EPISODE 438

Lessons From A Healthcare Entrepreneur’s Journey - Ari Blum, CEO and Founder of Clover Learning

12-11-2023

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Shiv Gaglani: Hi, I'm Shiv Gaglani, welcoming you to Raise the Line with Osmosis from Elsevier, an ongoing exploration about how to improve health and healthcare. We're going to do that today with Ari Blum, the CEO and founder of Clover Learning, an edtech startup offering online video-based training, certification exam preparation, and continuing education resources for allied health students and professionals. 

 

Ari is an experienced founder and angel investor in the e-learning industry whose background in healthcare includes working as a radiologic technologist. So Ari, thanks for taking the time to be with us today.

 

Ari Blum: Thanks a lot, glad to be here.

 

Shiv: So, we always like to ask our guests to, in their own words, tell us about what got them interested in healthcare and in your case, in rad tech.

 

Ari: Yeah, so, you know, it's kind of one of those unlikely situations where I didn't really have much of a connection to healthcare growing up. My parents weren't doctors or in the healthcare space. I had some cousins who are physicians and things like that. For much of my younger life, I really was into music and kind of wanting to do that for better, for worse and so there's a long story there, but I lived out in California for a long time and played in bands and ended up moving back to my hometown, which is Louisville, Kentucky. 

 

I was getting to a point where I was getting a little bit older and wanted to get married. I had a mentor at the time and the mentor suggested, you know, you should probably get a career that's not recording bands on nights and weekends, it's probably not going to work out to be a good long-term solution for a wife and children. 

 

At that time, I was working at a hospital, just kind of doing some IT stuff, and I had a friend who was in an x-ray school and it just seemed what he was doing was kind of cool. I didn't know much about it, but it seemed like healthcare, and then it looked like there was like computers and stuff, which I liked. So, I just kind of was like, okay, I'll just do x-ray tech and be a radiographer. It was just one of those things where I just kind of was looking for something to do and jumped in. As I got into the radiography program, I just realized I had a very deep passion for not only helping people, but also for medicine in general. 

 

So that started in 2009. Radiography programs are typically two-year programs and I graduated the program, and just ended up getting a job and doing all that good stuff, and that was kind of my foray into the medical world.

 

Shiv: That's awesome, and yeah, very practical mentor. I'm curious, I think you may be one of the first, if not the only, rad tech who's ever been on the Raise the Line podcast. How long did you work for our audience who may not be as familiar with the program and the work hours, what's involved? Can you give us an overview of that?

 

Ari: Yeah. So, imaging or radiography within the context of a hospital... I'm gonna advocate for a second for the career in genera. There's many times where the radiographers probably don't get the recognition that they deserve but if you think about it from a clinical point of view, diagnostic imaging really touches everything within the hospital. If you're thinking about just general radiography, computer tomography, MRI, going up into the patient's rooms, doing mobile x-ray, the OR, everything. 

 

I can only speak from my own personal experiences. I've worked at two major hospitals here in Louisville where you just don't command the same respect that you would do if you were obviously a physician or if you were a nurse or something like that. Now, again, I haven't been in the hospitals for quite some time. I've been running this company, so things might have changed, but that was always for me one of the challenges that I've always felt is that we're doing this job, you know, we're essentially the eyes for healthcare providers, but sometimes you just don't get the respect that maybe that people would deserve being credentialed health professionals. 

 

But again, with that said, there's also many times where physicians and extenders and nurses are great, wonderful people. I had some doctors that I worked with in the OR corps that I really, really liked, and we would just kind of tell, you know, sometimes not the cleanest jokes to each other with like twenty people in the room. It was a wonderful career for the few years that I did it. I really loved it. I loved the adrenaline rush...just being where the action is and moving around everywhere. You start at 8 a.m. in the morning doing fluoroscopy studies, and then you'd move into the ER, and then after lunch, you'd be up in the OR, and then you'd go back into the ER. So, it's one of those things where you really got to move around a lot and for the way I like to work, it fit very well to me. 

