Please enjoy this transcript of my conversation with Adrian Aoun, CEO and Founder of Forward. We cover why medical wearables don’t work, focusing on impact, and creating companies that can change the world. Transcripts for other episodes can be found here.
“Care deeply about the problem, not about your idea.” – Adrian Aoun
Adrian Aoun is the founder and CEO of Forward, which is building an insurance-free healthcare system focused on preventative healthcare from the ground up. Forward was founded in 2017 to invert the typical model of healthcare. Where most healthcare follows the service model, where one patient sees a single doctor only when they need care, Forward is building healthcare focused on health and preventative care. It's productized so you can use it anytime, anywhere. It's scalable so it's affordable for everyone and always on with help available through Forward's app, as well as a network of doctors' offices around the United States, which might sound like, well, how healthcare should have been all along, which is the goal.
Before founding Forward, Adrian worked as an advisor to the White House on the President's Council of Advisors on science and technology, as well as the Director of Special Projects for the CEO of Google and the founder of Sidewalk Labs. In this episode, Adrian shares why he's so fanatical about being problem-focused rather than solution-focused and how he runs problem-centric brainstorms at Forward, where the goal is to beat up on other people's ideas in the name of getting to the best ideas. What he learned working with Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt at Google, as well as the other advisors on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, why modern fitness wearables are broken, and why Adrian thinks we need to build tools to tell people what to do with that data, not just share the data with them.
Transcript – #121 Adrian Aoun of Forward: My Favorite Books, Tools, Habits and More | 20 Minute Playbook
Daniel Scrivner (00:05):
Hello, and welcome to another episode of our 20 Minute Playbook series, where each week I sit down with an elite performer from iconic founders to world-renowned investors and bestselling authors to dive into the ideas, frameworks, and strategies that got them to the top of their field all in less than 20 minutes. I'm Daniel Scrivner. And on the show today, I'm joined by Adrian Aoun, founder, and CEO of Forward, which is building an insurance-free healthcare system focused on preventative healthcare from the ground up. Forward was founded in 2017 to invert the typical model of healthcare. Where most healthcare follows the service model, where one patient sees a single doctor only when they need care, Forward is building healthcare focused on health and preventative care. It's productized so you can use it anytime, anywhere. It's scalable so it's affordable for everyone and always on with help available through Forward's app, as well as a network of doctors' offices around the United States, which might sound like, well, how healthcare should have been all along, which is the goal.
Daniel Scrivner (01:02):
Before founding Forward, Adrian worked as an advisor to the White House on the President's Council of Advisors on science and technology, as well as the Director of Special Projects for the CEO of Google and the founder of Sidewalk Labs. In this episode, Adrian shares why he's so fanatical about being problem-focused rather than solution-focused and how he runs problem-centric brainstorms at Forward, where the goal is to beat up on other people's ideas in the name of getting to the best ideas. What he learned working with Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt at Google, as well as the other advisors on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, why modern fitness wearables are broken, and why Adrian thinks we need to build tools to tell people what to do with that data, not to share the data with them and why he loves the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling and so much more.
Daniel Scrivner (01:50):
You can find the show notes and transcript for this firstname.lastname@example.org/121. It's 121. And you can learn more about Forward at goforward.com and you can also follow Adrian on Twitter at A-D-R-I-A-N-A-O-U-N. With that, please enjoy my conversation with Adrian Aoun. Adrian. Welcome back to Outlier Academy. Thank you so much for coming on this time for 20 Minute Playbook.
Adrian Aoun (02:18):
Thank you so much for having me. Excited to be here.
Daniel Scrivner (02:21):
For people that haven't listened to the other interview, which I'm going to plug at the end and which I highly encourage everyone to listen to, which is all about Forward, can you just give people a quick sketch of your background and a quick overview of what you're building at Forward?
Adrian Aoun (02:32):
Yeah. I'm a serial entrepreneur. That means I specialize in Honey Nut Cheerios. No, really, I started a bunch of different companies in the tech space, spent a little time over at Google, working with Larry on a bunch of the special projects, starting a bunch of the alphabet companies. And now, I've got a healthcare company. I'm trying to rebuild the entire healthcare system for the entire planet, all from the ground up mostly because I'm a glutton for punishment. And what we're trying to do is we're trying to get healthcare to billions of billions of people, trying to get healthcare to the people who need it most on this planet. Aside from that, I also am a fairly active angel. I'm probably in about 300 or so companies. And in my spare time... Oh wait, I don't have spare time. Yep. That's my story.
