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Kevin Strauss of Uchi: “Bootstrapping is hard, even beyond the business”

Uchi is a social app for connecting authentically with those who matter most to you. It is not a social media but rather a Q&A platform for having deeper, more substantive conversations, about topics, big and small, from our database of questions. The more we know and understand each other, as people, the more likely […]

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Uchi is a social app for connecting authentically with those who matter most to you. It is not a social media but rather a Q&A platform for having deeper, more substantive conversations, about topics, big and small, from our database of questions. The more we know and understand each other, as people, the more likely we are to care for them and they us. Uchi, in Japanese, means ‘in-group” or inner circle and those are the people who have the greatest influence in your life. If you struggle to connect, love, and feel like you belong with your in-group then it hurts, deeply. The pain we experience is not physical or mental but emotional. The human brain cannot distinguish between physical pain and emotional pain. It just knows, “I’m in pain so do something about it right now!” In the absence of connecting authentically we turn to behaviors in an attempt to ease our pain as soon as possible. The more extreme the behavior the deeper the emotional pain. It’s not a matter of how smart or “accomplished” you are. It’s more a matter of how valued and loved you feel. Uchi helps people connect by guiding and facilitating real conversations, in just a few minutes here and there throughout your days, so you can experience deeper connections.


The telephone totally revolutionized the way we could communicate with people all over the world. But then came email and took it to the next level. And then came text messaging. And then came video calls. And so on…What’s next? What’s just around the corner?

In this interview series, called ‘The Future Of Communication Technology’ we are interviewing leaders of tech or telecom companies who are helping to develop emerging communication technologies and the next generation of how we communicate and connect with each other.

As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Strauss who believes people yearn to feel closer to others. Not to everyone but to the people who matter most to us. He believes we long to be heard and valued because then we know we matter and that makes us happy. Kevin is the Founder and CEO ofUchi, a social app dedicated to helping people connect authentically by making conversations easy and fun. Kevin is an expert problem solver and has earned 75+ patents and 10+ publications in spine, psychology, and human behavior. Uchi is his approach to help strengthen relationships and reduce destructive behaviors. When not working, Kevin enjoys expedition backpacking, ballroom dancing, and is a 19-year, Ironman Triathlete and Coach.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Thank you for including me in your series and I’m excited to share, what I believe, is an “outside the box” approach to communication and more specifically, connection. My backstory has to do with problem solving, having ideas, and making them a reality. I have my dad to thank for this because throughout my childhood, I was his “little helper”. My dad was always fixing or building something, with me there to help, and it seemed like he never ran out of ideas from restoring a 1968 Mustang convertible, to adding a garage and sunroom to the house, to fixing the tubes of our TV in the 1970s, to the dishwasher, washing machine, and anything else. In school, I enjoyed math and science and learned to be quite mechanical from my dad. I was also fascinated by the human body. I chose to major in mechanical engineering and then earned my masters in biomedical engineering. Most of my career has focused on medical device research and development where I’ve combined my education and life experiences to solve some really tough problems. I attribute my success to approaching a problem from a completely different angle and by asking “Why?” as many times as needed until I feel like I’ve identified the true root issue. I’ve found that once the root cause is identified the solutions are typically quite simple. So far, this has led to more than 75 patents and also publishing research in four different industries including spine, infection control, psychology, and human behavior. I am not a genius and if you knew my college GPA you may think I was quite inept. However, I’m really good at understanding a problem of interest, applying what I’ve learned, wherever I happened to learn it, and figuring out a simple way to solve it. Ever since I was a teenager, I would ponder, “Why do people do what they do?”, including myself. After asking “Why?” for nearly 20 years, I feel like I’ve identified the root of most behaviors and it boils down to our Emotional Health which is different from Mental Health and Emotional Intelligence. My backstory is really a culmination of piecing together all different aspects of my life from childhood, to school, to work to hobbies such as triathlon, backpacking, and rock climbing.

