Spend time to hire incredible people. It’ll make an enormous difference. Generally, the people you hire will make or break your business. One incredible person can deliver ten times more value than a person who’s average at their job. Especially in the initial starting phases, this can’t be stressed enough.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rockwell Shah, founder of Pzizz. After graduating from Cornell University in Economics, Rockwell spent nearly a decade working his way up from the (e)mail room to being the President of a successful medical software company, 4PatientCare. In 2015 he founded the company Pzizz, which makes a popular sleep app used by millions of people around the world to beat their insomnia.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After graduating from college, I spent several years working my way up the corporate ladder in a medical software company from being a tech support agent all the way to becoming President of the firm.
Spending the better part of a decade in US healthcare will teach you all sorts of things about what’s wrong with people’s health. Sleep was definitely an issue at the top of the list.
Insomnia was becoming ever more of a problem, especially in the hyper-connected world we live in. I had my own run-ins with sleep issues earlier in my life, so I knew how crippling they could be.
People were turning to prescription sleeping pills and over the counter medications to knock them out. But these have terrible side effects and don’t work particularly well in the long run.
More than half the cases of insomnia are caused by “too much thinking.” Literally, people lying awake at night, unable to shut off their brains. When you realize that fact, it becomes apparent that for most people, pills are not the right approach to solve the problem.
After spending a lot of time researching, interviewing people, and mapping out potential solutions, I was convinced there was a better way. So I decided to found a new company called Pzizz to try to tackle the sleep epidemic.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When we first started the idea of a subscription app for sleep got us laughed out of investor offices left and right. No one really thought there would be a market for it.
We kept trying and pitching. Over and over and over again. One of those presentations was to an overseas group based in London.
Almost a year went by without a hit.
But we kept at it. We knew that sleeping problems were a huge worldwide issue, and if we could raise funds to build out the vision, we’d be able to give people a better alternative than sleeping pills.
One Monday morning, we got a phone call. It was from those London folks that we had pitched months earlier. It was a startup accelerator called “Wayra.” We had been accepted. The program started… the following Monday.
In less than a week, I sold my car, got out of my apartment lease, and flew to London to begin the program.
That changed everything.
Being accepted into one of Europe’s top startup accelerators opened a lot of doors that helped us build out the first version of the product, including raising a seed round of funding.
Even after raising money, we were still on a shoestring budget. Through most of the ten-month program, I slept in hostels, often sharing a room with multiple people. I’d work nearly 14–16 hours every day.
I even almost died one time, due to a random peanut allergy attack.
But I just kept going. I knew we had a limited window to make things happen, and I just did everything I could possibly think of to make things work.
Near the end of the accelerator program after many delays, mishaps, obstacles, and nearly everything going wrong that could, we finally launched the app.
It was more successful than we initially anticipated. Within thirty days, we became profitable. We shocked everyone, even ourselves a bit.
We started having famous people we didn’t know give us shoutouts. JK Rowling said Pzizz was the “Best thing she’s used for sleep by a mile.” It felt like I was living in a different universe all of a sudden.
Looking back on it, it almost feels like a miracle that it all worked out. And maybe it was.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
It never occurred to me that there was another option. Life had always been hard. What else was I going to do? Give up? Isn’t in my nature.
There will always be obstacles, especially if you’re trying to do something novel. Take them in stride, keep moving forward.
So, how are things going today? How did Grit lead to your eventual success?
Things are going really well. We’ve helped over a million people with their sleep (and counting). Our goal is to help a billion people within the next ten years.
We’ve done millions of dollars in sales while continuing to scale profitably. We have a staff of incredibly passionate people that genuinely like working together and working with our customers to improve a little bit every day.
58% of GPs in England can now prescribe Pzizz through their electronic health record platform. We power the audio in many nap pods around the world, including some at Google, Mercedes, and JFK Airport. We’re integrated into numerous corporate wellness programs including The League, Lumino, and at Cedars-Sinai.
We’ve hit a lot of great significant milestones, but we’re still young. There’s so much more to come.
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?
