#29 App Development | Dr. Michael Kelso Interview

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Dr. Michael Kelso is a physician and entrepreneur, co-founder of Vital Notes Inc. and Pixz App. On this episode, he talks to Ryan about merging his passion for solving problems through entrepreneurship and being a physician. 

Dr. Kelso co-founded and developed both software as he encountered ever-day problems and found creative ways to solve these. He shares the challenges that come with app development, how he is monetizing his ideas and exit strategies for the future. 

Tune in to listen more about Dr. Michael Kelso’s entrepreneurial journey and some advice for future entrepreneurs.

Show Links:

Pixx App
Vital Notes

Find more There to Here Podcast Episodes with Ryan Dye

Key points:

1:17 —  Dr. Kelso’s Background

2:20 —  Balancing time between entrepreneurship and being a physician

3:44 —  How Vital Notes INC works 

5:37 — BlockChain security 

6:21 — Monetization of Vital Notes INC

7:50 — Pix App inspiration

12:12 — Development of Pix App

13:55 — Growth of Pix App

15:48 — Promoting the app during COVID

17:21 — Pix Monetization

19:21 — The future of pix: acquisition or partnership

22:29 — Advice for entrepreneurs

23:50 — Connecting with Dr. Michael Kelso

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Episode Transcript

Ryan Dye (00:00):
From CoLab INC, it’s There to Here, a show about entrepreneurs, innovators, and mentors, and the impact they seek to make on the world. I’m Ryan Dye, executive director of CoLab, and on today’s show, we talk with Dr. Michael Kelso, co-founder of Vitalnotes, Inc, a blockchain secured personal health record app that allows people to control their own health data. And he is also founder of Pixzapp, a social network for realtime photo sharing with groups and during events. Based in Huntsville, Alabama, Michael is also a doctor, specialized in gastroenterology, his medical degrees from the University of North Carolina with residency at Brown University and his fellowship at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Dr. Kelso, thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Michael Kelso (00:43):
Thank you for having me, Ryan. It’s great to be here.

Ryan Dye (00:45):
Absolutely. Hope I got all that correct.

Dr. Michael Kelso (00:48):
No, that was perfect. I thought I actually sent you that bio. I was like, wow, that’s pretty good.

Ryan Dye (00:54):
Well, that’s great. Well, you’ve got a lot of wonderful accomplishments and we’ll definitely look forward to hearing more about your background. So you consider yourself a doctorpreneur. I hope you’ve trademarked that, because it’s a great word for all the doctors out there who have a passion for entrepreneurship.

Dr. Michael Kelso (01:11):
I wish I would’ve came up with that term, but there’s actually a doctorpreneur organization based out of the [inaudible 00:01:18] that actually came up with that idea.

Ryan Dye (01:21):
Excellent.

Dr. Michael Kelso (01:21):
I just borrowed it.

Ryan Dye (01:23):
It’s a great word. So what sparked your interest in medicine and did you see entrepreneurship as part of your career path?

Dr. Michael Kelso (01:30):
I have always thought that entrepreneurship would be part of my career path. Early on in college, I was always coming up with new ideas to bring into the world and solve problems. Being a doctor actually came after that, and I’m in private practice, so it kind of bridges the two between entrepreneurship and being a physician. But actually, being an entrepreneur, that passion came first, and then wanting to help people on a very personal level with their health and general wellbeing came after that. And so now I try to find ways to merge the two passions, and the two projects I’m working on does that for me.

Ryan Dye (02:12):
You’ve started these companies. How have you been able to, and we’ll get into the specifics of each company, but how do you feel you’re able to kind of balance the time between focusing energy on being a physician, which is not an easy position, and then having that energy left to focus in on development or whatever passion you want to follow as an entrepreneur?

Dr. Michael Kelso (02:33):
I don’t really have time, and there’s not a whole lot of balance.

Ryan Dye (02:36):
It is challenging.

