Aneela Idnani Kumar experienced subconscious hair pulling for more than 20 years, after one severe session Aneela’s husband, Sameer saw Aneela without her eyebrows. From that moment on, the life and business partners decided to find a way to help Aneela out of this trance-like behavior. In this episode of Shopify Masters, we chat with Aneela about her business journey of launching HabitAware to create wearable technology that can help the 1 in 20 Americans who live with hair pulling, skin picking, and nail-biting.
- Store: HabitAware
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommendations: Grapevine (Shopify app)
United by purpose: building a business with multiple founders
Felix: You and your husband developed this product to address a personal paint point that you’ve struggled with. Can you tell us more?
Aneela: Since childhood, I’ve had a condition where I pull out my hair. It's essentially a coping mechanism. It's very trance-like. I didn't realize I was doing it. It served the purpose of providing a sense of relief, a sense of self-soothing. I continued to do it as my go-to mechanism to combat stress, anxiety, nervousness, tiredness, boredom, and it just became something that I was also ashamed of because it felt a little weird that I was doing this to myself. I didn't realize until my 20s that it was actually a mental health condition, but I still hid it for a really long time because of that shame that I had felt.
A couple of years ago my husband, Samir, caught me without eyebrows, and we set out on a journey to simply hack nights and weekends with two other friends of ours, who are now our co-founders, John and Kirk, to make something that would work for me. When we realized that it was working, we said we have to take this to other people in the community who have not just hair-pulling, but skin-picking and nail-biting behaviors that they want to get a hold of.
Felix: You mentioned this is something a lot of people struggle with. Did you find any feasible solutions or remedies that already existed in the market?
Aneela: Honestly, our aha moment came when I was sitting on the couch after my husband now knew that I had this condition and I was pulling out my eyebrows and he gently grabbed my hand. And that was the aha moment of, "Oh, if I just had something that notified me." Of course, he took to the internet, tried to find something because it was in the early days of Fitbits and Apple watches. We thought, "Okay, something has to exist," but we couldn't find anything. So we said, "Okay, let's give this a try. Let's see if we can make this." So that was the first thing, "Does this exist?" And then when we realized it didn't exist, we said, "Well, why not us?"
Felix: What did your product development look like, in the very early stages? What was involved in creating the product?
Aneela: The very first thing, before diving into code or hardware, PCB manufacturing, we went to Michaels and we bought these big jangly bracelets. The idea was to test this hypothesis: if I know that my hands are near my eyebrows, will I change my behavior? The idea was, as soon as my hands went up, these bracelets would jingle and jangle and wake me up. It was working. Obviously, I'm a hand talker and I type a lot for work. I was working in the advertising industry at the time. They were going off more than they needed to, but they were doing its job of alerting me.
That gave us this confidence that, "Okay, if I'm aware, then yes, I can take that moment of pause to choose something healthier." Then we moved to, "Okay, now can we build something technical?" That’s where John and Kirk came in as our technical co-founders. To develop the smart bracelet, the algorithm and gesture detection, as well as the app which Samir was involved in the math around the algorithm and I was part of the app design process as well.
Felix: There are some heavy technical components with this product. What is everyone’s background?
Aneela: I have a background in advertising, graphic design. I was working in client management and digital production. So really managing projects. John is a hardware engineering, PhD. Kirk has been a lifelong CTO. He always jokes that his first computer was built when he was in kindergarten. Samir is all over the map in terms of things that he can handle, the MBA, hedge fund management and finance as well as applied physics. He runs the gamut across everything that we do, as our CEO as well.
Felix: Definitely a powerhouse of a team to start a business. These technical co-founders, John and Kirk, how did you guys link up with them?
Aneela: We were lucky to be in Minneapolis, which has a huge, vibrant and supportive tech community. We started going to meetups. I started making friends with the community. We had moved here in 2011 for work. That was the way we said, "Oh, we're going to make friends. We're going to make friends with people who are like-minded." We started going to tech meetups and started making friends. As we came up with this idea, I started telling my friends, "This is what I'd like to work on. Do you know anyone that can help?" People just started introducing us to other people through events, and that’s how we met John and Kirk.
