Startup Spotlight: Kai - From MVP to Pilot to Beta Launch | The Garage Group

Startup Spotlight: Kai – From MVP to Pilot to Beta Launch

We recently sat down with Jonathan Smith (CEO) and Jane Decker (COO) of local Cincinnati startup, Kai, a new kind of fitness coach that communicates entirely via text message. We wanted to learn more about how their idea turned into a product through their scrappy MVP testing and initial pilot, and advice they have for entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs who are trying to do the same.

How did you first get the idea for Kai?

An experiment we tried and built for another company was Ask Us Anything. It was just a way that you could text the organization and get a response quickly. We were amazed at how willing people were to both be vulnerable and express themselves via text message to a total stranger and how valuable that response could be, whether it was advice or, “You know, what, I’m going to connect you to the person who can help you. Let me know if you don’t hear back from them,” so on and so forth.

Additionally, in the midst of this last seven years, Jonathan had a pretty significant fitness journey which got us thinking about, okay, “We’ve put this all together. Fitness is really, really hard. And it shouldn’t be, but it is.” Jonathan’s life changed because he had a friend who helped him on his fitness journey. And we know that text message and words can be very, very powerful. It came together slowly, but the end result was (what now is) the first prototype of Kai, a fitness coach via text message.

What are the core beliefs behind Kai?

One of our core beliefs is that real behavior change, real-life change, happens only in the context of a relationship.

The second thing we believe is that words are very powerful. The written word is incredibly powerful in a way we didn’t realize until we experienced it and got to bring up those two experiences we spoke about previously.  

And the third thing we believe is the purpose of technology is and has always been to extend what makes us human, to augment what makes us human, not to replace humans. So all of those things brought together became the mission of Kai, which is to turn humans into superhuman coaches and communicators.

Tell us about the first time you tested this idea.

Jonathan gets asked for fitness coaching quite a bit because people know that he lifts weights and they know that in 2015 he experienced a physical transformation.

Right when we were beginning to develop Kai, a mutual friend asked for help with fitness coaching. We used to view this as personal friend help, but we realized that even friendships are a chance to test what we believe and see if that’s true and begin to prove it out.

And so even before our pilot, Jonathan spent a couple of months communicating with our mutual friend via text only about his fitness goals, we then screenshotted all of our conversations, with his permission and went through it. We printed out the transcript, passed it around our team, went through and annotated it. Where was he effective? Where was he ineffective? What should have been our red flags on my communication? Where could he have dove in more? Looking at timestamps, when was I not quick enough in helping him? All of this guided our pilot.

So tell us about the pilot. What did you build to keep testing this idea?

There’s a great article from Google X where they ask, “How can I kill my project today?” (The Garage Group recently discussed this in this blog about testing leap of faith assumptions.) And we thought, “We need to figure out what is the number one…because there’s 87 things that are going to kill this idea. What’s the first one on the list?”

The first assumption the list that we needed to test was whether or not people are willing to be coached via text message. We recruited 30 people by reaching out to friends of friends. We emailed people and said, “Do you know anyone who meets these criteria? If so, we’re willing to give them 50 days of free fitness coaching via text message.”

Then we sat at a coffee shop and did 90-minute interviews with each of those 30 people to learn more about who we were serving. From that, we segmented our population into four segments and made predictions about which of these segments would respond best and which of them would not respond well. Then we picked a date, and began fitness coaching, 30 people at once, all via text message.

What was the outcome of this pilot?

5,000 text messages were sent in 50 days across the 30 people. From those texts, we began to develop communication rules that we believed we could teach to a machine.

At the end of the pilot, about 60 percent of the initial 30 people were still texting us daily, even after we shut down the pilot. An assumption we were testing was whether or not people will engage with text messages about their goal. And the answer we received was yes.

How will you continue testing your idea?

Our technology wasn’t really consumer-facing. What you see as a user of Kai is the text messages that you should believe came from a human because they did in one way or another. Our technology is how we equip ourselves to carry on hundreds of those conversations.

When we beta launched March 1st, we started by coaching 10 people. And the following week,  added 10 more people onto that, and so on. Our team will go and build features and test them week after week. At the end of the day, we know we can provide excellent personal training and coaching via text messages. But now it is about what can we build to scale our efforts. That’s the continuous iterative process for us.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs who are wanting to test their idea?

If you have a mission and you believe it’s your purpose, you have to hold onto that no matter what. Start with your why, and be immovable on it. And make a list of your friends. Write down what you love about them and write down what they’re really good at. You are not going to succeed on your own terms in anything you’re trying to do. So use your friendships. Tell them what you’re trying to achieve.

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