I recently interviewed Ben West (second to left), the founder of Health eFilings. After reading 80,000 Hours’ website, Ben entered tech entrepreneurship – from software engineering – in order to ‘earn to give’. Amazingly, Ben pledged to donate any money he made above the minimum wage. His company helps American physicians file paperwork with the US government, and collect ‘performance based pay’, much more easily. Several other 80,000 Hours alumni have ended up working in his company. You can read a summary of the key points from the interview below.
Summary of the interview
Ben West was influenced by Peter Singer’s work when he was young to start donating his income. Four years ago he was a software engineer donating to New Harvest, a meat substitute organisation.
He spent almost a decade at a large healthcare IT company, which helped to prepare him for what he’s doing now. He doesn’t think he could have successfully started this company without having experience in the health IT sector first.
He learned about 80,000 Hours through a link on the blog Overcoming Bias. Reading our work on entrepreneurship made him willing to consider starting his own business despite the fact that he’s risk averse by nature. He then spoke with some other well-informed people, including Carl Shulman (who volunteered for 80,000 Hours in the early days), who gave him more information about what the path involved.
Ben was turned down by Y Combinator but soon afterwards teamed up with a serial entrepreneur, which combined with initial growth, meant they were able to raise about $1m of venture capital funding. If you believe the current valuation of the company, last year he earned 20 times what he would have in his previous software engineering role, and expects to donate $10-$20m. Though, he points out there’s still at least a 50% chance the company fails and he has nothing to give!
Before making the switch, he took some time off from work to research startups. The main concern was the risk involved, and coming to believe on a gut level that this path was for him. He was highly uncertain what ‘reference class’ to use to predict his likely earnings. He decided to experiment for a year and test if he could get any customers. They got their first customer within the first three months.
He initially worked in a co-working space to meet other people attempting tech entrepreneurship, and would recommend doing something similar if you’re considering making the switch. It makes it seem much more possible.
In his first direct sales push he sought people within the effective altruism community to help out, and found 50 people who were interested. He’s also had a lot of mentoring from another 80,000 Hours plan changer, Alex, which helped him get early traction.
The company saves doctors a lot of time filing information on patient outcomes with the government and helps them avoid errors.
Ben isn’t convinced that starting a tech company is a great way to build up career capital. For people who try once and fail, they’re not any more likely to succeed the second time around, which suggests they don’t learn much. If your company doesn’t take off you probably also won’t walk away with a great network, because that comes when your business gets traction. This suggests that luck may be a huge factor in this industry.