Traveling home from our family Christmas, my dad and I had a strange realization. We had flown over 2,000 miles to visit my Grandparents, yet we had spent most of our holiday fixing their wifi, updating their computer, and troubleshooting a myriad of tech issues. All of this instead of spending time with them.
Paradoxically, the very technology we were troubleshooting was the same reason we couldn’t effectively keep in touch when we were back in California. My grandma had hearing loss that hearing aids couldn’t fix, making it impossible for her to hear us on phone calls. The only option at the time was Skype, which allowed her to read our lips, and for us to type in the chat.
In theory, this should have worked great. It didn’t.
We spent hours training my grandma to use Skype and printed out instructions for her. We also set up remote desktop management software on her PC to control her computer if she was having trouble answering our calls.
When we got her on a video call successfully, it worked great. However, most of the time, she struggled. Updates to the Skype software made our printed instructions obsolete. Issues with her wifi router and internet connection made it impossible for us to access her PC remotely.
These issues piled up and made her decide to give up on video calls entirely.
Now there was no way to stay in touch with my grandma. We pushed and pushed her to do more video calls, but she just didn’t want to.
Over time, we realized we shouldn’t blame my grandma for her lack of desire to do video calls. Every time we tried to get her to join, we were making her feel foolish. “Just follow the printed instructions,” “join the call just like we did before,” “we’ll have the neighbor kid come over and help you.”
Instead of empowering her to stay in touch with her family, we made her doubt her self-confidence and abilities.
My grandma was a brilliant woman. She was the first college-educated person in her family and was a teacher and business owner. Yet, we made her feel stupid by pushing her to do something so challenging for her.
We realized that it wasn’t my grandmother’s fault - it was the technology’s fault.
Skype was not designed for someone in their 70s, with little technology experience and hearing issues. It was designed by, and for, tech-savvy people without accessibility challenges.
On our way back home from the holidays in 2013, it clicked. There was no purpose-built solution for people like my grandma to do video calls. I was a freshman in college at the time on winter break, and my dad and I spent the rest of that time ideating what a potential solution for my grandma would look like.
By January, we had notebooks full of ideas for a better video call experience for my grandma. But at this point, they were only ideas. We hadn’t yet decided to start a company.
I had two weeks until my second semester of college started. During that time, I would be going on a two-week meditation retreat in the mountains of Colorado. The night before I left, my dad asked me if I wanted to start a company together to solve this problem for my grandma. I didn’t have an answer, but I was about to have two weeks of distraction-free thinking to make my decision.
I visited the Shambhala Mountain Center for two weeks with no technology, meditated for up to 5 hours per day, and spent much of that time in total silence. During this time, I thought deeply about my dad’s question: do I want to start a company?
Having just started college, it was a tough question. Starting a company would mean I could not spend as much time focused on my school work. It also meant I would have less free time to spend with friends and enjoying the college experience.
However, inspired by some of the meditation activities where we pondered our own deaths, I tried to think about this decision from a long-term perspective. Would I regret not starting this company in 80 years, on my deathbed? Would I wonder if I could have succeeded had I only tried? Would I regret trying, even if I failed?
By the end of the two weeks, the answer was clear. I knew we had to start this company. The regret of missing this opportunity to build a solution for my grandma would be too strong, even if we ultimately failed in our goal.
When back at college, I submitted our idea in the school’s annual business plan competition. The finalists would receive some money to fund the idea and guidance from business professors at the University.
We spent hours creating a business plan, taking into account the growing market of people over 65 who would need a solution like GrandPad. We realized that at least 20 million people in the United States had similar needs to my grandma. I was looking forward to the competition process to get real-time feedback from judges and hone our business plan.
Our submission was rejected from the competition.
I asked if any of the judges’ feedback could be shared and received an email with these two comments:
=Competitive space but limited success to-date. Customer care with seniors could wipe out all profits as this cost may be underestimated.
=Seems very early stage. Tough to invest.
It was disappointing.
Despite this setback, we continued. We knew we needed to solve this problem for my grandma and the millions of people like her.
