Joe Selvaggi, entrepreneur and podcaster straddles the worlds of business and policy in his podcast HubWonk, one of two podcasts from Boston’s Pioneer Institute. Joe and I talked about compelling interviews of founders and how they relate to the work of the free-market think tank. Fun & Instructive.
- Sal Daher’s Introduction of Joseph Selvaggi
- The Pioneer Institute and Entrepreneurship
- Joe Selvaggi’s Business – Plaster Fun Time
- “It could be easier. Our tax regime, our regulation regime.” Everything has an effect on your clients, your business, your employees. You kind of become an honorary policy wonk…”
- “My ingenuity, my hard work, makes you richer.”
- COVID-19 Highlights the Bounty Brought to Us by Free Markets that We Take for Granted – The Fish Counter at Whole Foods
- Buoy Health – HubWonk Podcast
- Buoy Health’s AI Interviews Patients and Advises Them on What Type of Care to Seek & Where
- Joe Selvaggi Addresses Issues Such Education and Transportation that Are Crucial to Entrepreneurs
- “I just think that the retirement homes have to do a whole lot better about protecting the elderly from transmission of diseases.”
- Gauss Medical – Machine Vison in the Operating Room
- Joe Selvaggi Talks about His Interview with the Founder of Telehealth Firm Amwell
- Joe Selvaggi’s Entrepreneurial Journey
- “What I love about HubWonk and really the podcast medium is, you get to eavesdrop on a conversation with people who are really making hard decisions…”
- Example of Podcast Candor: Russ Wilcox – Frank Conversation about All His Mistakes as a Founder
- “To the superficiality of Twitter? Oh, no doubt. Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message.””
Transcript of “HubWonk”
GUEST: ENTREPRENEUR AND PODCAST HOST JOE SELVAGGI
Sal Daher: Welcome to Angel Invest Boston, conversations with Boston’s most interesting angels and founders. Today, I’m talking to Joseph Selvaggi, who doesn’t fall neatly into any of those two categories but is someone who is very interesting to talk to. I find very enlightening to talk to Joe whenever I can. I find he has a very logical and analytical mind. It’s a good thing too, because he is also the host of a podcast here in Boston called HubWonk. It’s the voice of the Pioneer Institute, which is a Boston-based policy think tank.
Joe comes from an entrepreneurial background. He’s been in business for many years. He studied engineering at WPI. But at the same time, he’s been on the policy side, and so he’s very knowledgeable. He very much likes entrepreneurship, but more on the policy side although he’s also been on the investment side. He’s been in the wealth management business as well. He’s a really well-versed person to speak with. I recommend his podcast to listeners because I think he will find really, really interesting people to talk to. We’ll go into some of the people who have been on HubWonk before, which has just been launched recently. Joe, welcome.
Joseph Selvaggi: It’s great to be here, Sal. It’s a thrill to be a guest rather than a host. I know how hard it is to be the host now that I’ve done it. My hat’s off to you for being one of the leaders in the podcast field.
Sal Daher: Well, thanks a lot. Joe is being very humble, because he is a kind of person that I’ve bounced ideas off of him and I have been amazed by how incisive he is in thinking things through. I’ve talked to him about some really interesting stuff that someday maybe will see the light of day. But I can say that Joe has a very incisive mind and approaches things in a very methodical way. At the same time, he does have a sense of humor. But anyway, Joe, what is the Pioneer Institute?
The Pioneer Institute and Entrepreneurship
Joseph Selvaggi: Well, they are a Boston based think tank. They focus on four primary areas. Healthcare, transportation, education, and Massachusetts economy. As a think tank, they do quite a bit of research. And really what I wanted to do with the HubWonk was to in a sense, say, all this great research deserves a presentation platform that makes it more accessible to users. Most of us don’t care to read 40-page white papers with lots of graphs and footnotes. What we would rather have is perhaps a conversation about the essence of the research and perhaps some insight into the most important findings.
Sal Daher: Excellent. Excellent. Would you briefly give us some ideas of some of the initiatives that you find most compelling to entrepreneurs that come out of the Pioneer Institute?
Joseph Selvaggi: Well, you alluded to the fact that I was an entrepreneur myself. You were very kind in your introduction. I have an engineering degree, so I approach things methodically. After saying I’m an engineer, your listeners may know the business I started in 1995 called Plaster Fun Time. If there’s such a world as a high-tech, there couldn’t be anything more low-tech than Plaster Fun Time. People have been painting on cave walls for about 10,000 years, I wanted to harness that universal impulse.
Sal Daher: Was it like paint night for people who like to paint on walls? What was it?
Joe Selvaggi’s Business – Plaster Fun Time
Joseph Selvaggi: Sure. If any of your listeners have kids, what Plaster Fun Time is, is deliberately designed for kids. It’s where kids come in and paint plaster figurines. Adults may conjure ideas like plates and cups and mugs and bowls and turkey platters. What children want to paint is very, very different. They want to paint dinosaurs and cats and dogs and rainbows.
Sal Daher: Yes. Yes.
Joseph Selvaggi: And another detail is, adults want to do something. I’m going to make a mug so I can drink out of it, a kid just wants to look at it. They just want to put it up on their wall and remember the experience of being able to paint whatever they wanted, whatever color they wanted.
