Martin here. Welcome to the second Subscriber Story!
This is a supplementary series I’m testing to amplify the experience, ideas, and insights of Founders’ Hustle subscribers. 🔎
Today I’m sharing the story of Filter co-founder Stephen Keenan.
Below you’ll find out:
Three hard lessons from his first failed startup. 🎓
How he raised capital for a micro-finance fund. 🌱
How an Uncle on ‘death’s door’ led to Filter. ❤️
Stephen Keenan’s startup story is commendable. 👏
Rarely do I encounter founders so motivated in helping others improve the quality of their lives in such a sincere and meaningful way.
In fact, it’s the running theme of the projects he chooses to put his heart and soul into.
This altruistic professional skew started from the very beginning, when he began to transition from full-time education into the ‘real world’.
Despite taking an interest in computers as a teenager, due to a combination of Irish education system idiosyncrasies and his own internal need to help others, Stephen initially pursued medicine as a career choice.
But, after spending a couple of weeks on learning experience in a hospital, Stephen soon realized he “wasn’t going to be a very good doctor!” 😬
“I just got too emotionally involved in it all” he said.
“I think I saw a doctor as a mechanism for helping people rather than I want to actually become a doctor.”
This led to a drastic change in direction to a degree in Business and Law.
“I was always very commercially focused. When I was in school, and I knew that medicine wasn't going to be the route for me, I was like, okay, well, let's try and do something quite broad in the commercial space, which was business and law.”
“It taught me a lot about soft skills. Like how to interact with people. I didn't realize until later on was how valuable that was.”
Stephen participated in a few internships. One at a corporate finance house in Dublin and the other a law firm.
Simultaneously, he worked on his first startup idea: Delve.
What was it?
“Excercise for the mind. Delve was an emotional management app that helps busy people manage their emotions. This was done through an on-the-spot emotional management tool, as well as personalised daily and weekly workout programmes”
In today’s busy and stressed out world, Delve sounds much needed!
But, it didn’t work out. 😥
“We were young and didn't have any of the skill sets needed to build the company!” 🤦
“Our team was two business guys and a designer. What we actually needed was a software engineer and someone studying either medicine or psychology.”
Yes, that makes a lot more sense! 😜
Stephen learnt some core lessons during this time.
🎓 Lesson #1
“Go build something! Don't worry about everything else.
We were way too focused on building a business, like how do we get [VC] money in the door?
It was just completely the wrong way to do things.
VCs are always pushing out content, and it’s not the thing you should be focusing on.”
🎓 Lesson #2
“You got to solve something that needs to be solved. And, you got to make money.
If you just simplify it to that, it becomes quite evident what you should be focusing on.
If you can do those two things the other things are going to fall into place. If you're making money, people are going to put money into you making more money.”
🎓 Lesson #3
“I wanted to learn how to actually build things.” This proved to be a huge blocker with Delve, so he took a Masters in Computer Science and can now get his software projects up and running much faster.
I love this proactiveness. 💪
Next, Stephen landed a role at Deliveroo on the marketing team. 🦘
His LinkedIn profile from this time says he “Learnt a lot about ‘Reaching Out’.”
Curious, I quizzed him on this. 🤓
“I went in with two objectives.
One was overhauling the menus, and the other was building out a year pipeline of the sort of marketing they want to do in Ireland, specifically around trying to acquire more students.
So I think the reaching out part was interesting. It touches on what I meant with the business and law degree.
When I was doing it, I didn't realize how valuable it was.
That is, reaching out and getting people involved—being able to tell pretty quickly whether people are going to be interested in doing what you're proposing and sifting through that.”
I asked what methodology he used to do that. 🤔
Stephen said it was a mixture of trial and error plus leveraging learnings from other jurisdictions Deliveroo had operated in, notably the UK.
“I worked with student unions [and] places that ran student accommodation. Events companies worked aswell.
The general framework was: ‘Who had the ear of students?’ and then be aggressive in getting in touch to see if a partnership was something they might be interested in.”