Our efforts now were 100% focused on building the product. We asked the head of my University’s CompSci department who the top Computer Science students were. He introduced us to a Junior named Ryan Burns, and we hired him on a project basis. The goal: in two weeks or less, build a simple app that my grandma could use to video call us. Ryan finished it in one.
The result was a simple Android app that just had one button, which let my grandma call us on the other side. There were no logins, no passwords, and we pre-setup the internet on the tablet.
We eagerly tested it out with my Grandmother, and to our delight, she loved it. She was no longer hesitant to do video calls with us. Instead, she simply tapped on one button whenever she wanted to talk to us.
This was a massive breakthrough for our family - now, we could talk to my grandma anytime, without causing her any technological frustration. Invigorated by her feedback, we quickly looked for other ways we could use technology to stay more connected to my grandma. We next added features like photos, music, and weather.
Now that the product was shaping up, we needed a name. I was doing a word-association exercise in my notebook, writing down every word related to our idea. Senior, tablet, iPad, simple, video call, communicate, etc. Then I saw the words “Grandparent” next to “Pad” - together making “GrandPad.” It felt right.
Interestingly, we spent the following months trying to talk ourselves out of this name. It seemed too obvious, too derivative. Our next best name idea was “Telekin.” However, this name didn’t resonate in our initial user testing. GrandPad was easy to spell, and our early user-testers liked it, so we decided to lock-in this name and kept rolling.
Product-Market-Fit: The First 100 Users
I’ve been to nearly every senior community in Orange County. That’s because our initial go-to-market strategy was to sell directly to seniors. We would host events at senior facilities, provide food and beverages, and give a presentation about GrandPad.
After the presentation, we had a hands-on time where the residents could try out GrandPad and ask questions. Along the way, I got hundreds of hours of live, high-fidelity feedback and user testing—this turbo-charged our ability to get feedback from our target users quickly.
While the feedback was great, this approach barely sold any units. In general, the residents loved the GrandPad, but would say things like, “my son handles all the tech for me, I’ll have to ask him,” or “I wish my daughter were here to help me decide on this.” Regardless of the promotions or discounts we offered, we couldn’t overcome these objections.
This led us to a new approach, to market directly to the adult children of the seniors who would use the GrandPad. We quickly set up a website that could take online orders and began marketing to the adult children. The results were clear: GrandPad was a product that would be bought as a gift for aging parents.
Even though this approach was much more successful than selling in senior facilities, we found it challenging to educate the customer on exactly what our product was. GrandPad is a subscription service, not a product that you buy flat-out. One subscription includes the tablet, the 4G LTE internet connection, apps, games, music, devices insurance, and customer support.
This is very different from an iPad, where each of these services would be purchased separately. We saw it taking a few weeks of education and consideration before customers were buying products. The good news was, once they purchased GrandPad, they kept it. Many of our first one-hundred customers still use GrandPad today.
Unlike software-only companies, which can scale with much less upfront capital, GrandPad has an additional hardware component. This meant we needed cash upfront to purchase the tablet, charger, and accessories before selling to users.
For the first few months of GrandPad, we funded the company through small investments from friends and family. However, once we set our sights on scaling to thousands of users, we needed to start raising more significant amounts of capital.
We pitched to hundreds of investors. Unfortunately, we were typically met with similar objections to the ones from the school business plan competition. Investors worried our support cost would be overburdened by lonely seniors looking to talk to us for hours. Often in their 70s and 80s, many investors thought there was no market for our product since they could comfortably use standard technology themselves. We faced constant rejection.
Most investors were either uninterested or utterly averse to the senior space. This was the root of the issue; it was a massive problem that no one wanted to solve.
However, this negative feedback was in stark contrast to the daily testimonials we received from the actual users.
For the first three years of GrandPad, I was on-call for phone customer support and talked to users every day. It was not uncommon for users to call in just to say, “Thank you for making something that allows me to stay in touch with my family.”
Our first major investor ended up coming through a family member’s introduction.
Barb and Clayton Condit were successful business owners who also had aging parents. They were not previously early-stage investors, but they had a passion for helping older people. They immediately connected with our mission and wanted to help us achieve it. I’ll always be grateful to them for believing in us so early, especially when our company’s future was uncertain and the risk was high. This investment was a massive boost for us. It allowed us to expand the team, spend more money on marketing, and start growing our user-base.