I don’t want to wax on about how magical Plaster Fun Time was, but I was very passionate about the fact that the reason kids run like hell out of school and right into Plaster Fun Time is, we do the opposite of teaching. What we do is assume that every child loves to paint, already knows how to paint. Our job is to get out of their way and make sure we encourage them to be as creative as they like.
“It could be easier. Our tax regime, our regulation regime.” Everything has an effect on your clients, your business, your employees. You kind of become an honorary policy wonk…”
Now that was quite some time ago and I was very proud of what we did there. But as an entrepreneur, whether you’re making fishing poles or mink coats or something, you all experience the same challenges of trying to make ends meet. For me, every entrepreneur, if they get a moment to themselves because it’s hard work… they look up and they say, “You know what? It could be easier. Our tax regime, our regulation regime.” Everything has an effect on your clients, your business, your employees. You kind of become an honorary policy wonk as an entrepreneur because those things… issues outside of your business that you can’t control, you wish you could control, and that have an effect on your bottom line.
Sal Daher: Yeah. It’s funny, but since you are a policy wonk, in words… One of the things that fascinates me constantly are the externalities from entrepreneurship because those are very powerful. I am trying to think of the name [William Nordahus]. There’s a Nobel Prize winning economist from Princeton who did a study. He estimated that founders and investors in technology firms over a certain period of time in the multiple decades that he studied, only managed to capture 5% of the value of the enterprises they built. The other 95% of the value was captured by the customers, the employees and other stakeholders who were involved. It’s like there’s a 20 to 1 multiplier.
Every time someone like Steve Jobs becomes filthy rich, he’s making 20 other people not as rich as himself, right? Because it doesn’t get as concentrated. But he’s throwing off a lot of value to society. I like to think of entrepreneurship as the most dynamic form of social enterprise.
Joseph Selvaggi: Right.
Sal Daher: It really is, because this externality is massive. There are disputes. Some economists say, “Oh, no.” Dean Baker’s one such economist who says, “Oh, no. The entrepreneur is capable… or the investors are capable of capturing 20%.” Still, it’s a five to one, right?
“My ingenuity, my hard work, makes you richer.”
Joseph Selvaggi: Sure. Well, I’d heard something about the study and I can’t remember the researcher’s name. But I had heard it’s actually 2%. What I’d say is the magic of markets, and I don’t want to get too philosophical… this goes all the way back to Adam Smith. It’s not that here we are industriously working for ourselves and all that, of course we do that. But we’re really working for each other, right? My ingenuity, my hard work, makes you richer.
That’s something I think when we get back to what HubWonk wants to be, is an effort to show that it’s really hard to run a business. I’d like to say you get to work half-days, either the first 12 hours or the second 12 hours. My hat’s off to anybody who has the courage to start a business and stay the course through whatever it happens to be… pandemics or market crashes or all the other things that can surprise the best-laid plans.
I do hope that we can showcase that businesses don’t start themselves. They don’t appear out of nowhere. It’s someone’s idea. It’s an investor taking a chance on someone’s idea. What comes out the other side is the wealth is ubiquitous for us all, we just without thinking reach for our phone or go to the grocery store and it’s full. Whatever we want to do, whenever we want to do it, it’s ready for us because someone’s working damn hard out there trying to make it happen.
I hope the HubWonk will be not just wonkiness, not just research, but features on hardworking entrepreneurs who despite the odds being against them, make it work.
Sal Daher: What you’re saying brings to mind, we’re trying to make this. We’re recording during the time of COVID-19. We’re trying to make it not really that much about COVID-19. But as you wisely mentioned, everything gets filtered through COVID-19 and probably will for the next few years.
COVID-19 Highlights the Bounty Brought to Us by Free Markets that We Take for Granted – The Fish Counter at Whole Foods
But for example, right now we are at a time when there’s speculation that the supply of meat is going to start drying up in the coming weeks because there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in a large packing plant out in the west. I think that this really highlights for us just a magical abundance that is brought to our doors by free enterprise.
I mean, I’m always amazed by that. Because when I walk into a supermarket, the number of items that are available… I mean, just the fish counter. Joe, I think to myself, fish doesn’t stay fresh very long. How do they have this enormous variety of fish? I’m at Whole Foods. This enormous variety of fish, what happens? I mean, do they cook the stuff? I think they do. I mean, it’s like there’s a process that they do. But still, you’re taking tremendous risk to stock your store very much with a lot of perishable items, and that there’s an enormous supply chain that’s unbelievably effective. All these pirouettes being performed, and is in marked contrast. Because when we go back to the days of the Soviet Union, the Soviets used to criticize the United States for the wastefulness of our system, our capitalist ways. We’re very wasteful because we had… who needs 13 brands of toothpaste? You only need one brand of toothpaste. It’s a very wasteful system.
The reality is when the Berlin Wall came down, when the Soviet Union fell, we discovered that their system was just massively wasteful of human resources, of everything you can imagine. Wasteful of energy, very unkind to the environment. Look what happened at Chernobyl, there were lakes that were completely destroyed. There’s one lake that was just totally destroyed in Russia. This lack of accountability and responsiveness to markets really was very painful. Maybe you’re not as old, old enough to remember this.
