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Quinn Underwood is a serial entrepreneur in the field of global health, working to leave an indelible mark on the world. He founded his first non-profit at the age of 15 – now with chapters around the world, it’s as unstoppable as he hopes to be. Besides being involved in the non-profit sector, Quinn is the COO of FoodShare, an app-based company working to eliminate food waste, the lead analyst for two seperate think tanks, and the founder of a small consulting firm working in health innovation.
City where you’re from: Eugene, Oregon
Hobbies: Debate, writing, fencing, reading, and “spotting the elegance within the chaos” (Sabrina Pasterski)
Favorite quote: “I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong” – Bertrand Russell
Hey Quinn, tell us what you are working on!
There are a few things I’m really focussing on right now. I’m currently the head of two separate global health think-tanks; strategizing a partnership between FoodShare and the Institute for Global Health Equity and Innovation in Toronto; expanding my non-profit, Indian Umbrella; building a consulting firm in the sector of health innovation; and working with the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation to expand on my research in the field of mobile health technology.
What triggered your idea?
My most recent project has been the building of a consulting firm focused on implementation science in the field of health innovation. The idea came after I spent time in Myanmar evaluating the potential application of mobile health technology to the diagnosis and treatment of child malnutrition; throughout my research it became clear to me how disillusioned certain organizations were as to the effectiveness of their health applications, essentially because they didn’t have a solid grasp on the barriers target populations faced in accessing them. It became pretty clear from there on that this wasn’t just a one-off issue, that time and time again health innovation (and innovations of all kinds) fail because they don’t really know their target population, and they spend a ton of time and money on ideas that just don’t meet the needs of that target population. So I figured, I could solve that problem, especially with respect to health innovation startups who don’t normally spend the time or money to do that kind of market research or analysis themselves.
What makes it unique? What’s the vision?
Well we focus on doing qualitative analysis, which right off the bat is something not often given enough attention. People, I think, don’t yet appreciate or understand the value a conversation can have, especially when it comes to really recognizing the nuances of questions like “why don’t users adopt this, even after they’re aware of the benefit it will give them?” Big data can give you a really solid big picture, but it’s can’t tell you everything. We’ve populated our team with university students from every possible discipline (from art history to computer science) to ensure we look at the issues we face from every conceivable angle; and we can do this to a larger extent than larger firms can, because we have access to so many incredible university students all around us. Our target market is also pretty untouched as well because there’s not the same kind of money in it per client that you would find at a corporate level – but we’re not doing it right now to make big money so much as we are to bring value to these organizations and the people they’re helping.
Who are your customers? How do you find them?
Our current client list comes from several accelerators associated with the University of Toronto. As incubators and accelerators, it’s their job to make sure their associated companies do well, and hopefully have the opportunity to grow and really make a difference – that’s where we came in and said, ‘we can help them do that, we can ensure they get their idea right the first time.’ That saves everyone a lot of time, a lot of money, and could potentially mean that there are more companies out there in the future saving and bettering lives because of advice we were able to give them when they were just getting started.
Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
From an early age, I’ve always loved the process of creation. There’s this moment when you come across a beautiful idea – one of those ideas that just lets loose a flood of possibilities before you know what’s happening. That’s why I keep doing it, for those moments when you realize you just came across an idea that could really change things, and its potential seems limitless. The rest of it is working to realize that potential, and the excitement of not quite knowing where it’s going to take you. I never really found a deep passion for just one thing, or one field, rather the process of exploring all the things I don’t know – that’s what gets me up in the morning. And I think that that’s part of what makes a good entrepreneur, just always learning and exploring.
Who were your biggest influences? Or Was there a defining moment in your life?
It really comes down to the people around me; I’ve been fortunate enough to have met some of the most incredible hustlers, movers and shakers, tirelessly energetic people. They’re the kind of people you can have a conversation with, and by the end of it, you’re just fired up and ready to go – feeling like you could conquer the world. Those are the kind of people you have to surround yourself with, and hold them close – let their momentum and energy push you to keep going, to attack your projects with that bottomless ambition. As far as defining moments go, I would say it was when my twin and I moved from a small town in Oregon (Eugene) to Vancouver, BC, where we were just struck by how many opportunities there were to really just explore our interests; that’s how we ended up founding our non-profit Indian Umbrella.
Give the readers the best entrepreneurship advice you have.
Two pieces of advice; first, be interested in everything. And I mean Everything, from the way microbiota in your stomach interact with each other, to why handles are put on both sides of doors when they aren’t ‘pull’ in both directions (a particular grievance of mine). Never stop asking questions, exploring, really looking at why things are the way they are. When you start asking the questions no one else is, that’s when you get the answers that no one else has, and that’s when great ideas are born.
The second piece of advice is to shamelessly hustle. I think it’s the shameless aspect of hustling that often isn’t mentioned. The really hard part about keeping at it, really working hard and just always hustling, is that you have to be able to put whatever it is you’re doing before how people see you. That’s what it takes to really be effective. You’re going to make a fool of yourself more often than not, you’re going to find people are annoyed with your persistence or drive, but you Cannot let that slow you down. Because people don’t like the people that hustle, the people that work that much harder than them, they’d rather tell you why you’re doing things wrong – listen to what they have to say, and then keep moving forward.
Teach us something!
Writing a good business plan is key to the success of any idea. Ultimately, whether it’s founding a non-profit or building a business empire, you have to know where the money is coming from, how you’re meeting the needs of your customers, and knowing who those customers are. If you can’t give someone a clear value-add and tell them why what you do is unique, you shouldn’t move forward until you can. A business plan really helps just break an idea down into its most functional parts. It forces you to really evaluate how tenable the idea is. The more you do this, the easier and better it will get; you’ll start to see what you need to focus on in your idea, and find it easier to assess others’ ideas for their own value. The last thing I’ll say, is don’t be afraid to send your business plan to others and have them evaluate it for you. It’s important that people are able to understand the value you’re providing and getting people’s opinions is the best way to assess your own clarity.
As far as learning how to write a good business plan goes, there are lots of resources online to help do so. My favourite would probably be entrepreneur.com (https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/241079) they have some great advice and make it very palatable to others.
What should an entrepreneur focus on?
Entrepreneurs should focus on two things; learning, and their idea. The first because you’ll never know when something you learn will be relevant to you or your endeavours later on – so just try and learn it all, and never stop. The second because if you want to make an idea successful, you can’t ever stop working on it; I think on some level there’s an obsessive quality about those that really make it – and that’s sometimes what it takes.
What are some of your favorite books?
I have quite a few, I like to read a lot, but I think a lot of them are indulging in my more introspective qualities than anything else. The Outsider by Albert Camus, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Outliers by Malcom Gladwell (I love all his stuff), I could go on, but that’s the shortlist, at least off the top of my head. For aspiring entrepreneurs, I would really recommend looking at Outliers, it’s a sobering reminder that it takes a lot more than meets the eye to be successful.
Where do you see yourself and your product in a couple years?
I want to be the go-to firm for startups, for the little guys that can’t afford the KPMGs, the Deloittes, the Bain and Company’s. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to leave the world of social entrepreneurship or global health alone, so I imagine I’ll always be in those areas. I see myself working around the world fighting the white-saviour mentality – making sure that those of us privileged enough to change things are going about it in the right way, the first time around.