Daniel Scrivner (03:24):
That's amazing. That's an amazing overview. I want to start by asking about what you've been fascinated by recently. We talked in the last interview about your problem focus. One of the questions I always ask, I'm really excited to hear your answer is what you've been intrigued by lately. What can't you stop thinking about? It can be anything.
Adrian Aoun (03:41):
One of the things that I spend a lot of time thinking about is in Silicon Valley today, we spend an enormous amount of time working on what I like to think of as the low-hanging fruit. We always go after the problems that in some ways are the easiest, the easiest to fund, the easiest to execute. I don't know. I think the YC guys are going to hate me for saying this, but I look through the YC batch of 500 companies, and frankly, I fall asleep. I'm not saying that those companies aren't going to be real businesses. I think some of them are, but I fall asleep. In some ways, it's like where are the companies that are truly changing the world? Where are the comp... These days, you can count on one hand the Teslas and the SpaceXs the people that say, "I'm going to just go after an entire industry and change how it works."
Adrian Aoun (04:31):
And we're afraid of going after things that aren't just bits or going after the real atoms, we're afraid of things that take 10 or 20 or even 30 years, we're afraid of things that take a lot of money to go after. We're afraid of things that truly, truly impact humanity. And I think it's a bummer. Now, one of the things that I spend a lot of time thinking about is how can I take industries and make them go exponential? One of the most fascinating things about when you look at the SpaceXs and the Teslas is that they're taking industries that you don't think of as exponential industries, and they're fundamentally making them go exponential. We took rockets. Rockets were roughly going long incrementally. And now you can look at the pace of innovation and it's literally taking off. No pun intended.
Adrian Aoun (05:19):
You can look at automotive and literally, Tesla for 17, 18 years was underestimated. And then overnight, just boom starts to go exponential. At Forward, we're trying to do the exact same thing with healthcare. We ask ourselves, can we get healthcare to a billion people? Literally, Kaiser is 75 years old. They have roughly 11, 12 million users. They can be going another 500 years, they'll never get to a billion people. We ask ourselves, how can we build the first healthcare system that covers literally the entire planet? But why are we not asking ourselves this for every industry? Why does this not exist for food? Why does this not exist for education? Why are we not doing this? And this is one of the things that I think is the lost art of Silicon Valley. So I've been spending a lot of time trying to wrap my head around that.
Daniel Scrivner (06:07):
So well said. I feel like someone just needs to write a book or do a short tape on where the hell is the ambition? Why is it gone and how do we get it back? And how do we fund it and create a system that can actually push it Forward? I want to talk for a second about your superpowers. When you think about building the company, the experience, the team at Forward, you've done a bunch of incredible stuff before Forward. What do you think of as your superpowers and how have those helped you to build Forward?
Adrian Aoun (06:32):
I always hate the word superpower, because it feels like it's one of the most arrogant things you can say about yourself. But if I'm going to answer it, nonetheless, I think one of the things that I'm decent at, it's going to sound fairly obnoxious, is I'm really decent at being incredibly stubborn. There's a lot of times in my life where I believe something that nobody else around me believes. And it's really, really, really hard to know something that everybody is telling you you're wrong on, literally everybody, and say, "You know what? Kindly fuck all of you. I'm just going to keep doing it anyway. And not only am I going to keep doing it, I'm going to bet the fucking farm on it." And I'll tell you, when I started Forward, literally everybody was like, "You're wrong," on 14 different counts.
Adrian Aoun (07:23):
And the only reason we were able to raise money, I remember we went up to the who's who, the Marc Benioffs, the Eric Schmidts, the [inaudible 00:07:30], and every single one of them, "This isn't going to work. You can't get consumers to pay for healthcare. You can't operate in a regulated space. You can't get doctors to do it. By the way, we're going to give you money just because of your age, you've got a decent resume, whatever. You're going to pivot." But this is like the 17th time in my life where it's like the amount of times people have told me "Oh, what you're doing will not work." Even in Forward, we have a big project we're working on right now that we haven't announced. Right at the beginning of this project, everybody in this company was like, "No, no, this is a bad idea." Now the entire company is working on it. It's like, well hold on, what changed?
