Recently, the AfterWork team were thrilled to announce our pre-seed investment in Medoo, founded by the indomitable duo Paulwyn Devasundaram and Allard van Helbergen. Medoo is software that helps improve the experience and effectiveness of life coaching, for both coaches and coachees. Their novel product allows coaches to construct, track and visualise the coaching journey; as well as providing more touch points between sessions. These check-ins are already proving to be game-changing.
Fortunately for us, Paulwyn was a member of the AfterWork community long before she and Allard came to us with the idea for Medoo. And what a member she is! Routinely, we saw Paulwyn go above and beyond, lending sharp insight to founder requests, sharing considered opinions on a variety of deal squads and even driving technical diligence on deals as they headed for our Investment Committee. In parallel, Paulwyn was working day and night with Allard to build conviction in Medoo. Their methodical approach, underpinned by personal passion for the coaching experience, has been inspiring to watch.
In this interview, Paulwyn and Allard get vulnerable about their path to become founders, their unwavering belief in the power of coaching and their experience of making it work as life partners, work partners… and pet parents!
1. How did you get the idea for your business?
Paulwyn: Creating long lasting behaviour change and personal growth is hard. Often we are so entrenched in our ways of thinking and doing, that it’s very hard for us to even see how to change or grow. In the past, I’ve struggled with negative thought loops, ineffective communication patterns, anxiety and depression (and I still do, although it’s a lot better now). Reading self-help material, using behaviour change & habit forming apps, and even therapy weren’t as helpful to me as coaching was.
Specifically, during my time at Canva, the coaching that I received from the internal coaching team was incredibly valuable in helping me grow as an individual and as a leader. I felt that I was able to accelerate my growth, and see significant changes in myself that were sticky. During this process however, I noticed that there was a lack of depth in tooling to support the process of coaching. Being in the engineering side of tech, this naturally led me to think about how I could support this wonderful community by building products to support and enhance the coaching process.
2. Talk us through your journey…How did it go from an idea to a living, breathing thing?
Paulwyn: Once I had the outline of the idea, the first step was to convince Allard to work with me. He asked some tough questions, did some due diligence, and agreed to work with me! We did some initial research: both desktop research, and speaking to coaches & coachees. Using the information gathered from this research, Allard and I did a design sprint to come up with some early prototypes for solutions to the biggest pain points from the research. Then we went back to the coaches & coachees with our prototypes, got their feedback, and iterated on them until we had confidence in the general outline of an initial solution. Allard then worked on putting together a set of designs for our proof-of-concept, and I worked on the technical architecture. Once we had these, we worked with our small team of engineers to build the proof-of-concept, which we called our ‘alpha’ version. We then tested the alpha version through deep usability tests, iterated on the designs further based on the feedback, and now we are working on our beta version. The really cool thing for us is being able to use the product as we build it, and seeing how it is making our coaching relationships with our coaches (& coachees) even better.
3. What has been the biggest barrier to getting your business off the ground so far? How did you overcome it?
Paulwyn & Allard: Feeling like there are so many unknown unknowns, and figuring out ways to systematically de-risk the product roadmap, business model, and overall strategy has been our biggest challenge. Leaning on the Afterwork community, and the networks of our investors has been incredibly helpful with this.
There have been so many people who have been so generous with their time, and skills: from our friends who are helping us with their engineering and design skills, to our friends who shout us free things because we are a super lean startup and they want to help, to the flower shop lady who gave me a massive discount so I could stay close to budget for our first event, and the wonderful staff at The Commons who have created an amazingly supportive environment for us to work from. We owe them all a huge debt of gratitude, and one day we will be in a position to pay them back, and pay it forward.
4. What inspired you to make ‘Afterwork, work’?
Allard: We are both builders, and we were purposefully looking for something to make our own. We have both wanted to have a startup for years and we even tried to get some projects off the ground in the past. So, I think we approached it quite seriously from the start. The pivotal moment for me was the combination of insights we gained from our user research, which validated the pain points, and the second prototype, which indicated that we might have something here.
5. Outside of your company, what are you into right now?
Allard: We have a 2 year old Maltese-Shihtzu named Thor, who is a boundless bundle of energy. We spend time training her properly and are trying to get her to the next level in Obedience classes (‘boring’ heeling) so that we can officially start doing Agility (jumps and tunnels), which she really likes.
We also love travelling with a theme of adventure and exploration: scuba diving trips, snowboarding trips, remote 4WD camping trips, etc. Had to put this on pause for nearly 3 years now due to covid, but we’re hoping to pick this back up later this year!
6. Who or what inspires you and keeps you focused on your north star?
Paulwyn: Personally, I’ve had some tough experiences in the past, and struggled with anxiety and depression through those experiences. Looking back, I feel a sense of pride and strength in how far I’ve come. I’ve had the support of many amazing people (like our coaches), and now I feel that it’s my turn to give back something of value. The biggest thrill I’ve ever felt is when I’ve put a smile on someone’s face as they use something I’ve built. That’s what keeps me inspired!
7. What’s it like building a business with your partner?
Allard: It is super fun, but also tricky at times! On the one hand, you understand each super deeply so certain things require less explanation, and thus you work really well together. On the other, there are also unspoken expectations and it’s tougher to keep the working part of the relationship ‘professional’ when emotions are high. Ultimately, I love working together and we have a lot of fun in the process. It’s a privilege to be able to share so much of your life with each other, and at the end of the day, I’m very thankful that I get to experience this with Paulwyn.
Paulwyn: Agree with Allard! :D What I love about working with Allard is that we have a foundation of trust and shared values to build upon, which I think would be hard to replicate with another co-founder. I also love that we can naturally spend a lot of time working together. Of course there are downsides like managing unspoken expectations, but overall I think it’s awesome. We also have our little dog Thor, who comes with us to work everyday, and we jokingly call her our CFO: Chief Fun Officer. The early days of a startup are intense and sometimes stressful - who better to support you through this and share the experience than the people (and animals) who are closest to you?
8. What unusual or childhood experiences prepared you for what you do today?
Allard: I was always building and crafting things as a child, like drawing, painting, and woodworking. When we got our first computer I used it to make drawings (PC paint on a PC-386). A couple of computers further, when the internet came along I decided I just had to know how to make a website. A bunch of AltaVista-ing later, I found some HTML and CSS tutorials. I still remember getting super excited when I saw my first webpage appear on screen. An <h1>, a <p>, and yellow background colour. Amazing! Haha! Seriously though, I ascribe becoming a UX designer to that moment.
9. What is your golden rule that you try to live and work by?
Allard & Paulwyn: Consistency, and focus: showing up every single day, and staying focussed on building a product that our customers love. There are many distractions along the way, but we try and keep an unwavering focus on our customers, because for us, building something they love is the most important thing.
10. What advice would you have for anyone looking to take the plunge?
Allard & Paulwyn: There’s never a perfect moment to take the plunge. Looking back on a few years ago, when we tried to build our voice AI interface product, we now think we knew so little! So we’re willing to bet that 5 years from now, we will look back on today and think we knew so little. :D
Setting some guard rails for levels of comfort e.g., modelling our financial runway, being clear on our shared values, what our non-negotiables are, etc., helped us prepare as best as we could, and then take the plunge.
Once you take the plunge though, things often are not as scary as they seemed before. Humans are incredibly resilient and creative. We (and you) are humans, so we (and you) are of course resilient and creative. You can do this!