Know what success looks like to you: If you don’t know what to optimize for, you’re going to end up satisficing everything instead. At Lumhaa, success looks like spreading happiness, which we measure using two metrics — the number of “smiles” users report, and the number of invites they send to other users. Things that don’t directly serve either of these metrics — including large B2B contracts, prestigious PR interviews, and features that could boost time spent in app — automatically go on the back burner. Know what success means to you, operationalize it, and then save your sanity and cognitive resources by optimizing all decision-making around your key metrics.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shriya Sekhsaria.
Shriya is the Founder and CEO of Lumhaa: The Memory Jar Company, a collaborative social media platform that helps people make “memory jars”: time capsules for babies, experiences, and relationships they care about. Lumhaa was founded based on Shriya’s award-winning psychology research from Princeton University, which showed that memory jars made people feel happier, less lonely, and improved psychological well-being. Shriya is also a best-selling novelist, All East archer, and recipient of the 2020 Women STEM Entrepreneurs of the Year award.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me! I never thought that I would be running a technology company, especially since the boarding school I grew up in barely allowed us access to phones and computers. Also, I grew up writing novels and then went on to get a psychology degree before ending up on Wall Street — so you can see how a tech startup was never part of the plan.
All of that changed one summer, when I was writing a book about terminally ill children below the poverty line in India. The idea was to produce an authentic look at their lives, which would hopefully help raise money for their treatment. Unfortunately, a lot of them passed away before the book could be published. I wished more than anything that I could take the families’ pain away, but I knew that I couldn’t bring the children back. So I tried to do the next best thing — I filled glass jars with stories the children shared, drawings they made, drives filled with voice notes from my interviews with them, and whatever I could find, really. And then, I had the jars delivered to the families. When I heard about the impact these jars were having, I was incredibly moved and wanted to understand more about why these “memory jars” worked the way they did.
I decided to study memory jars for my psychology thesis at Princeton, where we found that making and revisiting memory jars increased happiness, reduced loneliness, and improved psychological well-being. I knew then that we had to scale this memory jar making experience by taking it digital while preserving its authenticity. Now, Lumhaa is a collaborative social media platform that helps people make “memory jars” and later order handmade versions of these jars. A perfect intersection of my interests in psychology, business, and storytelling.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
As part of my thesis research, I interviewed and made jars for about 105 Alzheimer’s patients in assisted living homes. Most of them were between 85 and 110 years old; and had only a few memories left. I met a man who served on the Nazi side in World War II. He had 32 memories he kept repeating — each one was a description of a person he had killed. I met a woman who juggled three husbands in New York in the 1940s. I met a couple that had been married 70 years and remembered nobody except each other. Really, getting to see what stuck with them when all else was forgotten was a life-changing experience. I learnt more in five minutes of conversation with them than I had in my whole life.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I had just arrived in America, I referred to everyone I worked with as “Ma’am” or “Sir” — even if they were peers or only a few years ahead of me. That was what we had learnt in the parts of India I was from — we never used first names in the office. After several assurances that it was all right to use first names and that “Miss Last Name” for example made them think of their parents and not them, I gave in and started calling everyone by their first names. I still get relentlessly teased about this and how I’m “basically a 15th century maiden in disguise”; but the lesson was clear — meet people how they want to be met, and not how you want to meet them. Lumhaa has users in 149 countries now, and I always make sure to ask each user how they prefer to be addressed when I host conversations with them.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I must have given up at least 10 times a day when we were just starting! At that time, Lumhaa was based out of Princeton, and I was training full-time job for my Wall Street job in Manhattan. I would commute between Princeton and New York every day so I could attend training and exams in New York all day, but also be back in Princeton to work on Lumhaa all night. I used to study while standing on trains during rush hour; and survived on sugar packets from the bank’s pantry that doubled as meals I ate on stolen time. Nevertheless, I remain grateful for the amazing team members all around who let me pursue both my passions, even though there were a lot of days when I stood in New Jersey Transit trains and philosophized with the conductor about how much simpler my life would be without Lumhaa. But I also know that it wouldn’t be my life without Lumhaa in it. Knowing how deeply entrenched Lumhaa is in my being, having faith in our ability to create a social platform that brings people joy, and seeing the impact we were having on our users fueled my drive to keep fighting a little more for Lumhaa — even on days when all I want to do is look up secluded islands I could run away to.