 

Unfortunately, I tend to be extremely A-type personality, so one of the learnings I discovered is that I probably was not the best employee to work in the hospital. They say, you know, some people can have a boss, but some people need to be a boss. I think I'm in the other camp and so I think probably a lot of times I was just very...maybe overzealous, to put it nicely.

 

Shiv: I get that. I mean, the entrepreneurial event often comes with having problems with authority because when you see some systems that are super frustrating or inefficient, you definitely want to fix those. If you're kind of bottom of the totem pole like a med student like me, or a rad tech sometimes, or any extender in a very hierarchical environment it can be very frustrating. 

 

That's actually a good transition to the backstory of Clover. Tell us about how you started it, when you started it. You obviously have had personal experience becoming a rad tech. I'm sure that played a big role. But yeah, for our audience who may not be familiar with the company, just give us the details.

 

Ari: So, our mission statement for Clover Learning is that we transform students into professionals and professionals into experts. We do that through online video-based training, exam prep, certification exam prep question banks, and continuing education content within the Clover Learning platform. But really how I got into this lends itself to me working within diagnostic imaging at hospitals and that tension that I was feeling. I did it for a couple of years and then the excitement started to wear off and it just became very mundane to me and I wanted something more. The challenge was kind of wearing off, so I was wanting to pursue being either a physician's assistant or what's called a radiology assistant. Really what that looked like was I had to go back to school and get my undergrad degree. I had to do a bunch of prerequisite stuff and just start applying for some of these PA programs. At the time -- that was around 2016 -- it was very competitive to get into these PA programs, which I’m sure it still is. 

 

So, I got on the wait list for a couple of programs or whatnot, but in that time, my two-year biennium was up so I had to do my continuing education. Every healthcare professional has to do twenty-four hours of continuing education. I was going to school, I was working at hospitals, I have some young kids, I have a wife...I was just very busy and I was looking for the easiest way to get these continuing educations done. So, I just did a little bit of an internet search and I found that there was a company where you could just buy a book online. The book came with like a fifty-question test. You do the test, you send it in, and then boom, you get your twenty-four hours of CE. 

 

Obviously I wasn't going to read the book and I kind of went onto YouTube saying, ‘hey, I just need to refresh my memory before I take this test.’ I was always a pretty good student, not like an A-plus student, but I did all right. So I was like, let me just refresh my memory. Let me get on Google or whatever the thing may be. And one thing I noticed is that there wasn't a ton out there. Now, you could find videos and content -- again, this is 2016 so things have probably changed quite a bit -- but there really was not much out there as far as diagnostic imaging ,and the stuff that was out there was more or less just someone recording like a lecture with their cell phone or something like that. 

 

So, being entrepreneurial, I just identified and said, ‘you know what, there's really nothing out there that's kind of serving the thing that I want. I want like short, engaging videos, just three to five minutes, just give me the facts. It’s actually funny -- this is the first time I thought about it -- is that I was trying to watch YouTube videos because I didn't have the time to read a book, but now I'm thinking, but I did have the time to make all these videos. That's just kind of funny.

 

So, on my days off or whatever, I just would sit in my basement and create these videos the way that I really like to learn: short, engaging, using analogies, qualifying sentences, right? So, you say something, ‘hey, but in other words, it's like this.’ Doing that was like a little bit of a side hustle and a minimally viable product and there was a PA program that I was really wanting to get into. I told myself when I was going through the process of interviewing and all that, ‘hey, if I don't get into this thing, I think I'm just gonna do this side hustle thing full time.’ Like, why not? I didn't end up getting into the program, so I ended up doing the side hustle thing full time, and that was probably late 2016, early 2017. 

 

Here we are today where we have close to four hundred academic licensed customers and 3,500 direct-to-consumer subscriptions. We've probably had fifty or sixty thousand students go through and use our content and our products to help them pass the registry exams, pass their classes, and even been able to cross train into other advanced modalities, which right now is computed tomography. So, you know, it's just one of those weird things. Every entrepreneur will tell you, ‘Hey, if you came to me ten years ago and said you'd be doing this,’ they'd all say there's no way, right?