With seed funding secured and version 1 of the product developed, we headed to CES (The Consumer Electronics Show) in January of 2015 to share GrandPad with the world.
It was my first time going to CES, and I was incredibly excited. I had always dreamed of seeing this international hub of technology, and now I would attend as an exhibitor.
We were exhibiting in Eureka Park, which had a collection of hundreds of small booths designated for early-stage companies. The scale of the event was staggering. Hundreds of thousands of attendees from around the world filled up multiple convention centers and nearly every hotel in Vegas.
We had a few goals for CES:
- Get PR about our product.
- Find distribution partners.
- Find a hardware partner to develop V2 of our tablet.
- Find a Series A investor.
Once the event opened that morning, it was a flood of non-stop traffic. I’ve never met so many people in such a short period, many of whom showed great interest.
In addition to the booth, we had scheduled meetings with potential partners. One of those meetings was with Acer, the global computer company.
When we returned home from CES a week later, we had a suitcase full of business cards and lots of great follow-ups to make. Most of us also came home with the flu, a common occurrence for CES attendees, myself included. It was worth it.
The majority of the partnership exploration meetings at CES didn’t turn into anything material. However, when we followed up with Acer after CES, they invited my dad to present GrandPad to their team in Taiwan. If they invested, Acer could be a great partner to develop our next-generation tablet hardware. However, given our previous experience with pitching GrandPad to investors, we knew not to get our hopes up.
My dad took a 14-hour flight from LAX to Taipei, then went straight to Acer’s headquarters for the meeting. He didn’t have too many details about the meeting beforehand but knew he would present GrandPad as an investment opportunity to some of the Acer team.
When he arrived at the meeting room, he was introduced to Stan Shih, then the Chairman and Founder of Acer, Jason Chen, then the CEO of Acer, and the rest of Acer’s executive team. Still tired from the long plane ride, my dad asked how much time he would have for his presentation. “3 hours,” they replied. After hours of presenting and questions, the Acer team asked Scott if they could talk privately for a few minutes.
When they called my dad back into the meeting room, Stan Shih shook his hand. He told my dad that he is very proud of the company he had built and that Acer had connected millions of people worldwide through their technology. However, being in his mid-70s, Stan had seen that many of his peers could not use Acer products and therefore struggled to stay connected with loved ones. Stan said he would like to work together with GrandPad to change this. With that, he introduced my dad to a member of their finance team to work out the terms of the deal.
We had just secured our Series A funding.
After my dad’s trip, the Acer team sent a team to visit our office in the US to do due diligence before they finalized the investment. We found every member of the Acer team to be wonderful to work with, and they were equally excited about our mission of helping connect seniors.
Once the deal closed, we got on a plane to Taipei to work with Acer on building our next-generation tablet. We needed to create a new tablet because the original device we used was an off-the-shelf tablet that wasn’t designed for seniors’ needs and had limitations on the number of customizations we could make. A custom-built tablet meant we could develop a device that exactly met the needs of our users.
We spent two weeks in Taipei working side-by-side with our partners at Acer. Acer even set up a dedicated team for our hardware project. The manager of this team was named Johnny Shyy, and he did a fantastic job of integrating our teams and ensuring that Acer understood our company culture and mission.
Before the trip, Johnny asked me to send over detailed photos of our entire office in California. To our surprise and delight, he had re-created our office inside the Acer headquarters, complete with our mission statement printed on the wall and photos of users and testimonials throughout the office. This made us feel welcome and helped us quickly meld together with the Acer team.
Towards the end of the trip, Acer invited us to attend their booth at Computex (a conference similar to CES, based in Taipei) to present GrandPad.
At one point during the event, we saw a huge crowd of people heading toward our booth, followed by lots of video cameras and photographers. We realized it was the leader of Taiwan. She proceeded to the Acer booth, and the CEO of Acer gave her a demo of GrandPad. It was surreal.
We returned to the U.S. riding a high of excitement. Within a few months, we would see the first production units of our very own custom-designed tablet, a GrandPad. As a life-long geek who admired hardware companies like Apple - the ability to design and see a tablet device brought to life was incredible.
