Written by Chanie Hyde on the 22nd of June, 2017
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It takes a lot of courage to share a personal story with the world. It takes guts, plus a lot of determination to become an entrepreneur. Sally, founder of Airloom has all these traits in spades.
We’re checking in with Sally this week, to find out what spurred her to create and deliver a product so personal and fraught with trepidation for most people, that they won’t even talk about it…
“My mission is to make the experience of death easier for every life involved” – Sally, Airloom.
Airloom began as a project for my honours year at uni. The brief asked us to take an everyday experience or task – like food storage, and find ways to improve it. For example, a redesign of something like Tupperware, to make it more efficient.
My mum had passed away some three months before, so my family and I were very much in the thick of it all. I couldn’t believe that death, something that humans have experienced forever, had not yet been innovated upon. It’s hard to believe that the process of losing a loved one is still a logistical nightmare for those who are grieving.
I decided that this is what I would focus on: to find new ways of approaching aging and death so people would no longer have to go through what my family and I did.
Since I was living and breathing the experience of losing my mum, the research was already there. I just had to look at my life and situation objectively, with a design perspective. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this project would change the course of my life. After all, it was only an honours project.
It was my lecturer who planted the seed – after my end of semester presentation he said:
“You should build this thing. Having even a few sentences left behind from someone who has passed away can be immensely powerful.”
It was then I realised I had found a legitimate problem and that I should solve it.
After a good two years of making every single excuse in the book to not start working on the product, I packed my bags and moved to New York City. I wanted to gain more design experience. However, landing a job working for another startup, only made me think, “why would I work for another startup to get experience in UX design? I can just start my own and learn the hard way!”
I knew then that my time would be better spent working on something I’m incredibly invested in. I then packed up (again) and crossed the country to Silicon Valley, to begin building a startup out of my cousin’s garage. I was finally starting Airloom – I was all in.
I decided to look for external help when I felt I had proved the concept offline. I’m not a technical person so I had been getting by using basic programs like Excel and Survey Monkey to test rough prototypes and MVPs.
Feedback for these prototypes became based around them not being properly built and developed. It was pretty clear that I needed help taking what I’d designed and turning it into a proper, fully realised product. I’d researched the problem, found a solution, and now needed help with refining Airloom and bringing it to market.
I’ve always thrived in a structured environment, and as a solo founder I wanted a sense of community where I would have access to advice, mentors and networking opportunities. An accelerator program would not only give me routine and deadlines, but would validate my whole concept, and validate that I was the person to do it.
Being part of an accelerator, I knew I’d have the opportunity to meet some amazing people. I did not expect opportunities to arise as effortlessly as they have, nor to feel the wonderful support we receive from partners, mentors and individuals involved with SheStarts.
I hadn’t expected to form such strong relationships with the other founders either. The relationships I’ve built with the other female founders has been so valuable, I honestly wouldn’t be upright if it wasn’t for them.
There’s just no sense of competition, no cliques. Everyone is very authentic and natural, all working towards their own goals in a shared environment. It’s really nice to be a part of that. We’re very much in it together. If we can support or help one another, we do. We laugh together, whinge together, drink together – I’m not sure anyone else in my life besides those ten other founders understands the craziness of it.
I expected the process to be hard, but not to this extent. I didn’t expect that I would be pushed and pulled and moulded back into form again as much as I have been. I knew I’d be given advice throughout, but navigating advice that comes from such opposite ends of the spectrum has been one of the biggest challenges – how do you know who to listen to?
The sheer amount of work that needs to be done is almost as hard as the decision making. The number of hats I have to wear for all the different parts that make up Airloom. Making sure that I complete each task with not only a level of confidence, but making sure everything I do is to a high standard, that nothing’s half baked. That’s tough.
In any given week, an advisor session might look like: ‘Have you written a blog post yet? What about your SWOT analysis? Your social media? Your pitch? Have you set your goals yet? We also really need to update your due diligence folder; can you get onto that asap? What’s happening with your product?’
Being pushed can be challenging, but it’s also one of the best things about the program. It’s moulding my brain into the right state for making Airloom the best it can be; I know I’m doing things the right way, recording the right information, finding the right data.
“I’ve learned to trust my gut and have the confidence to stick to my guns. Making no decision is worse than a bad decision.”
The confidence and momentum in my work I’ve gained has been invaluable, as well as the amazing people I’ve met and worked alongside. The advice and feedback I constantly receive and have access to, such as: the support from the incredible partners and mentors, the credibility and validation working with BlueChilli brings, having a space where all questions are welcomed. These have all been so vital and helpful throughout the program.
If I look back to the beginning of the program, I wouldn’t have thought I would be able to pitch with a level of confidence that gave Airloom justice. I found pitching especially difficult, as I wasn’t sure how to talk about death without alienating my audience. One of the documentary series episodes explored my problem with this in detail.
So it was pretty validating that when I finished a recent pitch, people had tears in their eyes, warm tears, as they could see clearly why Airloom exists. For me this was a defining moment as I could see how far I’ve already come in just a few months.
I’m not sure I ever feel like I know exactly what’s next. I certainly never feel on top of everything – does anyone? Sometimes, if I’m lucky there may be five minutes where I think everything is running smoothly, and then something happens, then things will change course, go backwards or fall apart completely.
Often the hardest parts is finding the track itself. There’s also never just one track. Everything regarding the product may be going swimmingly, but there will be difficulties in other areas of the business.
“I do have a plan and overall direction, but I’ve come to understand and accept that the path leading there can change.”
It’s easy to get overwhelmed if I look at just how many things I have to do to reach my goals, so I try to not get bogged down with the big picture. Instead I focus on taking one step at a time, using weekly, daily, even hourly to-do-lists.
I’m surrounding myself with great people. From SheStarts advisors offering strategic business advice, to my sisters helping with anything big or small. I know I have people in my life to point me in the right direction, to tell me the hard truths I don’t want to admit, or to help me up when I fall. All of these people will help to keep me on track.
My mission is still the same: To make the experience of death easier for every life involved. If anything, this program has shown me the potential to make it even bigger than I had imagined.
Sally’s candour and honesty is so refreshing, her passion for making the most out of every situation is inspiring. We are incredibly proud to have her as part of the SheStarts team and can’t wait to see how far we can take Airloom together.
To catch up on all the episodes and watch next week, stay tuned here!
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