Partners inside and out of work, Cristian Villamarin and Alanna Harvey founded Flipd, the Digital Wellness Company aimed at using technology to help us control our own usage of it. The innovative company uses behavioral economics and gamification to “engineer well-being and nudge people to be present, focused, and happy.” The app has over a million users in 100 countries, a feat that has garnered media interest from major news publications. Both Villamarin and Harvey were selected to participate in the entrepreneurial development program TechStars in 2018.
“When your phone sucks you into the void, Flipd notices.”
VINAJ: Tell us about Flipd and the drive behind it.
CRISTIAN: The idea of Flipd came when I gave my younger brother his first smartphone to stay connected. I thought it would bring us closer together. Instead, it distanced him from me and the rest of our family. Instead of taking the technology away, which we all need to be connected, I wondered how to use technology to solve this problem. I wanted to help people disconnect.
ALANNA: Over time, the idea evolved. It wasn’t just about disconnecting, but about finding time well spent. Over the last couple of years we shifted focus to help students, and now Flipd is all about celebrating productivity and time well spent. Especially now, we are really doubling down on how this impacts remote learning and remote working.
VINAJ: What is it like being both in a relationship and co-founders of a startup? How do you play on each other’s strengths but also balance walking away from work?
ALANNA: We’ve been together for ten years, and it’s been a wonderful journey of sheer dedication and commitment to success of business. We know we are both in this experience 100% - really sharing responsibilities and making sure we are fulfilling needs of the business together. Cristian is excellent in sales, networking, and investor relations where I handle product management, marketing, and operational strategy. Together I think we do a great job balancing what we are both good in and not stepping on each other’s toes. We respect which one is the best person for that role.
CRISTIAN: A start-up is not an easy journey. There are highs and lows. We are very supportive of each other and try to bring each other up when we experience a low. It’s nice to have someone who knows what those are. We live and work at home and are always strategizing together. It’s almost like we’ve been training for this situation (COVID-19 shelter in place). Now that we work from home, we don’t miss a beat.
ALANNA: Another interesting observation is that we truly value work life balance. We have to have a stoplight and I think we do a really good job knowing when our work needs to be turned off and set aside. . Tapping into a creative muscle takes stepping away from work and unplugging. It’s how we lead the team, too. We never demand people to work ridiculous hours. It’s such a silly expectation that for start-ups to scale teams, they must work crazy hours. I think COVID -19 is putting into perspective that people need balance. We practice what we preach – it’s the backbone of our business.
We are very proud of being a couple and being partners. There’s probably a good number of companies started by couples that many of us are not aware of.
VINAJ: The earliest adopters of Flipd were college students so you began targeting and marketing to college professors. Can you tell us about that strategy?
CRISTIAN: Naturally Flipd began attracting a lot of students. We asked, “Who influences this demographic?” Professors influence a lot of student decisions. Professors also don’t want to be distracted. This approach really helped with moving our direction forward. It also helped us learn what was needed early on.
ALANNA: We discovered that instructors new to teaching and excited to be educators noticed the problem of distracted students was sucking life out of their love for teaching. Professors using Flipd were typically those who thrive on student engagement and were not getting that from them. They found Flipd to make a difference with the educational experience, and our earliest customers are still customers of Flipd.
VINAJ: What has been the biggest challenge launching Flipd?
ALANNA: It’s really been about making sure we have the right people to execute vision which has taken a lot longer than we thought. Over the last two years, we developed a powerhouse group of people on our team, experts who practice what we preach as well. We couldn’t be happier with the group we have now. The hardest part for early stage companies is realizing how important early team members are.
CRISTIAN: You have to make sure all pieces work well together and find those right people. Communication is as important as planning. Good communicators are so important for us – people who can communicate what needs to get done, plan, execute, and continue to improve and iterate the product.
ALANNA: The right people make all the difference.
VINAJ: What support beyond capital do you think is needed to help scale startups?
ALANNA: The turning point for us was participating in TechStars. Going through a program like that leveled us up more than where we were before it. Techstars provided mentorship and learning we hadn’t quite had before. It was a very aggressive program. To understand why and what you are doing you have to ask: Do you have the right team or right product to execute? Do you need to pivot? Are you telling your story where others understand it? It was a very condensed amount of time (three months), and we came out completely transformed.
CRISTIAN: Beyond capital it’s important to find distribution channels to get people finding out about and using your product. Some early stage companies will want to test digital advertising early on, but that’s an easy way to burn money if the funnel economics aren’t in place. I recommend keeping things lean by carving out your own customer acquisition channel and considering “hacking” growth with things like strategic partnerships, brand ambassadors, and micro-influencers.
VINAJ: What do you think will be helpful going forward?
CRISTIAN: From TechStars we learned the power of people and networks. It forced us in a way to get mentors, advice, see what people in our network were doing, and challenge our own ideas. The more I talk to people, the more I learn. Having mentors and a network is super beneficial because they have gone through similar stages. Through our network is how we ended up with Vinaj, it didn't matter that they were in California and we were in Toronto. I always like to tell people that are starting their first company to find mentors and someone to talk to. Don’t hide and just do work. Expand your network.
VINAJ: What advice would you give someone who wanted to be a founder?
CRISTIAN: You have to be in 100% because you are not able to predict what is in the future. When you commit to being part of a team or starting something, know you have to be fully in. If you aren’t ready to do that, don’t start. It takes blood and tears. There are definitely days that are hard, and you might want to cry.
ALANNA: In terms of behavior a founder should have, in our own bias, having really healthy daily habits and routines are incredibly valuable. Any time we are stressed out about something, we go for a 10K run, and I feel really lucky this is something we can do together. Go for a run, and when you come back, whatever the problem was doesn’t seem as big of a deal.
We’ve met a lot of founders who haven’t solved their problems in the healthiest way. Our team eats lunch together every single day (obviously not during shelter in place). It’s a ritual we established and brought into the company. You can’t be a leader if you’re not taking care of yourself. Step away from work. Pro athletes rest and take days off. That’s important if you want to last and win. In the startup culture, prioritizing health and well-being are the best things you can do to grow your product and business.
VINAJ: What technological pioneers inspire your work?
CRISTIAN: We are both inspired by and big fans of Nike as a brand. When we read Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, it resonated because Phil Knight did so many things we do, including going for a run to help him think. He carved out something that took him decades to do. He turned a shoe into a business empire and is now technology oriented. This could take decades of persistence, grind, optimism, strategic insight, and belief in what we are doing, just like it did Phil Knight.
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