Joseph Selvaggi: I do. I do remember. I’ll say, talking about pivoting my life. You’re singing my song. I’m a big believer in markets and the magic of markets. I marvel every day. I live in Boston. I see a million people walk out at 12:00 for lunch. And somehow, they walk in everywhere with their own goals and there’s the right amount of food at every restaurant and every counter. And we somehow spontaneously arrange ourselves as the million lunches get served in an hour and we all go back to our desks. There’s no lunch counter commissioner trying to coordinate these efforts.
Sal Daher: No. No.
Joseph Selvaggi: It’s a spontaneous order that’s thrilling. My background, after I sold my business, I actually went back to school and tried to get a little bit smarter I went over to the Kennedy School which is a school of government where they try to understand how to best help people facilitate a better life. As an advocate of markets, I always have encouraged my colleagues there or my fellow classmates to be humble enough to know that if you can intervene in the markets, there’s a lot that can go wrong. You better make sure you know what you’re doing and go carefully. This is my way of pivoting back to what you were saying about COVID-19. I think we take smooth markets and the abundance of everything for granted.
Sal Daher: Very much for granted, yeah.
Joseph Selvaggi: Something like this happens and it shakes us. Most of the podcasts we’ve been doing recently have been about the healthcare system. Again, I think people I would imagine… I think they have the confidence to go skiing or go running or take some risks because they know if they break their leg, unlike 100 or 200 years ago, it’s not the end of their life. They can go into any number of wonderful hospitals and get fixed up fairly quickly. That reliance on our healthcare system is something we take for granted. Once the possibility that it would be overwhelmed or that it wouldn’t be available to us, it changes our whole worldview. We all of a sudden look both ways before crossing the street or perhaps, may not take risks. I consider when I take my bike out, I don’t quite as far from Boston because I’m afraid I might wind up someplace that is under-hospitaled or something like that.
Sal Daher: Joe, I entirely share your view. Even with my grandkids, with their play. A number I have in my mind is just the number of patients in the ICU at MGH. Okay? Yesterday, I think, was 184 patients. That number has been climbing steadily. What that means is that MGH has really been turned over to COVID-19. So that if something else happens to you and you need emergency care, you’re going to go somewhere else. You’re not going to be at MGH. You’re not going to get the care of MGH. MGH is just a superb hospital. We also have other great hospitals here, but they’re all so tied up with this COVID-19. Probably the pandemic is cresting here in Boston right now, but it makes you think twice. I mean, things that are normally easily available. Right now, I’m very careful. Do not break a bone, don’t need stitches. Nothing major, but the medical system is stretched right now.
But also thinking back of what I was saying before about the Soviet Union. My father-in-law who used to run a potato chip company in Argentina once asked me, “Saleh, why is it that in Russia and even in East Germany, they didn’t have potato chips?” And I said, “I don’t know.” Well, potato chips have a shelf life of two weeks, and their supply chain was so dang inefficient that they could not provide a product that had a shelf life of two weeks. That’s how long you can keep fresh potatoes on the shelf, at least that was the standard back when he was telling me this. And now in the Russian Federation, they have potato chips because they have a system for supplying this and so on.
People benefit from this magical dance of self-organization that you mentioned before, that goes on day-by-day-by-day, and they don’t even notice it. At these times, aspects of it have broken down and we see how very painful it is.
Buoy Health – HubWonk Podcast
Let’s get into some of the startups that you’ve talked to. This is a company called Life Buoy that I found really interesting.
Joseph Selvaggi: That’s right. Buoy Health.
Sal Daher: Buoy Health, that’s right.
Joseph Selvaggi: Yeah, that’s right.
Sal Daher: I listened to the podcast and I found it really compelling. Give us a little bit of a teaser here.
Joseph Selvaggi: Sure, if I can invite people to the HubWonk podcast. It’s Buoy Health. Beyond being an amazing company, it happens to be right here in Boston, right in the South End. What it is, I like to call it an intelligent front door to the healthcare system. You and I have just mentioned all the things that might happen to you that cause you to enter the healthcare system. Well, the founder of the firm went to Harvard Medical School, he planned to be a brain surgeon.
It was on one of his shifts in training, he had a eureka moment where one of his patients had stubbed her finger and was in the hospital and one of his patients was complications from a diabetic episode. He asked everybody, both of them, “Why are you here?” They said, “Well, I Googled my problem.” And they had pages of evidence. They said, “I belong here. Google says I should.” Well in one case, the stubbed finger was really nothing and she was sent home. He had to explain to her that this is not a hospital issue and what she might do. The other gentleman had to have his leg removed. And had he been in the hospital two days earlier, they may have been able to save the leg and avoid that.
Sal Daher: Diabetic ulcers-
Joseph Selvaggi: Diabetic ulcers, that’s right.
Sal Daher: Yeah.
Joseph Selvaggi: His eureka moment was that Googling your issues may not be the right place to go, but you do need a doctor. Again, in the time of COVID, the last place you want to be is in a big building full of sick people. You might postpone your visit and unfortunately pass away at home when you shouldn’t, or you might wind up being a perfectly healthy person that shows up at the front door inappropriately.