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?
I wouldn’t be anything if it weren’t for my family. On the day of Lumhaa’s launch, for example, my family threw a party and invited most of the city they lived in. My father had hurt his foot and couldn’t stand without support, but still stood at the door and welcomed each guest. My mother hand-made each piece of decoration that went around several thousand square feet, and even took on the role of running Lumhaa India. My brother spent his entire Christmas break setting up the systems for the event and explained the inner workings of Lumhaa in one-on-one conversations to almost 400 people. And my grandparents sat proudly in the front row as I unveiled the company, knowing full well that they were the sources of my courage to chase after my pipe dream. That night was just one of many, where each of them stayed up well past midnight when I had homework due or called in favors with long-lost acquaintances to publicize my book or put up with my absence at family holidays when I left home at 12 years old to try creating the world I wish we lived in. They are undoubtedly the reasons for everything I am and everything I can be.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Just because you understand something, doesn’t mean you have to accept it”. My little brother said this to me one evening when I was upset at how I was being treated by former team members. I was trying to make excuses for their behavior by saying that they were too busy to care about my rapidly deteriorating health, and that we weren’t doing well enough for me to ask for more recognition for my work. He helped me understand that I identified as an empath, and that I often justified others’ actions to myself by seeing the world through their eyes. He also helped me understand that I did not have to accept others’ actions — even when I could see their rationale — if that meant demeaning what I thought of myself and my work. Since then, I’ve applied this lesson to different facets of my life –relationships where I once accepted being taken for granted, meetings with our developers where they often got away with missing deadlines, and almost all interactions I’ve had since that dinner with my brother.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
At a systemic level, we’re working to create a social platform designed to make people happy instead of anxious or depressed. We’re making a collaborative social media app, where we focus on deepening human connection instead of capturing human attention — a social media platform focused on oxytocin-inducing conversations (e.g. all family members post memories with a baby in a private safe space) instead of dopamine-inducing broadcasts (e.g. parents post photos of their baby for the world to see, and keep checking back for more likes and shares). Put simply, we’re changing “likes” to love.
On an individual level, we’re fulfilling a craving for intimate digital spaces to share with loved ones — spaces more collaborative than journals, but less public than social media. This is particularly salient in the pandemic, of course, as we are in a world where people are isolated and social media feeds can seem overwhelming. With digital memory jars, we are seeing socially isolated grandparents being updated about new grandchildren every day, wishes from around the world collected for socially distanced birthdays, and long distance relationships strengthened by having a designated space to post screenshots of conversations and older memories shared together. The emotional impact of these jars, especially when someone sends a handmade physical version of the memories, is incredible to witness.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I can get into the list of technical features, privacy enhancements, or design innovations that make Lumhaa different; but what really makes us stand out is our community. There’s very much a mentality of this is our app, amongst the team and users alike. For example, there is a button in the app that lets users chat with me directly and users often chat me about needing jobs and starry skies they think I’d enjoy. And the team goes out of its way too — just last month, the entire company pulled two consecutive all-nighters so we could manually create memory slideshows and videos for a group of mothers who were struggling with creating digital Teacher’s Day cards instead of the usual handmade ones. At Lumhaa, it’s never us vs. the user as it tends to be with a lot of tech companies — it’s all of us together vs. the problem. And our Lumhaa Hall of Fame web page, which proudly displays a list of users that helped us design our app and find bugs, is testament to that.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re working on two new projects right now — creatives around the effects of social media use, and a larger rollout of our handmade physical memory jars.