Felix: Addressing the technical aspect of creating a product can be tricky. How did you know when you had found the right fit for you and the business?
Aneela: It’s very important to think about building these business relationships in the same way that you would build a personal relationship. You wouldn't sign a marriage license with someone you just met. In the same way, you shouldn't be signing equity agreements. It's really about hacking nights and weekends, seeing how you guys gel as a team, who's showing up, who's not showing up, and just seeing, "Can we work together as a team? Can we create something that works?" All of that plays a role and gives insight into how you work as a team and how well you work as a team.
That’s what we did. Throughout this entire process, we've been continuously testing and iterating, building our knowledge base, and building our relationships until the point where it was like, "Okay." We were accepted into a hardware accelerator program in Shenzhen, China, which is the manufacturing capital of the world. That was the moment of, "Okay, it's now or never. We got to quit our day jobs. We got to go give this a shot." All four of us, by that point having worked maybe about a year, nights and weekends together, were like, "Yeah, let's do this. We see this is promising." At that point, we had had some beta testers show interest and excitement that it was working for them. And we said, "We have to at least try."
"It’s very important to think about building these business relationships in the same way that you would build a personal relationship."
Felix: What was the biggest takeaway from working closely with different people who have areas of expertise? I’m sure there have been some diverging opinions over the years.
Aneela: One thing that's definitely important is we all had some connection to the problem we were trying to solve. Whether it was very, very personal for me. Samir seeing a loved one and our other, both John and Kirk, seeing people in their family had similar conditions. That passion and that drive always helped mitigate any tension that there might have been in the actual process of building this product, if that makes sense. Ultimately, it's all about the customer that we're trying to serve and the problem that we're trying to solve for people.
It’s a saving grace that we all cover these different quadrants of the building, the development and the marketing process. That we’re all experts in our fields in a sense, but then we all look to each other for input, insight, and feedback to make sure that things are working correctly. That’s been what's worked so well. It’s that we take each other's opinions, and we roll with them, and we try to use that information to improve the product knowing that our customer is that final idol that we keep in our mind of, "This is who it's all for."
Why every start-up should find an accelerator program in their space
Felix: You mentioned you got into an accelerator. What stage were you at by this time in terms of product development?
Aneela: By that point, we had actually gone to a mental health non-profit conference and had pre-sold about 50 units to people who had seen very rudimentary prototypes but were so excited by what they saw. They were ready and willing to say, "Yes, I'll give you my credit card information in hopes that you ship this product to me," at a date that we couldn't even estimate at that point. When we got into HAX, we told those 50 families that we were almost ready to ship to them. We said, "You know what? We want to go through this program because we want to make sure we're giving you the best product possible." We told them that their product was going to be free because they were obviously going to have to wait much longer than they had anticipated.
Everyone was on our side. They were all so excited. These were people that we had now met in person. We knew their names, we knew their faces, they knew us. We call our customers Keen family because that's what it feels like. We go to this conference every year, with the exception of this year because of COVID, and it's like coming home. Our goal is to do right by our Keen family. That was in the moment of having these people backing us and supporting us on this journey was awesome to have. And that's what kept us going.
Felix: Can you tell us a little bit about that pre-sale product. What price point were you selling at? How similar was it to your current product?
Aneela: That initial bracelet was a 3D printed casing and inside it was our microchip. Then it was just a watch strap that you can order off of Amazon. It was very, very, very much a prototype that we shared with them in person. They put the bracelet on, we let them train it for their behavior. They'd feel that vibration, their eyes would light up and say, "Oh my gosh." Doctors were coming up to us saying, "We've been waiting for something like this." People were ready to take that home with them. And we're like, "No, no, no, no, no, this is a 3D printed. This is just a test." They were so excited.