Not exactly in line with the question, but this was definitely our funniest moment:
We had an opportunity to present Pzizz in-person to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
After telling her Pzizz, “Puts people to sleep at the push of a button,” she looked at me, and perfectly deadpan said, “Yes, but do they wake up?”
She’s an incredible person, with such a great sense of humor.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Science. In an industry known for a lot of “woo-woo,” we take an evidence-based approach. We compose all of our music, stories, and meditations with the latest clinically proven techniques and it really pays off in how effective Pzizz is for people.
If you want to learn more, we write a lot about the Science behind Pzizz on our blog.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It would be silly if I didn’t mention the obvious one: take your sleep seriously. Getting great sleep will improve nearly every aspect of your life. You’ll live longer, be happier and much more productive. If you don’t know where to start to do that read up on good sleep hygiene or some simple tips for better sleep.
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?
There are many, many people I’m grateful for in helping bring Pzizz to life. Our investors, employees, my family and friends, Wayra and its staff, The Duke of York and his “[email protected]” initiative. So many people helped us in different ways; they took risks on us when no one else would.
One person I have to especially thank is Gary Stewart. He’s the Head of the Wayra Accelerator. After hearing our pitch, prominent members of his management team voted “no” on us. But he just had a feeling we’d be great. He gave us an opportunity to shine after so many people had said no. I am extraordinarily grateful to him.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Our mission is to bring great sleep to the world. But obviously, not everyone can pay us to help them. Now that we’re financially successful, we’ve been able to implement a financial assistance program to help sponsor people that need help but can’t afford to pay for it.
Additionally, I’ve personally become more active in the non-profit world, joining the board of one of America’s leading anthropology museums, “The Museum of Man” in San Diego. They are setting the benchmarks for decolonization work globally, and really showing how a museum can make an impact in the 21st century.
Pzizz will be sponsoring a Museum exhibit that is set to launch next year that I think is going to blow people away. It’ll be an experience unlike anything you’ve seen at a museum before, one that I hope will inspire generations to come.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Read all of Brian Balfour’s blog articles on growth.
Often entrepreneurs will build products and then go try to find people to use what they’ve built. This is a recipe for disaster, and usually only works by dumb luck.
A better approach is to really deep dive and understand the people you want to serve, what their needs are, and what channels you can reach them through. That will help you define many aspects of the product or service you build and gives you a much better chance at success.
Make something people want in a large market.
2. Spend time to hire incredible people. It’ll make an enormous difference.
Generally, the people you hire will make or break your business. One incredible person can deliver ten times more value than a person who’s average at their job. Especially in the initial starting phases, this can’t be stressed enough.
Find people that are light years ahead of you in their domain. Surround yourself with smart, capable people that have good hearts.
3. Most agencies don’t deliver enough value for what they cost, so don’t use them.
Whether it’s marketing, software development, design; nearly anything really. Agencies will promise you the world but will often leave you with poor performing results (especially for software development). Instead, hire in-house. If you can’t afford someone full time, do your research and engage with a good freelancer that you can build a relationship with over time.
4. Analytics are overrated. Talk to customers.
Heatmaps, user-session recordings, cohort analysis… they certainly have a time and place. But the most powerful “analytics” tool you have at your disposal is engaging with people and understanding how and why they use your products, and ways to improve them. You’ll learn magnitudes more doing user interviews than you will staring at faceless analytics.
Additional reading: Why you only need to test with 5 users.
5. Don’t waste your time on stuff that doesn’t matter.
This sounds absurd, but if you really start to think about all the things you do over the course of a day, a week, a month, a year… you start to realize that some things move the needle a lot, some a little, and some not at all. Most meetings, conferences, “business opportunities,” are a waste of time. Optimize for the stuff that will make an impact, and say no to the rest. Time is valuable, use it well.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
The biggest problem with politics is politicians.
If we could create better models of government that required less human bureaucracy to move society forward, we could see enormous progress in much less time, for far less money.
There are many issues the vast majority of us could agree on to improve the society that just won’t see the light of day because of political gridlock.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.