-ambulatory patients down flights of stairs in the event of an emergency. She said, “If you can solve that, I would be really interested, and we have grants to pay for it.”

I went to work, keeping in mind that my experience, and even her experience, did not represent all of the medical personnel who were similarly struggling with this problem. After a lot of research and tinkering, what started as a cardboard prototype eventually developed into the Paraslyde, which became a tremendous success. Today, that product is used in 70 percent of hospitals nationwide.

What I Learned About Product Development

Making small but critical missteps in product development is a pretty common mistake across industries. I see plenty of situations where developers, engineers, and managers turn a blind eye to the vital aspects of the product. More often a product will suffer a death of a thousand cuts, where there isn’t one glaring problem, but several small issues with user experience, functionality, or simple design flaws. These issues can be hard to see on the surface but are learned over time and through use—things that are hard to identify and solve in advance without diverse viewpoints and research before the product hits the market.

Just as I thought the DCS would transform the industry because it solved a problem I encountered daily, I sometimes see other product leaders slip into an echo chamber of their own experiences and opinions. Even pulling in people from different departments or getting workers from concept to execution to weigh in might not be enough to give a full picture of the problem or what product customers actually need. Hiring people with diverse backgrounds can help, but the opinion with the most weight should always be the end user.

I’m sure this isn’t a new concept for anyone—though it’s, unfortunately, one rarely followed. Despite dozens of articles and books written about how to build meaningful products, I still see people solving the wrong problems in every company I walk into. I also see a lot of technologists taking too much ownership of a product. Shouldering the responsibility for a product’s development and success is great, but that attitude becomes detrimental when it becomes ownership over the product itself. As much blood, sweat, and tears we pour into our products, in the end, they belong to the customer—and, again, that’s where our focus should be in order to succeed.

Why It’s Important To Connect With Your User

The biggest difference between the DCS and the Paraslyde was not that one succeeded and the other failed—that was just the result of a fundamental difference from day one of development. For the DCS, I noticed a problem, thought I would solve it, and executed my vision. But while developing the Paraslyde, I studied the problem and thought critically, not only about how I could address it in one particular hospital or situation, but what solutions people in other situations would need to address the same issue, as well.

As an EMT, having and practicing empathy is almost as critical as medical training. Getting a car accident patient to help you help them, for example, is difficult and distressing for both parties if the paramedic isn’t able to relate to their patient and communicate with them in a way that reflects their current fear and pain. Empathy is crucial in product development for the same reason. If you cannot put yourself in the shoes of the customer, it’s almost impossible to develop the product they want and need.

We are trying to change human behavior and condition. Empathy is a way of crossing that psychological barrier to be more effective at what we do for our products, our customers, and our companies as a whole. That’s something that I’ve carried with me through my career. I developed a framework called Directed Discovery to further this idea of customer-centered empathy. We use this methodology at Pluralsight as we design new aspects of our product for our three end-user groups, and only one group is on our end: our content creators and industry experts. The other two are our learners and skills development leaders, who are the ones responsible for scaling up the skills across professionals within a company.

As a result, our content is best in class. It’s curated to what learners need to know to gain new skills and stay current in their respective industries. We have tests to make sure we’re starting these lessons right at the skill level of our learner, instead of throwing them off the deep end or making them go through information they already know.

The success of an EMT isn’t based on the number of patients taken to the hospital as much as it is the care those patients received at the scene or in the ambulance. And that’s the same in business. Focus on the experiences that you’re building to deliver meaningful outcomes for your customers. It can make all the difference in the world.

Nate Walkingshaw is the chief experience officer at Pluralsight.

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