We tried to iterate on that a little bit before we delivered. Then when we got into HAX, we realized, "Oh, we can make this a real product." The HAX process really got us connected into the manufacturing flow of both hardware and the silicone strap that we created. The ultimate product looks just like an activity tracker. It's meant to blend in. So you don't have to talk about these issues if you don't want to. You can just say, "It's my activity tracker." We call it the hug on the wrist that just reminds you of where your hands are so that you can take control. That was the process of taking customer input throughout this whole process to make sure that we were putting out the product that people wanted.
Felix: Do you remember any feedback that you got from these conferences on that initial prototype that really influenced the direction you were going with the development and marketing of the product?
Aneela: At that conference specifically, we actually had a few image options of, "What would you like this bracelet to look like?" That was how we landed on, "Okay, let's try to do something discrete and sporty." We tested pricing as well because it was such an early stage of pre-order. That conference special was like $99 or something, very introductory pricing. Retail now on our site is 149. We learned a lot. Through this process we also worked with doctors and clinical researchers in the space, we got insight into correct user flow and user experience by taking input from them about how the app should interact with the bracelet and things like that. It was very helpful.
Felix: So at the one year mark you flew out to Shenzhen for the accelerator?
Aneela: Yeah. It was an incredible experience. We took our three-year-old son and found an English-speaking daycare and we made it work. We both wanted the experience of being out there and the education of being out there. It was just phenomenal. HAX was an extension of our team in terms of marketing, graphic design, industrial design, mechanical engineering, and then the connections to manufacturing partners was just invaluable.
Felix: Tell us more about this. How long did this program last?
Aneela: It was a three-month program. It was basically, every 30 days, their goal was for us to have something new to show them from a marketing perspective, from a hardware and design perspective, a product design perspective. We were just hustling and moving really, really fast, but we were able to do that because we had their safety net. We had their team to support us in the industrial design of the bracelet, for example. So shifting from that 3D printed generic watch strap designed to a beautifully designed smart bracelet, sporty looking, just something that can easily be on a shelf at Best Buy was because of their guidance.
Felix: What were some of the biggest advantages of joining that accelerator?
Aneela:Obviously, one of the things is funding. But really, it's this extension of their team filling the gaps that we didn't have from an industrial design perspective. The mechanical engineering, helping us get to manufacturing ready, and the relationships that they helped us build and connect with people in China where we produce our product.
Felix: Can you think of any reasons why someone might take pause when considering whether to join an accelerator in their industry?
Aneela: I can't think of one. I don't think it's a question of, "Do I go to an accelerator or not?" I think it's a question of, "Which accelerator do I go to?" "Which one is the best fit for me at my stage of business or idea," more than anything. And knowing upfront and trying to understand upfront, what is the value that that accelerator provides beyond just the funding. It’s really the knowledge and the relationships, that really help. Obviously funding is helpful because it helps you pay for all the prototyping and all that other stuff, but if you don't have the plan to do all of that other stuff then the money in the bank doesn't really help. You know what I mean? There are good accelerators out there and there are not so great ones. It’s more so what's right for you. Identify as an entrepreneur what gap you need to fill and try to find an accelerator program that helps fill that.
"Identify as an entrepreneur what gap you need to fill and try to find an accelerator program that helps fill that."
Felix: Is it easy to tell which accelerators are going to be the best fit to help you fill that gap?
Aneela: There are a lot of accelerators now in the US and they're usually pretty focused on a particular vertical. It should be doable in terms of if you're building something in hardware or if you're building something that's sass, or if you're building something that's like a toy-related. There’s so many niche accelerator programs out there now. Even regional, like looking in your own backyard to see what's available. Your government might have many accelerator programs, or co-working spaces might have programs.
There's also a lot of accelerator programs now dedicated to diverse background founders to help encourage entrepreneurship for folks of those walks of life. I'm saying all this, because I know and see what's happening in Minneapolis with some of these programs. My hope is that other cities are following suit in that respect of supporting the community.
Felix: You mentioned a key benefit of accelerators being knowledge and relationships. Was that handed to you once you got there, or did you have to really put in some work?
