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Anna Gudmundson Of Sensate On How To Take Your Company From Good To Great

Be super open to feedback, and have a learning mindset. Not just to avoid repeating mistakes, but also to be attuned to cues from customers on things we could improve.

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anna Gudmundson.

Anna is a senior technology business leader in the international high-growth scene with 15+ years of experience including CEO, VP Product and interim executive roles, alongside ongoing advisory and contract work in health-tech, SaaS, data and consumer technology. Previously a turn-around CEO, Anna has also helped executives in the technology sector optimize and deliver product, brand and business strategies.

Anna has a keen interest in personal and human improvement, exponential growth technologies, product design, user behavior and psychology, with a focus on transformational technology that does good in the world while having strong commercial viability. This was a key reason behind her joining Sensate Inc, where she focuses on solving mental health and stress crises, using innovative technology such as Sensate.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Music, physics, and mathematics were my top subjects in school. I liked the simple truth that mathematics presents, and despite my parents being creatives, I was drawn to technology. In fact, I bought the first computer into our household when I was still in school — a second-hand Macintosh from the university in town.

My entire career has been in tech. I’ve had the opportunity to work in large multinationals such as Lucent Technologies, start-ups, and everything in between. I learned a lot from working in the emerging and exponentially growing mobile sector in the early 2000s, leading innovation and developing new technology for the sector in the UK.

My passion for learning and growing has led me to live and work in several different countries. I have read about, and taken many courses in, the fields of personal development, psychology, breathwork, and meditation — all out of my curiosity about human potential and in the interest of evolving and being the best version of myself that I can be.

These threads and passions are coming together in the work I’m doing now: running Sensate Inc. We manufacture stress-reducing consumer products that build stress resilience, headlined by the Sensate system — an innovative patented wearable device and companion app soundscapes that tone the nerves with infrasound resonance. It’s a privilege to contribute directly toward solving the global problem of stress while pioneering a new paradigm of science: our vibrational nature.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

When you’re running a start-up, you’re regularly right at the edge. To brace for the challenges at hand, I’ve woken up many a morning and offered myself these words of motivation: ‘I get to do this. I get to learn and grow.’

As an example of being on the edge, earlier in the pandemic several issues converged for us. The chip shortage meant that we had to underwrite critical components. Then, Apple updated its privacy feature, which, by the way, I endorse. That ended up hitting our sales through paid social. On top of that, the Brexit fiasco made it complicated to ship into the EU, a big market for us, without causing problems for our customers. Then we had technical issues with another online channel, halting sales there for almost a week.

As a start-up, you just don’t have extra margin for adverse events, and all of that hitting us within a short period of time while I was fundraising was incredibly challenging. In times like that it’s important to have the drive, motivation, and processes to get your mind in the right place. It’s also important to have trusted colleagues. Without our amazing, drive, and committed team we would never have gotten through this storm of events. We’ve come out of this time without any stock interruption, with stronger and more diversified marketing, and managed to grow at the same time

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We have developed an amazing product called Sensate that taps into the primal part of the nervous system to provide calm and relaxation in the moment, and to increase stress resiliency over time. We stand out in the marketplace for several reasons. First, Sensate is an all-natural tool that uses infrasonic frequencies and sound to reduce stress and anxiety. Second, it’s easy to use and evergreen, designed for repeated use. Third, we are consistently working to make this technology more accessible. We’ve brought it out of the elite Harley Street clinic by miniaturizing the tech and creating a consumer product, which means that we can truly help a lot of people.

We get a lot of love letters for Sensate, which can be really emotional. A few examples: people seeing dramatic improvements in physical health or pain management; a lovely man whose PTSD became manageable enough with Sensate that he could have dinner out with his family for the first time in years; new moms who can grab the Sensate version of a 10-minute power nap. We are also working with pro athletes like Steven McRae, a principal dancer for the Royal Ballet, London. In 2019 he snapped his achilles tendon during a performance and went through intensive therapies to support his mental and physical rehabilitation. In October 2021, he triumphantly returned to the exact same stage with renewed focus and conditioning. Sensate can help anyone feel better, no matter the level they are starting from.

What tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

  1. Invest in your growth, not only professional, but personal. We can have all the knowledge we need to succeed but if we’re not implementing it, there’s little use. Any growth in self-awareness immediately makes you a better leader. Even if you have a university degree in some subject, how much have you invested in the subject of you — the one tool that matters in your life?
  2. Be mindful of your own wellness, every hour of every day. Exercise. Get enough rest. Stay hydrated. Breathe. We take it for granted until it’s gone. Treat your mind and body out of self-love and care. Exercise because it gives you energy and long-term health, and boosts the mind-body connection. Being a start-up founder is a performance sport. Treat it as such.
  3. Choose how you want to feel. Fill your day with joy and reminders of gratitude. Focus more on what you can give and less on what you can get. To get out of a negative spiral, say aloud or write down at least 5 things that are good right now.
  4. Find harmony in your work. Seek ways to co-engage your right brain and left brain and to balance heads-down solo work with collaborative efforts.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’m only in this job because my co-founder Stefan Chmelik, who’s also the innovator of the product, realized he couldn’t do this on his own. His incredible experience helping thousands of people with stress and trauma-related conditions, his deep knowledge about integrated health and the nervous system, and his genius behind our groundbreaking product match perfectly with my experience in the technology sector to enable us to get this amazing innovation out to thousands and soon millions of people who need it.

Apart from my amazing co-founder, the rest of the team is truly awesome! Everyone, including our part-time contractors, has really put their egos aside during challenging moments, collaborated, and given it their absolute best. This is how you build strong relationships. I really admire integrity and I’m incredibly grateful for the support. It’s even silly to call it support; everything is simply teamwork.

We’ve also been really lucky to have very supportive investors. Sanjay Reddy from Unlock Venture Partners, Minnie Ingersol from TenOneTen Ventures and Brian Mac Mahon from Expert Dojo have been there whenever I have reached out and given constructive, honest feedback and input.

And a quick shoutout to two women who are focused on matching female entrepreneurs with investors: Deepali Nangia, Venture Partner at Speedinvest, and Triin Linamagi, Co-Founder of Sie Ventures. I appreciate what they are doing to support female founders, and they took the time at a recent fundraiser to introduce me to prospective investors without wanting anything in return. Selfless support is so vital to those who receive it. For those who give it, it’s simply good karma.

The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

Good companies are good enough. They get the work done and take care of their clients and customers. But they are not always adept in navigating the changing currents.

Great companies seek a higher purpose in their work. They “wow” their clients and customers, embrace risk, learn from feedback, and treat failure as opportunities to improve. Great companies recognize that their most valuable asset is their people. The ethos of the brand and the company’s purpose is at the center of this, serving as the north star for cultural and functional alignment.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in leading a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Know your organization’s purpose. What is your reason for being? Why does your business matter to people? How does it contribute to the state of the world?
  2. Choose collaboration over competition. Few question the role competition plays in driving innovation. Arguably, the human race is superior more due to its ability to collaborate to build greatness than any competition. Each person trying to build their own bridge is a lot less useful than a group of people coming together to do so. Intentional collaboration can bring more ways to grow and innovate together.
  3. Focus on personal and professional growth. As personal and professional worlds continue to merge, we bring to our work all parts of ourselves — body, mind, emotions, and spirit. The more willing we are to focus on our personal growth, the more our professional activities will benefit. It’s a fantastic opportunity for the workplace to be a place we grow and thrive, benefitting the individual and the business equally.
  4. Look beyond what to how. We can sometimes think that the ‘what’ is enough. Solving hunger is indeed an admiral task, but if we’re corrupting our foods and causing major extinction while doing so, this is not true success. We can’t walk over dead bodies to save one life. These are challenging subjects and what’s needed is more transparency and conversation. We also need to accept that there is no perfect. It’s a balancing act where consumers also need to be more aware.
  5. Have fun! In the end, there’s no reason we can’t enjoy doing what we do. Relax your shoulders, laugh, and then crack on. You can work focused with a smile on your face. Laugh at mistakes and take a break to dance like crazy to your favorite tune when you’re stuck with whatever you’re working on. I’m working on this every day, and I want everyone in the company to enjoy what we do. Mostly, it’s a mindset. Life isn’t served on a silver plate. We’re here to grow, but we can decide to pay more attention to what we enjoy and there’s always space for a giggle.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose-driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

