Health Innovators
Health Innovators

Episode 77 · 1 year ago

De-risk your startup: The academic-entrepreneur advantage w/ Nicola Brown


Sometimes, being an entrepreneur can keep you so busy, you wake up one day and wonder just how the heck you got where you are.

But when you build an organization with a culture steeped in customer discovery and research, you start to see the patterns.

Nicola Brown, founder of Kokoro, explains to our viewers how patterns, research, and customer discovery are vital components to her company’s philosophy around healthcare and wellbeing.

Refreshing and candid, Nicola’s animated discussion about the drops and gains she’s experienced over the last three years is sure to resonate with health innovators worldwide.

Whether it’s debunking assumptions, finding the right support system, or just finding five minutes to breathe, we’re sure you’ll find a tip (or two) you can take with you!

Here are the show highlights:

  • Why validating your market will help avoid pitfalls (and drops!) (3:15)
  • Conducting continuous research is key to debunking costly assumptions (7:35)
  • You don’t always have to be first to market - sometimes it’s better to be second (14:44)
  • Why the right support and guidance is critical to your product launch (20:36)
  • Try a different approach to your differentiation strategy (30:18)
  • Why you need to take a 5-minute personal reset, every day (33:27)

Guest Bio

Nicola Brown is the Founder of Kokoro, an integrative health data management company and practice community serving all levels of business leadership.

She leverages her community development career in government, universities, and nonprofits to explore new ways of tackling complex challenges facing marginalized communities around the world.

Nicola has earned a Masters of Social Work (MSW) from the University of Georgia and a BS in Family, Youth & Community Sciences from the University of Florida.

If you’d like to reach out to Nicola, you can reach her through the contact page on her website at or on LinkedIn at Nicola Brown.

If you contact Nicola on her website, mention you heard her on Dr. Roxie’s show and Kokoro will do a free assessment for you.

You're listening to health innovators, a podcast and video show about the leaders, influencers and earlier doctors who are shaping the future of healthcare. I'm your host, Dr Roxy Movie. Welcome back health innovators. On today's episode I have someone I'm really excited to speak to, Nicola Brown. She is the founder of COCO row. Welcome to the show, Nicola. Thank you for having me, Dr Roxy. I'm so excited for our dialog today. Me Too. So I always like to start off with having you tell our audience a little bit about your background and what you're doing these days, just to kind of give some context for our conversation today. Absolutely. So, hi everyone, hi every health innovator out there. I'm Nicola and my background is pretty very but on the back end, when you look at it, you can see that everything has stacked up to lead me to where I am. And so I started out as a community researcher looking at community health from an environmental and Ecology Lens, and then landed as a clinician doing trauma prevention work. And like many health innovators, we have had our own health experiences and journeys, and so myself, I became on well and in that unwell period of time learned that the way the system works doesn't really work for someone that's on well, and so I nurse myself back to health using eastern, western and non traditional ways of being, and that's what led me to Cocoreo and that's what we're building right now, is using social connection and data to support you being well on your terms. That's awesome. So it's really interesting because I think a lot of times our careers do take a really like checkered path, path more so than we realize, and then, just like you said, you kind of can look back and go wow, everything was really leading up to today. It all kind of makes sense, although maybe we didn't know exactly where we were headed at some point in our career. Lutely, I think like if I were to say something to my younger self, would be hey, everything is going to matter, so enjoy the present moment, be right where you are, stop trying to know ten years down the line this present moment is going to matter and be significant. Right, right, yeah, so true, so true. If only we could go back in time.

But you know, even if we could, our younger self probably wouldn't listen right. You know, you're right. That's like help health care. When you think about it. Your doctor tells you if you do these things you'll be healthy and you're like yeah, but I'm not, because I have these things to accomplish. So I'm just gonna continue with the level of stress and not decrease it. Right, right, yes, which kind of leads us to your company. Right. On this show we talked a lot about commercialization and how to, you know, share strategies and kind of war stories and helping, you know, as a community, to kind of move the need a little bit on that success rate. So when did you start the business? You know, you kind of told us a little bit about why you started it, but what is that journey been like so far? All right, so we took a unique approach to the business. We started in two thousand and eighteen and we did research for about eight months where we were deep diving, having conversations and really doing prospect research of yes, this is my experience, but how many individuals are seeing this as their health journey experience, to validate the market and also to identify, I who our customer was going to be. At that stage of the company. Fast forward two thousand and nineteen, we launched a facebook package where we brought healthcare to you. We came to your office and we sat in your office as the CEO or the C sweet leader, and we actually watched and saw the patterns of what deters you from doing things that would benefit your health, and that those things were what would seem small, like your water and take the number of interruptions that you have when you're trying to do one task that deters your mind. So we looked at that and with that we then developed our first signature experience. But along that way we had pits and falls and light drops. One of those things we did, and I shared this with Roxy, was that we thought our customers wanted to be on a platform immediately, because platform is king in the startup ecosystem, and that's what we talked about. Build your platform. What type of platform are you building? And what we learned was that our customers needed to build trust first and wanted a smaller way to engage with us, and subsequently that became SMS messaging, and we started out doing that with our own mobile phone. So, for you innovators out there saying I can't pay for a text message service right now. We did it from a phone that we were already paying for and once that list grew, then...

