I finally got the opportunity of speaking with Joanna Montgomery, founder of Little Riot – creator of Pillow Talk, a product that I've been keeping an eye on for a while now. A product that connects couples in long distance relationships by playing the real-time sound of each person’s heartbeat - picked up via a wristband sensor - into their partner’s pillow. Sounds cool right? Anyway, here’s the interview.
Hi Joanna, Thanks for doing this. How are you doing today?
I am very well thank you. Really busy at the moment - but it’s a good problem to have.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
I’m 25 years old and graduated from Dundee University in 2010 with a degree in Digital Interaction Design. It was a course run jointly by the design and computing schools; the idea was that we could make technology that worked, whilst also having an appreciation for aesthetics and user experience.
Let’s go back a bit, can you tell us when you got the entrepreneurial bug?
I’m not really sure where it started. My dad runs his own company so I grew up in an ‘entrepreneurial’ environment, which doubtlessly had an impact on me and my own aspirations. Looking back, the signs were there - I wasn’t quite selling sweets in the playground, but I did have the odd money-making scheme here and there, like bulk-buying perfume from the USA and selling it to my friends.
How did the idea for Little Riot come about?
Little Riot was the culmination of a few things. By the time I reached my final year at university, I knew I wanted to work for myself. I’d done a couple of work experience placements and once the ‘new challenge’ feeling wore off, being a cog in a wheel just didn’t excite me. I presumed I would start some sort of agency or consultancy, but when my degree project started receiving so much attention, I knew I had an idea I had to run with.
Tell me about the early days, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
I graduated into the midst of a recession and when I wanted to start a business, depressingly, the majority of people told me not to even bother trying. The attitude I faced from a lot of people was “we’re in a credit crunch, you’ll never find the means to develop a product”. Fortunately I managed to bash on through all the doubters, but sometimes it was hard not to get too jaded by it all, or wonder if they could be right.
What is Little Riot? And what are you trying to solve with it?
We create technology that enables people to communicate in physical and engaging ways. I realised whilst at university that we all spend too much time looking at screens so the company’s first product, Pillow Talk, aims to change that. It enables couples to communicate using their heartbeat and offers a feeling of presence, rather than back-and-forth conversation. It is the first of many products that will challenge the way we interact with each other using digital technology.
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
The first few months were exciting, scary, liberating and overwhelming all at once. The learning curve was steeper than I could ever have imagined. I was trying to do two things at once; learn how to run a company and learn how to develop a product. Both are challenging enough on their own, so tackling both at once was a bit of a rollercoaster. I secured a fairly hefty grant a few weeks after I started the company and had to rocket from a person with an idea, to a CEO, manager and spreadsheet guru overnight.
You also launched your first product Pillow Talk – tell us more about that and how that’s going?
Pillow Talk is a product that connects couples in long distance relationships by playing the realtime sound of each person’s heartbeat - picked up via a wristband sensor - into their partner’s pillow. It’s been over two years in development but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Launching the product, what difficulties did you face and how did you overcome it?
Pillow Talk started as my university project, so the first version was a mass of wires and circuit boards that I had patched together myself. I remember deciding I was going to develop it into a commercial product, and then looking down at my handiwork and thinking, “now what?”. Developing a product is a long, complicated and costly journey and navigating my way with no prior experience has definitely been challenging. I gave myself the best chance for success by seeking out people who had done it before and then surrounding myself with them. Experience is everything, so if you don’t have any, find someone who does.
How have you managed to get traction for it?
I’ve been really lucky and have had the opposite experience of most people who are launching a product. My university project went viral on the internet and was heavily publicised in technology blogs and the press and then people started contacting me asking where they could order one. My customers come to me and it’s incredible, but it can be quite stressful as it puts pressure on to deliver the perfect product from the get-go.
I know funding is always a hot topic when discussing start-ups, how have you been able to fund the business so far?
Again, I’ve been mind-numbingly lucky. I financed the first eighteen months with a combination of business grants and prize money from competitions. I’m proud to have been supported by some great companies and organisations such as Technology Strategy Board, NACUE and Lloyds TSB. This helped me develop both my product and my business model to a stage where I was able to secure a round of seed investment.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow the business?
I never listen to the doubters. I’ve come across a lot of cynics over the last few years and if I’d listened to any of them, my story would be very different. The reality is that people who don’t believe in you are either jealous or just perpetually negative - but either way, there is no room for them on this journey. I’ve also learned the hard way to trust my gut instinct. It’s good to take advice and consider all avenues, but I think you should always ultimately make your decisions. You can’t regret your own, but you’ll always regret the ones someone else encouraged you to make if they turn out to be bad ones.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
It’s hard to choose! I’ve been so lucky. I think I actually value the everyday stuff more than anything else. Every morning when I arrive in my own office to work on a product I invented, I have to pinch myself that this is my life. I also recently won Innovator of the Year in the FDM everywoman in Technology Awards which was an honour.
What should we be expecting from Little Riot in the coming months?
Pillow Talk is set to launch later this year. It will hopefully be the beginning of world domination... er, I mean the first of many products to come!
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
Be obsessive in your pursuit, trust your gut instinct and always employ people who are better than you.