Since The Social Dilemma gained popularity around the world, there has been renewed interest in our psychology research which showed the benefits of memory jars and how that could be different from other social media platforms. We’re going to put out more information about our research and how we designed our app to conform to all 6 humane design principles so we can help people understand how social media affects them, what humane technology design looks like, and how they can take back control of their lives.
The handmade memory jars will act as great gifts for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and other milestones. But more importantly, they will serve as a source of dignified income for struggling ethnic artists in emerging communities around the world; all while being beneficial for the environment since they are crafted from sustainable recycled materials.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Why aim to be satisfied when you can aim to be happy? In all seriousness though, I think we have a long way to go — we need little girls everywhere to have the freedom to believe that they can be engineers or designers or developers or whatever it is they want to be. Then we need these young engineers, designers, developers, and early professionals to be confident enough to believe that they can be managers and CEOs and leaders. Then, we need these managers and CEOs and leaders to be rid of impostor syndrome so they can believe that they actually earned their places, and that they deserve to be where they are. So there’s a lot of work still to be done, at every level — by women and by people who identify along the entire gender spectrum. Also, we need to recognize that the “non-technical women” — the empaths and culture builders and saleswomen and managers — are women in Tech too.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Women have a lot more to unlearn than their male counterparts do, starting with the idea that being nice is more important than having a voice. This default of “being nice” manifests itself in different ways — when settling on a lower valuation than men would have demanded for a business, when trying holding employees accountable, or even at an entry level, when women often keep their designs and ideas to themselves. This is a socially constructed mental barrier that requires a lot of work to undo, but we can start by continually reminding ourselves that having a voice is more important than being nice, and that only when we stand up can the next generation stand on our shoulders.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Reflect on whether growth has stilled due to personal, internal, or external barriers. If it’s because of personal barriers, ask yourself why your engine has slowed down — do you want to do something else? Are you burnt out? If it’s because of internal barriers, have an honest conversation with your team and work on figuring out why your vision isn’t translating effectively. And if it’s external barriers, ask yourself if the situation is within your control, or if you just need to weather the storm as you wait for it to clear. Aside from all that reflection and the subsequent insights, it’s always worth asking two questions to boost growth and sales — have you gotten existing users back as much as possible? And have you reached all other customer segments you could?
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Make your users your salespeople. Organic referrals and word of mouth are your best friends, particularly on a constrained budget. In our case, we hired our most active users as interns and early employees because they truly loved the product, saw it for what it could be, and sold it to others with intrinsic motivation. The Hall of Fame and social recognition for being our advocates helps also.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
“Seeing” people who feel invisible goes a long way. When we first designed our marketing plans, we knew we wanted to have all 7.7 billion people on our app. But we started by looking for people who have been overlooked — the rural Indian housewives, senior citizens, and self-proclaimed “technologically challenged” crowd. We reached out to a few of them and did one-on-one calls, so they could help design the app they wanted and see how Lumhaa benefited their lives. Then, we attracted them in larger numbers by making their own people invite them. This “our app” mentality played out in large numbers in their social networks, because they were proud of being in Halls of Fame after feeling invisible, and because they know that they are our top priority — we would truly do anything for them. This isn’t the typical social media ad or viral traction channel we usually see in the industry, but we also weren’t dealing with a very typical audience.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Understand that you don’t have to go at this alone, and that your users will want to help if they actually care about what you’re building. Here are 3 things that have been effective for us:
- Formal User Research Panels: To pre-empt issues and understand what they really want
- In-App Support: To help them connect with your team and get quick help 24×7
- Hall of Fame: To recognize them for the time, attention, and effort they are pouring into your vision
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
We have a lot of features to limit churn — reminders to select memories for the day, daily journaling prompts, memory highlight reels, and more. But the three most effective strategies are:
- Integrate into user routines: for example, we encourage users to spend Sunday mornings adding memories of the previous week
- Delegate responsibility: get users to be responsible for their friends and family. For example, we rely on our users to post in their shared memory jars and keep the jars alive for the people they share them with
- Share accountability: Imbibe the “our app” mentality we’ve been talking about
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
Aside from remembering that it’s more important to have a voice than to be nice, here are five important things to keep in mind:
- Put out Minimum Lovable Products, not Minimum Viable Products: Understand when the digital experience you provide is the product and know that Minimum Viable Products won’t cut it in those cases. A luxurious dinner at an Italian restaurant probably leaves you with the same calories that your stale microwave pizza does — but that doesn’t mean that the restaurant can truly test its efficacy by serving you stale microwave pizza. If your real product is an experience, the bare minimum you have to put out in these cases has to be lovable, not just functional.
