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How These Founders Grew a Startup from 50 to 4 Million Users

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Marah Lidey and Naomi Hirabayashi on the power of self-compassion and staying productive as founders

Seven years ago, Naomi Hirabayashi and Marah Lidey were coworkers and friends supporting each other through their professional journeys. Both were thriving on senior management teams at a tech company, growing their teams, and feeling fulfilled. Yet, through their personal experiences, they realized that isolation from stress, frustration, and anxiety impacted their ability to thrive.

Together, Marah and Naomi set out to change that. In 2016, Shine was created to build a more compassionate world. Today, the community of 4M members use Shine to create a routine around treating themselves with self-kindness.

What inspired you to come together to create Shine?

Marah: On average, a person has about 50,000 negative thoughts a day. And if you are a person of color, it’s higher. We found that through our daily conversations, we could help each other unpack and normalize what we were dealing with.

Naomi: This kind of negative thinking cripples us from being able to reach and enjoy life’s most important milestones. It then can evolve into self-criticism. Through our own experiences, we knew the tool to help solve this specific challenge was self compassion.

How did you turn this idea into a thriving business?

Naomi: In the beginning, it was just two of us building this business together. Eventually, we raised a pre-seed round that allowed us to bring on our CTO and a growth marketer. A seed round in 2017 laid the groundwork for where we are now.

Marah: Since we’re from non-traditional backgrounds, the most important thing we did was validation. We didn’t go to business school or Ivy Leagues and we’ve never started a company before. So we asked ourselves three questions to help validate our idea:

  • What could this look like?
  • What could it become?
  • What’s the impact it can have?

Then, we started with a prototype and tested for one month with 50 users. Right away, users shared stories that explained their connection to Shine. They felt comfortable with it and referred to the product as if it was a friend. After testing, we launched a website on Squarespace and the community quickly grew. Without marketing, we jumped from 50 users to 300 to 3,000.

It was exciting to see such a positive result. Once we knew there was a real product and the community liked it, we realized we needed investors to help turn this into a bigger product.

How did you find and choose your investors?

Naomi: We prioritize with three categories:

  • Passion for the mission
  • Partners over power
  • Strategic value

The first investor we met with was Daniel Gulati. He immediately validated us and said, “I can see where and how this grows into a massive business. Come back when you start raising.” We learned fast that he’s the investor you want to call to celebrate the big, exciting moments and milestones. He’s also the investor we call when things aren’t going as well or when we’re stuck because he’ll help. And that speaks volumes. Having that help through the entire life stage of the company, through all the difficulties, is valuable.

How did Shine reach 4M users across 189 countries?

Naomi: Accessibility is key. We reject that taking care of yourself should cost a lot of money or look a certain way or can only be achieved when you’re on vacation at the beach. We know that that’s not reality for many people. At Shine, every single piece of content goes through a Privilege Checklist. It’s a tool we use to make sure content is never preachy, presumptuous, or pricey.

We didn’t see ourselves represented in this space, so we designed our business for those who were like us. For example, our app’s premium subscription provides access to guided meditation. Roughly 80% of our voice talent are other women and people of color, which differs from what is available through other major consumer meditation or well-being services. One of our users recently submitted this review:

“This app is changing my life with every audio! Perhaps the most incredible part has been that most audios are in the voices of women and men of color or other marginalized groups. I never realized how deeply this would impact me. I feel included, in some ways for the first time.” — Mariam C, April 2019

We know exactly what it’s like to hear voices of people in our communities.

What is a productivity hack that changed your life?

Marah: Go big and go home is our biggest productivity hack. We all recognize that time is finite and if it’s about being present where you are and making sure you’re giving yourself time to recharge.

When we’re here, we’re here. We show up on time, meetings are focused, we get work done, then take care of ourselves. We take our weekends and practice Self Care Saturdays. We let ourselves ease back into the week as opposed to burning out by trying to be on every single day of the week, 12 hours a day. We encourage our employees to be ambitious but to also ensure that they’re getting time to recharge. We want to protect the only asset that matters: our people.

What are your tips for new entrepreneurs?

Marah: We remind other founders, especially women, to acknowledge your power. Often, we think there’s only one right way to do things. In the best case scenario, you get into a space because you’re passionate about it. The worst case is that you lean towards homogeny, try and go with the flow, and do what other people tell you to do. It happens all the time.

But the reason products like ours help specific groups is because we filter through the external pressures. We stay connected to our instinct and really listen to it.

We didn’t see ourselves in a lot of mainstream companies. And we took that reality to heart and allowed it to be a big part of Shine’s mission. So we want to make sure, especially for marginalized founders like us, that they understand the value of their instincts and experience. Don’t lose that connection.

In our new Founder Spotlights, entrepreneurs from our portfolio companies share insights about the problems they’re working to solve, how they built their companies, and advice to new entrepreneurs.

How These Founders Grew a Startup from 50 to 4 Million Users was originally published in The Forecast on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.