This Trio of 30 Under 30 Founders Turned Early Rejections Into Hidden Blessings
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Quitting smoking has never been easy. With the health risks known and a strong, negative social stigma attached to smoking, people have plenty of reasons to stop purchasing packs of cigarettes. Most fail to curb their smoking habits on the first try. Yusuf Sherwani, Maroof Ahmed, and Sarim Siddiqui started Quit Genius, a gamified cognitive behavioral therapy application to assist tobacco users in their journey to stop smoking. Quit Genius has raised nearly $2 million in seed funding from Village Global VC, Pioneer Fund, Arab Angel VC and various angel investors. All three founders are 2018 Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe honorees in the Social Entrepreneurs category.
Frederick Daso: How have your past failures produced current success?
Yusuf Sherwani: We faced an uphill challenge just by quitting our careers in medicine to create a startup. Three students studying medicine is an atypical team for starting a company. Investors were continually asking us what kind of experience we had to tackle the problem of getting people to quit smoking. After getting our initial results from our service, investors frequently told us that we were too early for them, that our team is too young and untested.
The biggest lesson we learned from our start was not to expect any assistance. The results would speak for themselves. We learned our lesson early on to be scrappy and not having expectations of others. You have to do things that you are utterly unfamiliar with to produce results. Entrepreneurship is a tough journey, but being scrappy and results-driven will culminate in building something that people want to use.
Daso: It’s admirable how you and your team were able not to let those early rejections demoralize you all. What were some of the problems you faced while creating Quit Genius, and how did you find a way to persevere?
Sherwani: Our first significant challenge was getting initial investment. We probably had 50 to 100 rejects — from every venture capitalist in London. To solve the problem of rejection, we had to figure out the questions we needed to answer to de-risk what we were doing to convince someone that it is possible. The biggest problem we had to resolve was whether therapy could be delivered through your smartphone that can help someone quit smoking. Can the treatment be performed without a human in this case? Are we able to build an automated therapy program for those struggling to quit smoking?
We thought it was possible, but we had to go out and prove our hypothesis. We spent hundreds of hours with therapists, observing their interactions with patients and learning about their therapeutical work. What does a human do to another human to change their behavior? We built a simple prototype based on our research. Our prototype delivered therapy in an entirely new paradigm. We tested our early iteration with roughly a hundred people. What we saw was that a third of our users were already quitting smoking, which is a tenfold increase compared to available statistics. When we de-risked the underlying question surrounding our business, we got a huge motivation boost because we knew we were on to something.
Daso: Would you say that all of these early rejections inadvertently pushed you all on the right track to build a service that people would want to use? What if an investor had said yes before Quit Genius found the right approach to helping people quit smoking?
Sherwani: Hindsight is 20/20. If you asked me at the time we were getting all of the rejections, I definitely wouldn’t have agreed with you. However, yes, absolutely, I don’t regret the path that we took forward. Our journey has shaped us into realizing that by staying lean and scrappy, we can help avoid all sorts of errors. Having gone down our path, we are entirely unphased by our competitors raising a bunch of money, because we know that’s not the way that guarantees success for startups. For us, those early rejections were indeed a blessing in disguise and pushed us to be better.
Daso: For other founders who are going through it, what would you tell them to encourage them to push through early failures?
Sherwani: The first lesson I’ve learned would be to take rejection on the chin. You have to expect a no, and in many ways, be able to cope with being denied and move on to the next thing. When you’re in a startup environment, and you’re early in the process, there’s a whole load of distractions. The one thing that we realized early on was always to speak directly to our users and try to de-risk fundamental problems depending on the challenge you’re trying to solve. De-risking your underlying value proposition in a scrappy way is the best approach to take. That should be the focus of an early-stage startup.
The second part is you’re faced with a set of choices regarding which direction your startup should travel. One thing I’ve always noticed is that if you take the more ambitious route, that’s when you can start doing interesting things. What inspires our team is our underlying mission: We want to build a new pharmaceutical company that uses apps rather than drugs to treat people.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
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This work was first published in Forbes.