Habitual is a behavioural change technology company co-founded by Napala Pratini. Originally from California, Napala had planned to go to medical school and become a doctor after studying biochemistry as an undergraduate. However, after a year-long post-graduate stint in Spain researching cancer as a Fulbright Scholar, she realized that medicine (at least in the more traditional sense) was not the right path for her.
This ‘quarter-life crisis’ resulted in a move to San Francisco, where her father prompted the beginning of her technology journey after insisting that it “would be cool to be in the start-up scene”. For several years after that, she worked with a number of fintech companies, subsequently becoming a Growth and Strategy Consultant for several high-profile clients in the start-up world.
Four years ago, Napala moved to the UK to study for her MBA at the University of Oxford, after which she relocated to London. There, she met her co-founder whilst working at a research organization looking into the reversibility of type 2 diabetes. She quickly came to realize the power of behaviour and lifestyle change: The research demonstrated that 40-60% of type 2 diabetes could be completely reversed through weight loss and long-term habit change. This led Napala and her cofounder to start thinking about how they could scale up these results, as the trials were limited to small numbers of patients.
So, with her co-founder, Napala created Habitual in September of 2019 with the novel idea of creating a fully digital behaviour change programme that would enable participants to reverse type 2 diabetes and other weight-related health conditions. Unlike many other companies in the space, Habitual doesn’t use dieticians, health coaches, or any other trained professionals to deliver behaviour change: Their programme is delivered fully digitally as bite-sized pieces of content every day for 6 months, and has been designed in collaboration with leading behavioural scientists and tested alongside real users going through the programme. They’ve had some great successes, which is a testimonial to the scale of the problem and level of interest in potential solutions: Habitual were able to raise their initial round of funding from angel investors last December, with just a pitch deck!
As of December 2020, Habitual consists of a team of 6 full-time staff members. After successfully taking 30 patients through a private trial, Habitual has now launched its public beta. In addition, they have just closed another round of funding—a pre-seed from Seedcamp and MMC Ventures.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
It sounds really cliché, but I feel like I’ve always known that I would start my own company. I had worked for a number of big corporations before, and I knew that it wasn’t really for me. I liked knowing exactly who I was impacting and how my work was significant – this isn’t really the case with big corporations, where it’s much more difficult to put a human face on your clients.
So I think starting my own company has always been there at the back of my mind – I guess it was just a matter of finding the right idea, the right co-founder, and the right time (in life) to actualize it! I guess these three factors never truly aligned until we started Habitual. I was at a level of financial self-sufficiency that I was comfortable with (thanks to my ongoing independent consulting work), I had found an amazing co-founder who I had worked with before, and I believed that we had a great idea. It was only when those three things aligned that I was able to take the plunge.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
For me, entrepreneurship is the drive to build something good in the world, and good can take any sense of the word. We often refer to tech entrepreneurs when we use the term ‘entrepreneur’, but the term applies to so many other creators and innovators—from coffee shop owners to artists to people building algorithms.
Entrepreneurship is about building something, feeling ownership about what you’re building, and being excited to share this product with others. You can get this in some jobs, to be sure, but I’ve never before felt it so distinctly.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I think my case is a bit different – my co-founder and I met whilst delivering a similar program, so we kind of already knew that the idea would work. The difference was that we believed we could build a digital offering that was just as good as the face-to-face model used in the research trials. I will say that, as a first-time entrepreneur, having validation from investors is really useful in helping to build confidence in your ideas. Investors have seen a lot of ideas, and so knowing that they believe in yours can be really validating. My cofounder and I always knew we were onto something, but it was really exciting when we started getting investor interest.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
I don’t know if I would call myself successful as of yet, but I can give it a try! I would say: resilience, a sense of humour, and (a weird one, I know) copyrighting.
Resilience is key to any job, but is especially important when you’re starting your own business. As an entrepreneur, every up and down becomes personal… and vice versa, every bad day you have is a bad day for the business, especially when your team is super small. In the early stages, there are so many different problems that individually have the potential to kill your business, or at least completely derail you—so being able to bounce back is so important.
My cofounder and I also always talk about the importance of a sense of humour. I think humour is actually a large part of what’s helped us to be resilient—rather than getting angry or sad when something doesn’t go well, we find ways to laugh it off. When we’re fundraising, for example, my cofounder and I keep a “black book” of the ridiculous things investors say to us. It can be so easy to get upset when somebody tells you no, but we try to keep things light-hearted.
Finally, this might be quite niche, but I’ve been so surprised how useful copywriting skills have proven to be on this journey. I’ve done tons of writing in my career and always thought of it as this random but not very useful skill… but I honestly don’t know where we’d be now if writing didn’t come easy to me. It spans everything we do, from marketing to product to writing emails to investors, and I’ve now seen first-hand how solid copy can change someone’s impression of your business.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I love being excited about my work—every single day, regardless of whether it’s the best or worst day. I remember hearing that you should find a job that you’d be “excited to get out of bed in the morning for”, and never really understood what that would feel like until now. Also, it’s amazing being able to see the impact our company has on so many people. This is something that was just a pitch deck a year ago, and now we can see the immediate impact we have on people’s lives. That’s super rewarding.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
This is super cliché, but I have to say Apple. Apple has done what no other company has when it comes to designing products that users truly love—and experiences that go hand in hand with those products.
