In this episode, Rockwell Shah, CEO of Pzizz, shows how technology can solve millions of people with sleep problems worldwide, how medicine needs to be transformed and what it takes to create massive global impact.
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[0:21] Maiko: In today's episode I'm talking to Rockwell Shah the CEO of Pzizz, a mobile app that literally makes you fall asleep. And Pzizz is now used by more than a million users worldwide, to treat insomnia and have a more peaceful sleep. Welcome, Rocky.
[0:37] Rockwell: Thank you. Thanks for having me, very much appreciate it.
[0:39] Maiko: Thanks very much for joining us, how did you end up professionally making people fall asleep? How did you get into this? And how does Pzizz actually work?
[0:48] Rockwell: So, this Pzizz provides sleep at the push of a button. And most people don't realize, but poor sleep is a public health epidemic, right? So, something around 70 million people in the US, 31% of Europe, globally, 2 billion people suffer from insomnia. And the vast majority of these cases of insomnia are caused by the same simple disease, it's just too much thinking, right? And people lay in bed unable to shut off their brains. So, the real key is if you can quiet someone's mind, you can get them to fall asleep and that's what Pzizz does. So, we have this patented system that plays you a sleep-optimize mix of music, voiceover and sound effects that change each night, that will quickly just quiet your mind, put you to sleep, keep you asleep, and then wake you up feeling refreshed. And that's what we do at our core.
[01:40] Rockwell: How we got here is a really interesting story. So, about 20 years ago, in 1999, Pzizz started development on hardware devices. And the very first Pzizz device was a little black looking mp3 player that would play you a different session each time and you could set it from between, you know, 15 minutes and 60 minutes and it was geared directly for power napping. And it was way ahead of its time but it was also a very expensive device, so it wasn't very accessible to most people. It was, kind of popular in the CEO or sports player, you know, group and there was a couple of celebrities that used it that, made it kind of popular. But it would never reach a global scale as a $400 hardware device. Eventually, over time, Pzizz moved into desktop software and then first generation mobile apps, second generation mobile apps. And you know, by the time it got to the second generation mobile apps, there were a lot of people that were raving fans of Pzizz, but the company had never really hit global scale and reach. And that's where I came along and really reimagine the product to help get it to where it is today.
[3:10] Maiko: Very interesting story, because basically, used to be a device quite pricey, quite restricted to a very specific audience. I think there were quite some prominent people using it, I think, was it, Steve Jobs, Tony Robbins, something like that?
[3:24] Rockwell: Yeah. Tony Robbins, Steve Jobs, a lot of these guys were big fans of the business.
[3:30] Maiko: Yeah. So, that's great, right, at the time the company helped and you weren't involved at that time, but at the time, the company helped people like them fall asleep. But can you talk us a bit through how you went, when you came into the company and how you really went from having a technology that's really proven to make people fall asleep, and really help them with insomnia and have a positive impact, take that technology, refine it, put it into a mobile app, and really grow it? How do you think about your global impact and really maximizing that to the scale that you're at right now, with your 1 million users?
[4:08] Rockwell: I think it largely comes down to listening to customers. And I don't mean just listening to what they say, but also listening to their behavior and that was one of the critical components missing out of previous versions of Pzizz, that we really brought to the table. You know, there was so much, in terms of how people would interact with the product and what they wished and dreamed and hoped that the product would do that it didn't. And you know, the core functionality was there and it showed a lot of promise but it was really inundated with, kind of, a bad user experience. And to find out what's bad about the user experience, you really have to listen to the users, not just what they say, but what they do. And that's what we did, in a variety of forms.
[05:01] Rockwell: So, we obviously did normal kind of customer interviews, and the surveys and the mobile analytics, but we also thought deeply about the problem of sleep itself. And you know, what kind of issues people might be having with the core product and starting to dream up experiments, as trying to dream up different scenarios to test and see, you know, how people would react. And one of the core things that we did in revamping the product was we created all new sets of what we call dreamscapes. And the dreamscapes are the pieces of music that people listen to while they fall asleep, and we design all of them in-house. And the creation of a dreamscape is really a combination of academic psychoacoustics. So, psychoacoustics is the branch of psychology that deals sound perception and its physiological effects. It's a combination of what we understand from clinical sleep interventions, so when we look at the literature on progressive muscle relaxation, hypnosis, auto genomic training, you know, breathing exercises, meditation, there're a lot of sleep interventions that have been shown in the lab to work really well, that had never been commercialized and consumerized.