Even though Deliveroo is a mature—well capitalised—startup, Stephen was resourceful and tested smart guerilla marketing tactics that could deliver massive ROI. 📈
“There is a famous festival in Ireland called 'Electric Picnic'. It happens at the very end of summer and always rains.
Students would often come back from their holidays or summer working abroad in time to make the festival. We were not willing to fork out 6 digits to advertise at the event, but we did have thousands of ponchos collecting dust in the office.
So off I went down to where all the buses for the festival (hundreds of 52 seater buses) [congregated] for collecting people in the City and gave out as many as I could over 48 hours.
The idea was that it would rain (it did) and turn into a festive wide Deliveroo advertisment (minus the 6 figures).
Unfortunately, since it rained, photo evidence was sparse [attendees didn’t exacty feel like Instagraming the moment].
I like to think it worked!”
Stephen’s next project was incepted from a bad experience. 👎
“After Delve I really wanted to go and do some charity work.
That's when I went to Ghana, to work on a micro financing project.
When I got down there, I thought it was going to be a lot better run. I was taken aback by how poorly it was being run and how much opportunity there was to make it better.
I found out [the organization] were pretty dishonest in the way they were marketing themselves.
They never said they were charity, but they were very much pushing ‘we're an NGO, we're doing this for the better good’, but they’re a point blank for profit agency.
The cost of which I paid to go down there, versus the cost they incurred to have me there [was massive]. Even if you were to slap 10x on the admin fees, the numbers still meant that they were profiting significantly.
And this was a pretty big organization. So, I was pretty disappointed in that.”
So, Stephen was spurred into action. 💪
“I befriended a couple of people [in Ghana] pretty quickly who were working on the project.
I said ‘This is a shambles. Would you be interested in going out on our own and doing what they're doing, but under a different brand name a lot more efficient?
And they were like ‘Yeah, absolutely!’
And so, Neem Fund was born in 2019.
The organization provides micro-loans to the “un-banked” in rural Ghana. 👇
They already had a network of prospects to distribute micro-finance too, but, crucially, not the capital to lend out. 🤷
So how did they overcome this challenge?
Stephen sourced funds by pitching small local businesses face-to-face in Ireland—what are commonly referred to as ‘mom and pop’ businesses like coffee shops, small traders and newsagents.
Each would have to contribute only a few hundred dollars to participate, but that goes a long way in rural Ghana. Reception to the idea was positive.
Targeting the right audience was key. 🎯
“There was this small business network I presented to [in Ireland].
They were all super willing to help each other out because they [attended] with the purpose of getting each other work.
And there was about 40 to 50 of them in the room. That was a huge return.”
This was a great start for Neem Fund, but, by 2020, the initiative went on hold. Covid made it difficult to administer the fund’s operations on the ground. Now, it’s in limbo, but Stephen is optimistic for the future.
In the longer term, he envisages unlocking asymetric returns by empowering rural Ghanians to produce high-quality environmentally friendly palm oil and forming co-operatives to cut out middle-men in the supply chain.
He says right now farmers sell a barrel of unrefined palm oil for around $2, but with the right infrastructure it could be closer to hundreds of dollars.
This would be a game changer for otherwise disenfranchised communities. 💥
For now, this vision is on hold until global travel restrictions are relaxed.
This leads on to Stephen’s latest startup, Filter.
Their product (a combination of hardware and software, like FitBit) help patients who suffer from Asthma, COPD and Cystic Fibrosis manage and predict when their condition is becoming, to use a medical term, 'uncontrolled'.
In a nutshell, they’re exploring a ‘gap in wellness monitoring’.
Right now, patients of these illnesses receive intensive care during hospital visits, but when they go home monitoring rapidly drops off a cliff to virtually zero.
In a pretty ordinary scenario, sufferers who present themselves to hospital with an exacerbation in their illness might be in hospital for a week, followed by a few weeks of remote monitoring at home. Then, the remote monitoring gear is taken away.