- It’s theatre, not old-school cinema: Involve your users in crafting what you do instead of putting out finished work and hoping they like it! When we had problems with acquisition and activation, we ran a 10-day sprint where we let our users redesign every pixel of our app. When that version launched, it felt like all our problems had magically disappeared! Since then, almost every new piece of our app has been user- designed because they really know best. Set up your user research panels, feedback channels, and rewards. You’ll find that people know what they want, as long as you can ask the right questions.
- Hear everything, but don’t listen to it: You are going to have 100 questions every day, and 2500 people ready to advise you on answers. When I started the company as a 21 year old, I spent so much time listening to well-intentioned terrible advice — including making my company B2B even when I knew the vision was to be on personal phones, not company laptops — because I felt like the “experienced” people were always “smarter”. It took me many years to realize that nobody would know my company better than I did, and that my main job was to be a filter — to hear what people had to say, but only listen to advice that aligned with my vision, mission, internal radar, and common sense.
- Know what success looks like to you: If you don’t know what to optimize for, you’re going to end up satisficing everything instead. At Lumhaa, success looks like spreading happiness, which we measure using two metrics — the number of “smiles” users report, and the number of invites they send to other users. Things that don’t directly serve either of these metrics — including large B2B contracts, prestigious PR interviews, and features that could boost time spent in app — automatically go on the back burner. Know what success means to you, operationalize it, and then save your sanity and cognitive resources by optimizing all decision-making around your key metrics.
- Unlearn faster than you learn: You are in the driver’s seat, and the route your company takes is going to be influenced by your biases, including naïve realism and optimism. Be aware of your biases and know when to course-correct without overcompensating. When we first started Lumhaa, I was so underconfident that I used to feel like people only used the app because they felt obliged to as personal favors. It took me a long time to understand my worth, and consequently to understand — and stand up for — our worth. You can’t run a business without looking in the mirror first. And sometimes, that involves unlearning your internal biases a lot faster than learning the industry landscape and technical know-hows
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
Unexpected acts of kindness. I love the idea of starting a movement where people send a random voice note to one person from their life each week. That voice note could light up a smile, mend a heart, or even save a life. We’re working on helping Lumhaa users start this movement by curating prompts and reminders accordingly, but I wish we had more people in the world that took time from their lives for people they love.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
In the U.S. — the women of Suits, especially Sarah Rafferty. Their art saved my life during particularly dark and lonely days in a new town, and I have so much admiration for what they’ve done with their work, lives, and platforms. I had the privilege of meeting the show’s creator Aaron Korsh last year and I’m pretty sure that made me forget how to breathe while he just went on being the most genuinely kind person I’ve ever met. History needs more of the Suits family in our universe.
In the world — if I could pick any one person, I’d probably pick the little Indian girl who first asked me for an autograph. I was 16 and my first novel had just come out. I was out to a quiet dinner with my family when she came up to me. I remember how I looked like an unkempt mess; and felt like even more of an exhausted mess. I still tried to make the conversation and experience great for her because I could tell she was genuinely excited, but her parents intervened after a few minutes and dragged her away, asking her to leave my family and me alone. I always go back to that moment and wish I could have done more. I don’t remember her name or very much else about her, but I do hope we meet again so I can tell her about how I really believe she can change the world someday.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!
Thanks again for having me, and for the thoughtful questions!