Put yourself first. How can you lead by example if you aren’t taking care of yourself? Take care of your mind, body and health by optimizing your schedule and carving out time for yourself. You can’t do your best work if you aren’t your best self.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Elina Berglund Scherwitzl, co-founder and co-CEO of Natural Cycles — the world’s first, and only, app to be certified as a contraception by the FDA in the U.S. and CE marked in Europe. Prior to founding Natural Cycles, Elina was part of the team that discovered the Higgs boson at the CERN laboratory, which led to the Nobel Prize in physics in 2013. Following this success, Elina was looking for an effective, natural birth control and decided to apply her skills from particle physics to create a unique algorithm that could accurately pinpoint when a woman was fertile. From there, Natural Cycles was born. Today, Natural Cycles has over 1.5 million registered users across 162 countries.
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 so much for having me! I created this app from personal experience — it was really my own search for alternative birth control that inspired Natural Cycles. I’ve always felt that women need more options when it comes to birth control, and there are so few options out there that are non-hormonal and non-invasive. I have a background in particle physics, which means I have a good understanding of how algorithms can lead to accurate predictions, so I wanted to apply the skills I have from that to real issues I face in my life, like birth control. After all, science is meant to improve and enhance our lives.
I found myself at a stage in my life where my work at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) was winding down and parenthood was on the horizon but wasn’t quite ready for it yet. I discovered that the body temperature changes throughout the menstrual cycle — something that is well-known and well-researched. I started analyzing my own temperature, applying my statistical knowledge from particle physics to detect ovulation and map out my fertile days. The more entrenched I became in my fertility data, the more I was learning about my body — and so Natural Cycles was born.
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?
I have to tell you, when you’re first starting your company and you have so much time and energy invested, not many mistakes seem funny. It’s a lot of pressure. But now I’m at a spot where I can better embrace those “moments” and learn from them. Since birth control is obviously all about sex, there have been some really funny moments when we used just one wrong word somewhere and it took on a whole new meaning. What I’ve learned? Always proofread!!!
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?
There are two main hurdles that we’ve had to overcome. The first was getting regulatory approval as the first birth control app, something that had never been done before and still has not been done by any other company today. Natural Cycles is cleared as a medical device that can be used for contraception by the FDA in the US and we’re CE marked in Europe. Neither of the processes to get these certifications were easy!
The second huge hurdle — and something which we still continue to work on today — is educating people on a disruptive product within the under-researched and under-funded women’s health industry. There can be stigma around women’s birth control and reproductive health, making our fight to innovate the industry tricky at times.
Moments like these can be frustrating, of course. The many sleepless nights and stressful days have pushed me to where I am today and made Natural Cycles what it is now. There are some things that I would change (I can’t lie!) but 80% of what has occurred I wouldn’t dream of changing as that is what has got us to this point. Knowing that we were creating something that could help so many women really pushed me to overcome any fears and pull me through those bad days.
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’m especially lucky on this front, as my co-founder is my husband, Raoul. I’m definitely grateful that he has been here every step of the way, offering emotional support and living and breathing this company with me. There are going to be times where you want to give up because the process of getting your idea off the ground and into the hands of users isn’t easy. But having Raoul by my side and pushing me forward is invaluable.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A life lesson quote that has always stood out to me is “Always bet on yourself.” I’ve really had to work on overcoming my self-doubt but at the end of the day, there’s no one I’d bet on over myself. When self-doubt kicks in I remember how hard I’ve worked to get to this point, what we’ve achieved so far, and how great our team is — and I keep on pushing to help our users have access to the best product possible.
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?
There are a few pain points we’re trying to address but the number is that there is no form of birth control on the market that is one size fits all. Different women will always need different options — whether it’s because of health reasons, side effects, religious reasons, the list goes on. Our goal is to provide women with another certified option to choose from.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I suppose a key way our company stands out is our background. We are a healthcare technology startup that was not only founded by, but is still led by, scientists. That means we have an inherently science-based background that is in our company’s DNA and can be seen with anything we do.