Having secured funding and a great hardware partner, we began to focus on scaling the team. If we wanted to reach millions of users, we would need an A+ team to get us there.
Early on, we learned that the best way to ensure team cohesion is by having a shared mission and shared values. If an employee’s only connection to this job was their paycheck rather than a passion for helping seniors, it never worked out. Working at a startup is hard. The goals are ill-defined, and the path to achieving them needs to be paved as you go. The only “short-cut” to this challenge is working on something you are genuinely passionate about. Additionally, there is no way to instill values or passions in your employees. As hard as you may try, you can’t make someone intrinsically care about your mission.
The solution is to find people who already share your passion and values. This led us to adopt an essential interviewing technique. We start every first interview with the same question: “Tell me about someone seventy-five or older in your life who is important to you?” Some people go blank. I can recall one recent college grad’s answer, “I think my neighbor is old… but I’m not really sure. I don’t really talk to him.” Conversely, some people light up, “My grandma is 90, and she’s my best friend. I just had sushi with her last night, and we had the best conversation.” These were the people we hired. Job-specific skills can be taught to new employees, but a passion for helping seniors is something people either have, or they don’t. Someone might be the most talented software developer in the world, but if they don’t care about our mission, then this isn’t the place for them.
This simple hiring strategy is one of the most important things we’ve ever done as a company.
Another essential factor for great company culture is to spend deliberate time cultivating it. A culture will automatically form among any group of people. A group of great people might have a good culture, but it may not. Without the right intention and cultivation, culture tends to stagnate or erode. This is exceptionally true when a company grows quickly. Once your size reaches the point where employees can’t individually know each other, it becomes difficult to cultivate a persistent and improving culture.
When my dad and I saw that we would be fast-approaching 100 employees, our biggest concern was losing our culture. To confront this issue, we decided to change my role and make culture my #1 priority. Previously I had been leading Product and Design, but my new role would be leading Employee Experience.
At GrandPad, we don’t have “HR.” Let’s face it, when people think of HR, they think of Toby from the office. We instead decided to re-brand HR as Employee Experience (EX). Not only does Employee Experience take on all the roles of a typical HR team, but we also are responsible for cultivating the Company Operating System - the combination of tools & processes we use to work together. Put most simply; we were responsible for helping remove the friction that gets in the way of employees doing their best work. In addition to this, the Employee Experience team’s most important role is being a steward of the company culture.
After moving to this new role, my first project was to create a detailed culture deck that described our culture as it is and as we aspire for it to be. This culture deck was heavily influenced by Patty McCord’s (of Netflix) book, Powerful, which encourages companies to curate the culture intentionally and to share the culture with employees in a detailed and long-form way.
It took months and lots of collaboration with the team to get the culture deck just right. Once complete, I presented it to all GrandPad employees. Additionally, one of the most important parts of my role was to spend an hour and a half with each new employee taking them through the culture deck and answering their questions. One of the critical factors of this exercise is that it is done live, not as a recording. It would be easy to pre-record the presentation, but it would be nowhere near as effective. Our culture is so important that it needs to be shared in a high-fidelity way and explored in detail with questions and feedback. Additionally, our culture deck is not a static document. It is continually evolving and improving with the input from the team.
The magic of the culture deck is that it ensures we are all on the same page. It removes ambiguity and facilitates an environment of intentionality. It helps new employees understand, “we care about how we do things here.”
In addition to sharing our culture, we also measure it. Employees at GrandPad are sent an anonymous survey via Slack (an internal messaging service) every two weeks. It takes less than 3 minutes to take, and it provides valuable feedback on how we are performing as a company. As we enhance the company operating system (by improving processes or implementing new tools), we can get near-real-time feedback on how changes impacted employee engagement, happiness, stress, etc. This continuous-survey approach is far more valuable than quarterly or annual surveys often done at other companies. If the feedback you receive is more than a month old, it is far too late. You’ll already have lost great employees before you can do anything about their concerns.
I ended each culture deck presentation with this quote from Stephen Covey, “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.” I then let the new employees know that I have high expectations for their work at GrandPad and expect them to care deeply about our customers. However, I also told them that they should have the same high expectations for GrandPad. They should expect that this is the best company they have ever worked for, and this to be the best culture they have been a part of. If we don’t live up to those expectations at any point, they should let me know where we’re going wrong so we can get back on track.
