Technology for good and people-first FTW with Kevon Saber of GoCheckKids
Embracing technology to make the world a better place; that’s a common theme with this podcast. Kevon Saber’s story continues to weave that fabric.
Kevon started his tech career developing mobile games, later making a personal pivot to focus more on the cross-section of business and people.
After completing his MBA at Stanford, he went on to start multiple companies, ultimately landing as the CEO of GoCheck Kids, a mobile app that helps to detect early vision disease in children.
In this episode, Kevon and Ledge discuss the importance of a people-first mentality, how to grow faster by learning faster, and how he instilled an effective Agile stragey across the entire company to take GoCheck Kids to the next level.
Ledge: Kev, thanks for joining us. It’s really cool to have you here.
Kevon: Ledge, thanks so much for the honor.
Ledge: Excellent! Would you give a two- or three-minute intro of you and your work for the listeners?
Kevon: Absolutely! Born and raised in Silicon Valley, got my professional bearings during the doc.com boom of ’99 and 2000. I kind of rushed into starting an ecommerce company like a lot people my age at that time while also an undergrad, and then, quickly realized that I did have a real passion for business but, in particular, for the people that I was working with and building strong cultures that are lifegiving for everybody on my team and then for products that make a transformative impact on the people who use them.
I enjoy the intellectual stimulation of just solving problems and incurring revenue and everything that it entails. But what gets me really excited is seeing people on my team growing in their skills and building products that people can’t imagine living without.
They even tell us, “This has actually changed my life in some way.”
Ledge: Tell us some stories. I’ve looked at your history and got some ideas around that. But give us a couple of stories of life-changing products and some of the things that stand out in your mind.
Kevon: I can give you a contrast between one of my startups where we were creating mobile video games which I have nothing against. But, really, we were optimizing and designing for addiction.
Driving home or putting my head on the pillow at night, I didn’t feel good about it. Again, I have nothing against video games but our goal as designers was trying to get dopamine to spike and people to come back and miss it. I realized that we were not really adding to their lives as much as everybody needs some diversion and entertainment.
It was a company called “GenPlay Games which is one of the early mobile games developers that grew to about ten million sales. This was long before the iPhone came out. We were developing games for all the Samsung, LG, and Nokia phones ─ post-Snake but pre-iPhone.
I remember thinking, gosh, I love and am so fulfilled by the culture we’re building where a lot of people are not only finding community; they’re finding a collegial experience where their skills, their mindsets, and their capabilities are constantly leveling up.
But, gosh, wouldn’t it be so rewarding or even more fulfilling if we also had a product that people would describe that way?
And so, I went back to grad school. That was 2008, 2010 and really said, “I want to not only just develop my skills as an entrepreneur but, in particular, think about and study businesses that are creative for human flourishing, businesses that look to just elevate the human experience at scale and understand how they operate differently from who they raise money from to how they structure the company to how the executives operate internally.
And so, I had to do all the usual MBA classes but, again, emphasized my course work where I could impact through business and entrepreneurship.
I think since 2010, I’ve been solving for the intersection of business and human flourishing and lots of little experiments, some of them kind of medium size in scale.
It took until 2016 before I really discovered what is now my life’s passion, and that’s GoCheck Kids. We have a mobile app that detects vision diseases early before these diseases turn into learning disabilities or blindness or even fatal cancers that spread to the brain ─ and, of course, while they can still be treated.
Most kids grow up taking what’s called a “visual acuity test.”
Do you remember that wall chart at the pediatrician’s office as a kid?
Ledge: I do, yes. I have kids. So, yes, we still do a fair amount of that.
Kevon: That test works great if the kids is eight or twelve but it’s useless if a kid is one or three. Preverbal kids and just kids that are too young to cooperate with that test mean that a lot of kids are missed. In fact, so many kids are missed that vision _____ is the most prevalent disabling condition for kids in the United States.
Age five is when treatment efficacy starts to go down rapidly. And so, it’s important to catch this early.
And until we came along, there was no product that actually was affordable for pediatricians to use. There had been technologies out for decades that are upwards of $20,000 dollars over five years, and you have to replace them.