Adrian Aoun (08:02):
And one of the things is ideas are incredibly fragile. It's very, very easy for an idea to die on the vine. And so you have to have an enormous amount of conviction in your idea. I actually have another company I want to start right now that I've talked to people about for a few years. I'm not going to start it while doing Forward, but if I ever do another company, this is going to be my idea. And everybody I've talked about it says it's a terrible idea. And I'm a hundred percent convinced it's a great idea. And one of the things that's amazing to me is the amount to which I'm like, "But I know that if I go build that product, every single one of you will use that product." But think of how much... You have to have mental fortitude to bring something to bear.
Adrian Aoun (08:55):
When you think about companies, when you think about startups, an insane amount is just willing something into existence because if you can't get past literally the naysayers, it turns out that the motions, the putting your left foot in front of your right foot is not actually going to happen if you're not past your own demons in your mind. That I think is one of my superpowers. And then the second that kind of goes part and parcel with that is at some point, getting somebody to agree with you. It's like you see something that others don't see. And at some point, you need to be able to convey that. Even if you can't get somebody on day one, you need to, I don't know, draw a picture or build a prototype or get some momentum enough that others will start to see your way. And once you do, that's how you slowly start to change the world.
Daniel Scrivner (09:51):
Yeah. You sound very decent on both of those. They do sound like superpowers. I'll change the name of that. I'll change the phrasing of that question going forward. I want to talk for a second about health and, I don't know, health in general, performance boosters, maybe a little bit. And the question I want to ask was, I'm guessing... During this interview, I've been looking at, you have this ring on your finger, which I'm guessing might be an Oura ring. Clearly, Forward is a very technology-focused company. We're in an age where right now, I find it amazing, just the amount of interesting innovations that's going on, whether it's Eight Sleep or WHOOP or Oura, or a whole host of companies. What are you most excited about? And are there any supplements, wearables, products, tools that you use and love?
Adrian Aoun (10:33):
I'm going to be really annoying here and say no. And the reason is, I think they're all garbage. And I'm not trying to knock the Oura people. I actually don't think it's their fault. I think that we've created things, in an essence, in the wrong order. When you look at digital cameras from 20 years ago, digital cameras were cool. Digital cameras were awesome, but they didn't really do that much. We walked around and we took some photos. I call this the Sharper Image Era. I had a digital camera, but I actually had 17 stupid shits that I bought every Christmas. And I don't know. I bought them. I used them for a week and I threw them away. And then we got the iPhone. And the second we had the iPhone, everything changed. Now, the reason is because these things can't really live by themselves.
Adrian Aoun (11:26):
It turns out that a connected toaster is a fucking waste of my time. And this is roughly a connected toaster. And by that, what I mean is what does this do? Well, every day I wake up and I will tell you what it does. Every day, it tells me I slept terribly. No shit I slept terribly. Thank you. Now what? Well, what you really want it to do is you really want it to connect up to my doctor. You really want it to tell me what to do next, change my diet, change my exercise, help me with my mental health, change my life. But it's not. Why? Because it's not my doctor. Well, it's a little like the connected toaster without the iPhone. It's like your Nest without your iPhone. It's like your connected TV without your iPhone. It's like, at some point, I need that base that they all connect up to connect to my life. And they don't have that. There is no digital doctor. We need to create that digital doctor first. And then all these things need to plug in.
Adrian Aoun (12:29):
My watch the other day, did this really fun thing where it goes, "Your heart rate has been elevated for the last 10 minutes and you are not moving around." And I was like, first off, oh God, that's a little scary. And second off, I was like, "Now what?" And it was like, "You should do something about that." And I was like, "Really? What do you mean you should do something about that? This is the worst thing I've ever seen in my entire life." Or my watch does this thing where it records my... It's got that hearing loss thing where it's like, "You have been exposed to loud noises." Because I think I was at a club or something. And it's like, great. Now what? This is the dumbest thing I've ever seen. It's like great.
Adrian Aoun (13:09):
I don't know, hand somebody a stethoscope. Just go around and for Christmas, go get your friends stethoscopes and just be like, "Great. Now your heart is going to be better. I got you a stethoscope." No, it's not. What are you doing? This is insane. What you realize is we've done the 10% of the problem. We've given somebody a piece of data. In fact, in healthcare these days, they talk about data overload, data overload. We're giving people too much data. Yeah. It's because you forgot to build the damn product. This is absurd. My thermostat collects a million data points. It didn't give me the data. It just told me, here's what you need to do. But again, we forgot to build the doctor. So build the damn digital doctor. That's what we actually need.