The magic of Buoy is you log onto Artificial Intelligence system and you start to do a Question and Answer, much like if you had a doctor sitting in front of you. You say, “These are my symptoms.” What comes back are based on Artificial Intelligence. Based on who you are, where you live. It reorders the questions in an intelligent way so that ultimately, not like a decision tree, but rather like a real live doctor. It thinks of all the different ways to ask the different questions in which order so that it can give you a high probability of having the right diagnosis. And also, it goes a step further and it says, “Look, you need this kind of care.” Based on your insurance and based on where you live and based on what the hospital capacity is around you in real time, you want to knock on this door and not that door.
Buoy Health’s AI Interviews Patients and Advises Them on What Type of Care to Seek & Where
Sal Daher: That is freaking amazing!
Joseph Selvaggi: Right. We were talking about markets and the magic markets. No matter what happens to you, you knock on the front door of a hospital, you’re entering into this Byzantine system that you don’t know what comes next. Imagine an intelligent doctor being in your computer where it saves you and the doctor the trouble of making sure you don’t wind up in the wrong place and using the wrong resources. It’s very powerful in that everybody wins when you have a perfect market like that. You have consumers are healthier, the doctors are treating the right patients, the hospital isn’t dealing with people who don’t belong there. I encourage your listeners to listen to that. It’s a startup in Boston, and its origin story is powerful.
Sal Daher: It really is. I love the story of the founder. Also, he told a story about his father and his decisions about healthcare and so forth. I found it really compelling. Also, this comparison of somebody with a stubbed finger tying up medical resources and then someone who had pretty advanced festering wounds from diabetes that should have been in a hospital days earlier, might have saved a limb and didn’t go there fast enough. I understand that this agent, basically it’s through the health insurer, right? Is it being used for Blue Cross Blue Shield?
Joseph Selvaggi: Right. That’s right. I don’t want to introduce an element of cynicism here. But essentially he pivoted away from helping hospitals avoid unnecessary visits, because perhaps hospitals don’t always want to reduce unnecessary visits. They’re a revenue driven business like most others, and the efficiency isn’t always what their goal is. Where he found a home for the product is the people paying the bill, which is governments and insurance companies. If they can have people use healthcare resources more efficiently, again, the payers win. That’s really who essentially pays for that technology. It’s free to the user. It’s free to you as a healthcare consumer, it doesn’t cost you anything. So there’s nothing to discourage you from harnessing its power.
Sal Daher: Yeah. I think that’s extremely powerful. Very good. Do you want to talk about some of the initiatives of the Pioneer Institute that might bear on entrepreneurship?
Joe Selvaggi Addresses Issues Such Education and Transportation that Are Crucial to Entrepreneurs
Joseph Selvaggi: Sure. If we break it down by the different areas where we talk about education, I think your entrepreneurs probably have the benefit of having a great education. Pioneer tries to pick apart which lessons from good educations we can understand. They’re about entrepreneurship in education. Can we build a better mousetrap as far as that goes? We know the public school model has been with us for some time and probably could use some improving.
Transportation, I don’t know about you, Sal. I think you are T user. I’m an avid T user. I believe in public transportation, but it is a challenge. It’s not very modern, as we know. We’d like to come up with alternatives. If you’re a commuter and use the car, how do we deal with this traffic issue which is a regional problem? Trains and all that. Your entrepreneurs need employees, and those employees given the high cost of living here in Boston, have to get to their workplace. So transportation is something that affects all of us. All of us have to deal with some kind of commute.
Healthcare, we’re mentioning again. Largely because we launched in the middle of a COVID-19 epidemic, healthcare has been getting the lion’s share of the attention. We in Boston, eds and meds are our core industries. We’ve got great hospitals, but we’ve got great biotechnical expertise. Healthcare, I mentioned Buoy, but we have several other companies that we feature. We’re at that perfect nexus of brilliant minds coming out of great schools in close proximity to great hospitals and close proximity to great biotech firms.
The whole world has caught this virus, and so we all are suffering from its effects. But Boston is this place where I think the world’s eyes are looking towards to say, “You’re one of the place we think this vaccine is going to emerge from.” In fact, in a very recent podcast we do talk about with a PhD virologist, what will the vaccine look like and where will it come from. The speculation, it may come from China, right?
Sal Daher: Yeah.
Joseph Selvaggi: But it also very possibly may come from Boston. I think I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but the technology is here. The scalability of cutting-edge technology is in question. We may not be able to produce a virus vaccine in great numbers here, but it’s very possible that we’ll be first to market with an effective vaccine.
Sal Daher: Well, yes. It’s public knowledge that Moderna already has one vaccine candidate in trial. They had it just within, I think, three weeks of really the start of the crisis. And there are other players, there are other approaches to this. Yeah. I mean, there are a lot of things happening here in Boston. One company that I’m hoping to get on the podcast is a company called Cohealo. I’ve met the founder, Brett Reed. What Cohealo does is it helps share medical equipment between facilities. It liquefies the availability of medical equipment. The White House Dynamic Respirator program is using Cohealo’s platform for sharing medical equipment.
Yeah, Boston is very much in the forefront of what’s going on here. I think there will be another company that’s from Boston, a company called Biobot. I’d also like to have them on at some point. Those are the guys that have these devices that go into the sewers. You’ve been around government a long time. Municipalities are now sampling the wastewater to look for pathogens.
