Our main focus is your oxygen levels while you sleep. Your blood’s oxygenation sets you up for a multitude of outcomes for both the next morning and the rest of your life. It’s more than getting a good night’s sleep — although that’s certainly part of it — it’s your overall health and quality of life as the years go by. A population that is well-rested (thanks to a healthy, oxygenated bloodstream) is one that is more alert in school, less likely to develop chronic health conditions, and less likely to cause an accident due to falling asleep at the wheel.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Kisch, co-founder and CEO of Beddr — creator of the first FDA-registered sleep wearable. Mike likes to make the complex simple, engaging, and accessible to more people, and he applies this philosophy to healthcare, too. Previously, Mike was the founding CEO of a wearable hearing enhancement company that developed the first connected hearing device. And his enthusiasm isn’t just relegated to healthcare — Mike is also a passionate surfer and skier.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m drawn to markets that are fragmented, inefficient and deliver a less than ideal experience to the customer. I like to develop businesses that democratize and increase access to expertise and/or technology. I believe the playing field should be fair and level for all to access these experiences and improve their quality of life, not based on wealth, education or technology. It’s one of the reasons I was drawn to sleep, given that those who suffer from the worst sleep quality are often shift workers and people juggling multiples jobs, and likely due to their circumstance, they have fewer options available to them than others suffering from similar sleep issues.
While at Cisco, I worked on a number products that were sold to Fortune 100 businesses — multimillion dollar systems that would serve as the backbone to their business. While these products were critical and necessary to our ecosystem, I never formed an emotional connection to the problem we were solving, and as a result I didn’t feel a personal connection to the products and the customer.
That shifted when I began to work on digital health products and discovered my passion of solving an underserved health issue.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When I made the transition from working at a big company to startup life, I had an amazing experience on my first day of work. We were scheduled to meet with an angel investment group to discuss our idea and to see if any of them had an interest in investing; as this was my first entree into the startup world, I wasn’t entirely sure of who would be attending. As I walk into the room of a restaurant in Redwood City I come face-to-face with top leaders in Silicon Valley, such as the founders of Intel, Yahoo, Palm and Intuit.
It was at that point that I realized I had been living in a large company bubble and that there was a whole new world out there and frankly it was much more interesting and more challenging then the one that I had spent the first part of my career in. What surprised me was how accessible these people were and how willing they were to share their experiences and provide advice on our new business.
Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
As much as I enjoy my FitBit and Apple Watch, they’re fairly limiting when it comes to collecting and interpreting data during your sleeping hours. So, we created the Beddr SleepTuner, a microdevice that’s like a full-size sleep lab, and small enough to fit in your pocket. We call it a “tuner” because the aim is to have people tune their sleep over time based on the knowledge they gain from using Beddr. It’s just as you would with a guitar or car — you make small adjustments as needed based on the information it gives you. Our product takes clinical-grade science that has been vetted in sleep labs and brings it to the public for the very first time.
How do you think this might change the world?
At Beddr, we believe in doing a few things very, very well. Our main focus is your oxygen levels while you sleep. Your blood’s oxygenation sets you up for a multitude of outcomes for both the next morning and the rest of your life. It’s more than getting a good night’s sleep — although that’s certainly part of it — it’s your overall health and quality of life as the years go by. A population that is well-rested (thanks to a healthy, oxygenated bloodstream) is one that is more alert in school, less likely to develop chronic health conditions, and less likely to cause an accident due to falling asleep at the wheel.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
One thing we’ve found is that overdoing it with optimizing your sleep can sometimes have the opposite effect. When you get so laser-focused on having the “perfect” night’s sleep, you have the potential to give yourself an unhelpful amount of anxiety that can move the needle enough to be detrimental to your sleep experience instead of helpful. That’s why we decide to “tune” sleep as needed — not track it on an ongoing, daily basis.
