Joe Chamdani of TuringSense: “The route that makes it easiest for customers is usually the best route, even if it’s the harder one”

The route that makes it easiest for customers is usually the best route, even if it’s the harder one. For example, when we started TuringSense, the easier route for us was to do what everyone else was doing, such as depending on the user to affix the sensors onto their bodies and to rely on […]

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The route that makes it easiest for customers is usually the best route, even if it’s the harder one. For example, when we started TuringSense, the easier route for us was to do what everyone else was doing, such as depending on the user to affix the sensors onto their bodies and to rely on them to provide a stable magnetic field environment. With hindsight, we should have seen sooner that both issues would have huge usability problems for consumers.

As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Chamdani.

Joe Chamdani is CEO of TuringSense. A serial entrepreneur, Joe has co-founded two other companies with successful exits and raised over 80M dollars in venture capital. Joe got his BS degrees in EE and CS at Washington University St. Louis and PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Georgia Tech.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

A mentor of mine told me one day that I would be happiest working at the bleeding edge of technology, and he was right! In fact, I was so eager to get going that while getting my PhD I was moonlighting as a research engineer at a computer systems lab. And when my doctorate was finished, it led to two patents and a job straight away with Sun Microsystems.

Can you share the most interesting story that has happened to you since you began your career?

Well, I’m not sure if this is the most interesting story, but it’s certainly the most interesting car rental story. For one of my companies, we were due to present the next day at a conference in another part of the country, but the product wasn’t totally ready, and I didn’t want to hop on a plane and leave the engineering team behind and be potentially out of touch with such a big deadline looming. So, with only 24 hours left, I rented an RV and put the entire product and engineering team in it, and we drove cross country for 12 hours, coding the whole way there. We arrived at our lodgings with a completed product and nailed the demo in the morning.

Can you tell us about the cutting-edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on?

Before PIVOT Yoga, the only way you could get reliable wireless motion capture information in real time was to use cameras and lots of them, the way Hollywood studios do. Those systems cost millions to buy and even hundreds of thousands to rent, because you also need specialized studios, technicians, software, and hardware.

But with PIVOT Yoga, our system is completely digital, with no cameras, and it only requires a smart phone app and our smart, “sensorized” yoga clothes, which we sell for 99 dollars plus 19 dollars/month for unlimited classes.

When you choose a class through the app, the instructor appears on screen and PIVOT Yoga digitally inserts a live avatar of your body into the video, allowing side-by-side practice with the teacher. There is no equipment to set up, no cameras to position, and no furniture to move out of the way.

It’s hard to think of another product with a pricing and ease-of-use breakthrough like this one. We have calibrated our clothes against those massive Hollywood-sized camera installations, and we have virtually the same accuracy. Technically speaking, some of the component breakthroughs here were in sensor fusion, wireless protocols, error filtering, and other firmware.

How do you think that will help people?

Movement activities, like yoga and tennis, can’t really be learned out of a book. And honestly, it’s a little difficult to learn it even with a video demonstration like YouTube. Can you imagine paying for a tennis lesson or yoga class where the teacher never gave you any feedback? That’s what learning yoga through YouTube is like. We believe real-time feedback on your form is vital to learning well and quickly. At the end of the day, that’s what we provide: instant form feedback, whether it’s from a teacher directly (as in our live classes) or indirectly (in our on-demand classes). We really do want to teach the world to move.

How do you think this might change the world?

The bar for online instruction is going to be permanently raised and that’s a good thing. But beyond that, for activities like yoga, fear of doing things incorrectly is a big problem for beginners and it’s one of the things holding them back from exercising. In the US and in many parts of the world, there’s rising awareness for physical fitness and activity and anything we can do to keep people motivated and exercising is going to be important.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

It’s true that any technology can be misused. With our product there is an opportunity to get too obsessed about your form, we do recognize that. That’s why all of our performance tracking metrics require a little digging from the yogi to discover. We do want people to be interested in proper postures, but it’s possible to miss the forest for the trees, and the yoga for the asana. We hope we’ve gotten that balance right.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

There were actually two really important moments. The first was when we noticed just how tough proprioception — the ability for a human being to know at any point where their body is in space — really is. In early tests, we asked yogis to close their eyes and raise both arms until they were level with their shoulders. It surprised us that nobody could do it! So, we started thinking hard about how to help yogis in this respect, and that led us to the product we have today, which puts a live avatar of the yogi’s body on screen.