...we paid for a service, once we had paying customers, to transition to that. But the learning curve has been iterating based on the customer insights, versing, iterating based on our experiences as the founder and the core team and, as I say, court team. I've been fortunate to have other practitioners come alongside me for this lofty vision that we have about healthcare being integrated into the flow of your life. So we have brought on board Ryan outlaw as our CTEO, who understand healthcare tech infrastructure in a way to catapultas forward and also understands his own health integration experience to be able to talk about that. And then we brought on board Dr a Grin Day and Dr Braun, and both of them specialized in the mind body interaction. So a lot of times we think about healthcare and we're only thinking about the disease or what is causing a disase, not necessarily like the integration of our organs and how that supports us and being and so that is part of our involvement as a company, is that we have really listened to our customers in a way that, from the outside looking in, you may not say success is there today, but what you see is that our customers are our biggest champions and that's how we've grown so far. HMMMM. So I want to dig deeper into the customer discovery conversation. So we've talked about customer discovery on other episodes, but one of the things that I think that you bring that so unique is is, you know, I wasn't leading you to this part of the conversation. You said this on your own. We started with research. So obviously, coming from a background as a researcher, you know you're defaulting to what you know, but it's just absolutely brilliant and I just don't see a whole lot of innovators start. I mean, honestly, a lot of the innovators that I talked to, they start with a logo, they start with a website, like come, let me come up with this cool brand name for the company and in or maybe some cool tech. Let me start with the product. And really you're not starting with the I'm customer Um. So let's just talk about that a little bit more and what that experience was like for you. And then, I also think kind of dovetailing into some of those things like you just said, where you had this assumption, or maybe a set of...

...assumptions. Yeah, in that real research debunk that and and what that felt like inside. Oh, yeah, how that? And you know that wrestling that may or may not have been that happened as you made the business decisions for yourself in the company. Now the wrestling happened, like I won't deny the wrestling happens. Okay, so our research process started this way. There is research that's done in academic institutions that is considered health longitudinal research, that is participatory, that usually has a control as well as a control trial component to it, and so our first stab was let's pull all the different research studies that talk about the need for health to be integrated and not be something that you do when you're on well. So how do we get to the I am well, how do I know what I'm doing? What is my recipe so that I can continue being well? And if, for instance, I become on well, what do I do? So that was our first step. The second step was, who are the least likely individuals to want to do anything now about their health, and tasted the path of most resistance, the path of most resistant, because if the most resistant person can understand our value proposition, we know that there's a there, there, Yep. And we're not doing it off of one most resistant person, we're doing it after multiple. So we had we had a net goal of having a men of thirteen people in the first cycle of testing this. And so we thought about what is the characteristic of someone that's going to be resistant? Right, it's going to be someone that they're the leader. So I can't show that I need this support because everyone is looking at me to support them, because leaders eat last and we are taught to be servant leaders. So we got our person a leader. All right, what do we already know? We know that entrepreneurs are more prone to have mental health issue, both and physical health issues, then any other sector. So too, we're going after entrepreneurs. And so we had our two and we started scheduling conversations, and this is called linkedin reach outs. Guys, this is not tapping our personal network... people that are going to tell us, yes, it's amazing because they love and care about us. This is stranger conversations, and so that's how we started those conversations and started looking for patterns. As a researcher, my role was sense making, so making sense of the patterns. So my default is to look for what are the patterns here that are unspoken, not the things that we can readily see. Oh, healthcare is broken, yes, but how? Like what part is broken? And that navigation, and so that's where we started with our research and then we grew from insights. From there we did a lot of conversations and focus groups with individuals as well as a secondary level, understanding what it meant as a business leader to feel well and on well, and the salient team, team quest in and conversation that it came back to was when I'm well, everything flows and everything is integrated in my life. It doesn't feel like another thing, it just goes hmm, and presently our system doesn't go RCT. So that full of things that. Yeah, so there's a couple of things that you described. So there's all these biases that I talked about, confirmation bias, selection bias and and you seem to have been really intentional. Is that? Like you said, I'm not just looking for people to validate or confirm what I already believed to be true, and you weren't even selecting people to participate in this research, that we're going to maybe sew the data to wherever you wanted it to go, that you were really seeking out new insights and testing hypotheses as opposed to preconceived notions, that you were just looking for validation for absolutely, and one of the things, our core insight that we took away was that the thing that leads people towards where they are and how they view their health stems from the thing that people and business owners, everyone would have heard this. When you act a business owner what's keeping them up at night, they will say money, HMM, and we forget the integration of money and emotions on our health and wellbeing and how that subsequently affects our choices with regards to health and how we then show up. HMM. So deep, Nikola knows, so deep. I like it. Okay. So I want to keep digging into...