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

One of my favorite stories happened during my first career job as a Product Development Engineer working on total hip replacement implants and instruments. Our company had purchased a hip implant design idea for 3 million dollars and it was my job to bring this design to market. One critical step is mechanically testing the implant for strength and longevity. Unfortunately, the implant kept failing even though we followed all of the standards for manufacturing, quality, and testing. The inventor insisted we were doing something wrong but everything I did proved to be correct. After more than a year of investigation, from theoretical to physical, it was clear to me the design was flawed yet the inventor refused to accept fault and tried to have me fired. On a happenstance, I received a picture of the original test setup the inventor used to test his design and prove its efficacy and it looked peculiar to me. I compared the picture to the industry standard and noticed it was setup backwards. To verify, I ran the physical testing according to a “backward” setup and sure enough, it passed the test. The inventor had been testing his design incorrectly and that is why it passed. When tested correctly, according to standard, it failed. Then came the moment of truth, the project had been moving forward in all other areas and it was the day before the first, live patient, surgery where the device would be implanted. The president of our company held a meeting to discuss the project and determine if we would move forward. Every department head was in attendance, about 20 people, including me and my boss. After a lot of discussion, and my presentation of piles of data, it was time to vote. As we went around the room, every person, including the president and vice president of the company, voted YES to go ahead with the surgery. I voted NO and my boss supported me because the evidence was clear the implant design was not up to standard. I was a 24-year-old, entry-level engineer disagreeing with all of my superiors with decades of knowledge and experience. Even at that age, I valued honesty and integrity, and I could do nothing else but be true to my convictions. Ultimately, it was decided NOT to do the surgery and the hip implant was never sold commercially. Ironically, the device was to be called “The Integrity Hip” implant. This has been the precedent for my career and life and I will always be true to it.

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

My favorite quote is one I actually coined which is, “No matter what you’re doing in life you can always improve.” This is a mantra I’ve followed for a long time and it has served me well. I believe in a growth mindset and always learning from my past, good and bad. I do not believe in perfection but always striving to be a little better than the last time… without making myself bonkers, in the process.

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?

Earlier I shared the incredible influence my dad has been in my life. The same is true for the love and support from my mom. I could easily list dozens of other people who positively impacted me throughout my life like my boss from that first job. A person of great influence was my boss Steve Lane, PhD, who I worked with at Amron Corporation (no longer in business). Steve and I were a two-man team working on NIH funded SBIR (Small Business for Innovative Research) grants mostly dealing with behavior modification. A lot of my work was designing never before conceived sensors and writing lots of software code to collect and process real-time data in order to deliver pre-recorded voice instructions, to people, based on algorithmic decisions. All too often, I would be stuck and truly believe the problem could not be solved. Time and again, I’d report this to Steve and he’d say, “You’ll figure it out.” It infuriated me but his confidence and belief in me never wavered. Note, this wasn’t me just giving up easily. These were problems I struggled with for days or weeks! And time and again, I’d somehow solve the problem. It’s incredible what you can do when someone else truly believes in you and gives you that love and emotional support, no matter what. He could have easily taken an authoritarian, hard-driving, no compassion approach but he didn’t. To this day, because of that relationship, it’s the best place I’ve ever worked, hands down. Steve’s belief in me helped me to truly believe in myself. That was also when I began regularly quoting the movie, The Cutting Edge (1992), (and I paraphrase) “when you’re at the bottom of the barrel of ideas then find another barrel” and so I do.

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

My career has been dedicated to helping make the lives of others better or even save lives, indirectly. It’s incredibly rewarding and I’m happy to say our work has truly made a difference from helping people walk again with total joint replacements to reducing the spread of infection, saving lives and money, to the many lives improved with the spinal implants I’ve contributed to designing. In October 2020, I learned that a spinal pedicle screw project that I helped get “unstuck” in April 2005 was implanted for the 1,000,000th time. Hundreds of thousands of people, around the world, are living a better quality of life because of the work I and others have done, together.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the cutting-edge communication tech that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

I believe people yearn to feel closer to others. Not to everyone but to the people who matter most to us. I believe we long to be heard and valued because then we know we matter and that makes us happy. Happy people do good things and are less destructive to themselves and others. The closer and happier we are the better our behaviors and our world will be. I do not believe humanity has much trouble communicating but we desperately struggle to connect. I do not believe we need more tools to disseminate information but we need help sharing our true thoughts and feelings with others and being truly heard and understood by those people. Further, sharing our perspective with strangers is nice but it does not nurture us at that deeper emotional level we need because the risk of rejection from a stranger doesn’t really impact us. However, being emotionally rejected by someone who matters to you, a parent, child, teacher, boss, etc. has a significant effect on your emotional health. Connection nurtures emotional health and that drives your behavior more than anything else. The more constructive, and less destructive, our behaviors, the better our world.

Uchi is a social app for connecting authentically with those who matter most to you. It is not a social media but rather a Q&A platform for having deeper, more substantive conversations, about topics, big and small, from our database of questions. The more we know and understand each other, as people, the more likely we are to care for them and they us. Uchi, in Japanese, means ‘in-group” or inner circle and those are the people who have the greatest influence in your life. If you struggle to connect, love, and feel like you belong with your in-group then it hurts, deeply. The pain we experience is not physical or mental but emotional. The human brain cannot distinguish between physical pain and emotional pain. It just knows, “I’m in pain so do something about it right now!” In the absence of connecting authentically we turn to behaviors in an attempt to ease our pain as soon as possible. The more extreme the behavior the deeper the emotional pain. It’s not a matter of how smart or “accomplished” you are. It’s more a matter of how valued and loved you feel. Uchi helps people connect by guiding and facilitating real conversations, in just a few minutes here and there throughout your days, so you can experience deeper connections.