And so, David Huang, our inventor, a brilliant guy who’s got three engineering degrees from MIT and an MD in ophthalmology from Harvard said, “I’ve got to do something about this.”
Now, in David’s life, he created OCT in the nineties which is the most popular diagnostic in adult ophthalmology; and then, roughly twenty years later, he created GoCheck Kids.
Over the last three and a half years, we’ve gone from a little prototype to four thousand pediatric teams who are using our product and regularly writing us and telling us, “Johnny was considered dumb. He was in the remedial class but it turned out that his brain is great. He just couldn’t see the chalkboard.
We’ve gotten him a pair of glasses and over the last six months, he has covered three grades of math and reading. And we’re thinking about putting him in the gifted and talented program in our school.”
Just yesterday, we got an email from a doctor in the Midwest who said, “This child would not have been caught with eye cancer until it was too late to save her life. But we caught it with GoCheck Kids. Thank you for what you, guys, do.”
And so, as someone who’s built several technology companies, mostly mobile software companies, it’s just the most professionally fulfilling season in my life because it’s tech for good or tech for human flourishing that is now impacting people’s lives at scale.
Ledge: That’s fantastic. It’s amazing that even as a technologist and someone who is immersed in this every single day ─ like unique applications of technology and particularly mobile technology ─ to solve big problems is pretty fascinating.
Sometimes, in the podcast here, we’ll get into the stack and how exactly you code that and what are all the things there.
Maybe go a little bit more meta here and talk about that there is an engineering department at all times and the inventors and the engineers and the process to get this stuff to market in sort of the engineering and technology for good.
I wonder, how have you seen that best organized? Are there best practices to have the most innovative mission-focused technology teams?
It’s easy to get divorced from the mission and get sort of stuck in the code, so to speak.
How have you done that as a business leader because I think a lot of people want to emulate that?
Kevon: I think the most important thing for us is finding people who are galvanized by our mission, who just live for protecting human potential, for seeing kids fulfill their potential in life and don’t just want a job. They don’t merely want a paycheck. They want to go on an adventure for the greater good and are willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. And that’s a different kind of psychographic profile than many people.
The most important thing for us is “Does this person kind of have a mentality that they can’t help but join us?” It’s not even about the money.
For me, I would do this for free. It’s just so fulfilling.
After that, it’s all kind of the classical techniques and organization that enable any company to ship great products starting with understanding the customer, testing assumptions very quickly.
Our whole organization from marketing to sales to product development, and engineering is actually on an Agile cycle. We organize around a twelve-week year. So we have four twelve-week years. Every twelve week-year is broken up into six two-week sprints. And after every sprint, every single team actually reports to the rest of the organization on what they’ve accomplished. So it’s kind of a classic Scrum-inspired sprint review.
We, of course, do deeper dives on the individual teams. We don’t do a daily standup with the whole company but certainly, they have their own kind of backlog sizing meetings.
It’s different for every team. And then, they have their own sprint reviews in many cases and are a lot more granular than what we do with the organization.
But we’re trying to optimize the whole mindset of the organization around rapid learning, rapid experimentation. And, for us, that probably doesn’t look any different than any of the companies that are represented on the podcast.
Ledge: Yes. I do talk to a lot of technology leaders who have well entrenched the Agile mindset into development and into engineering and would probably wish that the rest of the organization is operated in the same paradigm. So maybe outside of the valley, at least, you don’t hear a lot about fully Agile organizations. There’s a lot of transformation happening particular in legacy to sort of bring on that Agile mindset; and then, it often gets encapsulated and left only to the tech leadership.
What’s the message to everybody else who should be doing that?
So you’re having success there and I think it’s important for all business leaders to think about, “Hey, this works in every function.”
Kevon: That’s a great question. The message might be “Are you growing as fast as you want to? And if you are, keep doing what you’re doing.”
We were not an Agile organization as a whole before I joined. I didn’t start GoCheck Kids. I restarted it about eighteen months ago. The investors came to me and said, “Gosh, this company has a powerful value proposition detecting these diseases for a tiny fraction of the cost any of the outdated incumbent expensive medical devices.
