By Julia Hu (Founder & CEO, LARK)
Startups are ridiculously hard, but so fulfilling, and filled with life. Looking back at the last week at our international launch, looking back at these last few years leading up to this, I’d love to share a few learnings as an entrepreneur, as a woman, and a new fiancée through LARK.
What is LARK? We help people sleep better, and better together. LARK wakes you up silently and feeling great — without disturbing anyone else.
At night, LARK tracks how well you’re sleeping with an actigraphy sleep pattern sensor, packaged in a lightweight wristband wirelessly connected to the iPhone, When you wake up, see how you slept through the night on the iPhone and your personal online dashboard. Like your fitness coach, LARK has a sleep coach service designed with a pro-athlete sleep coach, that coaches you to better sleep by looking at your sleep patterns.
How LARK got started
About two years ago now, I woke up not naturally at 5am at a Saturday. This is because my boyfriend wakes up to go exercising and meditating every morning with an alarm clock, hitting snooze every time while I’d get jolted awake. This Saturday had been at the end of a busy week so I was mad at my sleep disturbance and realized this was going to happen for the rest of my life.
I pitched my idea at a one minute business plan competition at MIT (listen to the pitch here). After the pitch, so many people came up to me and expressed the same problem — with a roommate or partner. Sharing the problem with people was powerful and I was amazed to learn that here was a dormant seemingly universal problem. I started LARK that day.
There are so many parts of LARK that people seemed to connect with, such as “my partner ruins my sleep at night”, and “my partner ruined my waking up in the morning” or “I have issues sleeping and I don’t know how to get better”. Just sharing these goals was quite powerful and motivating.
The Beginnings: Prototyping and Building
I spent a year at MIT during grad school building the prototype with a sleep expert, Dr. Jo Solet, and developed the technology. Our team slowly formed from the unique needs of our product. For our engineers, solving the technical challenges in becoming a wireless app-cessory was interesting and challenging, to be in an area pioneering a whole new space where hardware and software co-exist. For our behavior change experts and the top sleep experts at Harvard and Stanford, the challenge of helping people improve their sleep without medical intervention was really exciting.
During the summer after my first year at grad school, we bootstrapped the startup by winning a couple of business plan competitions, including the MIT 100K Mobile track. Then we went to Palo Alto to be incubated by Lightspeed Venture Partners. We were able to raise a $1M convertible note shortly after our first concept launch at the last TechCrunch Disrupt where we announced the silent unalarm clock. We went stealth again until last Tuesday, when we announced at TechCrunch Disrupt NY that LARK is now the sleep tool for couples that tracks and coaches people to better sleep.
A Different Sort of Partnership Engagement
After we unveiled the product, after we announced that LARK is going to be in all Apple stores in North America on June 14th, that we partnered with an amazing manufacturing partner, PCH International, who just launched a hardware startup incubator called the PCH Accelerator, we sat down with Mike Arrington, founder of TechCrunch. I was about to start this fireside chat when someone yells “You missed a slide!”.
My boyfriend of 11 years, the one whose sleeping problem prompted me to start this company, asked me to marry him on a PowerPoint slide onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt, in front of thousands. It was a nice culmination — the end of hours of sleeplessness (literally) caused by a relationship.
LARK CEO Julia Hu’s Startup Lessons Learned
Lesson #1: Think Big.
Once, someone said to me “You built an alarm clock. Why did you focus here, not on something bigger?”
I said, “I love that we created a better alarm clock, because it’s a universally dreaded product. And we wanted change that daily pain into something that improves your sleep so you can improve your life and your relationships.”
Without that latter part of the vision, I think we would have fell flat.
It’s a cliche but if you don’t reach for the stars, you won’t land on the moon. You will always make mistakes, you will always screw up, and you will always fail in some parts, but you might get to the moon.
If you think small, there will still be mistakes and failures, but I think you land in the purgatory of startups because you don’t have a story to inspire other people to join you and you don’t have the promise of selling the dream to get investment. (Disregard this comment if you’re looking for personal endeavors — I think those are well worth it, however “small” they are, I’m referring to a galvanized group effort.)
In terms of building a company, company leaders are rewarded by taking bigger risks and pushing things farther than other people have pushed them. That’s why I feel it so refreshing to be always learning from inspiring role models — whether they’re personal ones, or speakers on TED — find yourself great peers, a great team, great mentors.
Lesson #2: Listening is great.
I think we have some real perks. Women seem to be really good as listeners and people who can read the subtleties of a situation. Listening is one of the most valuable assets for leadership, in keeping the team happy, in improving your product or service.
Lesson #3: Women consider options. Options are good, sometimes. Always be confident.
As a woman, I’ve noticed in me, and others, that we’re not always thinking that our idea is the best and only way to success. We recognize there are different paths and we recognize that you might have a valid point when you tell us why you’re smarter.
But don’t let that come across as unconfident. As a woman entrepreneur, do not give the impression that you don’t have the road map to get to point B. Sometimes one strong vision is what you need to deliver. Sometimes I have to tone down my inclinations to speak about many different possibilities. Having real clarity in your pitch and having confidence in yourself and your team is the key to being an entrepreneur.
About the guest blogger: Julia Hu is the Founder & CEO of LARK, a consumer electronics startup that helps couples sleep better together. Prior to LARK, she was National Sustainability Chair for global startup incubator Clean Tech Open, and ran international marketing in China for D.light Design. She received her Masters and Bachelors at Stanford and has half of a MBA from MIT Sloan (a dropout, but they’re nice enough to include her as a case study and speaker). Follow her on Twitter at @ourlark.