Dr. Michael Kelso (02:40):
A lot of nights and weekends. My team on Pixz, we meet in the evenings because they’re 10 and a half hours away. So I’m usually up late at night, working with my team there, and then balancing being a physician, you just make it work and prioritize your passions, what you want to do with your life, and fit that into your career as much as you can. There are some give and takes there, for sure. I do spend a lot of time away from family, particularly in the evening hours. I try to get my kids to bed before I start working on my own projects, but I don’t get much sleep.

Ryan Dye (03:21):
I can imagine. Well, I mean, being in the medical profession, definitely you wouldn’t get to where you are if you don’t have some sense of time management and being willing to sacrifice sleep. That is a part of the experience. So you’ve developed, or you are a co-founder, of an app called Vitalnotes, Inc. How does that work, and what is the process there? That seems like a really important aspect to the medical side of things.

Dr. Michael Kelso (03:49):
Yeah, that’s the big behemoth project I’m working on. One of the challenges in healthcare has always been that our health data is fragmented in different places, and historically, patients did not feel that they had a right to have access to that information. But now it’s shifting, now that patients are going to different providers and different practices and needing to be able to transfer that information from one place to another. And we call it interoperability, in the electronic health record space. So what I wanted to do was [inaudible 00:04:27] the keys to that access to data to the patients. So instead of asking for information to be transferred from one hospital to another, patients become that conduit. They become the stakeholders and primary guardians of that information, and they’re able to share it wherever they go.
So we decided to build it on the blockchain, which is new technology, essentially a distributed ledger of information that’s immutable, meaning that it can’t be changed and it’s super secure. So that’s my project I’ve been working on for several years. I have a co-founder who’s in Calgary, Canada, helping me with this. He’s the block [inaudible 00:05:07], and I’m more of the visionary, but it’s a work in progress. We’ve been building our MVP for almost a year now and are getting closer and closer to being able to launch it.

Ryan Dye (05:16):
Well, this is a really big deal, because we hear about data being hacked all the time. In fact, just yesterday, United Health Services was just hacked, which is considered the largest medical cyber attack in U.S. history. I mean, that’s a scary thing. How can Vitalnotes help in that area? Could you talk about blockchain technology, and it’s a more secure process.

Dr. Michael Kelso (05:39):
Yeah, they claim, and most times they say that blockchain technology is tamper-proof. Hacking that information is very, very difficult. They would actually have to have access to your personal passwords to get in. So that’s probably the biggest contribution, but also, when the patient owns their own data, they can monitor what’s happening with it and see who has access to it and also see where it’s going. And so there is a paper trail of access and input into that system that doesn’t exist in the current electronic health record space.

Ryan Dye (06:17):
So how is that monetized?

Dr. Michael Kelso (06:20):
That’s a good question. So the way things exist today is when you sign into a hospital or into a health system, you’re also signing consent that your de-identified information can be essentially sold to third party companies, essentially, or data brokers, who sell that information to pharmaceutical companies, researchers, academics. And it’s scrubbed of any identifying information, but they are making billions of dollars off of your data. And most patients are oblivious to this fact.
So what we’re doing is cutting out the middleman and allowing patients to broker their own data. What we’re going to do is partner with those organizations, healthcare stakeholders, who are interested in that information, and allow them to advertise their studies or surveys directly to patients, and patients can opt in and actually get paid directly for that data.

Ryan Dye (07:22):
I can see that being very attractive. You know, like you say, we have all become, our value seems to be our data. It’s bought and sold, and I know that’s a big, big issue. And it’s just the reality of the world that we live in today. But I think the more that we’re able to at least have some control over really important and sensitive information, the better. Any area where we can improve on that, I think is a great thing to have. What inspired Pixzapp, and tell us a little more about how that works.