Daniel Scrivner (13:52):
So well said. I hope that's the secret project that you might be working on at Forward because it's badly needed and you need to integrate all these things. It's obvious.
Adrian Aoun (14:01):
Except that it's not so secret.
Daniel Scrivner (14:03):
Yes. Yes. I'd love to talk about lessons learned for a second. Your background is fascinating. I'll just quickly recap some of the highlights you touched on at the beginning. You've been an advisor to the White House on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. You're the founder of Sidewalk Labs at Google. And you were Director of Special Projects to Larry Page who was the CEO of Google at the time, basically helping create a bunch of alphabet companies. The question I want to ask is you've clearly worked with, I think what anyone would say is an incredible cohort of people. What are some of the most interesting principles, mental models, rules of thumb? What did you pick up from some of these people?
Adrian Aoun (14:37):
Yeah. I've got a bunch. I don't know that there's any one that rules them all, but let me give you a couple thoughts. One thought is it's just as easy to work on something that's big as something that's small. I was asked, "Pretend you were going to go and say, 'I'm going to build the startup that builds a better spoon. Literally, we're just going to sell spoons. What are you going to do? Raise a couple million bucks, get a couple people in a room, work on the product for a year, ship a product.'" Okay. I'm going to work on a startup that works on reinventing all of healthcare, going to raise a couple million bucks, get some people in a room, work on a product, ship a product in a year. Look, at some point, you're going to spend a lot of hours. You're going to have a lot of fucking stress. You might as well work on something that matters. Don't work on the spoon.
Adrian Aoun (15:25):
The first thing is I just want to spend my life on things that are truly, truly impactful, things that are meaty, things that are deep. The second thing is care deeply about the problem, not about your idea. And we talked about this, but people tend to get super damn attached to their ideas, to their solutions. And I've never really understood why. It's like your idea, like whatever. It's an idea you came up with in five seconds, it's going to be wrong. You're going to ship it. You're going to ship your spoon. You're going to learn that the spoon could be better. You're going to ship V2 of the spoon. Then V3, then V17, then V49. There's going to be a lot of spoons. Don't care about your idea, care about the problem that it solves. Problems tend not to change. Why are you doing it? Do people need healthcare? Do people need spoons? Why are you in the game? Because that tends not to change for quite some time. And that's the thing that I think truly matters.
Daniel Scrivner (16:19):
Those are great. And I love how you worked spoons so heavily into all of those examples. He's the world's most amazing. I can't wait to find a founder that pitches me on a better spoon. I'd love to talk for a second about your philosophy for building a company like Forward. If you had to distill down your business and company-building philosophies, your guiding principles into just a few words, what would those be?
Adrian Aoun (16:43):
I'm not sure that it's that different than what I just said, which is everything should ladder down from the problem. Companies exist in service of a problem. We tend these days to care more about the problem. Especially in Silicon Valley, we care more about the company than the reason we created the company. In fact, you probably know tons of people are like, "I'm starting a company." "Great. What are you doing?" "I don't know. I'm working through a few ideas." "It's kind of weird. Really?" It's like, "I'm driving somewhere." "Where are you driving?" I don't know, but I'm driving somewhere. I'll let you know when I get there." "Really? That's kind of odd. I thought the point of the car was to get you to... Okay. Whatever." Why are you doing what you're doing? Start with the why, start with the problem, work backwards. If you're not doing that, frankly, you're on a fool's errand, a fool's mission. I vehemently say work backwards from the problem and stay maniacally focused on it.
Daniel Scrivner (17:39):
Well, I love that example that you shared as well too, which is the founder that's trying out 50 different ideas. And instead, just figuring out a really compelling problem that you actually want to spend 10 years and a lot of sweat and frustration and blood, sweat, and tears building. I think that's a much more interesting frame for that. I want to talk for a second about books and this one I'm going to leave super wide open. And the question I want to ask is just what books have had an impact on you? And what books do you love and recommend to others? And this could be founders, could be fiction, could be anything.
Adrian Aoun (18:13):
It's a funny thing because I don't... I'm going to say something that's going to be terrible. Really, I'm not a fan of books. I think books are... I'm a very big fan of books for entertainment. You want to read Harry Potter, read Harry Potter. Books for knowledge consumption, I think are just a highly inefficient way of consuming knowledge. You're reading in 300 pages, what you could consume in four pages. And I've always thought that to be incredibly absurd, but I'd much rather read Wikipedia. I think it's an incredibly dense, really great way to consume information. That being said, if you do want to read a book, Factfulness by Hans Rosling is one of the most amazing reads. It's incredibly easy, a nine-year-old could read it.