How do you think this might change the world?

A person’s behavior is driven more by their state of emotional health (ability to give and receive love, connection, and belonging) than their mental health (ability to focus, concentrate, think clearly, and perform cognitive tasks). This is why an “intelligent” person can behave in a horribly destructive way. They’re not crazy. They’re simply attempting to ease their emotional pain. The more connected we are, with our uchi, the stronger our emotional health and the less our pain. With less emotional pain there is less need to try and compensate with destructive behaviors (e.g., drugs, alcohol, food, eating disorders, bullying, gun violence, depression, suicide, anxiety, etc.) or extremely constructive behaviors (e.g., work, sports such as triathlon, marathon, CrossFit, “success”, money, status, etc.). With less destructive behaviors there are more constructive behaviors and the world benefits. Ultimately, our vision at Uchi is a world at peace because every person truly believes they matter.

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

Even with the best of intentions people can find a way to use technology destructively. Uchi is a very private platform whereby anything you share there is only accessible to your Uchi friends (50 maximum). Further, your Uchi friends can only read your answers to questions or comments if they’ve already answered that same question. Afterall, how can two people connect if they’re both not sharing comparably? And people tend to answer the question at-hand and rarely stray from the topics. Still, given the privacy level of the app, and given we currently do not read or monitor what is being shared, among your uchi, a person can write whatever they want. Therefore, if destructive conversations are occurring, we are not aware. However, unlike social media, what you share is not publicly available or easily spread beyond just your uchi.

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

Indeed, there was a tipping point to Uchi! In December of 2001, I was watching an episode of the TV show Boston Public where the principal’s daughter was now attending his school and they were arguing like crazy. All I could think of was, “if you would just say what you’re really thinking and truly feeling then you would have no conflict.” I thought about my relationships with family and friends and how little conflict I had because I typically share how I really feel. I also thought about how close and connected I’d become with friends, just from email conversations, and who I’d only met in person 1–2 times. It occurred to me that sometimes the written word is even more powerful than the spoken word and oftentimes it is a lot easier to share your true self through writing versus speaking. We also know, from centuries of data, that two people can share a profoundly deep connection and relationship just from trading letters and not seeing or speaking with each other for months or years (think war time). The problem is we’re really not sharing our true selves mostly because we’ve been conditioned not to through shame, judgement, degradation, neglect, or some other form of emotional rejection. We’re shutting each other down, emotionally, and it hurts. Then, we try to ease that pain through our behaviors which ends up creating a negative feedback loop. All of this understanding wasn’t realized while watching the TV show but intuitively, I knew it then, and the idea for the app (website back in 2001) was conceived. I thought that if I could create a medium where people could share their true selves, with a small group of people, then they’d feel more connected and happier. To help get the conversations going we’d provide some fun and insightful questions to answer and discuss.

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

This is a great question and one I’ve struggled with a lot. The short answer is more people need to try Uchi and give it a chance to have a positive impact on their life. Uchi is not a “quick fix” but the rewards can be felt within 1–2 weeks and last if you stick with it. We’ve even published research on this! One of the greatest challenges is overcoming a person’s deeply rooted emotional pain which they’re already avoiding, through their behaviors, like the plague. But since they’re avoiding it, they aren’t making it better hence the negative feedback loop. It is similar to exercise and gym memberships. We all know it’s good for our physical health yet only 16% of Americans belong to a gym (which is not required to be physically fit as there are other means) and of those only 2–3% visit their gym weekly. As soon as the word “emotion” or “relationship help” is mentioned people run the other way. It’s similar to how triggered people get when you mention visiting family for Thanksgiving and how anxious many of us become around the holidays. Are we afraid of a physical confrontation? No. We’re more likely to be afraid of being hurt, again, emotionally. What’s so great about Uchi is there are no wrong answers to questions because you’re only sharing your perspective and hearing others. Just being heard, without interruption, shame, or judgement, goes a long way toward bringing people closer together and feeling happy. The goal here is to flip the polarity and switch to a positive feedback loop. As one father wrote, “Thank you so much for this platform. My 12-year-old daughter has not spoken to my ex-wife in over a year and within a week of using Uchi they’ve started talking again.” Just knowing you’ll be heard makes a huge difference in your life. When you nurture your uchi, and each person nurture’s theirs, the happiness can spread fast!

The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. How do you think your innovation might be able to address the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic?