Dr. Michael Kelso (07:51):
It’s a funny story. Yesterday, I was contacting a lot of my friends on Facebook about downloading the app, because it is a social photo sharing app. And one of them messaged me back and said, “How do we know each other? Can you tell me something in common about each other?” I was like, “Well, we’re both Tar Heels. We both went to Chapel Hill.” He’s like, “Well, I need to know more. Do we know anyone in common?” I was like, “Yeah, sure. We know lots of people in common.”
And so he calls me, he video calls me from Facebook, and says, “Hey.” I was like, “Hi, how are you doing?” We haven’t talked in almost 20 years. And he’s like, “I didn’t think it was going to be you.” I was like, “Why?” He was like, “Man, my identity got hacked in the past, and I get so many messages from random people that [inaudible 00:08:39], when I was in high school and college, I loved to paint and draw. As I had more access to sort of the internet or the information agent, and it became more available, I started to build my own websites, do a lot of graphic design and Photoshop, buy digital cameras and SLR camera, and take photographs. And I’ve always had this creative side to me of wanting to capture moments through photography, but also build things.
And so I went to a wedding, my cousin’s wedding, in November of last year, and I naturally took a lot of pictures. And just because I remember at my own wedding, I don’t remember seeing a whole lot of pictures that guests took there. And I wanted to be able to capture that for my cousin, who was getting married. And when I returned home, she called me and she said, “Hey, I know you took a lot of pictures. Can you send them to me?” And being the person that I am and being involved in Vitalnotes and being a physician and a father, I don’t have a whole lot of time to put together an album or set up something in iTunes or iPhoto. I was like, “There’s got to be some sort of solution where people could be in an event and everyone could take pictures in the same platform, and they automatically share with one another. So when you leave, you have all the photos already on your phone.
And I started looking around, and I just wasn’t impressed by the different apps that were available. And it just got my mind training. I decided to look into trying to build something myself.

Ryan Dye (10:19):
That’s a cool thing, because I agree. I’ve been on trips or at events or conferences, whatever it may be, where you’ve gathered together and people say, “Oh, well send me these pictures,” or send me those. And it’s just, yeah, it’s kind of a hassle. It’s not easy. Oh, well, we’re going to upload this here or let’s go, it’s on this spot. And I’m one of those people where it’s like, I don’t want to take the time to do that. So I just don’t worry about it. And then you kind of forget about it.
But I think if you’re able to say, hey, I’m here now. Maybe I took a couple of shots, whatever, and then it just, boom, everything gets shared right there. Easy. It’s a great concept.

Dr. Michael Kelso (10:56):
Yeah. It took a while to actually get to that point, where I wanted to create something where you take a photo and it’s shared instantly. It took a while to sort of come to that product idea. But once I came up with the idea, I started running with it very, very quickly. I mean, within a week I had hired a team, a contracting team to help out with me. And I think within two weeks we had a prototype.

Ryan Dye (11:24):
Wow. That’s really fast.

Dr. Michael Kelso (11:27):
Very, very fast. And there’s been a lot of bumps along the road. Our beta version was very clunky. It didn’t work very well. People couldn’t register or sign in. But we continually iterated. And I’m really happy about what we have today. I mean, our goal really is to create a space for people to share moments together, a safe place for people to share moments together. And so, yeah, that’s what we have.

Ryan Dye (11:53):
Well, developing an app can be a very pricey endeavor. I think a lot of folks think, “Oh, we’ll just develop an app for this.” It’s like, you don’t understand, we’re talking like 80 to $250,000. That’s kind of a range of app development, depending on the complexity of the app. How did you go about getting the app developed, and did it take considerable investment, or is the platform relatively simple, so maybe it wasn’t as expensive?

