Business Brains

Disruptor | Mitch Rothschild, Vitals

Posting in Cities

The serial entrepreneur's latest venture, Vitals, is writing a new prescription for the way U.S. consumers choose doctors or dentists.

With just a half-hour before official business hours are over, serial entrepreneur Mitchel Rothschild is running 45 minutes late for his next appointment and two people are on his waiting list.

Fortunately, his office offers many amusing diversions to ponder in the meantime.

Three different clocks vie for the right to tell the time (none has been adjusted for daylight savings time close to a week after the switchover). A poster promoting the long-defunct Standard Airlines competes for wall space across from another Asian-inspired print featuring, of all things, small blue frogs.

There aren't any magazines to skim near the sofa, but the bookshelf and coffee table are crammed with all manner of eclectic selections from the "Goodnight iPad" children's book parody to the cerebral yet folksy guide to philosophy, "Driving With Plato." Piles of PowerPoint printouts and spreadsheets crowd the credenza at the opposite end of the spacious, but modest corner office.

It is not lost on his interviewer that these are the same sorts of details that might be remarked upon and covered by Rothschild's latest venture, the Internet physician information and patient reviews resource Vitals.

The database created and cultivated by the Lyndhurst, N.J.-based Internet company offers ratings and information for every doctor and dentist in the United States – all 870,000 of them. Basically anyone that has a license and that is still in practice.

Vitals.com includes all the factual information you might expect, such as the degrees the doctor holds, his or her practice areas and the insurance plans accepted by the office. But the online resource also offers much more personal information contributed by individual patients, such as comments about the doctor's bedside manner or how long you might find yourself stuck in the waiting room.

Given the chaotic state of the U.S. healthcare system, it's little wonder more than 11 million consumers consult Vitals.com every month to search out new physicians or to check out the ones they are already using. Or that 75 percent of the people who use the site choose and visit a new doctor within 30 days.

On the day of this meeting in early November (two days after President Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term), Rothschild is mulling how provisions of "Obamacare" might affect Vitals' three-year rolling strategic plan - one he consciously reviews and updates on an annual basis. The company was founded in 2008.

"One of the things that I think good entrepreneurs do is that they absorb new information and change their perspective right away," he says. "When the Affordable Care Act was passed, that was a milestone. When the Supreme Court validated it, that changed the way things work. More than 50 percent of this country's medical care is paid for, and this is moving up. These are the sorts of pieces that you might find along the way that might make you rethink the plan."

With eight to 10 ventures to his name including snack food venture Popcorn Indiana and several local Mexican cafes, the 57-year-old Rothschild has learned a thing or two about how to manage start-ups.

Still, the success of Vitals caught him somewhat by surprise. In the past 18 months, the staff ballooned from 30 to 110 people.

That makes it tough to stay focused, Rothschild admits. Currently, Vitals generates revenue in three primary ways: by selling aggregated data from its visitors to pharmaceutical companies, by offering sponsored links that promote certain hospitals or doctors' networks, and by allowing companies to license its physician database for their own Web sites.

But the company constantly flirts with expansion ideas such as adding other types of care providers including veterinarians to its database or allying more closely with insurance companies.

Diagnosing the viability of those ideas is something that Rothschild considers one of his three primary responsibilities as CEO. He also is involved closing with hiring and defining the "soul" of Vitals.com both internally and externally. During this dreary week in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, he will visit with customers and partners in Illinois, Alabama, Colorado and New York.

"Someone once told me that there are three types of companies out there, and you need to understand which type of company you are and you need to excel at it," he says. "Those types are customer-intimate, operationally excellent, or innovative. You need to understand what you do best. We are, for sure, a customer-intimate company. Somewhere the CEO needs to represent that to the marketplace. That amounts to being a salesman and having an understanding of the company and knowing what people want."

A native New Yorker Rothschild contracted the entrepreneurial bug while a student at Queens College – he tried to open a campground in New York City but was thwarted by local regulations. After earning his MBA degree at Columbia University, however, he went to work for a big company, Time Warner. It would be several years before Rothschild got to run someone else's entrepreneurial company in a precursor to his first venture.

Although he's embarrassed to tell the story, Rothschild got the idea for Vitals.com after discovering that the doctor he chose for his own Achilles tendon surgery had far less hands-on experience than he realized. "I felt like this was information I should have known," he recalls.

His Vitals co-founder offers the medical community's point of view on creating more meaningful patient-doctor relationships: Dr. Todd Rosengart is the chief of cardiothoracic surgery at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and co-director of the university's heart center.

While it is clear that the Vitals team works long hours to deliver on its mission to transform how U.S. consumers choose their doctors, the company does offer what might be considered unusual perks such as free yoga classes, personal training sessions and company-sponsored "mud runs" – endurance races that take place over muddy, rugged course conditions.

Rothschild's daily prescription for his own health often includes an hour of Bikram yoga before he heads home to the Bronx long after the evening rush hour.

"I believe that if you are in physical shape, your attitude on life is better," he says.

Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure