Disrupting the Healthcare Industry while Balancing a 9 to 5

Hello! What’s your background, and what are you working on?

My name is Om Suthar and I’m a product designer by trade (both digital and physical). As an Industrial Designer, I was blessed to see product development end to end, from concept sketch to user research, all the way to the manufacturing line auditing our product for quality assurance (QA). That stuck with me as I started working on apps in 2010, which has really translated well into what I do now, allowing me to stretch my role beyond design skills and build strong relationships with product and tech teams.

I’m currently working on SQRL, a wellness and wealth creation platform that allows employers to advocate for the physical and financial wellness of their employees. It works by using Apple Health or Google Fit integration to read steps activity. Every 1,000 steps is a potential $1 saved. Users can fund their own savings by connecting their own checking account as a funding source to a savings account of their choice. We move the funds at the end of each week based on their activity. We also provide the ability for employers to pay out conditional incentives directly to the bank account of the employee (consumer). For example, for every 10,000 steps an employee hits in a day, the employer pays out a $1 incentive. These payouts are securely automated and customizable.

We just launched our consumer app over Thanksgiving break, and recently began piloting our corporate wellness platform, which is currently averaging about $1k/mo in revenue. We’ve already helped over 300 consumers and 250 employees fund over $2,000 dollars of savings for themselves, averaging an increase of 12 steps day-over-day.

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What motivated you to get started with SQRL?

I’ve been working to solve money problems in the financial industry for some time now and I realized that humans are complex and our problems don’t obey the "verticals" of our industries. To get more specific, money and health are intrinsically intertwined. Poor health promotes poor decision making, which in turn is a further detriment to health, feeding a vicious cycle. I believe good health isn’t a privilege exclusively for the affluent, rather something that should be affordable and within reach for everyone.

My first attempt to validate this idea involved running a one month test. I pestered about 40 acquaintances for a screenshot of their steps every evening, and the next day I would pretend to be SQRL, texting all sorts of motivation first thing in the morning with a phone number they didn’t know I had. The idea of "pay yourself first" came from the book Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki.

I learned a lot about the power of positive reinforcement and discovered my most effective messages were non-judgmental and encouraging. They recognized or rewarded my users for their level of activity and showed them the compounding power of what they were doing by forecasting forward. For example, at the end of the week, I’d text: "Wow, this week you took 67,000 steps that could save you $67 bucks! At this rate, you’ll have over $1,200 with a year saved up, go you!"

Something so small, like starting your day with recognition that reminds you to love yourself, has the power to set the tone for the rest of the day!

My background in empathy, human-centric design, and user research really came in handy when trying to decipher the dissonance between what people do, say, and feel, which helped me define my product iteratively over the past eight months.

During the time I was noodling with this, my wife and I had just become first-time parents. I put the sleepless hours into creating countless prototypes and running tests on Usertesting.com to get feedback from strangers as well as acquaintances. I’ve maintained a full-time job throughout the process, scaling a hypothesis into a test, which then became an app, which is now blossoming into a business. For the past eight months, I’ve typically been working from 8 pm to 2:30 am every weekday and another 20 hours on weekends to get the business to where it is now.

This has been bootstrapped with our savings and a small injection of funds from family and friends.

What went into building the initial product?

The initial product has taken over 15 clickable prototypes, eight months of development, and over 1,500 hours of design work, none of which would have been possible if I didn’t have the support of my amazing wife. I’m not sure if it was out of just love or pure adrenaline, but the birth of our first child motivated me to do more than my normal 9 to 5 job. I’ve always had the desire to build something but struggled to find something scalable (something I could start by myself but could grow to be a lot larger). I had procrastinated long enough on the idea of SQRL to feel confident about taking the leap into making it.

For the first few months, a lot of time went into designing, testing, and refining the connection between steps and savings. I wrestled a lot with how to define the product, an identity crisis of sorts — is it a finance app or a health app, and why do I have to choose? Each month, I would test a new prototype. By the third month, I felt confident enough in the narrative to go find a team to build a higher fidelity "prototype". I recruited a team of three local developers, one for iOS, one for Android, and one for the backend and architecture from my local network of friends within a couple of weeks. They were excited to work on something that gave everyone a strong sense of purpose, utilized their skills, and would hopefully be lucrative someday.