For businesses today, the goal is not only to be profitable but to pursue the greater good — something much bigger than their products and services. Studies have found that purpose-driven companies gain more market share and grow three times faster than their competitors. More and more customers are choosing brands with meaning and looking to companies that support social and environmental programs. Employees, too, want to work for organizations that align with who they want to be and that connect them with a wider purpose. Bottom line — organizations rooted in purpose yield more fruitful connections with customers and employees, which in turn drives more business growth.

And this trend will not be going away. The younger the demographic, the more pronounced their insistence on social advocacy and a ‘business for good’ mindset. A brand-switching survey found that, broadly, 66% of consumers would switch brands to a more impactful organization, but when segmented by millennials, this number jumped to 91%. Gen Z is looking to continue the trend as an increasingly strong voice in this area, and it’s no surprise, given the economic and climate challenges of their collective youth. Aside from market share, Neilson also shows 2 out of 3 people being willing to pay a premium for products and brands that align with their values — people are definitely shopping with their hearts.

What would you advise a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience, do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

In 500 BC, the philosopher Heraclitus made an observation that still holds true today: “The only thing that is constant is change.” That you’re a leader today or have found a seemingly perfect product-market fit doesn’t guarantee you’ll be that, or do that, tomorrow. When you’ve reached a standstill, it may be too late to recover. The ability to continuously innovate and re-invent is critical to staying in motion.

If you do reach a standstill, you have many options for moving forward — from transforming processes from within to bringing in an external team of inspiring consultants. Internal resistance to change is a given. To overcome the ‘stagnant quo,’ leaders need to be active and visible sponsors of any change initiatives, consistently communicating why change is needed, how the team can be engaged in the process, and what benefits the change will bring to individuals and to the entire organization.

As with any cycle of life, for new things to be born and thrive, some things also have to be let go of or die. Perhaps product lines, strategies, or some projects we’ve invested in have to die. Perhaps even a pillar of the business is no longer holding and needs to be dropped and replaced. Maybe people are no longer aligned in experience or modus operandi. It can be tough to accept, let go, and let die. This is part of the job, and also of life. I believe that the ability to acknowledge what no longer holds true and let it go is a critical skill in entrepreneurship as well as in life.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

As I mentioned earlier, we faced many challenges last year. Nine out of 10 startups don’t make it in a normal year, never mind faced with all the additional challenges businesses have had to deal with last year. I’m deeply empathetic with all the businesses that have had to close up; not just startups but also excellent companies that have been in business for generations but have not been able to get through the adversities presented by the pandemic and the handling thereof.

I believe the most important attribute to survive is that of flexibility. Many parts of the strategy we had before the pandemic have gone out the window. I had to change the fundraising strategy numerous times. We’ve had to shift a lot of the marketing strategy, as well as hiring. On the same line as flexibility, it’s important to be open to new types of solutions. As an example, the landscape of financing is evolving rapidly and we have been able to make use of that based on our revenues. These facilities weren’t around a few years ago, and I have my CFO to thank for our success in assessing and securing such financing.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Most underestimated aspect: the mental strength needed in facing challenges. All responsibility lands on you; there’s nowhere else to go.

As an example, I once had to sell a company under difficult circumstances. I found that managing all parties — the board, team, shareholders, and other stakeholders involved in the deal — is taxing, especially when the outcome is not what you hoped and people may not be acting out of their best selves. For several months I had to get up every morning and motivate myself to find solutions and keep the deal moving forward.

In such situations, if you’re the CEO, it can be pretty lonely. My mental strength and abiding values became key assets, and I learned something important about myself: Under pressure and even when collaboration was lacking, I was relentless in my search for, in this case, buyers and investors. I didn’t fall into placing blame, playing politics, or being resentful. In the end we managed to get the deal done. I’m grateful for the growth that comes with more challenging experiences.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Most of our business remains direct to consumer, so creating a direct relationship with the customer and fostering that connection over time are critical goals. Building relationships involve developing trust and credibility as a subject matter expert. It also requires evolving exchanges with the prospective customer or person of influence that build a strong affinity for the brand.