We don’t know why it’s not growing. Can you help us understand that?”
And I came back to them and said, “Yes. If you do a couple of things differently, one of them is to operate in an Agile fashion, then, the company will grow very quickly.”
And, of course, they said, “That sounds like NBA speak.”
We’re always using words like “Agile,” right?
And I just thought to myself, I don’t care what you think this sounds like. The principles work. The fundamentals work. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about technology businesses or basketball.
Anyway, we have almost tripled in that eighteen months while rebuilding our entire tech stack, most of our internal systems, and replacing about half of our team.
In a lot of cases, if you’re doing that much to rebuild the plane, the plane is actually not flying, certainly not gaining altitude. But, as I’ve said, we’ve been able to triple.
I guess, my message is if you want to grow much faster than you are today, then you have to learn a lot faster; and to learn a lot faster, you need to experiment a lot faster; and to experiment a lot faster, you need some sort of a discipline routine.
Again, just like any championship sports team, it’s going to have a disciplined routine.
For example, just to make this really practical, every two weeks, our marketing team is reviewing all of the experiments they’ve run. We call them “tests” on the marketing team. And they capture learnings in a database that help them prioritize the next set of tests that get run.
The idea, of course, is, over time, we’re getting better at identifying tests or ideas to run, getting better at prioritizing them, and getting better at running them. In theory, our leads should be growing and our sales should be growing. And that’s exactly what’s happening through this process.
I’ve spent a lot of my career in the product ranks working in the trenches with engineers. I know, of course, the value of Agile in that setting. But as I moved over to marketing and then becoming the CEO of GoCheck, it was really obvious for me that every part of the organization needs to function this way.
And I don’t want to pretend that it’s easy. There are some parts of the organization where it’s harder. For example, we’re doing very deep scientific work.
You’re probably going to have a longer sprint because you need time to gather additional patient data and then analyze that data. But the process is no different. It’s called the “scientific method” for a reason.
Ledge: There’s a lot to unpack there. And I think if I could dare to summarize, it’s not when accused of being NBA or business or textbook ─ the reality is, those ideas need to be executed. And when you talk about the difficult decisions of business leader, technical, leadership, what have you, hey, we turned over half our team. That’s very difficult execution. It doesn’t always feel amazing. Yet, that was necessary to achieve what had to be done.
So, I think, sometimes, people get caught up also in “Well, we’re building a great culture and we can’t turn anybody over.” But that’s not true. You have to have that leadership focused on the end goal.
Kevon: Yes. I would add to that by saying that turning over some people actually makes the culture better. We had one person who was sour. They were like a rotten apple in the apple cart.
There are lots of strange behaviors but the bottom line is that they were not there for the mission. They realized, “Wow, this is a company with a really defensible technology and it could be very valuable someday. I want to piece of that action.”
I don’t have a problem with it. I think the profit motive with it is great but as but as long as it’s not the top motive.
When somebody is after money, first and foremost, and they’re willing to kind of run roughshod over their colleagues, not listening well, it creates a deleterious effect on the culture.
Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, said that brilliant jerks have to go because the cost to teamwork is too high. It’s in his famous Culture Deck.
We were quick to say, “Who needs to go?” right after I joined. And then, there were a bunch of people who were kind of in an in-between category; I just wasn’t sure about them. I gave them the choice. I said, “This is the culture we’re trying to build. This is the kind of performance we’re trying to achieve. These are the kind of routines we need to get there.”
And some of them said, “I don’t want to be a part of that. That’s so different from the thirty years of health care that I’ve been a part of. I’m just not ready to embrace this method. It may work but not for me.”
And I respect that.
We didn’t have to make many fires, fortunately, but we had to make a few at the very beginning. And we looked at that really as a definitely hard mountain we had to climb or an obstacle we had to overcome. It was not comfortable. Those were probably the nights that I slept the least or the worst beforehand. But they were in service of our mission.