As a team, our starting point was to assess the design intent and prioritize features and scope. For our alpha build, we prioritized Apple Health and Google Fit integrations to build out the core dashboard. Our second priority was to develop and launch notifications for daily, weekly, and monthly reviews. Our third and final core feature was integrating with Dwolla API for ACH money movement and Plaid for real-time bank authentication. We used Firebase for data storage, Twilio for Two-Step Authentication, and Mailchimp for email notifications. We made the decision as a team to invest in native languages so we wouldn’t have to rebuild the codebase down the road. We built our Android app in Kotlin and iOS app in Swift 4. Our backend engineer played the role of architect as the other two developers focused on their respective platforms. We used Trello to organize tickets onto a Kanban board capturing product spec and intent, Zeplin to communicate/share visual assets, and InVision for prototypes.

Reach out and ask questions. You’d be surprised how many responses you get if you are candid, have integrity, and aren’t a pushy asshole about it.

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This was a time of lots of horizontal growth for the team. We learned what it would take to integrate with our API partners, how to structure our data, and how much work goes into simple push notifications (Hint: it’s always more than what you plan for!). By early 2018, we launched an alpha build for iOS and Android that we built in three months of design and development that didn’t move any money, but showcased potential savings and sent notifications every morning customized to the user’s level of activity. There were a lot of bugs and we did a lot to stabilize the integrity of our health API integrations.

As soon as we finished our Alpha, my expectations were growing to mature the product into something more desirable and sticky as an experience, I realized our part-time development efforts weren’t going to get us there. At the same time, two out of my three developers wanted out due to time commitment issues and waning interest. We ultimately couldn’t agree on an equity amount for the work they had done and I basically had to resolve the matter by discarding the entire alpha build to date and starting all over again. This was a big learning moment for me in the importance of explicit communication, proactive expectation management, and trusting your gut when it comes to team-building.

My advisor connected me with a great offshore team that I transitioned to, and in one month we had rebuilt the entire Alpha prototype. Eight months down the road, we’ve brought online multiple features, stabilized core functionality, and built a pipeline for 2019 to make the experience more "sticky." We did this by having a close relationship with our small but passionate user base, using feedback as a sort of echolocation for how we grow the product. We run two-week sprints, releasing in small increments, and we test all major functionality in TestFlight/beta before releasing to the public.

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How have you attracted users and grown SQRL?

We initially used Product Hunt’s Ship feature in March 2018 to build up a meager email list of prospective users. I used Typeform surveys to capture feedback and market insights. I then deployed an intake form on our website to grow our mailing list from 50 to 400. We then launched our TestFlight/beta on iOS and Android concurrently in June 2018, which we grew to over 200 testers.

By the time we launched our app publicly over Thanksgiving break in late November 2018, our website was getting traffic averaging 1.2K users/mo, and we’ve averaged 300 active users per month at a 6.5% conversion rate to in-app purchases. We’ve built a custom analytics dashboard with our own APIs into our data set and, much to our surprise, our top users are from Alabama, Georgia, and California. Our users spend, on average, two minutes in the app each day and we’ve moved over $2,000 dollars in savings to date. Considering this is all organic growth without any paid advertising, I err on the side of continuing to invest in improving the product experience rather than getting addicted early to paid, short-term gains. For example, by focusing on user experience, we’ve cut down our upgrade process within the past two weeks from 22 screen states down to 12, radically improving our conversion rate to over 14%.

At the same time, I have reached out to local business owners and thought leaders in the health insurance field to quickly ramp up my industry knowledge. In the past three months, I have prototyped my pitches and learned more about my target audiences to turn what used to be "not interested" responses into scheduling introductory meetings. I’ve used the same product development process to hone my B2B sales strategy. I primarily use my commute to and from work for these calls (about two hours each day) and I treat every conversation as an opportunity, whether it’s for my edification or a potential lead. I have two pilot companies with a total of 250 employees for the wellness platform and three other companies totaling 5,000 employees in our pipeline for when we exit pilot in May.

What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

While we’ve launched the consumer app that provides some revenue from a one-time, in-app purchase, we never expected that to be our main source of revenue, but rather a differentiator for our corporate wellness platform. Most B2B platforms ask you to request a demo but our consumer app provides a unique level of transparency to the value of our product. We charge for a one-time setup fee and a monthly subscription of $4 per user/month with a 60-day trial period.

