Founder Friday

Moti's Kayla Matheus

Welcome to Founder Friday, where we’ll learn a little about the people behind some of the companies doing their thing at Highway1. Today’s founder is Kayla Matheus of Moti.

Who are you? (don’t forget your official job title)
I’m Kayla Matheus, founder, CEO, and lead hardware for Moti.

What’s your product do?
Moti is a personable smart object that helps people build good habits in their lives.

If you think about habits like running, drinking enough water, meditation, or reading before bed instead of Netflix, a lot of these don’t give you instant gratification.

Moti approaches the problem by looking at habit loop theory, which requires things like triggers, routines, and rewards. As people, we’re really bad at celebrating our small wins, the little microsteps towards healthier habits; we don’t give ourselves enough credit. Moti acts as an external being that does precisely that.

Tell us a little bit about your background.
I was a double major in art and mechanical engineering at Yale. I started with graphic design, but switched very quickly to sculpture and realized I really like to work with my hands and build things in three dimensions. I’ve always been very interested in the intersection between creative and technical fields; I started looking into industrial design on the side, and learned about design thinking.

After graduating, I stayed to help set up the Yale Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, and spent a lot of time in academia working for Design for America and teaching at Northwestern. Eventually I realized I needed to get out of academia — I was only talking and not building things — so I did some consulting for a design firm in Boston and ended up a product designer at SC Johnson.

A few months later, I was accepted into a pre-accelerator for designers in New York called 30 Weeks; Moti was born there.

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Where did the idea for this business come from?
Moti stemmed from my own inability to form a very particular habit around physical therapy; I tore my ACL in high school and have gone through over a decade of physical therapy. I realized while going through another round of PT that I could never get into the habit of doing the exercises at home.

I felt frustrated and guilty; I consider myself the type of person who should commit to something and be able to do it. This prompted me to look into the science behind it, and I realized habit formation is really big problem, not just for me, but for others. Habits make up our daily routines, and those routines are what translate directly into our happiness and health; the right habits can solve big problems like obesity or diabetes.

Moti came straight out of user research at 30 Weeks: I grabbed five people and followed them for a month on their journeys to form a new habit. I interviewed them, I tried to get them to do different exercises and use smartphone apps, anything. Then I started making my own prototypes, including a very lo-fi version of Moti made from a squishy desk toy (there were two, a koala and a stingray).

Every time I look at it, I smile and I'm reminded I'm committed to this thing.

I slapped on an Arduino, a button, and a speaker so they’d make a happy noise, then I gave them to two guys to take home. They fell completely in love: the prototypes were like trophies or totems. They made them feel good, not just because of the anthropomorphic factor; one told me how delightful it was to push the button.

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How’d you get the company started?
30 Weeks was definitely pivotal; it provided an environment where I could explore the idea early on. As a designer, I did a lot of user testing from that early Frankenstein-esque prototype, from which I then built the MVP. I did two deep-dive case studies and got more validation; at that point I knew it was legitimate, so I incorporated.

Honestly, it was less about the incorporation and more about when we released our website — I actually consider the site to be one of our MVPs, since it helped test out user reaction to the whole idea: we made a really nice website for our beta launch, which saw over 2000 people apply.

I also reached a point after the second case study where I maxed out my skill level. I come from mechanical engineering: I can build it all off the shelf, program it up, CAD it, and print it, but for the beta, I realized I couldn’t do WiFi connectivity or code up our backend database. So I brought in help, specifically in software development, to push out the beta, and that’s where Moti also started to become a company: the point at which I involved people beyond myself.

How did you find out about Highway1?
Through someone else at 30 Weeks who was also a mechanical engineer. I know a couple guys at Bolt, so they were always the hardware accelerator that I knew, but once you’re in the startup world, there’s all these lists of resources; Highway1 was always spoken about with high regard from the other mechanical engineers at 30 Weeks.

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What’s your biggest surprise or key learning been thus far?
How impactful the physicality of the product itself is. We had a browser where you could log in, see all your data, and do different things with it — there were habit scores that analyzed where you were and showed you your streaks. Nobody used it.

Part of that might be because of the hurdle of having to log into a browser, which may not seem like a hurdle, but it is. So for the data part, we’re going to try making an app. But our hypothesis is that because so much of the experience is with the physical Moti, which brings accountability and tracking seamlessly and delightfully into your life, people aren’t going to use the app much at all; we’ll have to find ways to add value to the app, rather than the other way around.

What are your goals, both while you’re at Highway1 and beyond?
We’re taking the learnings from the beta and scaling them up to the pilot we want to deliver by the end of the year. A lot of that is engineering optimization, so we’re taking advantage of Highway1, which has a lot of knowledge about that; my own approach to engineering is more about prototyping and testing as opposed to finessing and making something manufacturable.

We’re also working with an eye towards our launch: what do we need to have in place on the engineering side? On the business model side? On the pricing side? We need to make sure we have everything we’ll need to launch a preorder campaign.

Any advice for people looking to start out in hardware?
Always be testing. Which is common knowledge, but I’d add to always be testing at the lowest fidelity possible. The literal genesis of Moti was a squishy koala bear with a red button on it and an Arduino speaker! When first attacking a problem, don’t be afraid to create swaths of lo-fi possibilities before committing to something, and let the users speak to you.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in hardware?
The biggest challenge is, of course, resources. We’ve been told “you should just do an app, it’s easier.” All you need is one person to code and one person to design; with a two-person team, you don’t need a lot of funding to push something out.

“With hardware, you need lead hardware, someone to help with the engineering finesse like DFM, an electrical engineer, a firmware engineer, a full-stack developer, and an iOS developer - that's at least six people, five if you're lucky. ”

Kayla Matheus, Founder & CEO - Moti

So all of a sudden, the runway of a hardware company is much longer. I’m preaching to the choir here — everybody runs up against this in the hardware world, it’s nothing new, but it’s still worth repeating.

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