...this customer discovery bit. Come on, I hear things like, well, I don't have time to do all of that research because there's a window of opportunity and I got to have to get to market now, otherwise we're going to lose our opportunity to make a successful business. What do you say for that? How many million people are on the earth? Like that's my response, like there's so many people on the earth and if you think about anything that exists, there is not one person monopolizing an industry, and nor would we want that. So the idea that I own, I need to hurry up and get there, is crazy to me because, like, in the hurry, you are cutting corners and so you're subsequently not even doing the vision that you really want to see executed in the world. You're like, Oh, okay, I'll cut this vision shot and at some point I'll double back. I understand that there's a window with regards to innovation, and so you patent things, you get things copyrighted, you get a great legal team like we have been fortunate to have at Coke Roh, and you find experts in your field that are able to give you the foresight from a futurist land lends of where things are heading, because if you're building something for right now today, by the time you build it it's almost obsolete. So let's think about if you're being an innovator. Let's think about it. Are you thinking ten years or immediate future? Yeah, yeah, and you know, sometimes I think it's ego that's involved to where, you know, it's ego or pride that makes us think that we need to be first to market because that's going to be the successful strategy or it's going to make me feel or look really good if I if nobody else has done this before, I'm the first, and you know that's not always the best strategy either, and so maybe being second or third entering the market is not that big of a deal. It might actually be to your benefit that you actually waited eight months or a year to conduct this research, because now you're entering the the market in a much better way than actually you would have Ed. You just kind of, like you said, cut the corners and just got on there. What's the first email provider? WAS IT AOL? You've got mail? I don't know. Let's see. That's the thing. No one knows. I can't tell you the answers to that. Right, I'm asking the question, but I don't know the answers to that. All I hear you got mail and I think of is it when Harry met Sally or one of those Meg Ryan movies or...

...something exactly. But that's the thing, that's the grounding that I will say our team, via our team, are legal team at Goodwin and our core team that's internal between Cocaro and our supporters and initial funder from memfonti. What ye keep telling us is like, you don't have to be first, when I just need to be great at what you're doing. Yeah, because that product will speak for it. So I hope everyone heard that. If not, rewind play again for you to remind so how many surveys or interviews have you conducted in the last three years, since the time you started? That gives some color and perspective to this conversation. We have done over three hundred surveys, wow. We have done over two hundred assessments on different emotional states. We've spoken to roughly almost five hundred practitioners around the world that talk about health. Have done a Webinar about hell. We have not been shy about reaching out. Hey, we saw your talk about this. Want to have a conversation about how you're thinking about this now and in the future. So I will say to the listener that's like man, that sounds like a lot. It is. HMM. Yeah, she's like, yeah, got to work people, and we didn't do it overnight. Yeah, right, every every step of the process we are continuously researching and iterating. We are not married to one journey path. HMM. We are okay with the ebbs and flows of we got this new insight, like I told you about the platform. That was huge jump back because that meant that we weren't going to raise capital right away, because investors are looking for the tech. They're not looking for the service per se. They want to see the tech behind the service. Yeah, and so that meant that we needed our service portion to bring an enough to sustain what we were doing so that we could continue to build a tech at the pace that works for our customers. So let's dive into that a little bit, because I think that is something that would be very valuable to our listeners as well. Is talking about, you know, the conversation that you have with investors or advisors or you know, you're key team members about you know, like run rate and cash flow and revenue and kind...