 

Shiv: Well, that's incredible. That's a very relatable and awesome story. Two things I'll touch upon that you mentioned that really resonated with me. One is that you had the time to basically build a company, but not the time to read textbooks. Certainly we were getting that at Osmosis of like, how are you spending time? How are you balancing all this? Partly it was because by teaching, by writing questions, by writing video scripts, you're learning, right? There was actually a much more effective way of learning, but also, you know, there's that saying time flies when you're having fun, which is hackneyed, but at the same time, it's real that if you're really enjoying one modality of learning and teaching, like video, but you really don't like reading textbooks, you know, reading a textbook could be shorter, but it'll feel like much longer. So, it's all relative. 

 

Then the second is it's great that that PA program did not accept you because obviously you've had quite an impact on the world and also on yourself and your family's life because of that. There's this song I share with some of my advisees. I was a pre-medical advisor for some years back in business school called This by Darius Rucker, who was the front man of Hootie and the Blowfish. He has a very unique voice. It's a great, great song. I’ll put a plug in for it for any of our audience listening because many of the people in our audience certainly can relate to having a plan A that didn’t work out. As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”  So, they had this plan A, it didn't work out and they went to plan B, which wound up being way better or plan D or plan Z...whatever it may be. Maybe we'll drop a link in the podcast notes so This by Darius Rucker because it is all about that, right? I'm really happy I didn't get this or didn't get that because it led to my life now, which is pretty good.

 

Ari: Yeah, yeah. It's just the analogy of life, right? And really it wasn't so much that I wanted to be a PA per se, it’s that I just always had this desire that I wanted to have an impact and that I wanted to help people. I just loved helping people. I felt like that would be something that would make me happy and it would be something noble. And so, whatever you want to call it put me in this position where I get to still do that thing, but instead of helping one person at a time within the context of healthcare, I get to help tens of thousands of people that I'll never know. 

 

To me, that's the thing that just makes me so passionate and why I can do this job and be very animated at times, maybe some people would say -- or you can put another word in there -- but I wake up every morning and I'm just so excited to get into the office. There's never been a day since I've started this company where I want to do something else or I'm bored. It just never happens. It's actually the opposite.

 

Shiv: That's awesome. So, you've indicated how far you guys have come with a couple of hundred academic licenses, tens of thousands of people trained. That's where you've come from, where you are. Where are you going? Like, when you close your eyes and think about the next couple of years for Clover Learning what do you see? You mentioned computer tomography as one example. We just had the CEO of Prenuvo on the podcast, which is direct-to-consumer, whole body MRI scanning, so I know radiography is burgeoning. Sonography has replaced the stethoscope. There's a lot of need for not just new people to be trained as techs, but also for an average NP or PA or MD to up their game in terms of radiography. So yeah, where are you guys going?

 

Ari: Yeah, that's a great question and if we were doing this call probably four months ago, I don't know if I could have given you that answer, but I've always had a big vision for this company. I always kind of equate entrepreneurship with walking down this path and there's like a lot of fog and sometimes you can only see a couple of steps ahead of you and then sometimes you go left or you can go right and then there's fog and you don't really know what you're doing. 

 

We kind of had one of those moments a month or two ago where we were saying, well, look, there's one direction that we can go because obviously the majority of our customers -- both from a direct-to-consumer and from the business-to-business point of view -- these are diagnostic imaging people, so maybe it would make a lot of sense for us just to be very narrow within diagnostic imaging and go very deep, cover all the modalities and all the adjacent fields or whatnot. We still might kind of do that to an extent, but I think that's not big enough for what we can do. 

 

So, what we're doing right now for the diagnostic imaging students and professionals is what we want to do generally for all allied health. And so that looks like the medical assistants, that looks like the phlebotomy, EKG, pharmacy tech, dental hygienist, because at the end of the day, it's all kind of the same, right? Now, a lot of the video-based stuff that we do does lend itself to diagnostic imaging because it's a lot of physics and ‘how does the x-ray tube work and how does other stuff work?’ When you get into the non-imaging stuff, it's kind of more about synthesizing a lot of information. But I feel that the students are all the same, right? Because they're just like me. I don't want to read books and I don't think they want to. With the advent of cell phones and TikTok -- everyone says it so much, it's like the refrain from this generation -- everyone's attention spans are very, very short and I think that's true. 