Dr. Michael Kelso (12:21):
It can. And it really depends on the size and the scope of what you’re trying to build. I’ve been working with freelance developers for the last four to five years, and I’ve learned how to work with them and to interview them as a non-technical co-founder or founder, and to give them the most minimal buyable product to build, the very smallest milestones, and to break them into small chunks and base their performance on each one of those. And if they don’t do well with the tiniest of things, then you move on and find someone else, or hire multiple people to do the same thing, and you can do it very cheaply. I found a great team, and I’m a designer. So I was able to build all the wire frames and every little button and position and bond and color.

Ryan Dye (13:10):
You knew what you wanted it to look like.

Dr. Michael Kelso (13:13):
I knew exactly. I had a vision of how it works, and that helps us save so much time in going back and pivoting, iterating on things. That’s where the cost comes, going back and fixing things or changing things. So as a non-technical person, if you’re hiring a team, it’s so important to have all the specifications, at least for the most minimal viable product that you want to demonstrate your use case and the value proposition, that’s what you want. You don’t want something that has all the bells and whistles of the application that you’re looking to build five years from now.

Ryan Dye (13:51):
Right. The app has been out just under a year. Have you seen steady growth with users adopting the platform?

Dr. Michael Kelso (13:59):
Yeah, so we launched in the end of January, and we did a couple of events at that time. One was the Mardi Gras event here in Huntsville. I worked with one of the marketing directors of a retail developer to help share photos from the event. Before that event, she had confided in me and told me that they have a hashtag that they use to sort of encourage guests to share their photos. And she found that very, very few guests at events actually use hashtags. They usually either forget them or they create their own, or they want to distribute it on their own platforms. Oftentimes, they don’t feel very comfortable putting it on Instagram and Twitter and other places like that.
We set up a table, a booth, I guess you would call it a mobile photo booth. And we told them about Pixz and what we were trying to do. And they were excited, very engaged. We had over 80 people sign up and 300 photos shared in realtime during that event. We also did a gala in Nashville, and then COVID hit. And the event industry took a plummet. So we’ve been in a building phase since then. Fortunately, weddings have started to come back, and that’s where our focus has been lately.
But we’re getting a lot more users now. A lot more people are planning events, and so are wanting to find private places to share those memories. So yeah, we’re growing much quicker in the last month or two than we did from March until July.

Ryan Dye (15:36):
Yeah. That was going to be a question I had, was I would imagine because social gatherings have all of a sudden nearly stopped the last several months, for understandable reasons, how have you been promoting the app? What’s some of the marketing strategies you’ve used?

Dr. Michael Kelso (15:52):
I’ve done a lot of guerrilla marketing. I’ve done a lot of being very vulnerable and emailing and cold calling a lot of people. My primary mode of getting users has been word of mouth, but I’ve literally gone into LinkedIn or Twitter and messaged every event planner, every wedding planner, probably on the platform, asking them to check it out. I hired a freelance data entry clerk to look for every journalist who has written on social media and COVID and sharing photos, and email to over 200 journalists individually, about what we’re doing. I’ve run ads on Facebook, Instagram, and most recently Tik Tok.
And there’s a lot more I can do. I feel like I’m just scratching the surface. I’m constantly trying to post new content on our social media platforms, just to keep in people’s spaces exactly what we’re doing and remind them that we’re here. You get mixed success. I think the ads on the social media platforms, you get a lot of downloads, but not a whole lot of engagement or retention. The real retention is when you start getting word of mouth and people start using it, people that you know, and people that you don’t know. That is where our primary users who are the most engaged come from.

Ryan Dye (17:19):
How is Pixz monetized, as well?

Dr. Michael Kelso (17:23):
Right now it’s free.

Ryan Dye (17:23):
So download it, everybody.