I guess it’s not really a story but you see this in the way we talk internally and the data we use to make decisions. It’s safe to say that we loveee data.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are! We recently announced that we have submitted a 510k Premarket Notification to the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This is to revise the labelling so we can cover the use of third-party thermometers, including popular wearables. It means that users will be able to sync our app with a temperature / heart monitoring device, allowing for even more accurate data to be submitted to the app. It will also undoubtedly improve the user experience.
Natural Cycles is powered by an algorithm that identifies a woman’s daily fertility status based on her basal body temperature and other menstrual data. At the moment, to gather this sort of information a standard basal thermometer is the way to do this. Now, though, new software has been developed and added to the app that converts data from wearable devices that collect biometric temperature data to a format that can be interpreted by the Natural Cycles algorithm. The quality of the data from these kinds of wearables and the seamless measuring experience is a real breakthrough for us, we’re so thrilled to be able to keep improving our user experience.
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?
This is an interesting question because as a woman looking at the numbers, no I’m not. It’s clear there’s still a lot of work to be done to advance women in the world of tech. But when it comes to my personal experience, I’ve always felt supported and have never felt like there was something I couldn’t accomplish because I am a woman. If anything, since the community of women within our world is smaller, it’s allowed me to really feel like I’m a part of something special.
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?
While having a small community is great in a few ways, I do think it can be hard going into rooms that are dominated by men and not feeling slightly intimidated. Self-doubt is real. Women need to continue to fight for a seat at every table, and men need to do a better job of making sure they give women a seat at the table. Once those seats are a little more balanced, women will feel more comfortable, and it will help tremendously.
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”?
Keeping momentum is an important part of running a successful business, but of course there are times where lulls can be expected. It’s important as the leader to understand what keeps you motivated and for me, that’s continuing to hear from users on a daily basis and having a strong team around me who I enjoy working with. So I’d say don’t stray too far from your users and take a look around you to make sure you have the right team.
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?
This is a tricky question, as we’re targeting women who want to use a different form of birth control than what they are currently using. Natural Cycles’ average user is 30 years old, and can only be used by those over 18. So we’re trying to be super clear that this is for a woman at a specific stage of her life; probably in a stable relationship, who might even consider pregnancy in a few years. We find that being honest, using data-driven insights to inform our thinking and using research to underpin everything we do attracts customers. They know we have strong integrity and truly believe in our mission.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
For us, it’s all about listening to our users and taking action on their feedback. Our community of users (we call them our Cyclers) is invaluable to us. We listen to their pain points, what they want to see tweaked, how they’re using the app and we take it on board to improve our offering — it’s really as simple as that. That then feeds down into customer service and ultimately helps us retain our loyal customers.
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?
Happy customers don’t churn so you need to make your customers happy. At Natural Cycles, that means not only listening to them and making improvements they ask for, but working really hard to think about improvements they haven’t even asked for yet. Luckily for us, we are an app so it’s quite easy to make changes on an ongoing basis that directly improve the user experience.
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.
Mine can even be narrowed down to three!
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. When you spend too much time worrying about the small things, it takes your focus away from the bigger items that should be your priority.
- Put yourself first. How can you lead by example if you aren’t taking care of yourself? Take care of your mind, body and health by optimizing your schedule and carving out time for yourself. You can’t do your best work if you aren’t your best self.
- This one sounds a bit crazy — but don’t always listen to other entrepreneurs or executives. I used to always get so caught up in what other senior and experienced people told me that I would get distracted and go down a rabbit hole. It’s important to remember that everyone’s journey is different.
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. 🙂
Look at and trust science. We live in a world right now where it’s quite easy to google something — but it’s just as easy to be directed to an answer that is not grounded in any real science or data. I encourage everyone to slow down (which is hard in itself these days) and take the time to understand how things work. Don’t take other people’s words for it and don’t think you’re “incapable” of understanding something because I assure you that you are. I hear from women every day how they never thought they’d be able to understand how their body works and trust me, we’re often smarter than we give ourselves credit for!
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 🙂
Marissa Mayer. I was once in an intimate conference in London where she participated in a fireside chat. The day before had been her last day as a CEO of Yahoo. I could really relate to her story and would love to have the possibility to have breakfast or lunch with her.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!