Maroof Ahmed, COO and Co-founder of Quit Genius, an app that helps people stop smoking through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). I talk to him about how they started and how they are looking to use their technology to solve the mental health crisis.
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[0:21] Maiko: In today's episode, I'm talking to Maroof Ahmed, co-founder and CEO of Quit Genius, an app that helps smokers quit through cognitive behavioral therapy. The app is now used by half a million people worldwide and so far, you've helped about 30,000 people actually quit smoking. So, that's a really impressive statistic, obviously, you're massively growing in the UK and Europe and also in the US, because you came back a few months ago from YCombinator where you've been part of the winter 2018 batch. And since then, you've actually closed around with really notable investors with the likes of Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Reid Hoffman investing through their fund called Village Global and senior leaders at Dropbox, slack and pharmaceutical Merck and many more. So, really, some notable investors behind you, and you're on a mission to eradicate smoking.
[01:15] Maroof: Yeah.
[01:16] Maiko: And I think you have some plans as well to go beyond smoking and look at mental health and other issues that you could solve with the approach that you're taking with cognitive behavioral therapy. So, yeah, welcome to Impact Hustlers Maroof. Good to have you.
[01:29] Maroof: Thank you so much, Maiko. Thank you, that long introduction is always a pleasure to come back here. I've known Maiko for a long time, so he's a good friend of mine so, yes, it's a pleasure to be here.
[1:39] Maiko: It's good to have you, really, I'm happy that we made this happen. So, I want to start with the very beginning of your journey, it's not, actually, that long ago. But I mean, feels like very long ago, because you've come so far. But when you started with Genius, you were studying medicine at Imperial College in London, I think almost all your team basically studied medicine, right?
[02:01] Maroof: Absolutely.
[02:02] Maiko: So, of course, you're embedded in the medical, like, traditional medical system, right? Like you're supposed to go into that medical infrastructure, which you didn't do. But did anybody take you seriously when you said, oh, well you're going to do this app, and it's going to stop people from smoking, did anybody actually think this could work?
[2:18] Maroof: Yeah, it's funny, because we started this project about 14 months ago now. And as you said, we're still at medical school at Imperial College, we're 22 years old, myself and my two co-founders. We had never built a tech startup in the past, but we knew that there was a problem. So, going through medical school, we saw that people wanted to quit smoking, this was on a daily basis, whether in their spiritual firm, or even the psychiatry firm, we saw that people wanted to quit smoking. And this was leading to many, many problems down the line. And when we looked into this in more detail, I was actually on the research firm with my co-founders at the time, we saw that they actually, they wanted to quit. So, 70% of smokers wanted to quit, but only 3% of them were successful. And when you looked at the research behind it, there was decades of research that showed the best way to quit smoking, which is offer pharmacotherapy, which is essentially nicotine replacement, and that's patches and gum, and they're widely available. So, there's no issue with that, I can go down to the local bus, just at the bottom of Piccadilly Circus and buy some Nicorette, buy some nicotine, buy any type of gum or patch that's available.
[03:25] Maroof: But the pharmacotherapy was most effective in combination with behavioral support and that's where the issue lied. So, we saw that this behavior therapy was really effective. But the problem was, it was super expensive, it can cost like 100, 150 pounds per session and it's very difficult to scale. And on top of that, it’s, actually super inconvenient, people don't want to take time off work, to go to see a therapist, who's only available for Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. People expense cravings on Saturday night, on a Monday night, 24/7 really. So, we really saw that there was this idea to almost disrupt the market and deliver this behavior therapy through an app. And that's where the idea came from. And to answer your question of whether people took a seriously, absolutely not. So, our professors, at university and even our friends, to a certain extent, were just like, what are you guys doing? You don't even know how to how to build an app, like, why are you even doing this? And a lot of people just thought this was like a fun side project, that wouldn't go any further, especially my parents, they thought it was cool that I was doing it, but they never thought I'd actually go into this full time.