Dr. Michael Kelso (17:26):
Exactly, exactly. It is completely free. I’m paying for your data storage right now. So take advantage of that, for sure. How do we envision monetization in the future? I think one of the things that I noticed in the process of working with events and event planners, is that people don’t really use hashtags for events. I think the promoter or the event host does, but guests don’t often. There has to be some sort of incentive for them to want to share publicly their personal photos.
And so that also applies for brands, right? Not a lot of people are using brand hashtags, unless they feel some sort of personal connection. They’re really buying into their mission and want to share that with them. I imagine a time in the near future where brands are going to want to use Pixz to crowdsource content from their users, either them using their products and services or doing reviews. And in that way, they not only are able to crowdsource information, but also, like that brand, and not having to speak for themselves so much. They’re allowing their followers to speak for them, which I think is so much more valuable than creating that content yourself.

Ryan Dye (18:47):
Well, I know in a lot of development of smaller platforms that there can be a real benefit to getting some traction. And then you get noticed by larger companies, and they say, “Oh, we want to add this to our mix.” And you get bought out. That’s kind of the ultimate, or one of the ultimate goals, I think, of an entrepreneur is being able to develop something, scale up, and then, “Oh, well I’m going to sell that, because there’s a lot of value there and another company could add it to their portfolio or their platform.” Do you kind of envision something like this being a potentiality or do you say, “No, I want to hang on to this and really get it to where I want it to be.”

Dr. Michael Kelso (19:24):
That’s a good question, actually. I cold emailed a CEO. I sort of guessed his email address and emailed him, and I told him what we were building and what we were doing. And it was sort of in the middle of COVID back in March, and he emails me back. He asked me, “Are you looking for an acquisition or a partnership?” And I was like, “Oh wow.”

Ryan Dye (19:46):
Who was this that you emailed?

Dr. Michael Kelso (19:48):
Oh, I’m not going to say who it is.

Ryan Dye (19:50):
I didn’t know if I missed that. Okay. Got you. You’ve emailed the CEO of a company, got it.

Dr. Michael Kelso (19:56):
A large company that’s event based. And so I didn’t think about it, an acquisition that early on. We were still sort of very early and are building this product, and we still had a lot of things that we need to work out, but I’m not opposed to an acquisition, not at all. I mean, this is certainly something that I think can grow and grow very quickly. And at some point I may want to turn it over to someone else. We’ll see.

Ryan Dye (20:24):
It’s certainly an interesting thing to consider from the entrepreneur side, because you can say, “Well, I’ve got this great idea. I’ve developed a solid product.” You’re in that stage where you’re really wanting to grow the user base and get the company known, or the app known. But when you’re able to get something that’s solid and it goes to a company that has the right kind of engine to really get it to where it can go, that’s probably the greatest asset they can add to acquisition and acquiring great concepts and platforms.
So I don’t know, it’s just an interesting thing to consider, as far as development and where entrepreneurship can take someone, because maybe it isn’t about hanging onto a company forever. It’s more about developing something solid, and that company can take it to that next level.

Dr. Michael Kelso (21:14):
Absolutely. I mean, it’s like raising a baby, right? You take care of them during their infancy, adolescence. And at some point, you’re going to want to let go and hope that whoever they marry or choose not to marry, the world takes care of them and allows them to flourish and become what they’re meant to be. And so I certainly don’t want to hinder the growth of Pixz as it grows, and if the opportunity comes along, I would certainly entertain it.

Ryan Dye (21:42):
For sure. Do you have future projects in the pipeline, or ideas that you’re wanting to move on to? Not that you have to share the details, but just more out of that entrepreneurial spirit. Yeah, I’ve got a few other things I’d love to see if we can take off.

Dr. Michael Kelso (21:57):
No, my plate is pretty full right now, between the two projects and having a full-time job. I certainly have ideas come to me all the time, but you have to prioritize what you’re going to work on. And so right now I’m thinking of different ideas, for Pix in particular, how I would, you know, new features and how to increase retention and engagement moving forward. But no, not any other separate projects right now.

Ryan Dye (22:26):
What’s a piece of advice you might share with a young entrepreneur that can help them in their journey?