...of like okay, you know, paid sales money coming in versus. You know, we just need to keep interviewing more people. We need have more conversations and and you know, obviously, as your job as the founder, is balancing those two things, which is probably science and art. It's a creative process to figure out how you're going to bring money and damn business. Yeah, one of the things that I was grateful did. I didn't know was part of the startup culture was that people built things and didn't have people pay for them. Right. I did not come in with that insight, and so for everything that we did we were like this is the cost, or like, presently we have offerings that are tiered intentionally towards your socioeconomic status. MM. So it's not a barrier to entry, but it's also learning for us as a company as we're thinking about our pricing models and our structures, etc. The other thing I would say around pricing is that you're going to get it wrong, and our key strategic advisor right now nudged us in the fall and was like, Hey, your services are kind of cheap. You might want to adjust your pricing, and that nudge was hey, when we started we had no idea what the costing was for what we were offering. So we took a guest simit at the price. Now we have data, so why aren't we using that data to modify our pricing? And as a result, we modified our pricing with that insight. But it takes having your own as the CEO, your own personal board of Advisors, because it doesn't matter if you're a Sei entrepreneur. Each time you're building there's new knowledge that you won't have of and so having experts around you to support you and guide you is critical to this process and I am always seeking out people that have a skill set that I don't have, because I am not trying to be all things to all people. HMM, yeah, yeah, and and that's it. That's so important, right. You know, the example that you gave on the pricing. Also, had you been outside of the company looking in, you probably would have looked at it and go wow, their pricings really low, but when you're in it it's so hard to see that. Yeah, so you know, sometimes it's a different of expertise, but sometimes it's just a different level of clarity, just outside versus inside, soliately.

Yeah, and sometimes you get so caught up inside of the internal workings of the business that you forget to go back to the thirtyzero foot I view. Yep, see, to see how far you are on the journey, because it is in fact a journey. HMM, yeah, Yep. So did you compensate or what were your considerations around compensation for people, customers, to participate in your research? You know, did they did you pay them for their time? Because that's the other thing I hear is, well, I I'm trying to sell the Soandso and I'm never going to get them to spend twenty minutes telling me, you know, helping me build my company in my product for free. So what was that experience like? And and did you compensate or maybe not? And what? What? What did you learn from that? So we didn't compensate in the traditional sense of everyone that participates receives a gift card. Yep. What we did do is, if we were meeting you for breakfast, we bought you breakfast. If you were meeting you for lunch, you got lunch. If you did a focus group, there was a full meal provided. So we made sure that we did things honestly around meals. That was a conscious decision, because that's a meal that you don't have to think about. Yeah, and there's so many things around social connection and thinking about what conversations comes up as you are eating, and so that played into our holistic looking at an individual. So that's how we navigated that sphere. But I do know I have been fortunate to interview with other startups that are providing gift cards, two different entities for the insight that you provide in a thirty minute, sixty minute conversation, and I think that works to but what I would say is do not put yourself in debt to pay for the insight that you are getting. Right, right, yeah, Yep, absolutely. So what has research and distance selling been like amidst the coat of the pandemic? How is that change things? I would say it hasn't changed US much. We have been a remote first team, so we have been on zoom before zoom was hot, and so we've gotten that under our belt. And with regards to our customers and having conversations, we still...

...prefer dialing your number and having a conversation. That has not gone away as much as one made a Zume or presume, and we we still do text messages by on a first instance of telling us what's going on. We found that the narrative feedback is so critical to our iteration process and our growth process that we bank time in for that each week. So one of the things that I would say is like time for research and development that is structured and banked into the flow of our team's week has been critical. Versus Oh yeah, we haven't researched anything in a while, we should tunnel in and do some research this week because it's been a part of our being. And so we know we research every week. Everyone has a different time period that they're doing it, but you're taking time to intentionally research. Some of that is looking at our customer data for the last week. Others is looking at what are new insights that we need to know based on what we saw in our customer data, and so that is a core part of how we operate as a team and our company culture. And our research is focused on impact, because success can look so squiggly for everyone and for us we want to know what is the longitudinal impact of what we are doing today. Yeah, and so, like, I'll give you an example. One of our business owners just bought their first house, and that is success and you'd be like, what does buying a house have to do with our health, but they had been stressing about this opportunity for so long that it started to add to the stress of operating their business. MMM MMM, yeah, and we know stresses the silent killer, right, right, Yep, absolutely. So, yeah, I definitely think that it's important that you mentioned that. That really research is like a fundamental core value or part of your company culture and has been from day one. It's not something that you do in a moment of time. You know, oh well, every quarter we go out. It's just who you are and what you do, and I love that and I think that you know, as someone on the outside looking in, I think that that is a going to be and continue to be a game changer for your success in the company. Thank you. And I would say it's also how...