[04:30] Maroof: And then it was only about 12 months ago. So, we graduated as doctors 12 months ago that we decided to go into this full time, probably bit naively. My parents are bit annoyed with me because we're getting into something that had no funding at the time, we had no money, we weren't paying ourselves and we're rejecting, our almost dream jobs, which were like we got our top choice jobs in London, comfortable salary and very stable job and I'm from a family full of doctors as well. So, you can probably imagine how the conversation went down, like I haven't spoken to my parents since. No, they've been very supportive. Obviously, initially, they were, like quite reluctant and it sort of made sense in their head like they've paid for a good education for six years during medical school. And now, I'm sort of making this irrational decision to go to see something that was almost a good idea but had no legs at the time. But the last 12 months, as you covered during your introduction has been incredible for us. Obviously, there's still a long, long way to go. But we are certainly and neither do any of my co-founders regret our decision. So, it's been it's been a roller coaster, for sure but it's been it's been a good roller coaster.
[5:43] Maiko: Well, it's amazing. I mean, you talk about cognitive behavioral therapy and in my work, I've seen many startups just fail based on failing to change people's behavior or trying to change people's behavior and that's essentially what you're trying to do, right? Like of everything you do, you're trying to change people's behavior, and you're competing with that addiction, that tells them, don't change your behavior to stay with it. How has the journey been in terms of really using cognitive behavioral therapy and adapting it to your needs and making it effective enough? Was that a really tricky problem to solve in the beginning? Can you talk a little bit about that and how you adapted it and actually succeeded in terms of actually getting people to quit smoking? And where you saw the first person, maybe that send you a message was like, okay, we actually quit smoking, what was that?
[6:29] Maroof: Yeah, absolutely. So, that's definitely and so, I guess the delivery of cognitive behavioral therapy, which falls on the umbrella of our product development has definitely been the hardest obstacle to overcome with probably, I'd say, with funding, the initial round of funding as well that we needed when we were 22 at the time. So, that was very, difficult, it was definitely an iterative process. We weren't smokers ourselves, so we didn't know what smokers want, we knew that cognitive behavior therapy was working. But we can't just plump cognitive behavior therapy in the stages associated with changing your thoughts, feelings behavior into an app and expect it to work. So, it's funny, because 12 months ago, what we had was very different to what we had now, we had very long sessions, up to an hour long, and it was very similar to a face to face session.
[07:18] Maroof: Obviously, it was automated and delivered through audio sessions and videos. However, what we've come to realize is that this doesn't actually lend well to the modern age and the modern lifestyle that people actually live these days. So, after speaking to a number of different users, and I think it's important to understand that we not only regularly call our users, we send out surveys every month. But on top of that, every Thursday, we actually get some of our lead users into the office to actually try out the app in front of us. And this, essentially gives us what we need to change the product, hearing it from our users, and hearing what changes they need and hearing what best suits their lifestyle, allows us to iterate our product, improve our product, and hopefully, at the end get them to quit smoking.
[08:08] Maroof: So, we've come to over a number of different iterations, a cognitive behavioral therapy journey that split into five-minute daily steps. So, people complete a five-minute step a day, which is either an animated video, an interactive exercise or an audio session that they have to listen to. And then once they've completed that they're almost done for the day, they can interact with the other features of the app, but it's not necessarily compulsory, or needed at the time. So, it's very convenient, and can fit into any lifestyle, we've had people doing it on the train, on the way to work. And as a result of that, they're also not rushing through the program and it really gives them time to actually change their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Because with behaviors, it takes a long time to change as you said, and behaviors, it's almost probably the hardest thing that you can try to do as a start of changing someone's behavior.
[09:07] Maroof: But once you've cracked, then it opens almost Pandora's Box, once you can change the behavior for addictions, that's not just smoking, but also alcohol addictions, opioid addictions, but also other types of behavior. Why can't we change the behaviors of people eating better, exercising more and that's where it gets super interesting, because it's probably worth noting that the company isn't just called Quit Genius, a company is actually called Digital Therapeutics. And our mission, although our first product is to tackle people, to help people quit smoking, our mission in the longer term has always been to not only help people quit smoking, help tackle other addictions, and also help deal with other mental health conditions, whether that's anxiety, depression, insomnia, and the like.
[9:50] Maiko: So, what's the next massive problem that you're trying to tackle of this? Or what do you think is the need that's unanswered right now, that it could be solving?