At the end of the day, we’re here to protect the potential of kids and we can’t let anything anything getting the way of that.
Ledge: So the last question I ask everybody ─ and just typically, I’m going to reframe this because it’s typically a very technology staffing question. Obviously, we’re in the business of evaluating and vetting the very best engineers.
Maybe we can abstract that and extrapolate that. As a leader of a technical-based organization, a technical-product organization, maybe you’re out of the seat now of evaluating individual software engineers.
But you have to build a mission-focused technology organization. We talked a little bit about what you might do there and how it fits in.
I just wonder, what are the exact heuristics from an engineering standpoint?
We have a proprietary system that we think is very successful that seems to identify really great folks. Yet, I think, in an ongoing learning capacity, we’re always interested in seeing the heuristics that potentially could improve that system from your experience?
Kevon: I want to talk to you more about your system offline. I’m very intrigued. I’ve heard a little bit about it from Faith. But to come back to your question, the same characteristics that we look for in any candidates are the ones we’re looking for in engineering candidates.
Once you’re going beyond absolute scale, absolute experience which is as relevant ─ but I’m not the person to evaluate how strong they are in Python, for example, or how skilled they are in the IOS development.
I like the word “heuristics” ─ How do they think? How do they problem solve? How hungry are they?
And we have a phrase “kind animal” which is a derivative of Paul Graham’s phrase which is just “animal.”
He says, “Is this person an animal?” That’s shorthand for “Is this person the kind of person whom you wouldn’t want to go to war with, the kind of person who is going to run through walls, the kind of person who can’t help but learn and grow because that’s who they are and it’s not what they’re being told to do?
And so, we break down “kind animal” into four principles.
The first one is pursue the truth. That’s someone who is incredibly curious, who pursues radical integrity, and is also just transparent with how they operate partly because they want to be back and they want to get better. It’s not about them always having the right answer. It’s about them improving.
The first one is pursue the truth. The second one is derive together.
And that’s when we have to really pursue like the rest of these principles together; but, at an individual level, this is someone who longs to not only have a great outcome but have the relationships with other folks on our team and is willing to solve for their own and their teammates’ autonomy and mastery.
A place that is fulfilling in part is a place where each person has freedom and is growing. And personal autonomy and mastery are ingredients for that.
The third principle we think about is “Grit wins.” And that’s what it sounds like. People who want to be clear about the objectives, ruthless about measuring their progress, love learning even through failure and are going to adapt to get to the top of the mountain.
There’s a level of resilience and tenacity that comes with “Grit wins.”
And the last one we’ve kind of covered indirectly, and it’s just transformation. People who want to not only build transformational products but creates such a transformative company that spending a year here, you’re going to learn more than you are spending a year at Stanford, for example, because this is an environment that’s so collaborative and so growth-focused. We’re all helping each other develop as humans.
But then also to be so impactful as a company ─ the health care industry as an example.
And this looks to us as an example of what it can look like, what the business has done right, what our business has done for others instead of the business being done primarily for money.
And our view is if you’re serving people regularly, there will be some short term financial tradeoffs. But in the long term, you’re going to have respect; you’re going to have even affection; and you’re going to be more profitable because your recruiting process is going to be lower and your customer acquisition costs are going to be lower.
We look for those four principles in anybody that we hire and, certainly, folks on the engineering team.
But, again, there are all the battery of evaluating the person’s actual engineering competency and their experience certainly matters but we’re more focused on their attitude and aptitude than we are exactly how many years they have coding in X language.
Ledge: We often find that the 80% is going to be the soft skills area and the community, just the leadership tenacity, problem-solving ability.
And, of course, you need to learn how to code but that’s the table stakes. The coding test only gets you just so far.
To shed a little bit of light on what we’re doing, we align very closely to what you just said.
Kevon, it’s so cool to have you on. I so appreciate the insights. Thank you for sharing.
Great job! We really look forward to seeing what you pull off next.
Kevon: Hey, Ledge, thanks so much for the invitation and everything you, guys, as a team do to foster our economy and freedom and growth in the community.
Have a great day and we’re looking forward to getting together soon.