Aneela: Take our bracelet. We help you build awareness of your hands, but what do you do with that awareness? That's yourself taking stock of what's happening and learning to replace the behavior and doing that work. It’s the same thing with going to an accelerator or going to a day job or going to anything. You are going to get out of it, what you put in. It’s absolutely trying to figure out what are the right questions to ask these people, who have seen company after company after company go through their program.
It's about really looking within yourself and saying, "Okay, what are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? What do I know? What don't I know? What do I need to know?" And trying to solve those things for yourself. Also recognizing you don't have to have all the answers. That’s where you know you need to build your team. An accelerator program, they're going to give you access to people, access to partners and employees, access to a workshop where you can cut and sew and all this other stuff, but if you don't step foot in the door... All they can do is open the door, you have to step through.
Felix: How did you transition as a business out of the accelerator program, taking this knowledge and going off on your own?
Aneela: The whole goal of the accelerator program is to culminate in a demo day, which also corresponds to a pre-order campaign. It's your launch essentially. You’re working for these three months, every moment of the day, even probably in your sleep to get to this point of being able to turn on a website and say, "Here is what we've built. Here is why we built it. Come join our Keen family." For that, that was our pre-order campaign. We spent the next year wrapping up the actual manufacturing process before we were able to deliver. Our first Keen1 deliveries actually started in 2017. Now we've been in the market for about three years. It's been really exciting to actually see the progress and the change that we've been able to empower in people's lives.
Transparency: the key to launching a successful pre-order campaign
Felix: What was involved in this pre-order campaign?
Aneela: We set up a pre-order site on our own website and we did Facebook advertising to essentially capture people's interest and email addresses so that we had a database of around 3 to 5,000 people, ahead of the actual pre-order launch. Then we just nurtured them. We took them along on this journey at HAX of, "We're in China, and here's what we're doing," and sending them photos of prototypes. They got a feel for what we were doing on the technology side. Also, sharing my story and things like that. Then on launch day we could say, "Orders are open."
That’s how we got our initial set of orders, as well as doing more Facebook advertising to people, as well as working with a major nonprofit to help amplify what we were doing. That nonprofit that I mentioned before the mental health conference. Asking them to share our launch via email which they did, which was obviously another way to build awareness of the launch.
Felix: Do you have any advice for working with online advertising as a company in the health and medical field?
Aneela: It's definitely a bit trickier, because you can't go straight for specific keywords for example. But there's enough. If you know enough about your consumer by building relationships with them through your email marketing, through your Instagram Messenger, or seeing what else they’re doing on Instagram, you can start to get a sense for their persona as a whole and then start identifying your demographic and what else they could be interested in. For us, if we're talking to people with skin-picking, nail-biting and hair-pulling behaviors, then we can guess that, "Okay, they're probably interested in things like hair care, skin care and nail care as well." Play around what else is going on in their mindset that you can access through these advertising platforms.
Felix: During that pre-order phase, where were you driving all the traffic?
Aneela: That was driving to a pre-order page. We took credit card information, delivery information, and kept them through our emails, kept them on our journey of development so that they knew where we were. They knew the hurdles we were facing, they knew the challenges, but they also knew the celebratory moments as well.
Felix: Through that pre-order phase, did you have an idea of when you would be able to fulfill those orders?
Aneela: We had a good inclination of when we were going to ship, but you cannot control everything. Unfortunately, that year there were a few typhoons in the cities where our manufacturing partners were, and that pushed out their manufacturing schedules, which then pushed into Chinese New Year. Which is when China shuts down for a good month or so. No matter how much planning you do, you can't control everything. That's why it's important to take your customer on the journey with you. If you tell them, "We're going to ship by this date," and you don't talk to them until that date, and on that date, you have to say, "Oh, actually we're not shipping that day." They're going to be so mad.
If you take them on this journey and ahead of that date, say, "Hey, this is what's just happened. We could not predict this. We're very sorry. Here's our new game plan of how we're going to make this right for you," you get less upset people. You get more cheering you on and saying, "Thank you so much for keeping us in the loop. And we can't wait." It’s important as a business to remember that you're still human and they're still human. And to keep that sense of humanity as you try to sell a product. We’ve lost that a little bit in our world of e-commerce. You click a button and you expect something to be delivered in 24 hours and you forget that there are actually people behind all of that. So that's part of my M.O. is to make sure that people remember there are people behind all that.