On another note, a point of friction that gives some people pause with our product at first is that the SleepTuner — the device itself — is worn in the middle of the forehead. For those who are accustomed to having a device on our wrist that gives us sleep data, this looks very different from what many are used to. While I appreciate my fitness trackers, the forehead is the best location for getting a read on oxygen levels because a vein runs right down the middle of the forehead. A lack of nerve endings on the forehead also cause most Beddr users to quickly forget that the SleepTuner is even there — they don’t think about it until they go to the bathroom the next morning and see themselves in the mirror.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
During the first few months of the business, we spent a tremendous amount of time with people that have chronic sleep issues to better understand their unmet needs. We also spent a lot of time with sleep physicians in an effort to understand how they work with patients and what were some of the barriers that kept them from delivering the type of care that they wanted to provide. Conversation after conversation, we found there was a gap between what the patient wanted and what the current care model was delivering. We gained the clarity that helped us define what the next generation care experience needed to be and the products and services we would need to create to deliver it.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
It’s interesting that you bring up tipping points because I think the same thing is needed with regards to our sleep. As a society, we’re well aware of the impact that exercise and nutrition have on our overall health. Sleep is a key piece of this as well, but it seems to be lagging in terms of public perception. Picture a stool with three legs that hold you up at all times. Those legs are diet, exercise and sleep. If one of those legs is removed, you’ve got a problem. All that said, I think we’re getting there, but there’s still a ways to go. The sooner that society accepts the necessity of treating sleep with as much attention and concern as diet and exercise, the healthier we’ll be.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
It’s all been fairly traditional, with nothing too out of the ordinary. We’ve done a media tour, lots of interviews and published our own original content on a variety of platforms. Authoring or contributing to articles about sleep and technology has been a helpful tool as well.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I believe that every success is born from a failure and what separates us is our ability to learn from that failure but not lose confidence in our ability to affect positive change and build successful companies. After my first startup didn’t go the way that I had hoped, I was ready to pack it in and take a safe corporate job, but a good friend of mine named Michael Gale was kind enough to invest the time to help me learn from my experience and guide me to better understand my passions and motivations. With his help, it became clear that my passion was solving problems by building companies and products regardless of how difficult it was or the risks inherent in starting early stage businesses. Above all, he helped me understand the path I needed to go down to achieve my best life and provided the emotional support and inspiration for me to confidently continue down that path. He let me wallow in self-pity for a bit, but really pushed me to move forward.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Starting digital health companies can’t just be about making money — if it was, there are much easier paths to take. Ultimately it has to be driven by an innate desire to help people improve their lives and to channel your tenacity to keep going. When I think about the two companies I’ve started and led, the thing that really motivated me was the positive impact that we can have one someone’s quality of life. I’m a big believer in the concept of a double-bottom line: the ability to be a mission-driven business focused on helping people, but also building a company that has a solid business model and compelling financial performance.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It will take twice as long and cost twice as much. As an optimist, I have a tendency to underestimate how long it will take to get something done. Ultimately, I believe you have to be an optimist to be an entrepreneur, but I’m learning to add a healthy dose of pragmatism to the way that I do financial planning and setting expectations with employees, partners and investors.
- Keep a level head while everyone else around you is losing theirs. I never expected the emotional rollercoaster to have so many highs and so many troughs. At my first company, I was unprepared for that volatility and was probably not as calm as I should have been in certain situations. At Beddr, I learned very quickly that my job is to stay consistent and supportive of the team through the trials of bringing a first-of-its-kind product to market.
- “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” This is a quote from the boxer Mike Tyson that in many ways, sums up the startup experience. Coming from large companies that were quite predictable and invested lots of time in the planning process, I attempted to apply that to startups. What I learned is that there is a lot of value in being “planful,” but that investing too much time in planning is at best a waste of time and at worst it slow you down and limit the adaptability of the team and the company.
- Don’t try to be perfect; just try to be better every single day. Over time, I have gotten better at understanding what really matters and when it matters. For Beddr, there are certain things we’ve done that we know we will want to improve, which is a process we take into account as we grow in our industry. We acknowledge that growing pains are part of the framework in startups and work towards honing our work and making our practices more refined.
- Don’t try to change consumer behavior — nudge it instead. Change for most people is very difficult if not impossible. Building a business that is predicated on radically changing consumer behavior can be mercurial. However, creating a product that integrates seamlessly into people’s lives while simplifying and injecting more joy into something they’re already doing stands a good chance for success. For instance, my first startup was trying to dramatically change the way consumers behaved and how the hearing aid market functioned, which doesn’t happen overnight. Over the long term, a model will be proven right, but a startup doesn’t always have the time and money to wait that long.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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.
Quality sleep makes a lifelong impact on our physical and mental health. It helps kids focus in school and learn better and can lead to a decrease in car accidents, diabetes, dementia and a host of other chronic ailments. My wish would be that people value sleep (and sleep hygiene — the practice of making healthy choices that give us better sleep outcomes) as much as they value diet, exercise and healthy relationships. It’s all tied together. And the sooner that employers, parents, coaches — everyone, really! — can teach others and themselves to take their sleep quality seriously, lives will improve exponentially.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Over the years I have evolved from a destination-focused to a journey-focused mindset, from a person who feared making mistakes to one that accepts them as part of the learning process. There is a quote that I have printed and hanging on a wall in my office that says,“The value of experimentation is not the trying. It’s the trying again after the experiment fails.”
Over the years I’ve gotten comfortable with being uncomfortable and confident enough to know that many of the decisions I make will prove to be wrong and ultimately changed as more information becomes available.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
The importance of sleep has never been higher. Yet our quality of sleep has never been lower.
People that have chronic sleep issues have two fundamental, unmet needs:
● They want accurate, trusted insights into the cause of their sleep problems.
● They want easy, affordable access to experts and proven solutions.
There is no product or service on the market that solves both of these needs in an elegant way.
Sound interesting? To learn more, find me on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/mikekisch/ and also on Twitter @surfski.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/mikekisch/ and also on Twitter at @surfski.