[9:57] Maroof: Yeah, so the team are working on that this at the moment, and I'm not sure I can disclose the exact field that we're going into. But it will be within the mental health field and that's the next product that we're tackling. And we're going to obviously use our learnings from Quit Genius for a head-start. But again, even though we're delivering cognitive behavior therapy, and we're tackling something still in mental health, and there's a lot of iterations that need to go through until releasing that product, but they work super quick, and we're very lean in our methodology, and we fail fast to hopefully, succeed sooner. So, we build things that break and, and hopefully that will be out in the market very soon. And Maiko, you'll be the first person to know that/
[10:43] Maiko: I'm looking forward to it.
[10:45] Maroof: I'll text you.
[10:45] Maiko: Thank you. One question, I wanted to ask you was when you basically figured out, okay, we want to use CBT to attack this problem and you maybe build a first prototype or anything? How did you actually acquire the first 500 users? You know, how did that actually work? And how did you iterate on them?
[11:04] Maroof: So, this is funny, because we were based in Wayra at the time, so in Piccadilly Circus, and we launched the app and it was almost like a really big moment, a big momentous occasion for-- I remember, actually, when we launched our first version of the app, come in, probably like May time of last year. So, we took a photo of it, it was really awesome, we launched it the next day, we had like one user on it. And with the exception of obviously, all our team. So, like five years in total, we had one actually user and I think that was like my dad or something. So, we needed people on the platform to actually get feedback to improve, we knew it wasn't the finished product at all. And if you look at that product, compared to the product that we have, now they're worlds apart. So, what I used to do was every lunchtime from 12 to 2, spend time in Golden Square, and go to every single person that I saw smoking, and be like, look, there's an awesome app called Quit Genius, would you want to download it? 50% of people will be like, no, I enjoy my smoking, I'm not really interested but the other 50% actually really wanted to quit smoking and download it there and then.
[12:05] Maroof: We had users and actually a number of them because they lived or worked local, gave us some really valuable feedback. So, then, I almost started doing this every single day. And then did this after work as well, because we've got Golden Square just around the corner, really. So, just people outside who were smoking, I'd go up to them and ask them about it. And on top of that thing, I messaged every single one of my friends I knew from on Facebook and WhatsApp and Instagram at the time. And it's like, look, you're trying to quit smoking, check this out, it's a free download, you've got nothing to lose. And if you could, like share it with three or four other your friends, like some people ignored me, other people actually really helpful. And it got us to the first 500 users surprisingly, but then it sorts of took like a snowball effect. To begin with, you do things that don't scale, right? Like I'm never go out to really Golden Square now and ask people to download the app.
[13:01] Maroof: But it definitely worked at the time. And then we found out there are other methods of actually scaling up. So, then we implemented referral scheme, which has been one of our best sources of user acquisition even since then. And also, obviously, like the organic side of things in terms of App Store optimization, some press articles really helped to begin with. And then the App Store feature came and then it all sort of like exploded a bit. It's crazy, because I remember we celebrated, we took everyone to Pizza Express at the time, we didn't have much money, so we couldn't take them to any of the fancy restaurants around. But we took the whole team, it was five of us at the time, two developers and my two co-founders, and we took them to Pizza Express just down the road to celebrate 200 installs, because that's a big milestone for us. And then when we're in America, when we're featured in the in the US App Store, we had 50,000 downloads in a day. That was about four to five months later. So, it was pretty crazy how things have like rocketed, I guess since then,
[14:03] Maiko: Would you say, like, for founders, maybe the beginning of your journey or like where you were back then, can you expect a lot from the app store or did you do a lot of ground work before that to actually enable that growth? Or how co-founders think about a strategy to grow a mobile app, should we rely on the lot on the app store or what we think in--?
[14:26] Maroof: I terms of the growth of our app, and that's actually something that I was, so use of my co-founders, technical by background and some manages the whole of the product. And I was mainly in charge of like the growth side of things. And how we went really went about our growth was very similar to our product, the process of our product development. So, we still work in sprints, and we experimented every single different channel, we experimented Facebook ads, Google ads, App Store optimization, press releases, going out there speaking to people, posting on forums, every single different type of thing. And then we just double down on the things that worked. The App Store feature isn't something that you can necessarily rely on because it's obviously at the discretion of the editors, but we just got lucky in the sense that Apple did reach out to us and said, look, you're doing something that's no one's really done before. We love the design of your app, we love how like smooth the app is and that's credit to the product development team. We want to feature you and we were like, wow, this is incredible.