Everybody now talks about how experiences are the new “thing”, how we’re losing interest in objects and choosing to spend our money on experiences instead. Apple was absolutely ahead of the curve here—I remember getting the original iPod in the early 2000s, and the unboxing experience was something I’d never seen before. Sure, there’s plenty to dislike about the company, but I do find their approach to design truly inspiring.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Steve Jobs has this quote about not building what customers ask you for, but rather figuring out what they will want before they ask for it. He said, “Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” I suspect the answer would be mostly “gut feeling”, but I would love to would ask him how he came up with his ideas before anyone asked for them, how he knew which ideas were good, and how he sparked that kind of creative thinking in his company. How do you read a book that hasn’t been written? I’d also ask how he built a behaviour that doesn’t already exist. At the end of the day, Habitual is a behaviour change company, so hearing his thoughts would be really interesting.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
I think it’s truly amazing to be able to see the impact our company has on so many people.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I think it’s really important to be proud of and confident in your idea, no matter how young you are, and regardless of whether you’ve built zero companies or twelve. Sure, be open to criticism and feedback, but do the research and have the evidence to back up what you’re saying so that you truly believe in it. People are going to question your decisions, and everyone will have a varying opinion… but if you’re swayed by each and every piece of feedback, you’ll spend all your time changing your strategy and never get around to building anything. So have confidence and conviction in your core principles.
Once we raised our angel round, my co-founder and I decided to build our MVP in a pretty low-tech way because we believed that our differentiator was design & behaviour change, and that technology was just the delivery method. Because of this, we invested in product, design, and behaviour change talent over software development in the early days. In our most recent fundraise, some investors were hooked on the fact that we hadn’t built any proprietary technology. We had a few moments of questioning whether we’d made the right decisions, but quickly remembered how much traction we’d been able to gain without any development. Other investors were amazed at how much we’d been able to do without a developer. As it turns out, these were the ones who invested. So, yeah, I would say stick to your guns and have conviction in your idea.
How have you funded your ideas?
My co-founder and I invested a tiny amount at the beginning, but the rest has been external funding through the angel and pre-seed rounds. Fundraising is tough because it takes a ton of time and attention from the founders, but the right investors can bring lots of experience and expertise, which we’ve found immensely useful.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
No, not as of yet.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
I’m based in London, which I think was the right choice for the business. In the beginning, we were doing a lot of in-person meetings with investors and academics who were all based here, so it made sense. I think that one major advantage start-ups based in Oxford have is the talent pool – there are a lot of keen students who are willing to volunteer some of their time (I know this because I was once one of them)! So, from a talent perspective, that’s something really useful about being in Oxford. In London, the talent market is much more competitive.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Speak to people who are in similar stages or slightly ahead of you in growing their own business. There are a lot of boring but important things that we had to figure out on our own (trademarking, setting up payroll, terms of an investment round, etc)… we spent many hours figuring out what I could now answer for someone else in a matter of seconds! Now that we’re a portfolio company of a VC fund, I can see the power of having a founder network, but didn’t really realise the importance of this when we first started.
Another tip I would give is to look for discounts, especially discounts for software. Most SaaS providers offer startup discounts… if it’s not on their website, ask for it! We’ve saved thousands just by asking.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I feel quite lucky in this regard, as I haven’t faced any major problems. My team’s gender balance is 50:50 and I’ve also got an amazing male co-founder, who is probably more of a feminist than I am!
The one thing I will say is that my co-founder is a super outspoken and confident guy, whereas I’m naturally more reserved. He’s a true extrovert and gets energy from speaking to others, whereas I’m often the opposite. This means that I often have to push myself to speak up and hold equal weight in a conversation, whether it’s with the Habitual team or an external contact. I know it’s really important to not only my own career and how I’m perceived, but also to how we encourage female leadership within the company.
In the early days of fundraising, I started to notice that I would often take the back seat (Ian has great answers, after all!), so we decided to alternate roles every time we pitched, and made an effort to go back and forth between us when answering questions. This has helped a ton, as it’s not only made me more confident talking about what we do, but also means that we both have to be fully versed on every aspect of the business.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
I’ve not experienced this myself, but I think having an investor who invested mainly in female founders would probably be an amazing resource to have. There is so much support out there for female and underrepresented entrepreneurs, which I haven’t fully tapped into, and they would be able to surface many of these opportunities for you. I would also personally love to have a network of female entrepreneurs, and being in the portfolio of a female-focused VC would certainly be one way to cultivate this network.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
There is already quite a lot being done by the University of Oxford, particularly by the business school and Oxford Foundry, but of course there’s always room to grow.
I think in order to encourage entrepreneurship in general, there needs to be a larger, cultural change in how we value education and its outcomes. Universities are largely measured and compared based on salaries and salary progression, which doesn’t account for those who are making profound social impact or starting their own companies. So I think that there needs to be a shift in understanding at the institutional and global level, where things beyond salaries are considered important, for more people to be interested in entrepreneurship.
That said, the idea of becoming an entrepreneur and not knowing whether you’ll make any money in a given month is really daunting, and often even more so for women. So more programmes offering funding to early-stage, female founded business would be amazing.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Surround yourself with people who are going to support you, both in and outside of the company… so your cofounder, your team, and friends & family. Be intentional about who you spend your time with and who you look to for help when you need it. When you start a company, it invades every aspect of your life. Even when you’re not working, you’ll be talking about it with your friends, partner, strangers on the street… So I think having the right people around you becomes super important. I’m very lucky because having gone to business school, most of the friends are career-driven women who can relate and provide useful advice, no matter what my issue of the day is.
Any last words of advice?
If you’re thinking about doing something entrepreneurial, just do it! Regardless of what happens, you’ll learn something. It can be really hard to take the leap… to decide that you’re going to fully dive into entrepreneurship. With Habitual, we kind of tapered into it, going through the process step-by-step, week-by-week. I don’t actually remember a moment that we officially decided that we were “doing it”. But it just kind of happened, and I never had to make that scary decision.
Essentially, I would advise you to try to experiment (especially if you’re a student!). If you have an idea, push it forward. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t, and if it does, move to the next step. It’s a really incredible learning experience, regardless of outcome!