Money and health are intrinsically intertwined

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While our competitors like Castlight, Fitbit and Classpass have fantastic portal-based solutions that are enterprise solutions built top-down, SQRL is a grassroots movement built from the bottom up. We have a laser focus on user retention and long-term behavior change that starts by acknowledging and accepting where you are at, no judgment. As far as we see it, these two areas of focus are where our competitors fall short. For example, a third of people who buy a wearable stop using them within six months, and more than half eventually abandon them altogether. This is a major disadvantage for Fitbit’s program, where the hardware cost is amortized into the subscription fee. Low dependency and high value make SQRL the lowest barrier of entry into a corporate wellness service. We’ve built our differentiators based on the weaknesses and feedback on competitive products.

My first corporate customer was a small, local business that I found through personal association. We used our first pilot to attract the next few clients through cold emails and LinkedIn. Networking isn’t a needs-based exercise, but rather a daily routine which allowed me to grow my network over the course of the last year by over 1,000 contacts. Each conversation was an opportunity to further refine my storytelling and build my confidence in communicating the product offering. We now have a waitlist of over 5,000 employees to onboard in May when we complete our initial pilot and launch our corporate wellness platform to the greater public.

We’re currently making $1000/mo in revenue. While we are not currently profitable, we have been making money from day one. We have new features to share user-generated content for daily achievements, a weekly league for users to compete against people within their network, a head-to-head daily steps competition, and a group goals feature that allows up to six users to save for a common cause together. We will be releasing these features from now to August, adding value to our offering along the way.

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What are your goals for the future?

My tactical goal is to help every user save $1,000 within a year and add at least 2,000 steps to their natural habit, which translates to an 8% reduction in risk of developing a cardiovascular-related disease (which amounts to an estimated $500 in annual savings per person). My six-month plan is to extend the corporate wellness offering out of pilot and turn on our sales engine.

I believe good health isn’t a privilege exclusively for the affluent, rather something that should be affordable and within reach for everyone.

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My three-year mission is to influence the health insurance industry to look beyond pre-existing conditions and use patterns in a person’s ability to adapt and keep a healthy habit as an active measure of health insurance worthiness, with the hope of making health care more affordable. My 10-year mission is to extend SQRL globally in a way that is relevant to each respective culture, making the culture of saving and wellness within reach for every workplace, worldwide. Our biggest roadblocks are going to be how to integrate with HSA plans and provide pre-tax value to consumers. Finance and healthcare are the two most regulated industries, and that makes innovation that much more challenging and rewarding.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

The biggest challenge is funding a startup within the uncomfortable space between what you can afford to bootstrap and what you could raise in a seed round. Used to be it was enough to have an awesome pitch deck, then an MVP prototype, and now it’s actually moved further into whether can you prove users want to pay for this, and if yes, do you understand why? If I had to do it all over, I would have built some of the social features before introducing the money movement within SQRL, because the supporting API’s are expensive. An MVP today is not enough, the experience has to be sticky and showcase an exponential adoption curve and great conversion. For all that, it has to be a desirable experience.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Consume all the content you can about your industry vertical — startups, whatever from reddit, podcasts, LinkedIn. I try to pack every part of my day from my commute to my time at the gym with content to just immerse myself into the life I want while living the life I am currently in. I found it really helpful to reach out and ask questions. You’d be surprised how many responses you get if you are candid, have integrity, and aren’t a pushy asshole about it. Jason Calacanis’s (@Jason on Twitter) podcast This week in Startups has been so insightful and fun to listen to.

What’s your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

Some or all of this will sound cliche, but it really rings true in my experience. Love what you are working on the way you need air to breathe because that’s where the perseverance and grit you need will come from. The concept of a startup is to compress all the pain, learnings, and growth from a five-year timespan down to two to three years. Check in with yourself throughout the process, manage expectations and your relationship with yourself; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Just because you worked hard doesn’t mean you’re entitled to results, it’s simply a qualifier for the opportunity to catch a break. Like swimming, you’re trying to build a rhythm for yourself to keep going and string together a bunch of breaks towards a goal.

Where can we go to learn more?

If SQRL seems interesting and aligns with your values, I encourage you to visit us our website and maybe even give the app a whirl. You can also follow us on Twitter @SQRLme, Instagram @sqrlme, and Facebook. I value your feedback and encourage you to leave me some comments and questions below👇🏽.

Om Suthar , Founder of SQRL

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