 

So, we've kind of been able to build and hone this thing and I think it could be very impactful and really help serve a lot of these other markets to do the same thing that we're doing. I know that's a long answer, but essentially that's our plan. We have what we call a five-tier strategic plan and that strategic plan essentially is create stuff for diagnostic imaging, sell it to diagnose, create stuff for computed tomography and create stuff for non-imaging allied health. Then, we want to do prerequisite stuff ...so, help people before they even get into a lot of these programs. And then we want to create a non-medical product. So, really it’s about Clover Learning becoming the gold standard of online training and certification exam prep, both for medical and non-medical.

 

Shiv: Yeah, it's definitely a big vision. I think a lot of successful companies started out with one niche and then they kind of grew from there. Amazon obviously started out just selling books and there's a whole great book about that story called One Click, about how Jeff Bezos was very strategic in deciding books over everything else and then sequentially added things and then obviously built these other products to support the core business. Amazon Web Services was a huge cost line for them that they turned into a major revenue line and driver of Amazon's growth. So, yeah, core business strategy. I'm curious, how did you choose the name Clover Learning?

 

Ari: So, the original products and the original name of the company was called RadTechBootCamp and that's what a lot of people still know us as. So, if anyone gets on social media and they put in RadTechBootCamp and you want to see people talking about us, that's typically what we're known by just because I didn't have the foresight. When I started understanding that we wanted to get into other modalities and we wanted to do other things, then having a name RadTechBootCamp just didn't make sense anymore because if you're doing computer tomography or you're doing MA and you're called RadTechBootCamp, well, that just doesn't make sense. 

 

So, I was thinking, okay, I need to create a brand that all these things would go under. I can't remember the exact thing, but I know I was looking at some dictionary app or something online and one of the definitions of a cloverleaf, in the context of a highway interstate, is that they allow you to change direction without coming to a complete stop and I really liked that. I really liked that analogy. 

 

So, we were Cloverleaf Learning and funny enough, one of my kids was in class with another child and that child's father was a patent lawyer or a trademark lawyer or something and we were just talking. I was like, ‘Hey, I want to get the name trademarked.” And basically he came back and he's like, “There's actually a Cloverleaf University.” And I was like, ‘Well, does that matter?’ He's like, “Well, they could possibly sue you and take all your assets.” I was like, “Okay, what about clover learning?” He's like, “Oh, you can do that.” So, there you go. That's the story.

 

Shiv: That's an awesome story. I didn't realize that you don't have to stop to change direction. You can keep going and keep that momentum up. 

 

Ari: If you see our logo and you look closely, they're actually cloverleaves.

 

Shiv: Yeah, I wasn't sure if it was, you know, ‘good luck’ like four leaf clover or something like that...serendipity. But I think it applies to both. I like that. It's always good to get in the mind of someone, an entrepreneur and founder. I wanted to ask as well...we want to skate where the puck is going. 

One thing we've spoken about before that I'd love for you to be able to share with our audience is just how you think about AI. Generative AI has been all the rage for a year now and even before then, and it applies in two ways: one is how do you think about it as you're building your own company? Like, are you using AI? Are there any things you're experimenting with?; number two is we're all training healthcare professionals and curricula at schools tend to lag behind what the practice of healthcare actually is, right? There's no real courses on value-based medicine when you're a med student, but clearly that's becoming more and more popular as a percentage of GDP for healthcare. 

 

A lot of the people you're training are going to be initially in radiography and there’s been a lot of discussion about how AI can help make radiographers more accurate, more efficient, reduce diagnostic error, et cetera. So, how do you think about it both as you build a company and then how do you think about it for the audience that you're training who are approaching the workforce?

 

Ari: I think it's very easy to connect the dots and know that AI is going to touch everything and it's going to change everything. It's already moving quite fast. But if you look out within the time horizon of maybe three to five to ten years, I think it's going to completely change everything in terms of the large language models getting better. I think large language models becoming proprietary is probably going to be the next big thing that happens. Because right now, if you're going to ChatGPT and Bard and all that, that's essentially just indexing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of pages of internet. So, if you're a student -- whether you're a medical student or radiography or whatever -- and you're using ChatGPT, there's still a very high likelihood that you're going to get hallucination so it's not anything that I would really recommend anyone using as a study tool per se, because it's just not there yet, right? 

