We talked to Sameer Kumar of HabitAware about solving body-focused repetitive behaviors, and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Sameer Kumar: Thank you for asking and for having me here. I hope you have found wellness in these uncertain times of COVID. We’ve had some challenges, but on the whole, I am grateful for the quality time with my two young boys during “shelter in place.” As introverts, my wife and I felt pretty comfortable hunkering down at home and understood why it was a necessity. The stay at home orders and school closures gave us the chance to slow down and enjoy our neighborhood lakes here in Minneapolis.
What problem are you trying to solve, and why did you start HabitAware?
Sameer Kumar: HabitAware serves the 1 in 20 Americans and millions more worldwide who struggle with body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs). BFRBs are a mental health condition where the person is on autopilot and turns to compulsive hair pulling (trichotillomania), skin picking (dermatillomania), or nail-biting as coping mechanisms for triggers of boredom, stress, anxiety, tiredness.
BFRBs are our restless mind translating to restless hands, and for people with these conditions, the physical effects (baldness, skin rashes, bleeding cuticles) cause additional mental anguish (lack of self-confidence and self-worth). This trance-like cycle also causes lots of shame and fear of judgment. People spend a lot of time thinking they are alone because even though these are common issues, BFRBs are relatively unknown because the shame breeds secrecy of the condition.
I didn’t even know these behaviors existed until I saw my wife one morning. We were getting ready, and as she walked toward me in the bathroom, I squinted in confusion and asked, “Aneela, where are your eyebrows?” She froze and finally said, “I pulled them out.” I was really confused then as she went on to share that she had trichotillomania since her childhood and had gotten really good at hiding it with a black eye pencil.
A few weeks later, as I turned to the internet for more information about trichotillomania, I began to understand the shame and embarrassment she was harboring. I also learned that the behaviors seemed to stem from the automatic brain and that people lacked awareness that the unwanted behaviors were even happening.
I began to notice when she was pulling well before Aneela did. One evening as we watched TV, I gently grabbed her hand as she pulled her eyelashes. That was our A-HA moment. She turned to me and said, “Hey if I just had something that notified me, maybe I could get a handle on this hair pulling?!”
In the weeks and months and years that followed, HabitAware designed just that tool, focusing on this core issue of lack of awareness. You can’t change a behavior if you don’t know it’s happening. Our latest innovation, Keen2, is a smart bracelet that delivers on this awareness training. Using patented customized gesture detection technology, a person records their unwanted hair pulling, skin picking, or nail-biting gesture to the bracelet. When Keen2 senses a match, it sends a vibration, which creates a moment of pause to empower the wearer to choose healthier coping strategies. Keen2 hands control from the BFRB and back to the person.
Keen2’s other strength is in its ability to deliver response training. Backed by NIH funded research, Keen2 improves on our original Keen device by integrating digital strategies based on Habit Reversal Training, a gold standard of care for BFRBs.
We started by simply trying to help my wife as we couldn’t find other solutions readily available. As we realized our invention was working for Aneela, we knew we had to bring HabitAware and our positive approach to behavior change to help the underserved BFRB community.
How does HabitAware innovate?
Sameer Kumar: We started with understanding the problem and community first to build the right product for them and with them. Then we followed a methodical approach to building, testing, and iterating based on feedback from experts in the field and our Keen family (people who purchased our product).
Using this process, we recently launched our newest product, Keen2. The original Keen focuses mainly on building awareness, the first step of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In working with renowned trichotillomania researchers through a research grant funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, we were able to go beyond awareness to build a holistic system that guides people with BFRBs through both awareness and response training by integrating another gold standard treatment, Habit Reversal Training (HRT) into the mobile app. Keen2 answers the question of “Now that I am aware, what do I do instead of hair pulling, skin picking or nail biting?”
We also take customer feedback requests into consideration. To redesign the Keen2 bracelet, we added many features our Keen family asked for – improved data tracking and step tracking. These feedback and feature requests also help inform our future product roadmap.
Maintaining a close community and communication is key to innovation.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business?
Sameer Kumar: These pandemic times have created an upheaval of uncertainty and anxiety. Despite an initial dip in sales in March as the whole world was trying to really understand what was happening, we then saw business steady.
In addition, we realized that shelter in place was creating further isolation for our community. So we doubled down and tried to bring people together through webinars. We understood people were craving connection and also ramped up our ability to provide one-on-one Keen device training/peer coaching video calls – all for free.
How are you coping with the stress & anxiety of COVID?
Sameer Kumar: Before we knew what was really happening at the very beginning of quarantine, we bought a treadmill off our local Minneapolis tech community message board. The treadmill was in pieces, and the whole family enjoyed spending the day putting it together. Aneela and I are learning that with work and family time blending more, it’s important to ensure we both take time for self-care. I now go running or do yoga most mornings, and she takes walks or meditates after she drops the kids to school. I also enjoy playing chess and staying connected with my college buddies via group messages and fantasy football.
As you grow the business, did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Sameer Kumar: Trade-offs and difficult choices are what propel a business forward. Our decisions are determined by what is right for the community we serve, as well as our constraints as a team. When faced with difficult choices, we explore our options and validate our decision through internal founder discussion and speaking with experts or the community as needed.
Where do you see HabitAware in the future?
Sameer Kumar: Our vision is to become the behavior change company for other underserved communities for which lack of awareness is paramount. We understand that you can’t change what you don’t know is happening. Negative cycles can be broken. With awareness, a moment of pause, and diligent practice HabitAware wants to empower positive change.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Sameer Kumar: Our biggest competition in serving people with compulsive hair pulling, skin picking, and nail-biting is a lack of understanding and education. Our biggest roadblock is that people feel they are alone and do not understand that these conditions are rooted in mental healthiness or that there is hope that these behaviors can be managed.
Most often, like Aneela, people with BFRBs spend their energy hiding, covering up, and living in fear of being found out and judged. But her ability to share her story is helping raise BFRB awareness. If you feel inclined, we as you, please help us in this endeavor by watching and sharing her shame-shattering TEDx talk: Overcoming trichotillomania with the Power of Awareness.
By continually innovating to ensure we have the best product and by empowering people’s recovery journeys’ we know other people with BFRBs will hear of our work and join the Keen family when they are ready.
Your final thoughts?
Sameer Kumar: Thank you again for this opportunity. It is an honor to share our story and to do the work we get to do. It stemmed from my wife’s pain and has now become our purpose. If you are searching for your “big entrepreneurial idea,” do not discount the pain you may be experiencing.
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