Joseph Selvaggi: Yeah.
Sal Daher: They were able to identify an outbreak of polio, which is just a horrible viral disease for which there’s a vaccine now, an effective vaccine. But in my youth, I have a family that suffered from polio. It’s a horrific, horrific disease. They can find out from pasteurizing. They take the samples, they sterilize them and they look for the types of fragments of DNA that’s in the wastewater. They can tell a lot about what’s in here.
“I just think that the retirement homes have to do a whole lot better about protecting the elderly from transmission of diseases.”
Their read right now is that the COVID-19 infection is much more widespread than has been estimated in all the places that they’ve looked. It’s just a lot of stuff happening in the most unlikely directions. But I think a whole lot more has to happen. One of my hobby horses, and I don’t know to what extent Pioneer gets involved with this… I just think that the retirement homes have to do a whole lot better about protecting the elderly from transmission of diseases.
Joseph Selvaggi: Yeah, this is a particularly cruel disease. I suppose we should be pleased that it leaves children alone, but it terrifies.
Sal Daher: Thank God, yeah.
Joseph Selvaggi: I mean, there’s a small blessing there. But yeah, senior centers, it’s a profound tragedy. I honestly think it’s not getting more coverage just simply because it’s almost unthinkable how vulnerable this population is. If there were a policy issue that we could address… I think in general, senior care is underfunded. It’s always difficult to say to government, “You should do this better or more efficiently.”
Sal Daher: I had aged parents, both of whom have passed away. In the last years of life, they were both quite lucid, but they were frail. If you’re 90-something-years-old, your chance of surviving the year, it’s 60-something percent. [actually it’s 26.4% for a 95-year old] It’s not 90%. If you catch a bad cold, that can do you in.
Joseph Selvaggi: Right.
Sal Daher: I think that from my experience with them, I think that if you have fanatical hygiene around older people who have problems with their immune system, cardiovascular system and so on, that it could really improve the quality of life for people. It could save vast amounts of medical resources not to be treating something like that. And then let people die… go with a heart attack or something like that which is just like you’re-
Joseph Selvaggi: Right. Go in your sleep, yeah.
Sal Daher: My late business partner passed away that way.
Joseph Selvaggi: I’m sorry.
Gauss Medical – Machine Vison in the Operating Room
Sal Daher: No really, it’s the best way. For his family, it was shocking. But for him, it’s just the best way. If you can protect yourself. And I think we can do a lot better. I’m trying to get people from the machine
vision area onto the podcast. For example, there’s a company called Gauss Medical out in California and I’ve interviewed the founder, Siddarth Satish, on my podcast. Their machine vision is capable of detecting what is a bloody rag, what is a bloody gauze in the operating room. And they can keep a count of how many sponges went in and how many… I mean, the camera sits in the operating room and it follows the surgery and it knows what’s going on and it knows what’s an instrument, what’s a bloody rag, what’s a this, what’s a that.
I cannot imagine that we could not develop really effective machine vision algorithms for keeping track of hygiene in nursing homes and enforce that to the max. I mean, really have extremely very high standards. That could be a way of marketing your nursing home. This is a nursing home that observes standard ABC for transmission of diseases from the residents.
Joseph Selvaggi: Sal, I don’t want to keep bringing it back to my podcast, but I’ll say along those lines, going a step further.
Sal Daher: Perfectly sensible, yeah.
Joseph Selvaggi: If social distancing is a part of an answer by its very nature, you can’t be socially distanced in a home, right? Not in a retirement community.
Sal Daher: No.
Joe Selvaggi Talks about His Interview with the Founder of Telehealth Firm Amwell
Joseph Selvaggi: My most recently released podcast, I think we were recording it on a Tuesday, just released at 11:00 am today, was with the leader of a very large Boston telehealth firm called Amwell. Now Amwell is essentially on the frontier of telemedicine which is essentially saying… look, rather than it being some sort of weird WebMD type telehealth, they bring the doctor and the diagnostics right to you. You can stay in your home much longer or for the rest of your life and never have to go into a retirement community or into a hospital.
What was exciting to me, this eureka moment I had during the conversation is, telehealth has been with us a little while. He said just like Amazon back in the day, and it’s hard for us… I mean, I don’t know how young your youngest listener is.
Sal Daher: Some of them are pretty young, you’d be surprised. Some of them are like 12. That’s why we keep it clean here. They’re going to school, but it needs to have… listen to it during the commute, and the kids are in the back and they listen to the podcast.
Joseph Selvaggi: I know this is a family show, but back in the day, Amazon used to be thought of as a great place to get books. And now literally, everything in our life can be Amazon-able. Right? There’s not a thing you can imagine that can’t order on Amazon and have it delivered the next day.
Sal Daher: Hallelujah for Amazon.
Joseph Selvaggi: But for the telehealth firm and for Amwell, he sees this COVID-19 moment as that inflection point where no longer will we imagine that telehealth is for people who live in North Dakota, 1,000 miles from a hospital. But it’s for everyone, that the doctor comes to you. It’s not just some robotic guy that was selected at random. It’s your doctor who knows you, who knows your unique situation and knows what to look for. If there are any additional diagnostic tests that you have in your home, those are plugged into the telehealth. From then on the hospital room is your room, your bedroom, your house. You never have to leave. And particularly, you don’t have to leave and be among other people who are also vulnerable.