15:26 Maroof: We didn't actually realize how big an app store feature was just because just recently in November, that obviously the new app store has come out. So, instead of being one of like 15 different apps that were featured, we're actually like covering the homepage. So, it was crazy. And not just in the UK, but also in US and all over the world. And, and being featured on US app stores, incredible, a huge day for the company. And yeah, it was big. But obviously we know that things like press releases and App Store features are things that you can't necessarily rely on, you can't scale, like press releases, you can't scale on that. So, if you get featured once, and that's it. So being very careful to obviously and try and maintain that growth through channels that are going to be scalable, like referrals, for example. So, we've been working very hard and always iterating our referral scheme to improve it.
[16:26] Maroof: And that's thankfully one of our biggest channels of growth now, which is awesome. And we found that people that end up do quitting through Quit Genius, end up referring all of their friends, which is really nice on that side of things. And we've been working very hard on like our blog content. So, we have good, like a SEO rank as well and also App Store optimization as well. So, when people type in quit smoking, and the like, it's likely to come up, which is really good on that side. So, I think, yeah, it's definitely not something you can rely on but it's something worth pursuing, especially in the early stages to increase brand awareness.
[17:04] Maiko: I'd like to talk a bit about your journey from the students’ startup at Imperial, to really going to the US for a few months as part of YCombinator in the winter 2018 cohort, what got them to believe in you and invest in your world, what do you believe was the one thing that you brought with you that they said, okay, this is what we want to invest in?
[17:24] Maroof: Yeah, so the YC is very open about this and the fact that they invest in founders as opposed to like an idea. And in some cases, and some of our people in our batch, the ideas change within the batch, I don't understand, it's three, four months, but then, people rapidly pivot actually, the founders of Soylent, were in our batch and are starting another startup now, but obviously founded Soylent about six, seven years ago. And initially, they're building some other product that was the biggest pivot in YC history because then they end up developing Soylent, which is, food, it's like liquid food. So, they're investing founders because they know things change, and markets change so they're almost seeing that drive and motivation within the founders. And also, the adaptability and flexibility of dealing with things that happen within a startup.
[18:16] Maroof: So, the psychology of founders is, I've just come to experiences over the last 8 to 12 months is a very lonely place, and, it's very tough. And, all of my friends are either working in banks and comfortable jobs. And so obviously, the ones from medical school are working as doctors, and, and no one really understands. So, obviously, there's a massive struggle, to begin with, not paying yourself, not just financially but also mentally and psychologically as well. So, I think they're also looking for, like persistence within the founders. So, some of the questions that they're asking us within the interviews, well, like, what would happen if no one's smoking in five years’ time? So, there's, there's a possibility, and obviously, this is a hypothetical situation but to say no one was just making five years’ time, what would you do?
[19:07] Maroof: So, they're not only just looking for your current idea, they'd be like, what's your backup idea? What else would you do? Just to almost get into your mentality and see how you think and, and so you're not attached to one specific idea like things pivot things change and markets change as well. So, I think it's really like that, the questions are very geared towards the mentality of the founder and the processes that you've also implemented up until that day, as well as obviously the idea the market and whether they think it's going become a billion-dollar company. But yeah, the founder mentality is super important to them.
[19:40] Maiko: You mentioned the issue, what happens if nobody was smoking five years, right, inherently, through the kind of problems you tried to solve, I mean, if you achieve your goal, you can shut down the company or like at least the app, right? So, is that one of the reasons why you look at different subject areas? Or do you believe there will always be an issue of these different problems and you'll always be around to help people with it? How was your thinking about that? I mean, often people talk about dating apps as being a terrible business model, because you connect people and then they're not on the app anymore. It should be quite similar with you; how do you tackle that?
