Remember that it’s not a sprint or a marathon, it’s sometimes both. So, work hard, but take breaks and make sure you enjoy the work and the people. This will inspire you to continue and weather the inevitable tough times and challenges.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Telem, Co-founder of Kemtai.
Mike Telem is the co-founder of Kemtai, the online home fitness software that can see you and give real-time feedback. He is a serial entrepreneur with extensive experience in building and marketing digital products. Prior to starting Kemtai, he served as the General Manager of new products at Clarizen and the Vice President of Product Innovation and Product Marketing at Marketo. He also managed the latter’s Israeli Development Center. Mike joined Marketo in 2014 after the company acquired Insightera, the start-up he co-founded in 2009 which provided a real time web personalization SaaS for global businesses.
Mike lives in Israel with his wife Lihi and their two teenage sons. He has a black belt in martial arts and is a masters swimmer. He studied Psychology at Tel-Aviv University and has an MBA from the University of Bar Ilan.
Thank you so much for joining us! 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?
When I was a kid, I wasn’t interested in computers, I always preferred sports. I even declined offers to study computer science during my mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces and again, later in university. I just couldn’t see myself sitting in front of a computer screen for more than 10 minutes.
Then fate stepped in. During the .com bubble, while many of my friends were landing hi tech jobs, I was waiting tables at a steakhouse and was hurt in a bike accident, which required a long recovery period.
So, with some serious time on my hands, I decided to study for an online exam which was part of a Microsoft certification. Shortly after I found my first job as an IT person for a small financial company and worked there while finishing my BA in psychology. That role led to another, I somehow survived the .com crash, and I maintained my career path in hi tech as someone who understood users, but could also work with programmers.
Ten years later, in 2009, with no formal hi tech education, some hi tech experience and by then an MBA, my best friend from high school, Mickey Alon and I co-founded what was to be my first start-up. It was called Insightera, a software service providing real-time web personalization.
A few months later the market crashed. Great timing right? We self-funded through a very difficult two and one-half years, brought in our first customers and finally raised venture money in 2012. Insightera was acquired in 2014 by Marketo, marking our first successful exit. It wasn’t easy, but it had a happy ending
I spent a few years in Marketo enjoying the challenges of being part of a US-based management team focused on scaling the company to a billion dollar business. During that time I also managed its Israeli development center. Marketo was lots of fun and hard work but after a while it was time for a new challenge.
It was around then that I met my old neighborhood friend Naomi Keren and her business partner Mor Amitai and we decided to found Kemtai.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
My co-founders and I all love to exercise. I’m a swimmer. Mor loves running and Naomi is a certified pilates instructor. We also all like to work out at home. I worked out with YouTube videos for quite a long time, and liked it, to an extent, but I missed the feedback and engagement you get when working out in a group or with a trainer. That’s where Mor’s and Naomi’s professional background was helpful.
In addition to being sports enthusiasts, Mor and Naomi are also computer vision technology experts. In fact, in 2008 they had co-founded Imagu, which developed various computer vision technologies. They later sold their company for a profitable exit.
Our ‘aha moment” was when we were debating the value of working out at home alone vs with a personal trainer and we realized that with all of the fun exercise options online, NONE of them gave real-time and accurate feedback, at least not the kind that you get from a personal trainer or an exercise class instructor.
So, with Mor’s and Naomi’s computer vision tech savvy, we created the best online home fitness software that can actually see you and tell you if you are doing the exercise properly and if not, how to adjust, and just like your trainer or exercise teacher, encourage you along the way. It makes an otherwise boring home workout fun and you know how you are doing the entire time.
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?
Kemtai is a relatively new start-up and we haven’t had too many difficult moments — yet.
I did, however, have many at my previous start-up, Insightera. We had a great idea but couldn’t get funding. We then built a great product, and still couldn’t get funding. We even secured proper customers, and yet, again, no interested investors. We seemed to have checked all the right boxes — and yet nothing. It was a very, very difficult 2 years.
One thing I’ve learned, though, is that if you believe in your idea, even when the odds are a thousand to one, just make sure you have enough time and oxygen to try a thousand times. Eventually, you’ll score. Sounds basic, I know, but it works.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going great today! We have a wonderful Beta version of the system that we decided to launch a little early because we thought it could help people through the COVID-19 crisis. Knowing that most of us are stuck and home with energy to burn, our intention is to be of service. So, we are offering free sign up and use in order to help people maintain their health and sanity during this difficult time.
The feedback has been amazing and we are loving the tweaks the users are suggesting. We intend to continue improving the system based on user feedback and internal plans. For example, very soon, personal trainers will be able to upload specific workouts for their clients to follow at home, and like always, the system will be able to see you and give you accurate, real-time feedback.
We are also in a seed round of investment. So this is a great time for anyone interested in investing to get involved and support home fitness and the sanity that comes with it. Very, VERY important, especially now.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When we first started Insightera, most of what I knew about start-ups was based on articles, blog posts and general news about the industry. I thought, as typically described, that you come up with an idea, maybe create some proof of concept, raise money, hire people and you know the rest. I actually smile today thinking of my naiveness. The actual process was obviously much harder and longer. I later learned from other founders like myself, that most of them also had a much harder time building their companies than expected. In fact, neither starting a company nor completing a successful IPO or M&A are easy.
I think the funniest thing about this is that not only was I naive about the whole process, but also, had I known of all the challenges in advance, I probably wouldn’t have started a new company, let alone gone through the entire painful process of creation through M&A.