...we empower our customers. We're providing them with opportunities to become researchers of themselves so that they can better understand their health and wellbeing. Yeah, and we believe well being done well is when you are able to articulate what you are feeling, sensing, knowing to someone that maybe the expert in that area, to then come collaboratively to a decision of what is taking place. Yeah, yeah, so, you know, it's interesting. I think you know, when I hear you describe the company and what you have to offer, it screams wellness, it screams employee wellness programs. Right. It screams prevention and that is something that you know, we've had some success in healthcare, but there's always this of well, who's paying for that and who's going to benefit from that? And then there's also at the same time, it can be somewhat competitive because they're a whole host of substitute like solutions out there in the marketplace. So, you know, help us understand what was some of your considerations as you were looking at your differentiation strategy entering into that kind of market place. So our differentiation was not just wellness for a wellness M we took a data approach to way to being out. So presently wellness is I go and I do yoga or I meditate, Dailey. However, what you don't know is, is that actually what my what I need right now? I don't know that because I haven't thought to assess that. I'm just doing it because that's the fad to do. And so what we do is we give individuals permission and permission to try and say that doesn't work for me, but I will try another thing. Yeah. So we are presenting different resources in a tailored way that you are able to try it and really assess. Is this what wellness is going to be for me, or am I doing this just because it's cool? And it's okay if you want to do it because it's cool, but like understanding your reasoning behind why you're doing the thing is critical to your overall holistic success. And so that's one of our differentiators, is our research approach to deciding what wellness experience you are doing, hmm, and your input being core to that, driving that direction and us not saying, Hey, roxy you know you should do this, here is your menu.

Do these things and only these things in Saranara. I hope you do well. That's not how we work. So what we how we work is that we give you a menu and on that menu you are trying the different things and you are subsequently building your personal recipe, so for what works for you. So so I it sounds like it is extremely personalized. It starts with data. So I don't know if you're going to really be able to answer this next question because I'm because this is kind of more of like a some general things. But for all of the innovators, see sweet executives, busy leaders, you know, out there as we wrap up here, you know, what are a couple of things that you would recommend to help everyone improve their wellbeing going forward in this journey? So in the morning when you get up, before you do your first call, grab your device, do anything like that, just go outside your front door and take five breaths. The son May Nine Poles. So easy. Yeah, the Sun may not be up yet, but the first air and the morning is so good to our lungs and our body. So that would be something that I would say. That's easy for busy person. Yeah, five minutes and just go outside and allow that to be and for those that are listening, and I like, well, outside is negative something degrees that it's really called or outside. By the time I get up it's really hot. Dressed accordingly. HMM. It doesn't stop you from doing your work, it doesn't stop you from going in your car and go into your office. So think about it as five minutes of doing something well for yourself. The other thing is daily gratitude. Each of us have someone in our life create a buddy system that you are doing gratitudes with that person where you're sharing what you're grateful for that day. And before let me stop you before you're like that's going to be hard. Some days I'm not grateful for anything, retool that and say what went well today? Right, right, because in spite of all the things that go wrong, we can usually find at least one thing that went well. Yeah, yeah, and even just having that awareness of maybe I need to do some things differently make some different choices. So I think other things go well.

But yeah, very true. And you know the two examples that you provided. They or so simple, soft, simple, easy, don't cost money, don't even really cost a whole lot of time. So easy to do. Yeah, thank you for that. You're welcome. Yeah, okay. So, Nicola, how can folks get a hold of you if anybody wants to follow up with you just about your commercialization journey or about the company and what you have to offer? Oh sure, if you'd like to get in contact with me, my website is www dot join jo I and Coco O Ko Ko rocom. You can also get in contact through the website through our contact us tab and if you get in contact with us and say hey, I heard you on Dr Roxy will do a free assessment for you where you can understand where you are with your emotions and your wellbeing as you are innovating and healthcare excellent. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom in your time with us today. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you so much for listening. I know you're busy working to bring your life changing innovation to market and I value your time and attention. To get the latest episodes on your mobile device, automatically subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast APP like apple podcast, spotify and stitcher. Thank you for listening and I appreciate everyone who shared the show with friends and colleagues. See You on the next episode of Health Innovators.

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