After Apple bought Lark’s first Bluetooth sleep band, the wave came. Julia Hu found herself signing deals with Best Buy, Walmart, Target, RadioShack and more. Each company ordered tens of thousands of devices, and Julia began to see her dreams come true. All the products were built and shipped to the stores, but then things changed. It turns out, what may seem so normal today, was not well known in the early 2010s. Bluetooth devices and the Internet of Things hadn’t entered the mainstream yet, and many of these companies ended up over-ordering the devices. What Julia didn’t realize was without properly marketing and educating the market, these businesses didn’t know how to sell these products, and they were being shipped back in hordes. Hu explains, “I didn’t read the fine print in the contract that these large companies could return your product in any condition at any time when they don’t want it. And I literally had thousands of Larks just coming back in bad conditions.”
It was, what she called, her “million dollar mistake”. So how did this happen? To understand, we have to rewind back to the beginning of Lark. Julia had been going to MIT for graduate school after she started her first two companies, and she thought she was going to start another cleantech startup, but she decided to pivot and start Lark because she wasn’t sleeping well at MIT, and she was interested in trying to do something tangible to help her sleep better.
That was the beginning of Lark: a sleep band. You would wear it at night and it would track a variety of metrics and then an AI coach that was created in conjunction with a Stanford sleep expert would use those data to coach you and help you sleep better. Launching at the TechCrunch conference, she got over 500 preorders during her presentation and raised $1 million in funding. Through that one sleep band, she began to see the potential to broaden her platform to help people who were struggling with all types of health problems.
From the start, Lark was always about improving one’s health, and most of all, helping those with chronic conditions lead normal lives. The topic was close to Julia Hu’s heart.
Julia had a chronic disease that went undiagnosed for about twenty-five years, and so when she was a kid, she would have these incredibly painful attacks that lasted seven to eight hours at a time, seemingly randomly. It felt lonely. She struggled emotionally and healthwise for such a long time, and her dad took her around to dozens of specialists who couldn’t solve the problem and figure out what was wrong.
Her dad kept looking. Luckily, they found a pediatrician who worked with Julia every week or so for twelve years helping her manage pain, stress, sleep, diet, and exercise. Even though he didn’t completely understand what was wrong, he was able to get rid of 90% of the attacks. From her experience with that doctor, the idea of a 24/7 team to help someone with their conditions and their health struggles began to materialize, and she wanted to find a way to give that to the world.
Several years after Julia found that doctor, she entered Stanford University to major in environmental engineering. While there, she interned at seven startups that had been started by former students, and she discovered how much she loved them. Through working there, she figured out what she liked to do (marketing and strategy) and what she didn’t like (finance models). Building something from nothing fascinated her, and she had to do a lot of fast learning on the job. Most importantly, Julia learned the importance of solving the big problems in the world around her, a lesson that would stick with her for the years to come.
It turns out, startups were the perfect calling for her. As she observed, “I liked so many different things. I liked science, I liked art, I liked design, and I liked behavior change”. Even though her many pursuits made her feel indecisive about possible job paths when she was younger, they paved the way for Lark. Through exploring these multifaceted interests, she was able to internalize the different skills and use them when she started her own company, and she discovered some key traits that both she and many other entrepreneurs possessed. She was stubborn, resilient, idealistic, and she didn’t adhere to the rules.
With her interests stoked, she started a few cleantech companies, which brings us back to MIT and the sleep band. After Julia’s experience with getting many of her devices being returned, she decided to pivot and focus on the AI software side of chronic condition management. She rationalized, “as a startup, you die if you don’t focus.”
She acknowledged that improving and almost recreating something that the company had already been working on wasn’t any easier. Sitting on top of 120 devices connected to the Internet of Things, the AI nurse, Lark, would act as a conversational artificial intelligence layer that serves the hourly needs of those with chronic diseases. For instance, if one were to have type 2 Diabetes, Lark would try to find ways to get that person to exercise more and lose weight, eat their medication on time, watch for their glucose levels, get help if needed, and cope with stress and anxiety that many times comes with having a disease.
An average day would like this. In the morning, when you wake up, you chat with Lark, and if you didn’t sleep well, she would have figured that out through one of your Bluetooth devices and preemptively give you some suggestions for how to lead your day based on that. During the day, Lark also does things like counting calories and macronutrient intake so that she can give diet suggestions. Furthermore, Lark is always tracking present and past data to show if you have improved or what could be done better. Based on how your day goes, you will get your own unique conversation with Lark.
As a small business with less money than comfortable, developing a complicated artificial intelligence interface, she had to get creative with building the product and getting the word out there. Her first challenge came in the form of finding a team to help her develop the A.I. coach. For Julia, the hardest part of getting these people to work at Lark was the fact that they would have to be paid a fraction of what they could normally make. Julia found that there were still perks to be offered. For example, she pointed out “one of the nice things about startups is that if you come and join early you get a lot of equity in the company, so if it does well, you get to own part of that company.”
With a team working on the project, the Lark AI nurse looked like it was finally going to be turned from dream to reality, except it took a lot longer than anybody expected. For three years, it was tough for Julia Hu and her coworkers. Sometimes it felt like everything was going against her and the pressure became so high that she thought about giving up, “Half of the hardness of a startup is just managing your own emotions and your own psychology; it’s such a rollercoaster,” she explained. At some points, she was pulling eighteen hour days consistently, and it started to drain her.
She still found tactics to keep her going during these hard times. For starters, she had a CEO coach/therapist that helped her build resilience and find concrete ways to be ready for the next obstacle ahead. Furthermore, she found that when things began to exhaust her, taking a rest was a great way to recharge and approach the problem from a different angle. Most importantly, she said that knowing that you are doing something that truly matters can help you get through hard times. By addressing why she was doing what she was doing, Hu reaffirmed her path and her goals.
Fortunately, she stuck through it and was rewarded. Lark got a million patients and people onto the coaching service quickly becoming the world’s largest A.I healthcare provider, and they were able to train the AI nurse using machine learning to become smarter. They debuted to a huge success, being named in “Business Insiders’s Top 10 Most Innovative Apps” among other companies like Uber and Airbnb and making it onto the list of “Top 10 Apps of the Year” on the app store out of 2 million in 2015. Finally, in late 2016, they were able to show that their AI nurse was as good clinically as the gold standard live healthcare professional.
These days, Lark works with many of the largest health insurance companies in the world to help manage their patients who are suffering from diabetes, prediabetes, hypertension, anxiety, and more. And as Lark has slowly sharpened their product and made it more intelligent, Julia has focused on growing the team and making herself irrelevant. For each new hire, she has one less task to do and one more way to be more efficient with her time. As for her pivot, Julia is confident that the Lark AI coach will be here to stay. She describes her vision of the future, “I want to provide personal, compassionate healthcare to anyone in the world struggling with a chronic disease. With billions of people struggling with chronic conditions, I hope that we can provide 24/7 care for as many of those people as we can.”
“Don’t settle, and dream big. Don’t be shy that your dreams are so big that they sound and feel impossible because that is what will get you through the hard times and keep you going.”