My ignorance was blissful and ultimately led to a wonderful conclusion, wonderful enough that I thought, let’s try this again, it should be easier this time, right? WRONG!
No, it still isn’t easy but at least now, with Kemtai, I’m enjoying the ride, experience in hand and with my eyes wide open.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
From a technology standpoint, Kemtai provides the most advanced online virtual exercise programs where you get real-time guidance and feedback. Using a laptop screen, its camera as well as special computer vision technology and AI, the system can see you, instruct and guide you and assess your movements. Lift your arms higher. Squat lower. Straighten your back. It won’t let you get away with anything. There is also loads of positive reinforcement and it’s really fun.
From a company perspective, we have a very different office culture. We set broad goals but plan very little in between and we try to keep it that way. Here’s why.
While it does cause some confusion sometimes, and perhaps people step on each other’s toes every now and then, we actually end up working much faster because people have the freedom to run very fast in the direction they think will get us where we want to go.
In the past, even the recent past, especially when working in larger organizations, I believed I needed to have a clear plan with steps and milestones to be able to predict when and how I would achieve my goal.
Not anymore. I have learned that if I have a great team of people with me, we just have to provide a high level objective and to give the freedom to the team to go for it. No sync meetings or standups, no giant charts or xls. We talk when we need and have close to zero meetings.
What keeps astonishing me every time, at least so far, is that this provides more accurate time planning then previous attempts I had in the past. We set goals for a 2–3 month period and hit them almost on the dot, and not because we dilute the scope, on the contrary, we sometimes achieve even more. I think it’s because we don’t slow people down with too many instructions and requests to plan and document and we spend close to zero time on meetings.
Our CEO, Mor, is adamant about creating 90% quiet time for most employees. We still joke around and have lunch together, but other than that, we don’t fill the days with planning/tracking, etc. We know where we want to be, and we just run like crazy to get there.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
First and foremost, when creating a start-up, it is important to choose the right co-founders.
They must be:
- Good people who you can trust with your future and your money, almost your life
- Professionals that are really good at their job
- Leaders who are highly motivated to go the distance and make it work
- People you can share a laugh with and a cry — — you’ll probably do both
Secondly, remember that it’s not a sprint or a marathon, it’s sometimes both. So, work hard, but take breaks and make sure you enjoy the work and the people. This will inspire you to continue and weather the inevitable tough times and challenges.
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?
My grandfather was one of the most influential people in my life and while we didn’t talk much about business, I spent a huge amount of time with him while I was growing up. We played together every Saturday. He took me to Judo classes for years and corrected my technique. He was a black belt and later I earned the same too. He taught me the importance of doing things well. Not pretty good, but “really” good. The joke in the house was that when Grandpa Louis said something you did was “not too bad”, it really meant “great job”. That taught me to enjoy achievements but always look to the next challenge.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
We actually just launched our beta product this past March 16th. We pre-launched it to help people stay fit while stuck at home due to the Coronavirus. That said, we already have thousands of users across the globe with limited promotion. We hope to help even more people as we begin to actively market, add more workouts and make the system available for real life trainers to upload tailored programs for their clients on Kemtai and train them using our system.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
Kemtai offers a free version that enables people to workout at home and get feedback, as if a personal trainer was right there with them.
We will eventually offer paid versions, based on premium content such as specific trainers, workouts and programs.
We are also considering other monetization options like ads.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Believe in what YOU see, not what others say — In most cases, innovation is obvious once it’s popular but very few people will share your foresight. Most of your friends, colleagues and, of course, investors, will always say that what you’re doing is not really needed, or already exists, or can easily be done, etc. However, if you are out in the market, and see there is a need or a potential, then trust what you see. That doesn’t mean every idea is good, but if you think you see an opening, go for it. I had VCs tell me that what Insightera provided was not needed, even when their portfolio companies were subscribing to our service. It was crazy. I had to believe in what I was seeing, because I was actually out there with customers and the investors were not.
- Keep your eyes open all the time — while you might be right that there is an existing need, or might be one in the near future, you must constantly keep your eyes open and review your actual results. If you see things aren’t working as expected, ask yourself why and try to make a change. That’s where your partners can help.
- Combine dreamy optimism with harsh skepticism — You have to be a dreamer in order to create something new but you have to be realistic to bring it to life, identify challenges and try to overcome them. At Kemtai we fantasize a lot about features we will add, communities we will build and the millions who will workout out at home using our programs. Every morning when I wake up, I open my product analytics dashboard for a reality check, and even if most of the numbers are good, I look for the ones that are not.
- Like the Nike slogan — Just do it! It’s the biggest factor that defines you as an entrepreneur or not. Lots of people have ideas but most don’t ‘just do it” for whatever their reasons. Look, not every idea is good but if you really think you’ve got something, then really — “just do it”.
- When you decide to “just do it”, take it one step at a time. Always remember your end goal, as those in your world continue to list the millions of reasons why it won’t work. Maybe they’re right but maybe, just maybe, they are not.
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. 🙂
I am hoping that our current effort with Kemtai will encourage, inspire and motivate people who are stuck at home or used to being at home to get off the couch and improve their fitness levels. Binge Watch Netflix and the other channels AFTER the workout.
I am hoping that what we are currently doing will help people to achieve better health — body and mind — and enjoy doing it. After all, it’s got to be fun, if we are to stick with it and happily build exercise into a lifelong, daily routine.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!