In another words, data visibility goes dark suddenly. 🌘
The hospital gear is basically used as a mechanism to facilitate a faster transition back into the home. It’s not an ongoing aid.
Conversely, Filter empowers respirotiry condition sufferers with sustained data visibility outside of these short interactions with the hospital care system.
With the technology, sufferers can get ahead of uncontrolled events before they manifest problematically and better manage their condition through informed lifestyle adjustments 👇
Learning from a prior mistake with Delve, this time around Stephen’s startup has a much better suited team in place.
Stephen is the software founder, his business partner Andrew is the hardware founder, and another partner in the Phillipines is heading up the clinical and medical side of things. Much better. 👌
I asked how the idea for Filter came about and how he is developing industry expertise in tackling the mission.
“It's quite an interesting story.
My uncle was one of those guys that smoked about 60 to 80 cigarettes a day from the age of 16.
He also has asthma, so by the time he got to about 50 years old he ended up developing an illness called COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).
It’s a condition where your lungs basically can't function properly.
His situation deteriorated from frequent hospital visits to eventually being permanently hospitalized and on oxygen.
But, he is a colorful character and someone that, once he sets his mind to something, throws the kitchen sink at it.
He had been talking to various people [around the world] and found a clinic in the Philippines that had seen really good results at treating this condition.”
Incredibly, against the advice of doctors, Stephen’s uncle left his hospital bed in Ireland to travel to the Phillipines. 🛫
Unable to walk more than six steps because he would get out of breath, Stephen said “it nearly killed him”.
The Irish healthcare system “would have said he's going to be dead within a year”.
That was three years ago. 👀
Today, Stephen’s uncle walks six miles per day, goes swimming, and enjoys a full life!
How? His uncle attributes this to largely two things:
First, he had been misdiagnosed. The treatment he received in the Irish healthcare system actually made his condition worse. 📉
Second, monitoring. He tracked “everything like sleep, lung functions, low oxygen and blood pressure, medication, and had a really short feedback loop in terms of being prescribed things and seeing if they're working or not.” 💡
“It's been a really iterative process for two years, and it’s only in the last year that he’s being doing great. In the last two months, he is on a heath scale of someone 15 years younger than himself.”
“With one of the metrics he was using, we were able to see that from about 12 days out, we could tell when he was going to have an exacerbation.” 😮
Combined with lifestyle adjustments, this was a material insight that could transform a great number of people’s lives for the better. Stephen’s uncle was living proof.
But, replicating this was not exactly accessible. It required an intensive amount of knowledge, effort, and relocation around the world.
Sensing an opportunity, Stephen set about commercializing this experiment to empower other respitory illness sufferers to acheive similar results much more easily.
In essence, Filter repackages Stephen’s uncle’s process into an accessible and easy to use application and hardware combo. It’s a fantastic MVP story.
And, they’re wasting no time. ⏰
So far the team have built and tested a few iterations of their hardware and software with a closed group.
In the coming months they’re running a clinical study and manufacturing a small production batch, which will be issued to the beta group and sold to early adopters.
⚠️ If you or anyone you know suffer from any of the aforementioned illnesses and want to get involved with Filter as a beta user, go here and add your email.
Stephen says jumping into the medical industry has not been easy.
“There's just so many stakeholders with different interests. And ultimately, probably not the right ones have have a fair say in in the process.”
I’ve been talking to researchers, doctors, consultants, private insurers, health care providers, anyone in the whole chain.
It’s a minefield, just trying to understand the various motivations for why they’re doing what they’re doing. And, to this day, to be honest, it’s still a web in my head.
I’m still trying to connect all the dots.”
If you or anyone you know could provide advice or insight for Stephen and Filter, particularly with a medical industry perspective, feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn. He would love to hear from you!
What’s next for Filter?
🚀 Launch first clinical trial in the Philippines.
🤝 Begin selling to a very small cohort of customers.
😇 Learn how the product can neatly integrate into people’s lives.
Good luck, Stephen!
If you’d like to feature in a future Subscriber Story, drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll schedule you in!
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