[06:29] Rockwell: And, combining all of that with personalization and learning algorithms so that the system can get smarter, the more that you use it, the more that you interact with it. When you combine all these things together, and put the feedback loop of actually testing with real people, so that you can understand how the sounds and the music affects somebody's physiology, it can get very powerful. And, you know, in prior versions of Pzizz, they never did that. In prior versions of Pzizz, it was more of just the art, that a group of talented people would get together and they would create these sounds and this music and these scripts, but there would not be a cycle of iteration. And I think that is one of the most powerful things, is, you're probably not going to get it right the first try, you're probably going to need to iterate quite a bit. And that I think, is one of the big keys, is that iteration cycle.
[7:29] Maiko: Talk us through some of these stories that you encountered when you met your customers when you developed your technology and when you developed your soundscapes, what were the problems that these people were facing? And how were they solved at the moment? And then, more importantly, what was the kind of impact that you saw that Pzizz was able to achieve for them?
[7:53] Rockwell: Yeah, one of the things that are amazing about listening to users or asking them questions is, oftentimes, their answers will surprise you. One of my favorite examples of this is we asked users why they came to visit us or what was going on in their life that made them search for a solution like Pzizz. And, you know, you can think of the normal answers, right? You know, I'm thinking too much, like I have a lot going on in my head, financial problems, relationship stress. But there was an answer that totally caught us off guard and it was that somebody in their life recently had died and they were having trouble sleeping at night, whether that you know, was a husband or a wife, or brother or sister or family or, somebody important to that person had recently died. It was one of the top five answers, and it completely took us off guard, we didn't even think of the use case and it very much influenced the way that we thought about the product and what content we created for the platform.
[08:59] Rockwell: So, you know, listening, asking questions, and listening can be so powerful. You know, it's funny, I spent 10 years in medical software before doing Pzizz, and doctors would never email me saying thank you, you know, doctors would never say, oh, thank you so much for, you know, generating us a bunch of business or really helping our practice, never got a thank you email. With Pzizz, I get one every day, at least, you know, emails, Facebook messages, tweets, Instagram posts of people just being incredibly grateful. And it's for all sorts of reasons, you know, I think one of the most impactful pieces of feedback I got was from a woman named Julie, who posted on our Facebook, and she said, "you know, I truly believe Pzizz has saved my life. Thank you, I was suicidal, because of my insomnia that was caused by my PTSD and you guys saved me." When you get messages like that, not even just once, but on a routine basis, it's so, it fuels you and drives you so much to keep wanting to make a bigger impact and push the envelope to help more people.
[10:12] Rockwell: And you know, we're seeing this, helped with chronic pain management, with anxiety, you know, with stress, with all sorts of things, because when you think about it, fundamentally, sleep is one of the three pillars to well-being, you know, there's sleep, there's nutrition, and then there's exercise. So, if you really and truly help somebody in any one of these three pillars, you're going to fundamentally shift a bunch of areas of their lives. And oh, I often, you know, we have some pretty famous athletes and celebrities that still use Pzizz and there's one in particular that I think, in the last Olympics, who, she was the captain of the women's gymnastics team, for the Americans, and she uses Pzizz, as a tool, as a mechanism in between her training sessions during the day. So, she uses the napping module to take 90-minute naps in between her training sessions.
[11:11] Rockwell: And I often wonder, you know, did she Pzizz right before she wins, you know, her gold medal run? You know, I even think about the same thing with J.K. Rowling. So, J.K. Rowling is another Pzizzer and I think, you know, did she wake up from a Pzizz and write another chapter, or a screenplay or something? You know, it's really, it's fun all ways around, you know, you have the people that have really hardcore problems that you make fundamental shifts in their lives and it's incredibly meaningful to them. And you have other groups of people where, you know, you're helping them push the envelope in their particular profession or industry. And it’s fun to sit back and think how you might be affecting the people and the world.
[11:57] Maiko: That's the, I think, the really impressive about what you do. And I think one question that struck me as a bit, do you think that the way health care works right now is broken and needs much more solutions, like Pzizz or digital solutions that actually help patients, rather than maybe just prescribing some drugs? You know, like, obviously, these people that have sleep problems, there are solutions out there right now, in the healthcare system, there're sleeping pills, there are ceiling solutions that serve as a temporary cure, do you think like technology needs to play a bigger role and actually stepping in and providing even better solutions than just merely taking a drug?
