By Sanne Breimer
Being an entrepreneur in digital wellbeing is in many forms challenging, Maiko Arras, founder of Hoopy, explains halfway the conversation. “Because it’s such a new field and area to work in, consumers and businesses aren’t used to dealing with wellbeing technology yet and you need to create more awareness in the market.”
Maiko (31) comes from Estonia, “a very good location to build a product, but if you want to scale your business, you have to get out”. His startup in helping kids to spend more meaningful time on their mobile phones, brought him to Singapore. As the problem he is trying to solve is very big in Asia, he came to understand the market better and set up relationships with mobile operators.
“If your product fails the first time, you think everything is over.”
When asked what his company is about, he laughs and takes a moment to think. “It is a tricky question at this moment, because we found out that the initial idea of limiting screentime for children, didn’t work. Instead of restricting time, we focus now on increasing quality.” It seems typically the process of a startup, to go through a situation of finding out your initial solution isn’t working out. Maiko experienced it before: “If your product fails the first time, you think everything is over. But the further you get into the innovation process, the more realistic your expectations get, because you’ve collected more knowledge. With less and less possible solutions on the table, it should become increasingly easy to solve the problem.” The optimistic view characterizes the Estonian entrepreneur throughout the interview. Although he is also the first one to admit that it takes effort to develop a product.
The idea for Hoopy came slowly to him. “I wanted to build a startup and I was always thinking about problems around me to fix. I saw smartphone addiction in my close circle and actually, it’s everywhere. We’re constantly staring at our screens. I felt it was getting harder to really connect to people. The chances nowadays are high that you know more about Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin or the dog of an Instagram influencer, than of your own family members.” The motivation comes from the ambition to solve an important issue because it creates more value for everybody, including himself. After having sold shares in his previous mobile payments startup, he realized the problem he tried to fix was too small. “Then it becomes easier to lose interest in solving it and it might take you down from the journey. If it doesn’t add much value to life, why should I worry?” He waves his arms and shrugs to strengthen his argument.
“The startup you’re creating becomes your identity. So if you succeed in business, you succeed in life as well.”
Not only his body language, but his strong posture also supports his message of motivating people to live a healthier life. “I was struggling with chronic inflammation for a long time till I started curing it about eight years ago. I went to see doctors almost every week and took antibiotics for a very long time without success. At one point I found that changing my eating habits and changing my routines was effective. From there I’ve been trying to improve my general wellbeing.” Finding the balance between living a healthy life and starting up a business, is just as challenging to him as to other entrepreneurs.
When asked how he personally deals with it, he responses with laughter. “It is a struggle, but I have chosen this struggle, so I just take it as it is.” He knows how corporate life looks like, as he worked for one of the world’s biggest commodity trading companies in his twenties. “I was on a nice career path, but working 24/7 to do business development and operations in different time zones with a fixed salary, didn’t give me the motivation I was looking for. So I took a risk, quit my job to focus more on the businesses I’d already started on the side.”
Although a corporate career would resolve the two major challenges an entrepreneur faces, according to Maiko: the responsibility you have as a founder towards your company and the people in it, and at the same time the overall uncertainty. “The startup you’re creating becomes your identity. So if you succeed in business, you succeed in life as well. But then you know nothing is ensured on this path. You’re in a mess where you know what to achieve, but don’t know how to get there exactly.”
“There’s no point in lengthening our lives if we can’t enjoy.”
This continuous contradiction of pursuing his dream and dealing with daily setbacks seems to reflect the challenge of the digital wellbeing business in which he operates. “We are more connected to the digital world and we’ll be in the hyperconnected world soon. We humans have to somehow navigate in between what we’re building. And for us, I believe, health and wellbeing are the most important things. Especially if you think about the average age that is increasing. By spending so much time with technology, using our minds instead of doing physical activity, the extended years won’t be lived very nice. There’s no point in lengthening our lives if we can’t enjoy.”
Maiko will stay in Asia a few more weeks, to find Asian partners for Hoopy and set the stage for expansion. He works already with a Finnish mobile operator and is soon going to test a new approach to make screentime for kids more meaningful through education. Because the biggest problem he’d actually like to solve is that of the 600 million kids around the world who don’t have access to proper schooling. “I believe if we help these children to read and to do basic math, they will be able to reach their full potential. But I guess the solution for this probably isn’t an app”.