Dr. Michael Kelso (22:32):
One, I think, is never give up, right? I mean, sure, if you’re not working on the product, then you’re not progressing. And so in that case, you probably should can it. But if you’re working towards something, and you’re seeing progress, that fuels more progress, that fuels your enthusiasm. Have a bias towards action. And when you act on it, the world kind of opens up to you.
And that’s what I’ve noticed over time. When you put yourself out there and you start working towards a goal, the universe kind of opens up opportunities to see that come into the world. And so anyone who has an idea or a product or some sort of service that they want to see in the world, start putting some action to it. It builds its own momentum, and you’ll be surprised what happens to make it come into the world.

Ryan Dye (23:25):
Yeah. That’s some excellent advice. I think it’s just important to, you know, don’t be afraid to try things, and I agree. I think that opportunities can present themselves to you if you’re willing to taking your ideas and really getting them out there, and engaging. I think that’s a great bit of advice.

Dr. Michael Kelso (23:44):
Absolutely.

Ryan Dye (23:45):
So Michael, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today. How can folks connect with what you’re working on, and how can we follow what you’re doing?

Dr. Michael Kelso (23:53):
Sure. You can download the app. It’s available on both iOS and Android, and you can come to visit our website, pixzapp.com.

Ryan Dye (24:01):
And spell that for us.

Dr. Michael Kelso (24:03):
P-I-X-Z app, A-P-P, .com.

Ryan Dye (24:07):
Yeah, definitely go check that out. I have it on my phone. And when we start getting together again and having live events as part of our CoLab experience, it is something we will encourage all of our attendees to have and to take photos and share, because it’s just such a simple concept and it’s a no brainer. So definitely I would want people to utilize that. So yeah, definitely check out pixzapp.com and the app store for that. Vitalnotes, as well. Is that something that our listeners can say, hey, I really want to tap into that. If I’m going to an appointment, I want to be able to get my medical information readily available for me.

Dr. Michael Kelso (24:46):
Sure, you can come to our website, vitalnotes.com, and sign up for our newsletter. Periodically, we’ll send out updates on our progress as far as building our MVP. And certainly once we release it, we’re going to want to have some early adopters really sort of test it out and give us feedback, because it’s an important thing that we’re all going to have to deal with at some point in our lives. And I’m a strong advocate for people owning their own information.

Ryan Dye (25:11):
Absolutely. Well, thanks again, Michael, for sharing this information with us, and we look forward to following all that you’re doing and wish you the best in your future endeavors.

Dr. Michael Kelso (25:21):
Thank you so much, Ryan. Thanks for having me.

Ryan Dye (25:23):
I want to take a moment to tell our listeners about our exciting new series this fall, called CoLab Webinar Wednesdays. Similar to our podcast, this one-hour free webinar will feature some great personalities across our various areas of focus, such as nonprofit development, technology, film and media, lifestyle, real estate development, and general entrepreneurship. We encourage you to attend these events, as it will give you a chance to ask our guests questions on how they got from there to here.
October is Women in Small Business Month, and we will be featuring two great business owners, Leah Griffith of leahgriffith.com, a do it yourself site that has been featured in the Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, and on the Today Show. Later in the month, we talk with Kennedy Haffner of thehealthyhalf.com. Kennedy is a 23 year old health and wellness blogger who will share some thoughts on developing a business as a blogger and finding balance in your life. The webinars will take place between 12:00 and 1:00 PM Pacific time on Wednesdays throughout the fall. To find out more on how to register, visit our website, CoLabincorg. In the meantime, follow, like, and subscribe to CoLab, INC on all the various social media platforms, and visit our website, CoLabinc.org, to see the various ways we help promote the spirit of entrepreneurship.
If you have comments on today’s episode or know someone who would be a great guest on our show, send your suggestions to ryan@colabinc.org. We would love to hear from you. Special thanks to our producer, Michael Weberley, editing by Tanya Musgrave and Joel Norris and all the CoLab staff. Until next time, be well. God bless.