[12:39] Rockwell: Healthcare is broken, not just in the US, but around the world, in most places, you know, it's broken for a number of reasons, I wouldn't say that technology is going to be the saving grace for health care. So, for instance, in US health care, is about four or five really big problems, you have a problem where, in the last six months of somebody's life, they spend 20 to 30%, of all of the costs that they will ever incur in healthcare on the system in the last six months of their life, which is an enormous strain on the system. You have issues, where, because it's a fee for service in many specialties in the United States, you're seeing, you know, doctors ordering all sorts of ancillary things when you go in for a visit that they really shouldn't order, but they're trying to maximize revenue. You're seeing issues with prescription drug medications, where doctors are prescribing drugs based on effectiveness instead of based on optimization for effectiveness and price. So, if there's a drug that's 95%, effective, but it costs $100, a pill and there's a drug that is you know, 88% effective, but it costs $1, a pill, most doctors will prescribe the 95 at $100 a pill drug before the other one.
[14:03] Rockwell: And that's not an optimal solution for the problem in most cases, and you're seeing a huge problem with diabetes in the US where, because the population is so unhealthy in their eating habits, it's spilling over into the healthcare system and causing massive strain in healthcare. And, you know, these are fundamental problems that some of them can be addressed by technology, but some of them can't. The health care costs being so high in the last six months of somebody's life, maybe there are some ways that technology can address that but that's really more of a human issue. You know, that's more of a, coming to terms and understanding, are we okay, as a society that this is true or do we want to make some fundamental shifts? And there is no necessarily right answer, it's a very sensitive topic. And, you know, different countries handle it in different ways. But you know, certainly, yeah, I mean, there are ways that technology can health the problem, but I'm not really the one that is going to stand up and say technology will cure all.
[15:06] Maiko: All right, do you see in your vision, when you move forward, do you see other areas that you really think, this is something that we could help solve?
[15:15] Rockwell: Yeah, I mean, for us, specifically, we're defining a new genre of music, called functional music. It's music with a purpose beyond entertainment, where, you know, if you want to increase your productivity, or you want to help your sleep, or you want to reduce your stress or anxiety, we can design pieces of music, that will really help you get there. And of course, there's a limit to the power of music, right? You know, music can't cure every single ailment that you have but it can really impact and help in many places. And we've really only begun to scratch the surface of how sound can truly affect the human body. So, for our part in Pzizz, we are certainly going to be expanding pass sleep, you know, we just launched our focus module recently. So, it's music for work, music for productivity, music to help you get more stuff done. So, you just listened to it and you'll pretty much instantly get in the zone, it's wild. If you haven't tried it yet, you totally have to try it. That's the beginning for us, of expanding out into more functional music genres.
[16:19] Maiko: What do you advise founders that, at the moment, might be looking at innovative solutions, have some kind of IP and some kind of technology that they see can really change the lives of individuals but are really looking for the best way to bring this to a global scale? What would do you advise yourself back when you started out, in terms of how to think about taking that technology and really scaling it up?
[16:46] Rockwell: I think the most important thing you have to figure out is how you're going to reach people. And I think that's usually the last thing an entrepreneur thinks about, they go build the product, and they may even listen to customers, but they don't understand how they're actually going to get the customer or how they're going to reach the patient, you know, because it's not a direct consumer model. And I think you have to start there, you have to start in the channel. Well, let me preface this, you don't have to do anything, there are many ways to do many things. If you want to maximize your chances of success, I think the best way to do it is to start with the acquisition channel, you know whether it's going to be a more medical model, a patient-based or a more consumer model or business model and B2B.
[17:28] Rockwell: You got to figure out how you're actually going to reach those people. For us, you know, we knew that there are great mechanisms through the app store, through you know, Facebook, through social media, through even email marketing. I mean, there's a lot of ways to reach the consumer for us. But we are more of a direct to consumer model. If you're going after something that's very hardcore medical, figure out how you're going to get that technology in the hands of patients before building that tech technology. Because oftentimes, whatever the acquisition channel is, is going to change what you build and how you build it.
[18:08] Maiko: How far do you think are you in your journey? Are you thinking, okay, we're already at a really massive scale, this is really already generating a greater impact or what's your mission with Pzizz?
[18:19] Rockwell: At its core, we're here to deliver great sleep to the world. And as long as insomnia rates are increasing, as long as poor sleep is a public health epidemic, our job isn't done. When those things are no longer true, then we can sit back and think, well, maybe we had a good run and we cause a dent in the problem, we helped solve it.
[18:45] Maiko: That sounds very good. There's still much work to do for you but it sounds very impressive how you've already achieved quite a global impact with Pzizz and thank you very much for your time today and all the best for the future and for Pzizz.
[19:00] Rockwell: Thanks for having me on. Take care.