The second big moment happened when we demoed our app in a high-rise building. It simply wouldn’t work properly, and we finally figured out the problem: the flooring of the building had lots of electrical conduits in it, and they were putting out a magnetic field that was causing havoc with our system, which depended at the time, like most motion capture systems on a stable magnetic field environment. That pushed us to make our product immune to magnetic fluctuations, which are all too common in consumer households, and I’m happy to say we succeeded.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

Honestly, we feel like most of what we need are more great teachers on our PIVOT Yoga Teacher platform. We are scouring the world for them now.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

Our focus right now is mostly on the product side of the business. We’ll start worrying about the other P’s (in the famous four P’s marketing expression) shortly.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people I could name, but one stands out: my father, who helped not so much with what he told me, but by the example he set.

My father was a CPA, but hardly a traditional one. His passion was for helping his clients grow their businesses, and his clients loved him for his out-of-the-box yet practical thinking. He was very hands on and even ran boot camps and other entrepreneur education sessions out of his office. He made most of his money from side investments, eventually leading him to start other businesses of his own. As my siblings and I grew up, there was always some new product being made in the house — from a printing press to soy sauce and furniture carvings. I always enjoyed watching employees make the products and tried to jump in to participate in the making and sales of these products. Eventually my dad’s furniture business took off, though it weathered some hard times when my father kept the business running to make sure that his employees still had incomes. And most importantly, I remember to this day that his customers used to do every deal with my father on a handshake, since they knew his word was as good as law.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Well, most of what I work on starts out as an idea on a napkin. So, I never get tired of seeing ideas come to fruition after an insane amount of work and then seeing a smile on the face of a customer. Those are great moments. And along the way of building these businesses, it usually means jobs get created and careers get built. I’m even old enough now that several of the people I recruited to former companies have gone on to start their own businesses.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I can think of 4!

The route that makes it easiest for customers is usually the best route, even if it’s the harder one. For example, when we started TuringSense, the easier route for us was to do what everyone else was doing, such as depending on the user to affix the sensors onto their bodies and to rely on them to provide a stable magnetic field environment. With hindsight, we should have seen sooner that both issues would have huge usability problems for consumers. Eventually we did, and it’s been great, but we had a lot of resistance internally to breaking the mold. But if the mold is hard on end users, it needs to get broken, and the sooner the better.

A little research goes a long way. I’ve often been tempted like many entrepreneurs to build things in consumer or even hardware spaces that I know a lot about already. That can work, but not always. While consumers can’t always tell you the answer you need, you can certainly look at what they currently do — what they use, what they spend their free time on, and so on — and learn from that.

Get the key hires right from day one. Early hires are so critical, particularly along core dimensions of a business. In a consumer business, product talent is super important, and you should sweat that first hire if you don’t already have that DNA. In some of my businesses, I’ve been slow to recognize that and regretted it later.

Learn faster, and practice tough love. I always feel that a team can learn faster. But where my teams have made mistakes, it’s almost always been on the “learning” part of the build-measure-learn loop. Part of the learning here is that you have to be willing to let go of approaches that don’t work sooner, or more precisely aren’t working well enough in the amount of time that it’s prudent to give them to develop. Most technologies will eventually work if you give them a lot of time, but young companies are always short on time and capital. So you have to be a little ruthless in weeding technologies that are going to take too much of either of those.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Well, we think that teaching the world to move — our cause at TuringSense — is a pretty good calling. The developed world in particular has huge problems with obesity — over a third of US adults fit that description — and we know extra weight has enormous health implications. So, removing the barriers to exercise, and meeting people where they are (which is at home!) is really important. And by making it easier to learn proper form correctly, we can not only keep people safer as they exercise but also help develop the motivation to keep their exercise going. We’ve only just gotten started here.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Somebody once told me that startups are roller coaster rides, not moon shots. That’s given me important perspective because all of my companies have experienced ups and downs. If you know in advance to expect a rollercoaster ride, then you’ll be a lot likelier to hang on to the end.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

We have a proprietary product that’s cheaper, better, and easier to use, by orders of magnitude, in a trillion-dollar industry at the intersection of fashion, fitness, gaming, and even physical therapy.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

We’re on Instagram and Facebook.

Thank you so much for sharing your time and your excellent insights! We wish you continued success.

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