[20:14] Maroof: Definitely, and I think it's one of the most common questions that we get from, not just investors, but also leaders within the field as well. And there's that people often do compare it with the natural churn associated with the dating apps, but our churn has actually been remarkably low over the eight months that we've become a paid product. And the reason for that is often a misconception about Quit Genius, we're not an app to help people quit smoking, we do that. Also, we help them stay smoke-free, so, the whole Quit Genius sustained program that we've developed. So, the Quit Genius initial program obviously helps them towards their quit day and prepares them for that. And that takes them about three to four months, the Quit Genius sustained program actually helps them stay smoke-free and it's really important that people understand that addictions are very hard to overcome.
[21:02] Maroof: People who have been smoking, in some cases for 15, 20 years, they're ingrained in their habit, the smoking is ingrained in their routines and their habits. And it's not something that can just be overcome overnight, we can't just prepare them until they're quit day and then just leave them. So, in some cases, users are actually using Quit Genius, sustain and logging into Quit Genius sustained more than they were the original program, which is super interesting because they need their help during the cravings that they're still going to almost experience after their quit date. And, that's how we built the program. But you're right, in 10 years’ time, if the world is a smoke-free place, we've achieved our mission, that's what we're set out to do. There are a number of companies out there, I'm not going to name any names but there are a number of companies out there that want to either keep you hooked on cigarettes, so e-cigarettes, is now which is becoming a big thing, and vaping.
[22:00] Maroof: But we actually want people to quit smoking. That's why we published the numbers of people that actually quit smoking, we get them through the Quit Genius program, we get them through the Quit Genius sustained program. And once they are comfortable with their smoke-free life and comfortable with not experiencing the cravings, they can naturally turn from the app. And that's not a problem for us, as long as they've stayed smoke-free. So, yeah, our mission is pure, and it's something that we really strive towards, and we even share, testimonial videos and testimonial, written testimonials with the company every single day. So, that's really important for us as a company and it's important that everyone that we do welcome on board to the company is equally passionate about the mission.
[22:39] Maiko: With that mission, what's next for you? Do you think the software; the app solution works perfectly? Or what's the next step for you? I think there might be something to announce as well in terms of what you're trying to give people to help them even more with quitting smoking. And then from that, what's your big vision? What's the kind of world you're trying to create? You're a very impact-driven company like what's the big impact and big issue that you want to solve for what you do?
[23:06] Maroof: Yeah, absolutely. So, as I said, from the beginning there, the best way to help people quit smoking is obviously offer the behavior therapy in combination with the pharmacotherapy, which is the nicotine replacement out there. And for us, we want to own the smoking cessation space. And we really want to do that Quit Genius, so we feel as though we have an awesome solution for the behavioral therapy side of things. And sometime, in the not so distant future, that we're definitely going to go into is also the pharmacotherapy side of things as well. And using our Quit Genius brand to market pharmacotherapy to users of the apps, almost offering the whole package, everything that you need to quit smoking is here at Quit Genius. So, that's something that's very exciting for the team and something we've been working really hard on.
[23:55] Maroof: But also, on top of that, and as I said, we want to tackle other addictions, we've released a number of other packs within Quit Genius, where we're tackling stiff certain subsets of smokers. That's been super exciting and also super popular with our users. So, we offer a pack for pregnant women, we offer a pack for people with, like social smoking as one of their big triggers. And also, interestingly, we've been offering a pack for people who have alcohol as one of their biggest triggers, that's actually the most popular pack that we've offered and it's spreading like wildfire, which is really like interesting on our side.
[24:31] Maroof: So, being able to offer a solution that will also help people curb their alcohol addiction is something super exciting. And something that we definitely want to go into as well, because we think there's a real gap in the market, in terms of good digital solutions to help people overcome their alcohol addictions. But as I said, it's not just going to stop there, there are a number of different mental health conditions that again, need better digital solutions, in my opinion, and that's anxiety, depression, there are a number of good solutions out there. For the number of solutions out there, I should rephrase that there are a number of solutions out there but still, we think that there's a gap in the market to offer a really convenient evidence base, easily accessible, inexpensive, digital solution for the people that are suffering out there.
[25:22] Maiko: I wish you all the best on that journey, you've come very far but obviously still a long journey ahead. So, all the best for that and the struggles that are included with that. Yeah, and thanks very much for joining today.
[25:33] Maroof: Thank you so much, Maiko, I really appreciate it.
[25:35] Maiko: Thank you very much, thanks Maroof.