Star Cunningham – Founder of 4D Healthware

Take the time to help, make introductions and genuinely listen to others instead of firing off quick, unhelpful responses. You’re going to need a lot of people to do the same for you.

Star Cunningham is the founder of 4D Healthware. 4D Healthware, located in the Chicago-based startup accelerator 1871, is patient engagement software that makes personalized medicine possible through connected data. Prior to 4D Healthware, Cunningham was an IBM Tiger Team leader, leading massively complex multi-million dollar projects around the world. Star received her MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in 2001, and an undergraduate degree in Computer Science, Business Administration and Economics from Heidelberg College.

Where did the idea for 4D Healthware come from?

I have long suffered from chronic conditions that require close monitoring of medications, lifestyle factors and exercise habits. So, dealing with this first-hand, I realized the immense challenges that healthcare faced. Following my last position with IBM, I wanted to transition from technology into the healthcare sector. I interviewed for numerous positions, but wasn’t hired because I didn’t have the typical healthcare background. I don’t see healthcare as a healthcare problem, I see it as a data problem.

What does your typical day look like?

A typical day for me usually entails an early start, reading industry related materials, checking my email, and checking in on product development. That takes a few hours – and then I’m ready to start the day. The rest of my day usually consists of strategizing and business development – basically building all aspects of the business.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Good ideas don’t come from restless minds. Instead, it’s essential to have a relaxed and peaceful mind, so that you have room for ideation. When I have an idea, I write it down then I envision ‘how it works.’ From there, I run it by a few people I trust and see if they can grasp it. And I always run my ideas by a young person – they have valuable insight!

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The world becoming more self-aware about health is a trend that is extremely exciting. By that I mean, people are beginning to realize that they can’t stay sedentary or keep drinking high-caloric drinks and eating the fatty foods they grew up consuming.

People are starting to make modifications. They are more in-tune with what their bodies need and are buying tools to help stay healthy – mind and body. More people are becoming more active and less passive; they hold themselves accountable for their lifestyle choices and are slowly making necessary changes. They are realizing the reason they aren’t healthy is not because of genetics, it’s not the doctors’ fault, not parents’ fault, and it’s not McDonald’s fault. Everyday consumers are taking responsibility and making healthier decisions.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

The habit that has gotten me the furthest in my life is reading. I cannot stress this enough. I read a lot, and, fortunately, I read extremely fast.

People might think that reading is not core to their business and then push it off. However, being such a bookworm allows me to consume volumes of information, ultimately helping me make better decisions. By doing this research, I am able to get things right more often than I otherwise would – meaning I can save a lot of time and energy from fixing mistakes.

The final point I would note is that it is also critical to read books outside your core business area. The more out of the box you go with your book choices, the more knowledge you stand to gain from them.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

The government was trying something new by bringing successful corporate business people who are also entrepreneurs into state agencies.

My entrepreneurial personality and the state agency were like oil and water.

Even though government is not a business, it benefits when it operates in a more businesslike manner. I learned that drawing on cross sector experience and being able to engage and collaborate across the private, public, and social sectors is an amazing challenge. Not unlike the critical challenge of controlling society’s rising cost of healthcare. These challenges require business, government and nonprofit sectors to work together to create lasting solutions.

I don’t shy away from challenge and if presented the opportunity, I would give it another go. A huge positive impact will be made when an entrepreneur’s vision scales in a government setting.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Starting a business is a risk – and entrepreneurs frequently turn to personal credit to make the dream a reality. So, if I rewound the clock, I would have gotten more personal credit cards – I needed them because everything takes longer than you think it will.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

One thing I make sure I am consistently doing is being responsive to requests for help. Take the time to help, make introductions and genuinely listen to others instead of firing off quick, unhelpful responses. You’re going to need a lot of people to do the same for you.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

One strategy that has helped me grow my businesses is going after a market and revenue stream that is very profitable and not so obvious. Let’s say someone wants to open a yoga studio in town. It’s safe to assume the market for yoga studios in any given town is oversaturated.

But then, one person gets the idea to open a yoga studio for kids and market to their parents. They are the only kiddie yoga studio in town. They’ve just built a business that’s known to be profitable, but in a much less obvious way. It’s easy to show how you make steady progress and have a lot of opportunity with fewer competitors.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I have had countless failures as an entrepreneur. But the old trope is true: you always learn more from a failure than a success. Chris Hardwick said it best: “No human ever became interesting by not failing. The more you fail and recover and improve, the better you are as a person. Ever meet someone who’s always had everything work out for them with zero struggle? They usually have the depth of a puddle. Or they don’t exist.”

One failure I’ve experienced was trying to get a product developed too quickly. I ended up spending much more time and energy fixing the product than if I had taken my time. The real key is having the right first customer, so that you can get the product out there and in the hands of consumers. You learn much faster with more hands touching your product.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Entrepreneurs are always finding problems and looking for ways to solve them. Many recent trends (think Uber) focus on simplifying common services and introducing touch-free service. What I haven’t seen solved yet involves pets. I want an app or a program that helps me manage all aspects of my dog’s care. For example, I’d like to be able to find new “styles” for my dog, Kai, so that before I go to the groomer, I can find a haircut that fits him.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?I’m a Lego aficionado. I have created a fully functional infrastructure for my Lego community. It has a railway system, a monorail system and airport. I do all of the infrastructure work freehand. The most challenging part is dealing with inclines and declines and drag on a surface that isn’t flat.

What software and web services do you use?

I love Twitter. It’s an incredibly valuable tool for an entrepreneur. I have built relationships, both personal and professional, on Twitter. I’ve even found members of my team on Twitter.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I am sure that I am not the only entrepreneur on IdeaMensch to recommend a Malcolm Gladwell piece, but I’m doing it anyway. Every entrepreneur should read David and Goliath. As an entrepreneur you are going to battle giants and need to understand the true meaning of advantages and disadvantages.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

In investing: Carl IcahnIn

Business: Sheryl SandbergIn

Media: Shonda Rimes


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