Felix: What advice do you have for others who are running a pre-order campaign for a product that’s not at the fulfillment stage, without overpromising?
Aneela: One thing to remember is, you know what you want and what you expect out of your product, but your customer may not. To your point of overpromising, don't overpromise, because then that locks you in a corner. It's better to underpromise and overdeliver. That way you really keep your customer engaged, excited, happy, and thankful that you went above and beyond." It really is all about this journey of taking people on a journey with you. People want to be a part of something. They want to feel a connection.
If you can do that and tell a story, not just your story, but their story of how your hard work now is going to pay off for them later and help them with whatever your product is helping them solve, whether it's bringing them a moment of joy or helping them build awareness of their hands. Whatever it is, you're making this product because it does something for someone. It solves some sort of problem for them. As long as you just keep that connection, you'll be building such a loyal customer base that even when things do go wrong, they're cheering you on. They’re jumping on social media when they see someone say something negative and they say, "Oh, no, you should actually talk to the founder. They helped me, blah, blah, blah," kind of thing, where they become your advocates.
"Don't overpromise, because then that locks you in a corner. It's better to underpromise and overdeliver. That way you really keep your customer engaged, excited, and happy."
Felix: What kind of things are you emailing them, when you’re trying to keep them in the pre-order loop? What level of frequency and communication do you maintain?
Aneela: Yeah. For the last three years, I’ve been doing what I call “wear your awareness Wednesday.” I put out one newsletter a week. That's it. I also don't want to cloud people's inboxes. On social media, we're a little bit more active where we'll jump into conversations with people and offer encouragement and nurture our own channel as well. My emails are not always, "Here's Keen. Buy now." This Wednesday's email was literally, "I just want to check in on you. 2020 has been crazy. And I just want to check in to see how you're doing. And here's the two things that are working for me."
I don't expect everyone to write back to me, but I got three to five emails back saying, "Thank you. Thank you for checking in because it's been hard." I went back and forth with a few of those people and that's it. And that's it. That’s all you have to do to connect. Just be honest and be truthful of what's happening and show that you are human, show that you are imperfect, in order to build that connection.
Felix: One thing you mentioned was a post-purchase questionnaire. Tell us more about that.
Aneela: We use the Grapevine Shopify app integration, and we just ask one question post-purchase, which is, "How did you hear about Keen?" Because that's one of the biggest things, is how are people finding out about us? We do Facebook advertising, we do Google advertising, and it's still interesting to know that word of mouth is still primarily one of our methods of people finding us. I also did a TEDx Talk in 2019, people are finding that and then finding us. It's always good to know where people are finding you. Then you know, oh, if it's Google Ads, "Okay." Then as a business owner you should be pumping more ads out or putting more dollars behind that. Or if it's things like the TEDx, for example, "Well, maybe I should run ads linking straight to the TEDx," things like that, so that people are seeing it in other places other than just finding it through a search on YouTube.
Felix: Has this new knowledge led to any actions you want to take or have taken with your marketing strategy?
Aneela: Yeah. For example with the TEDx, we're running an ad similar to that. With the word of mouth, we're looking to see, "Okay, well, how can we nurture our Keen family.” As I said, people feel a lot of shame for these conditions. They don't want to talk about them. They're willing to talk about them in online groups that are closed and safe and everyone's in it together. So how can we encourage them to share us beyond that. That’s our next question mark that we're looking at. Right now we're working to launch Keen2, and then my next thing is, "Okay, how do we nurture this word of mouth? How do we build loyalty and how do we nurture our most loyal Keen family to try to encourage them to share us more?"
Felix: Tell us a little bit about Keen2, and the process of developing a new version of your product.