 

But when large publishers or other companies begin introducing their own large language models -- either through API technology or you just go on their website...I think Khan Academy is kind of the first that's doing this -- I think it's going to change significantly. And when those things start getting put in natively into diagnostic imaging equipment, or within PACS or even dictation, like the EMR systems, I think it's just going to be ubiquitous. I'm definitely not smart enough to tell you what it's going to look like, but I can definitely say I think anybody would be very naive not to think that it's going to kind of be everywhere, just like how the internet was everywhere. 

 

You know, when I was first started working in hospitals it was at this weird intersection when there were still paper charts. You had to go find the chart and all that stuff and I was at that same hospital when they migrated to a full electronic medical record system. So, I remember when charts went away. I think you're going to have that same thing. People will remember before AI and then after, when AI becomes integrated into all those things.

 

Shiv: Yeah, no, it's an exciting time regardless. We're trying to think about how to prepare our students for the future by doing some content and doing these podcasts to talk about AI so at least they're aware of the things that are happening. But ideally in the future, we’ll be able to actually incorporate some of that training into the courses and videos we develop. You can imagine personalizing a lot of videos based on people's primary languages, based on the accents they like in the videos, but then also personalizing it based on the types of patients they're going to be seeing, right? 

 

So, if someone trained in the Southwestern US, there's certain infectious diseases that only appear there. Or in the Northeast, Lyme disease is far more common than in California. So anyways, very cool. I hope to jive with you on some of these things, because it's not a static conversation. This is something that's going to affect us, as you said, for the foreseeable future.

 

Ari: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Shiv: I only have two other questions for you. What advice do you want to give our audience, and frankly, your audience too, about approaching their careers in healthcare, or to those who are interested in entrepreneurship?

 

Ari: That's a hard question, because those are two totally different kind of things. I would say in terms of healthcare -- I can only speak from my own experience -- if you're doing it just because you're looking for a job that you probably have a low likelihood of losing because of microeconomic things, such as, you know, your company going out of business or something, or a recession, I would say probably you want to think twice about getting into healthcare. I think healthcare is for a specific type of person. I think you have to be a person who, first and foremost, just likes people and likes to help people, because it's a very, very challenging job. 

 

Now, again, I was lucky that I was already out before COVID hit, so I can only imagine what it's like now, post-COVID, and having such a shortage within nursing and other physicians and things like that. So, that would really be my only advice. If one of my kids came to me and said, they wanted to be a doctor or an X-ray tech, or a nurse or something, I would just say that's great, it's a great profession. But you just have to understand that it's going to be a very, very hard job. And also, hospitals never close. So, if you want to work at a hospital, just know they never close so be prepared to work nights, weekends, holidays, and things of that nature.

 

Shiv: Yeah, that's great advice. And how about for the founders?

 

Ari: Oh, gosh, that's a whole different podcast in and of itself. I would say, if you could do anything else, probably do that. It's not for the faint of heart. Again, it's the same advice. I take entrepreneurship very differently than a lot of people. I don't look at this as a way to make a lot of money. I'm really just driven by impact. I think entrepreneurship is something you should not go into lightly, because if you take the time -- and in many cases, people's money -- and you're convincing people to leave a job and come work for you, and you're convincing people to spend their money because you're going to give them a product or service, that's something that you have to really understand. There's a stewardship with that, and then there's a weight, and then there's a sacrifice. You should really be able to understand that if you end up creating a company and it becomes successful, that there's a lot of things you're going to sacrifice and Shiv, I can imagine with your journey with Osmosis, you've had a lot of sleepless nights. I would guess there's probably been some tears shed when nobody's looking. But that's all part of the game. 

 

Shiv: I've cried in front of my team and board members! Sometimes tears of joy, sometimes tears of sorrow. But yeah, that's good advice. I agree. A lot of it is glorified. It's like that iceberg analogy, that people only see the tip when you actually make it, or sell the company, or have a couple of million users or something like that. But all the stuff below the surface that got you there -- the failed contracts, the teammate issues, having to fire somebody for the first time -- yeah, it's a lot. So yeah, don't take it lightly and don't over glamorize it. But it also, as you said, is a great opportunity to be your own boss, to basically change the world in the way you see fit, even if it's on a very small local scale, let alone a large scale. So, I think that's great. And again, you're walking proof of that.

 

Ari: Yeah, I appreciate that. And with all that said, this is the easiest time than ever before to do it. It's not that entrepreneurship means that you have to have this big company with employees and all this stress. Anybody with an Apple computer and a credit card or a little bit of money can build something and sustain themself. When I was first starting this company, I had a good buddy who used to live in Louisville. He ended up moving. He has a really good kind of lifestyle business and we would always meet and have coffee, and I told him like, “Oh man, you need to do this, and you should hire these people, and you should do this.” One day he goes, “Ari, why would I want to do any of that? That sounds horrible.” The way I'm wired, I couldn't understand why he's not trying to scale this thing and do all this stuff and he's like, “Dude, I just like to hang out in my garage and do these things and have my wife and maybe one other person do customer support. I have this great life. I get to do what I want.” And now looking back, I'm like, maybe he was the one who was right, after all this. So yeah, there's a spectrum. There's levels to entrepreneurship as well.

 

Shiv: Yeah, I agree. We had Justin Welch on this podcast a couple months ago. He was talking a lot about ‘solopreneurship.’ He had done the VC health tech executive route and now his commitment is to help people to become solopreneurs, to have their own tech side hustles, and still be masters, not just of their vision, but masters of their time. Because I think that's the big thing. If you're an employee for someone, or even if you're a founder, you think that you'll have a lot of time. Nah, you don't have time. You have tons of stakeholders and customers angry. You've got to be the one to hop on, because if you aren't, if you delegate some of those really important things, it just won't be that successful. 

 

So, yeah, we could jam for hours on this, and I look forward to more conversations around it. But my last question for you for this particular podcast...is there anything else you want our audience to know about you, about Clover Learning, about healthcare education or healthcare in general that you want to leave our audience with?

 

Ari: Man, I wish I had some great nugget of truth, or something I could blow your audience away with. Unfortunately, it’s a Friday at 3:15 here, so there's not much left in the tank. I'll say that as someone who's listened to your podcast and been following Osmosis, I just think the work that you all are doing is really helpful and inspiring for a company like us. Obviously, we're doing something a little different, but yeah, I just think there's so many resources out there, and the internet is such an incredible place. Really, my kind of thing is that there's no excuse. The days of saying like, oh, well, I didn't go to a good school, or you went to whatever the thing is...those excuses are really gone now. Every smart person in the world, no matter if you want to create an ed tech startup, or you want to do solar or whatever, the smartest people in the world are spilling their guts on podcasts every week. They're writing books, they're writing blog posts, they're on X, which was Twitter. It's like all the information is out there, right? And so I think it's one of those things, regardless of what you want to do. Really, to me, it all has to do with curiosity. If you can become a curious person, I really don't think there's any stopping you or anyone from the thing that they want to do.

 

Shiv: That is awesome. That's great advice. It reminds me, I think somebody was saying if knowledge was the limiting factor, everyone would have a six pack and be a billionaire. It's really not knowledge, because the knowledge is out there as you've said. It's really about applying that knowledge, building the habits and the systems, and there's some luck. There's obviously a lot of luck when it comes to certain outcomes where you can control the inputs, but not the outcomes. So, that's very valuable advice because I think a lot of our audience are interested in these alternative careers, turning their healthcare degrees into successful companies like you've done. 

 

And so, with that, Ari, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to be on this podcast, but more importantly, for the work that you've been doing to, as we say, raise the line and strengthen our healthcare system and train tens of thousands of healthcare workers and many more to come.

 

Ari: Thanks, man. I really appreciate it.

 

Shiv: I'm Shiv Gaglani. Thank you to our audience for checking out today's show and remember to do your part to raise the line and strengthen our healthcare system. We’re all in this together. Take care.