This is not just an evolution. I think that’s a revolution whereby the technology in the hospital can cross state lines, can leave the hospital, can come right to your front door. So that hopefully by the time you and I are old enough to need that care, it will be a one-click away.
Sal Daher: Ah, I hope so. Is that a Massachusetts company?
Joseph Selvaggi: It is. They’re a global company, but their headquarters is 75 State. Again, I haven’t deliberately chosen only great companies with local founders, but it just seems to have gone that way. I’ll be honest, like you, it’s my show and I can choose which firms. But as you mentioned, Pioneers is a Massachusetts-based think tanks. There are lots of great companies all around the world, but we don’t have to work too hard to find ones that are located and headquartered right here with the founders within a stone’s throw of where we are.
Sal Daher: They’re not the only company working in this area. I mean, they’re taking a different aspect to it. I’m an investor in a company called Senscio. Senscio, basically, they’re building software to understand how patients are doing and to optimize the interventions of patients at home. There are various sensors at home that keep track of if the patient’s eating. These are patients with chronic diseases that are ongoing and they’re trying to keep them from having to be hospitalized.
It’s not like an older person who is well. These are people who have serious conditions that have to be monitored pretty closely. They’re in the trials right now with hundreds of patients, and showing that they perform extremely well. They manage to really provide a much, much better outcome to the patients, and also for the providers because the healthcare providers are compensated on the basis… They have a certain amount of money that is allocated for the care of certain patients, and if they can keep those patients from having to be hospitalized, again, have to have very intensive care addressed to them, then they can do really well.
Yeah. I mean, this kind of stuff is happening quite a bit. Massachusetts is the place for it. I mean, here’s a trivia question. Which is the largest employer in Massachusetts, private employer in Massachusetts? Mass General Hospital.
Joseph Selvaggi: Oh, is it Mass General?
Sal Daher: Mass General Hospital.
Joseph Selvaggi: All right, thanks for not letting me embarrass myself. I might have said BU or something, but Mass General.
Sal Daher: No, no. It’s Mass General Hospital. I’ve been surprised looking at that. I said, “Gee.” Yeah, I would have thought one of the universities and so forth. But yeah, it’s just a massive employer because healthcare is so huge here. I think Brigham and Women’s and so forth is not far behind. Joe, if you don’t mind, let’s talk a little bit about you. A little biography here. You grew up where in Massachusetts?
Joe Selvaggi’s Entrepreneurial Journey
Joseph Selvaggi: No, I’m actually a Jersey guy.
Sal Daher: You’re a Jersey guy masquerading as a Massachusetts guy.
Joseph Selvaggi: Like a lot of Jersey people, we come up here to go to school and never go home. It’s a pretty nice life. So if you let us stay, we will stay. I’m a Jersey guy. I came up here to go to school. You mentioned WPI, ultimately migrated to Boston. Yeah, my background was an entrepreneur. I don’t know how much of my background you want to hear from me.
Sal Daher: Basically, what I want to know is your entrepreneurial venture that you mentioned, how did that come about? I mean, were your parents entrepreneurs? I mean, how did you decide to go in that direction to start this business?
Joseph Selvaggi: We already talked about Plaster Fun Time. Growing up, my mom was an entrepreneur and she had an idea very much like this. What we wanted to do was take the essence of her concept and McDonald-ize it to take the process and analysis of an engineer and take it to something that wasn’t particularly well designed process wise. We built several stores based on the ability to reproduce reliably the experience in any one store. I always had the entrepreneurial bug. And I think I’m a kind of a dreamer, I want to make the world a better place. Probably like you, Sal. You walk into any kind of space experience and you say, “I wonder how this could be done a little bit better.” I think it’s also what draws me to policy.
When I sold Plaster Fun Time, I took some of that money and used that to go back to school. I wanted to go to Harvard and figure out if… almost as an engineer. We all may have different ideas of what a bridge should look like or a building should look like. But when we go to school, go to engineering school, we all have to understand the implication of F=MA, V=IR. All these kinds of principles that apply. Regardless of your personal taste, they apply to everyone. What I wanted to understand was what was the science of policy and how does that work. Ultimately, in the intro to the show, you weren’t sure how HubWonk and my work at HubWonk relates to the theme of the entrepreneurial show. I’d say when you’re starting a podcast, it is an entrepreneurial endeavor. You have to in a sense-
Sal Daher: It absolutely is.
Joseph Selvaggi: What do people want that they don’t have right now? And for me, I’ll say one of the things I learned quite by accident… I got a real thrill when I was at the Kennedy School talking with primary sources, with the actual people who are making the choices. Not the reporter, not the… the guy in the arena who has to make the decisions and has to adapt and has to… The privilege of getting an opportunity to go there is, you’re talking with heads of states or cabinet members or real leaders that have had to negotiate terrible things like wars and famines and crises. It humanizes it for you. It’s not this magic mist that gets us through. It’s the hard work of men and women who have to make the tough calls.
“What I love about HubWonk and really the podcast medium is, you get to eavesdrop on a conversation with people who are really making hard decisions…”
What I love about HubWonk and really the podcast medium is, you get to eavesdrop on a conversation with people who are really making hard decisions, good decisions and ones that God bless, help us all make all our lives better. The privilege to get direct access to very wise thought leaders to me, is a thrill. It’s a thrill. I’m sure you feel the same way.