Since implementing this updated focus on culture, our company doubled in size to 200 employees. To our delight, the employee survey numbers have continued to improve and are even at an all-time high.
Feeling confident in our ability to scale our culture, we put a significant emphasis on growth and scale. Our next milestone: reach one million users.
Learning from Our Users
One of the most rewarding aspects of GrandPad has been and learning from our users.
For instance, I’ve gotten to know a father-son pair of users named Elmer and Richard. Elmer recently passed away at the age of 106, and he was a true inspiration to me.
Younger people have so much to learn from their elders. As someone in my twenties, aging is easy to ignore. However, I realized that it’s just as important to have friends your age as it is to have friends four times your age. Being able to learn from the depth of experience from someone like Elmer is an incredible gift. Things in the 2020s may seem challenging, but previous generations have made it through far more difficult times, and it’s invaluable to hear their perspective.
For instance, one GrandPad user, age 114, shared that the 1918 flu pandemic was the most memorable event of her life. It lasted two years and killed up to 50 million people. Even after this tremendous loss, the world slowly recovered, and things went back to normal.
I was also inspired to live with my grandma for a few weeks to spend quality time with her. I’ll always look back fondly on this time and will lovingly recreate some of the traditions I learned from her - like having a saltine cracker with a marshmallow melted on top of it in the microwave for dessert.
The time I’ve spent with hundreds of GrandPad users has helped me learn that aging isn’t something to fear but something to look forward to. I look forward to having a rich life full of incredible challenges, memories, and experiences. I look forward to being able to share the lessons I’ve learned with future generations and to watch them go off to do incredible things.
Before COVID-19, the GrandPad was primarily used in a non-medical context by family members and in-home care providers. However, in March of 2020, this would change.
“We need you to deploy 2,000 GrandPads in the next four days, or dozens of our patients will die.” This was a call we received from a medical company that could no longer do daily visits with their patients to administer medication and perform vitals measurements. COVID-19 made it impossible to do in-person visits, and these aging clients were unable to use standard technology to communicate with their doctors remotely.
We had never deployed this many units to one partner so quickly, and were being overrun with increased demand for our product during the pandemic. However, seeing that this need fit our mission and knowing there were seniors whose well-being depended on us, we did everything possible to ensure we delivered these units.
I’m very proud of how our team rallied around the challenges we faced during COVID. 2020 was a challenging year for everyone, but we knew our product could help be part of the solution for many people in need.
We’ve seen GrandPad used as a critical lifeline for countless families whose parents or grandparents were “locked-in” a senior facility and could not be visited in person. My girlfriend’s grandma is 101 years old and was locked-in her facility for an entire year. We could not visit her in person but could video call her on GrandPad every day. It has been wonderful to see how GrandPad has helped so many families stay connected during COVID-19.
At the time of writing this, GrandPad has over one million users across 120+ countries. It’s still hard for me to imagine how many people this really is.
It took us over a year to reach our first one hundred users, and in just under seven years, we reached a million.
The only way I can connect with this number is to think about my grandparents and all of the memories GrandPad allowed us to share. Then, Itry and imagine football stadiums full of families like mine.
Starting this company has been a wild and exciting ride. Seven years ago, I never could have imagined where this personal need of connecting with my grandparents would take us.
If there is one takeaway I could share, it would be this: work on something you are passionate about with people you love working with.
Work with partners and investors that share your passion and are willing to struggle through the risks and challenges of creating a new company because they know it will be worth it.
In school, we’re told that in the “real world,” we’ll be forced to work with groups of people we won’t like, and that’s just a part of doing business. I can attest that this isn’t the case.
It may be possible to create a “successful” business where the only motivation is profit, and the culture and people you work with are irrelevant. If so, I can’t imagine it’s worth it.
In 2021, GrandPad is well on its way to achieving our mission of improving the lives of millions of seniors, and I’m more confident in our team than ever. I couldn’t be more proud of what this group of talented people has accomplished, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Isaac Lien is now the founder of Quest Codex, an online academy created to help individuals master life's adventures with fulfillment and meaning.