Adrian Aoun (18:51):
But it's a really great way to help you understand how clueless we are about the world. We have these assumptions about the state of the world that are almost entirely wrong. We have these assumptions like the vast majority of the world is living in poverty and the vast majority of the world is... And most women in third-world countries can't drive. And all this is just wrong. So it's really good at giving us perspective on where humanity is. I'd highly recommend it.
Daniel Scrivner (19:20):
That's a fantastic book and no one has recommended that. So bonus points for that one. I'll be excited to include that in the show notes. Two final questions. I want to talk about habits for a second. And this is a very tired question asking about habits and routines, but I think there's something interesting here. The way I like to ask it is what tiny habit or practice has had the biggest positive impact on your life or your performance? And it can beat anything.
Adrian Aoun (19:44):
Yeah. Okay. Well, I'm going to give you one, but it's not a tiny one, or it depends on tiny. I cycle a lot. I cycle tons. I cycle usually a couple hours every morning. And the reason that it's super-valuable is it's my version of meditation. I'm like, go, go, go. I'm on my computer every two seconds. I'm getting inbounds every five... It's one of the few times where it's like, I can't be on my phone or it's very hard, very dangerous. I cycle in the mountains and it's just you process everything in your head. You let it all go. It puts me in my happy place. And it's just fantastic. It's a great place to be.
Daniel Scrivner (20:23):
It's great, it's your version of meditation, which is moving and exerting a lot of effort and struggle and strife. Last question. If you could go back to the start of your career, start of your life, and whisper some words of advice in your ear, is there anything you would tell yourself?
Adrian Aoun (20:37):
Yeah, I would, "Buy Microsoft stock." No. What I would say is, "On your deathbed, the only thing you're going to care about in work is impact. You're not going to care about money and you're not going to care about title or career. Spend no time thinking about it. Spend no time valuing it. You're just going to care about what your life meant." I think it's very easy to get caught up... I was lucky to learn this lesson early, but I think it's very easy to get caught up in the rat race. And then you wake up and you're like, this was dumb. I just wasted a bunch of years on this shit. And it just does not matter. But what does matter is what you did with your life. That's what I would tell myself.
Daniel Scrivner (21:24):
Well, and it goes back beautifully to your previous point around, it's just as easy to work on something big as it is to work on something small. Thank you so much for the time, Adrian. This has been one of my favorite interviews. I really appreciate it.
Adrian Aoun (21:35):
Not at all. It was an absolute pleasure, man. I appreciate you having me.
Daniel Scrivner (21:39):
Thank you so much for listening to this episode. You can find the show notes and transcript at outlieracademy.com/121. It's 121. For more from Adrian Aoun, listen to Episode 118, where he joins me on our Outlier Founder Series to go deep on Forward, just building an insurance-free healthcare system focused on preventative healthcare from the ground up. Forward was founded in 2017 to invert the typical model of healthcare. Where most healthcare follows the service model, where one patient sees a single doctor only when they need care, forward is building healthcare focused on health and preventative care. It's productized so you can use it anytime, anywhere. It's scalable so it's affordable for everyone and it's always on with help available through Forward's app, any network of doctor's offices all around the United States, which might sound like, well, how healthcare should have been all along, which is the goal.
Daniel Scrivner (22:30):
And to be clear, Forward is tackling a massive problem in the United States. In 2021, healthcare spending accounted for a full 19.7% of GDP. And that number is compounding at an astounding rate of 6% to 7% year over year. Which begs the questions how is that even possible, and what happens when healthcare as a percentage of GDP rises to 30% or even 40%? Which is a likely scenario that Adrian talks through in that episode. For more on Forward, listen to Episode, 118, or visit outlieracademy.com/118. That's 118. You can find videos of all of our interviews on YouTube at youtube.com/outlieracademy. On our channel, you'll find all of our full-length interviews as well as our favorite short clips from every episode. So if you're short on time, you can always find something interesting to listen to. Make sure to subscribe. We post new videos and clips every single week. And if you haven't already, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn under the handle Outlier Academy. Thank you so much for listening. We'll see you right here with a brand new episode next Friday.
On Outlier Academy, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today.
Daniel Scrivner and Mighty Publishing LLC own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Outlier Academy podcast, with all rights reserved, including Daniel’s right of publicity.