Sal Daher: Oh, yeah. I’m a very curious person and it’s my excuse to pick people’s brains. My late great business partner, Robert P. Smith, was a brilliant brain picker. The guy, he made his fortune from brain picking, just asking people. One of his tricks was, “Sal, you ask a guy who is his worst competitor. Okay? 85% of the time, they’re not going to tell you. But guess what? 15% of the time, they’ll tell you. And then you can go and use that guy to bid against him.” This Robert Smith’s idea, it really is true. I mean, you ask questions and you learn stuff.
I’m not in a gotcha business. But you learn so much from having people just explain how they navigate at certain things. It’s kind of like, “Oh, dawn.” Dawn over in Marblehead, “That’s how the thing works in the real world.” Which is what you’re referring to at the Kennedy School. Being around these world leaders, you get a sense of how the policy is made. How they were able to sell the country on this particular approach to things and so on, when everybody had been trying for years and years, and they’d never been able to do it. Okay?
Example of Podcast Candor: Russ Wilcox – Frank Conversation about All His Mistakes as a Founder
Yeah. I mean, that is the magic of the podcast. This week, I happen to be launching on the podcast, an interview with Russ Wilcox, a venture capitalist. But he was also a co-founder of E Ink. If you have one of these eReaders, it’s a Massachusetts company. As a matter of fact, E Ink is still made in Massachusetts to this day. The company is owned by a company in Taiwan. They were bought by a $480 million acquisition. But this conversation with Russ was just so enlightening, just understanding the mistakes that they made. He was very candid. He said, “No, we had the wrong metrics. We were trying to be a financial… It was a time when the stock market was doing very well and we tried to time the company to entering the stock market just at the right time, and we just didn’t pay enough attention to the product.”
In a podcast, you get these extremely, extremely candid conversations that you would never get anywhere else. I love the medium. I have learned so much from the podcast, and I think you will learn tons. And I will learn tons from listening to your podcast.
Joseph Selvaggi: Let me also say, I promise… I don’t like to talk politics. But I will start off to talk about this vitriol that before we were all distracted by the COVID epidemic, my hope was that the podcast itself would also help make the world maybe a little gentler, kinder place.
I’m not a big fan, and I don’t know what your thoughts are Sal, on Twitter because I really think it brings out some of worst angels. We use Twitter to send off 140 characters of our opinion that’s probably not well considered and not very kind. What I like about podcasts is in a half-hour or hour, whichever the format for your show is, you get to go more deeply into issues and you get to understand perhaps even with someone you don’t agree with at all, where they arrive at their opinions, how those opinions differ from yours. And really, I think you realize they’re putting their pants on one leg at a time. You may not agree with them, but you have to respect that they’re working hard and they believe what they believe.
If I can say that podcasting, and I don’t know if this is true, but this is my thesis. It’s sort of the antidote to Twitter rage.
“To the superficiality of Twitter? Oh, no doubt. Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message.””
Sal Daher: To the superficiality of Twitter? Oh, no doubt. Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message.”
Joseph Selvaggi: That’s right.
Sal Daher: And the medium allows for extended conversations. The most massively popular podcast, I am not a fan. But it is the most popular podcast, is the Joe Rogan podcast. They run two-and-a-half hours, okay? They run two-and-a-half hours. It gets 50 freaking million downloads.
Joseph Selvaggi: Yeah.
Sal Daher: Okay? There is no television program that approximates that in reach. He is doing something. And Sam Harris gets two million downloads per episode, okay?
Joseph Selvaggi: Mm-hmm.
Sal Daher: Here in Massachusetts, Chris Lydon gets 100,000 downloads per episode. Okay? For free, you can listen to Sam Harris. You can listen to Joe Selvaggi. You can listen to Chris Lydon. Oh, Chris Lydon’s series on the Transcendentalists, one of the Thoreau’s anniversaries, was brilliant.
Joseph Selvaggi: Wow.
Sal Daher: That is so unlike Twitter.
Joseph Selvaggi: Right.
Sal Daher: You cannot do that in Twitter.
Joseph Selvaggi: You can’t do it in Twitter. What I’d say, I don’t know if you share this view, but I think certainty and ignorance go hand-in-hand. As soon as you think you’re sure, the chances are you’re missing half the argument. What I like about the humility of podcasters I think, in a Sam Harris or even Christopher Lydon… very, very smart people, but also they listen as much as they talk. What you and I or anybody knows rounds roughly to zero given how much information there is to know in this world.
Sal Daher: Yes. Yes.
Joseph Selvaggi: Half of what we think is right and half is wrong, we just don’t know which half is which. It’s through conversations and thought that I hope leads to better understanding. Again, I don’t want to get too philosophical, but I’d say what overwhelms me is the humility that comes with understanding at least a little bit of what you don’t yet understand.
And then my hope with the podcast is to showcase thought leaders and let the listener come to their own conclusions. I’m not trying to manipulate the conversation to make them look good or bad or smart or not smart. I want them to have an honest crack at sharing their world view and what they’re trying to do in it and let the listener decide. Is this useful? Has this guy figured it out or not? We’re both in agreement that the podcast medium is a heck of a way to do it.