We already know from the research that 88% of workplaces are toxic in some way and 75% of people quit their job because of their boss. Again, are we afraid of being punched in the face at work? Is it a physical threat? No. Are we mentally incapacitated and unable to do our job as an engineer, marketer, financier, or in production? No. The greatest threat in the workplace is the poor relationships and subsequently poor emotional health. Every employee, including the CEO, just wants to be heard and valued because then we know we matter. Uchi is a platform for getting to know each other, as people, on a slightly deeper level than typical conversations. The better we know each other the more likely we are to care, listen, negotiate, and compromise. It works in the family, the workplace, schools, and more. As Rita Pierson said in her TED Talk, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” and the same is true in the workplace. Uchi is an incredible tool to help truly team build because it’s a chance to nurture relationships, a little at a time, on a daily basis. A one-day “team building retreat” rarely has any lasting effect. As fun as those events are, relationships aren’t built in a day. Since Uchi is 100% online and asynchronous, it works for organizations no matter where their employees are located, worldwide. Even before the pandemic, people were struggling to have real connections. The pandemic only exacerbated an already failing system.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

I feel like I learn a new lesson everyday but a few definitely stand out.

  1. Have a few sales or know exactly where your sales are coming from before you begin solidifying anything in your business. The Field Of Dreams idea that “if you build it, they will come” has certainly never been true for me. When I first built Uchi’s predecessor, FamilyeJournal.com, it was months before the first sale was made and barely trickled in after that. It’s impossible to run a business without sales. The pandemic is proof of that.
  2. There’s a lot more to having a successful business than a great product. Uchi works, if you use it regularly and as intended. It can truly change your life and those you love for the better. But you’ve got to have the infrastructure, a way to reach your audience, an audience that is interested and willing to take action, charisma in sharing your message and vision, and above all people around you who will support you and help spread your vision.
  3. A clearly identified audience. This is similar to the first two lessons but a critical matter in and of itself. Something I’ve struggled with all along is I see Uchi as applicable to infinite audiences and when you’re considering everything then you’re focusing on nothing. If you struggle to focus then your audience will struggle to identify that you can help them. Not to mention, it really helps if your audience is your customer. For example, while Uchi’s mission is to help strengthen relationships, often the default assumption is family relationships. While this is true, Uchi is free for the general public so, in the beginning, this market will not be a big revenue generator. However, schools and businesses can use Uchi as a tool to the benefit of their students and employees, respectively, and their organization, as a whole. But schools and businesses aren’t typically focused on strengthening relationships as a top priority and more often, it’s an “afterthought” and considered a “soft skill”. In reality, relationships are the foundation of everything in life and one of our basic human needs just like air, water, sleep, food, and shelter. If this isn’t clear, think about how much sleep and food you’ve skipped when a romantic or family relationship has fallen apart or you’re not getting along with someone at work.
  4. Think twice, three, or four times before starting a venture in a market especially if most people are not even aware of the problem you solve. I’ve spent nearly 20 years understanding the difference between mental health and emotional health and while Uchi complements the entire mental health industry they often seem to be the last group of people open to a new idea. So many people think they’d be the first to use a tool like Uchi, and I agree, but the opposite has been true. When part of your job is to educate the world about a whole new subject area and a different way of thinking and approaching a problem and then to get them to use your product or service as an approach it simply adds a lot of extra work, to say the least. In contrast, opening a yoga studio is a well-known and established business venture. While it may not be easy, at least people know exactly what it is, why it helps them, and how it works.
  5. Bootstrapping is hard, even beyond the business. When you’re bootstrapping a business and getting started by yourself then you’re also bootstrapping your life. It seems like everything goes on hold until you’re making enough money to first finance your business and then pay yourself an income. It would be wonderful to have investors but that has tradeoffs too. The point is, from the beginning, have a detailed understanding of your revenue and budget and be extra generous when it comes to marketing and sales. Murphy’s Rule always seems to apply here and it requires 2–3x more marketing dollars than your most conservative estimates. Building a product is easy compared to branding, marketing and converting a prospect into a customer… or perhaps that’s just my forte.

You are a person of great influence. 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. 🙂

Without a doubt, I would like to inspire The Uchi Connection Movement (UCM). Here’s the idea… as I said before, uchi, in Japanese, means in-group. So, if each person nurtures their in-group, emotionally, and each of those people nurtures their inner circle, then the movement spreads fast because each inner circle has overlapping members. When each person feels heard and understood and knows they matter then their behaviors will naturally be less destructive and more constructive. If we can each make an effort not to shame, judge, degrade, or neglect those who matter most to us then those people will experience less emotional pain for which they are compelled to compensate for through their behaviors. Less pain means less destruction. More love and connection means happier people and more constructive behaviors. The more constructive we are, as a species, the better our world will be. World peace truly is possible especially when we address the root issue rather than the myriad of symptoms. Peace. Love. Connect.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

uchiconnection.com

https://www.linkedin.com/in/kevinstrauss/

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.


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