Aneela: In 2018, we received a research grant from the NIH to improve our algorithm and to digitize some evidence-based treatments for these conditions. So we are launching Keen2 which allows our gesture detection to be more refined as well as a completely new mobile app that really helps a person through this behavior change process. Our plan is to launch very soon. We've been sharing out and seeding it on social media. We've been mentioning it on our newsletters. So people know Keen2 is coming. We’ll be introducing it and asking people again to pre-order with the intention of shipping in early 2021 to build excitement for it and start explaining how it works. We’ll use graphical elements, video elements, blog posts, which we'll be creating so that people really understand what we've changed about the product, what's different about it, what's improved, and why it's the right thing for them if they're ready to get on this journey to awareness and change their life.
Reframing no: why rejection can be a hidden blessing
Felix: A lot of entrepreneurs face failure and rejection while they’re building their company, it’s something you’ve dealt with as well. Can you tell us about the mindset you’ve taken regarding this necessary component?
Aneela: Yeah. It’s important to decide where you want to spend your energy. It’s something of a reminder that I have to remind myself of often. Seeing a review on social media or something where someone says, "Oh, it didn't work for me. Too many false alarms," for example. But then getting an email saying, "My child has a complete full head of hair." I know it works. We know it works. We can see it work. We offer free video training calls to help people with their false alarms and things like that. With the new Keen2, I'm pretty confident that the new algorithm is going to mitigate all of that. Remember that you can't please everyone. Remember that sometimes what someone is saying is their reality, but not necessarily your reality.
Someone may say, "Oh, it didn't work for me." I can look to the right and see someone else just say, "It did work for me." It’s the same product, but two different realities. Recognizing that and recognizing that different people are willing to put different amounts of effort in. Same for investors, they're willing to put different amounts of effort or dollars or no dollars. You have to trust as well that “no” is actually a blessing. The right people are going to be guided to you or you're going to be guided to them to help you fulfill whatever your goal is.
The “no’s” are really hard, especially personally in Minneapolis when it's people, it's angel investors that you see at events that either they're hosting or you're speaking on, and then at the end of the day, they're like, "Oh no, we're not interested." Which is fine. It's good. Everyone's got their own MO. We found that by focusing on the investors and the customers that are for us, that are gung-ho from the beginning, your energy doesn't get sucked out of you, it almost gets exponential if that makes sense.
Felix: You mentioned Grapevine, and the developers you’re working with to enhance the site. Can you tell us about the changes you’re implementing on the website moving forward?
Aneela: With Shopify, we're using a template that I purchased probably ages ago. And so grandfathered in, not ready to change. Shopify itself is pretty intuitive to use. There are just minor things that you always want to tweak and make slightly better. If you don't know code it's a little bit trickier. I know some minor HTML so I can get by, but at some point, you need to bring in people who are true Shopify experts to help make the site feel more credible, more responsive, especially the desktop to mobile. I'm sitting here on a computer all day long and designing the website and it looks wonderful. And then I go to mobile and I'm like, "Ah, why is this breaking?"
It’s always helpful, once you get to a certain point, to recognize that just those little changes are going to help someone new coming to the site feel like, say, "This company is legitimate. These people are legitimate. This product is legitimate. I'm ready to make that purchase."
"It’s really about going back to the drawing board and better understanding the people, the problem, and the lifestyle so that you're building the correct product."
Felix: What opportunities do you see in the wearable technology space moving forward for anyone else that might be interested in this space?
Aneela: Wearables are really interesting for us. The way I see it is if you are trying to help a particular community solve a burning problem, then I truly believe that a single-purpose device that's just meant for that problem is the way to go because then that product is truly built for that community and with that community. That's where I see things going. Right now there's a lot of Swiss Army knives of wearables if you will. If it's a very specific issue, then I think the wearable should be built for that issue rather than trying to shoehorn something into something that already exists. I don't know. I could be wrong.
It’s not about just the bracelet. It’s really about going back to the drawing board and better understanding the people, the problem, and the lifestyle so that you're building the correct product. It may not be wearable, it may be something completely different. It may be something that sits on a desk or it may be something that's a mobile app type product. It all depends on all these other factors. It’s really important, before you start, coming up with a product idea to really understand the problem you're trying to solve.