Although our Sensate product works for anyone interested in managing stress, it is still a new field of science and therapy not widely known, and deep understanding of our audience segments is vital to our communication and marketing efforts. Conducting iterative testing, surveying customers, studying user behavior, and applying revenue lead scoring are all part of knowing where our audience is, and taking them where they want to go.

Marketing channel mix is also important in supporting top/middle/bottom funnel strategies along the customer journey.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

I believe first you have to have clarity on what you care about as a company, and in what ways you want to positively impact your customers and users. Purpose and mission are part of this, but I think it’s even more powerful to visualize the impact you want to have, at a personal, one to one level.

Once you have clarity on what you care about, you can then move into more tactical considerations. You want to invest in product quality, make sure you support users with great customer experience, and you want to have a cohesive communication around all your user touch points. Direct to consumer models have raised the bar for brands to create and foster direct relationships with their customers, social media communities and everyone else in between. By offering curated, relevant and valued experiences the brand creates a customer experience that can’t help but be shared on social media, supporting both user-generated content and customer advocacy.

It also helps to be vulnerable and open to feedback around your execution. You won’t always get it right — you will make mistakes — but if you welcome these instances as opportunities to embrace customer feedback, then you can also build trust (perhaps even more) when things don’t go as well.

In the end, you have to have patience that if you truly care about your customers, and you execute around this, then trust and love for your brand will follow…but it won’t appear overnight!

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to building a beloved brand and essential to being successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know ] to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Again, base your customer experience on genuine care. All your customer support team should connect to the users with a lot of heart and empathy. Some of these skills you can train, but you also need to keep them in mind when building the team.

Be super open to feedback, and have a learning mindset. Not just to avoid repeating mistakes, but also to be attuned to cues from customers on things we could improve.

It also helps to internally celebrate when you receive positive feedback from customers, on the product or on the actual customer service. These mini celebrations fuel the team to keep striving towards positively impacting more and more customers.

These are just some ideas on how to instill a caring energy within your customer experience, that will again lead to trust and love for the brand.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs and founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I’ll pick one that I find shockingly common and absolutely fundamental. Before Bioself Technology, which is the company that makes the Sensate, I worked as an independent consultant for venture-backed tech companies. I come across a significant number of founders who raise money on an idea in which they have invested time and money without having validated the foundations of the business model. The business models have assumptions around market, user behaviours, client needs, price points, complexity, etc. Often these assumptions aren’t properly mapped out and are unconsciously built into the business model. With all the tools available today, validating or testing out these assumptions can be done in many ways. I find it surprising that founders are happy to embark on the big undertaking — and to be honest, life choice — to start a company without better visibility in these areas.

As a tip, the field of product development offers many tools to test and validate. To mention a couple of books, I like The Lean Product Playbook and The Mom Test as basic suggestions for beginners.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I believe the biggest problem we have right now is that such a tiny percentage of people are actively working toward making the whole a better place. Most people are focused purely on their own ‘getting-by’ or self-fulfillment. Even worse is when we’re stuck in fight/flight mode, which happens with even low levels of stress and fear. For so many the pandemic created such ongoing conditions. When our fear and anxiety are triggered, we disconnect the prefrontal cortex, which is our ‘human’ conscious mind. To build an even better society for ourselves and future generations, to solve our environmental issues, and to come up with genius new businesses that also serve a greater purpose, we have to emerge from states of being stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed.

This is exactly our mission. Sensate is already helping many thousands of people, and has the ability to have a global impact by reaching millions. To meet this goal, we need to be commercially successful. Helping others and having a profitable product go hand in hand; they’re not contradictory outcomes.

The driving force in all this? Consumer power. As we become more aware as consumers, we realize our collective strength. If we shift to buy more ethical, local, sustainable, and environmentally friendly products and services, everything has to change accordingly. This requires a bit of effort to educate ourselves and make these choices.

Think of every dollar you spend as a vote. You’re voting for that company to thrive. Where are you spending your money? That’s the future you want to see.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Anna:

Sensate:

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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