Sal Daher: Well, I think that’s a winning approach. I think as I said before, the medium is the message, Marshall McLuhan. If you’re a certain age, do you remember, it was in the movie Annie Hall?
Joseph Selvaggi: Of course. In the movie line. I know every line of that movie, so I don’t want to reveal my-
Sal Daher: Yeah.
Joseph Selvaggi: He happens to be when I-
Sal Daher: I know. I know Woody Allen is a disgusting person, but he is a comic genius.
Joseph Selvaggi: He is.
Sal Daher: The idea of pulling Marshall McLuhan with the windy professor was exactly the kind of person who thought he knew more than he did.
Joseph Selvaggi: Yeah.
Sal Daher: And then Woody Allen pulls Marshall McLuhan and says, “You know nothing of my work.”
Joseph Selvaggi: I don’t know if I can have Woody Allen on my podcast. I don’t know if that would fit in with the theme. If I need pasty executive director, I’ll have Woody Allen on. Yeah, I think there’s a lot of wisdom. In his special way, he is very much anti-intellectual. I think he laughs at people who take themselves too seriously, right?
Sal Daher: Yeah, a mad and tortured genius, no doubt. No, but the point here is that we’re all operating with 8K working memory. Okay? The difference between… was it Henry James who said that the difference between the most brilliant man and the average person is not that much?
Joseph Selvaggi: Mm-hmm.
Sal Daher: Maybe you know a little bit more poetry.
Joseph Selvaggi: That’s like baseball with the statistics or something.
Sal Daher: In order for you to function, a human being, there’s so much that we have in common. Our intelligence is most powerful when it’s used in exchanging ideas. With startups, for example. Startups, if they’re not capable of listening to other people and exposing their theories to potential customers and so forth, they cannot succeed. They are learning enterprises as are good podcasts. They are learning enterprises and discovering. During the podcast, you’re like, “Whoa. I thought this thing was like this, but I discovered it’s not.”
Joseph Selvaggi: Right. I don’t know what your recommendations are. I have an email, email@example.com and I hope everybody will either comment and say, “Look, that was great.”
Sal Daher: Cool. What’s the URL again?
Joseph Selvaggi: H-U-B-W-O-N-K, HubWonk. If you want to email me, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org. But pioneerinstitute.org, you can look on there and go to media in the dropdown. And you can subscribe on-
Sal Daher: For people in Boston, it’s Pioneer.
Joseph Selvaggi: Pioneer. Well again, remember.
Sal Daher: He’s from the Jersey Shore, Pioneer.
Joseph Selvaggi: I’m a chameleon. So now I don’t say coffee and daughter. I say Boston, not Boston.
Sal Daher: Yous guys, and Boston.
Joseph Selvaggi: Yeah, no Jersey Shore going on here. But anyway, pioneerinstitute.org is a good way to find it. I think come for the podcast, stay for the interesting research. They have an education podcast called The Learning Curve. Very, very sharp hosts that really go deep into not just what’s going on here in Massachusetts as far as education goes, but all the innovation across the entire country. I think that’s worthwhile.
There’s two podcasts. One think tank, two podcasts. They have a narrower charter. I pretty much can host the world. But I think they’re always putting out very, very good research. I don’t know what the latest and greatest. I haven’t built around it, but the unemployment rate, what’s going to happen with the life of universities. Are they going to survive this? Which ones will survive? Are we even going to come back? There’s a lot of research on which towns are hit hardest by this, which are most affected by let’s say the industries like service industries. In Boston, we think of that, but it’s a relatively small percentage of our employ. Some of the western Massachusetts towns have 50% of their residents in the service industry who are now unemployed, and many of those that aren’t even eligible for unemployment. These are horrible, horrible stories.
What’s nice is, Pioneer has taken the time to do the research and understand where those hotspots are because the world doesn’t start and end in Boston. This is a big state with a lot of people in it, and sometimes people most in need are the ones without a voice. I do admire Pioneer’s research evidence based observations that can really give us insight into where the problems are and where we should be turning our attention.
Sal Daher: That is really great, really tremendous. Joe Selvaggi, I’m really grateful that you made time to be on the podcast and to talk about your podcast which once again, is HubWonk. HubWonk from the Pioneer Institute in Boston. Thanks a lot for all your help also in helping me think through some of the business things that I had. Joe’s somebody that I bounce ideas off of, because he’s a very astute thinker. I think it’s really worth listening to his podcast and to some of the people he’s going to have on. I know who that PhD scientist is, and he’s not just a PhD scientist. He’s also someone who is very knowledgeable in the investment field. I am dying to hear his answer to the question of scaling back scenes. Awesome. Thanks a lot.
Joseph Selvaggi: Thank you, Sal. I’m a super fan of your show. You’ve taught me a lot of what I know, and I really appreciate having you as a mentor and as a friend. Thank you for inviting me.
Sal Daher: Well, thanks a lot. This is Angel Invest Boston. I’m Sal Daher. I’m glad you were able to join us. Our engineer is Raul Rosa. Our theme was composed by John McKusick. Our graphic design is by Katharine Woodman-Maynard. Our host is coached by Grace Daher.