Welcome to issue #16 of our recently launched Q&A series, Startup Spotlight.
This series is all about diving into the world-class technological innovation conducted by exciting UK startups. Getting to grips with the technology, the mission, and even the stories behind them.
In each edition, we sit down with a different startup founder, leader, or operator in an easily digestible conversational style Q&A format.
Today we interviewed Lars Nordhild Rønning, CEO of Ailuna, to find out how they’re using the power of instilling new habits to pave the way to a more sustainable world.
- 🌳 How Ailuna helps people and enterprises become more sustainable
- 📈 How they're thinking about long-term growth and product development
- 🤔 Answered: Does belief drive action? Or does action drive belief?
It’s difficult to form habits - particularly positive ones like eating and exercising better. That’s no secret to most. Habits change the inner workings of your brain, so that is ultimately the first step... psychologically 'hacking' it to form one.
Frustratingly, negative habits seem to form all too easily. You could say that a bad habit of humanity, overall, is its use of unsustainable methods to support our lives. Fossil fuels, livestock, overfishing, the list only seems to grow.
The sad thing is they can be mitigated by both technology available to us now and a change in lifestyle choices. Fortunately, one company is helping achieve the latter by using the former.
Ailuna is a sustainability engagement app that focuses on developing new habits in an ecologically friendly way. Rather than choosing the habit you want to create yourself, it gives you numerous tasks, and you accept them - like a video game side quest. Instead, the rewards are a better planet instead of a better playable character.
As their website succinctly puts it:
"Ailuna combines technology (the app!) with behavioural science and a LOT of passion, to help you build and stick to a series of habits that are designed to be good for you, good for the planet and, most importantly, fun!"Ailuna
It's one of the few apps I've come across with a truly noble objective. But, what's the story here? The who, what, and why?
Below Lars discusses the creation of Ailuna, the why behind it, and how it’s helping people around the planet (and, the planet itself!).
Fun fact: the word Ailuna (Ai luna) is Hawaiian and means “up there, aiming high”.
That's no accident. Ailuna are thinking big.
In their words: "if every single one of us aims high and tries to make changes to our lives, we can build a better future for ourselves and for the planet."
Here we go. 👇
What is the mission of Ailuna?
The mission of Ailuna is to help people and organisations become more sustainable, via habit building.
The reason we do this is, ultimately, we would like for Ailuna to become a sort of LinkedIn for people and organisations who care about sustainability. But that's a big vision.
So, we thought to ourselves, what is the one thing that individuals and organisations need to do to become more sustainable? Build better habits. Because, without better habits, things won't change. That’s when we decided that habit-building was going to be the first offering of Ailuna.
How do you go about building a habit?
We based our methodology and development on a combination of a few things: proven behavioural science (we have a behavioural scientist on our team), James Clear’s research and book called Atomic Habits, and experience with successful sports apps such as Couch to 5K.
It's all about driving “change building” habits, one little new thing at a time, rather than trying to boil the ocean and do too much because, generally, most people will fail.
You mentioned 'people' and 'organisations'. They are quite different to tackle. What is your approach there?
We founded Ailuna in 2019 starting with the consumer market, because, ultimately, when we are at work, we are also consumers.
If a product doesn't work in the consumer space, chances are it won't work in the enterprise space either. So we are employing what we call 'consumerization of IT'. Testing things out first in the consumer space, then expanding into the enterprise space.
As an enterprise, you can get an enterprise version of the app that gives you more. Bespoke challenges, bespoke actions developed for the company, and bespoke avatar outfits. The ability to build teams, establish leaderboards, C02 impact, tracking, visualisation and the things that an enterprise needs.
We see the enterprise as our revenue generation source. And, we see the consumer space as the growth channel. To build awareness that will bring us enterprise customers.
That sounds like a 'bottom up' growth strategy, like Slack and Yammer?
It's absolutely bottom up. Creating some sort of a grassroots movement where consumers will find our app and start recommending it to their employers.
We are also conducting outbound sales activity. Talking to stakeholders within enterprise organisations about the importance of driving employee engagement around sustainability, which is necessary for companies to hit their goals and build lasting initiatives.
How are you using technology to help build better habits?
Everything that we have developed is mobile-first. Mobile phones are in people's hands every day, and that's the preferred device.
We have built a backend that enables us to launch behavioral change programmes, not just within sustainability, but any type of behavioral change.
If a company came to us and said we would actually like to drive mental health, physical health, and not just sustainability, our technology can do that.
The technology enables us to create these programmes, but we can also track the actions people are taking. Where they answer "yes", where they answer "no". Based on the answers, we can then present relevant habit-forming information back to our users.
We want Ailuna to become not just a sustainable C02 sustainability tool, but more of a holistic living and working tool that will encompass other things like mental and physical health. Our aim is to become the employee engagement market leader.
What's your unique selling point?
One of our unique selling points is that we're driving change to organisations by helping them build new habits.
If you look at some other apps, or platforms, out in the market, they will have you do a new thing every day. So on a Monday, they will have you remember your reusable bottle. Tuesday, you should bike to work instead of taking the car and so on.
All of that is great, but it doesn't drive change. What we've been doing is looking at how can we build something that makes people want to use the platform for longer and build new habits over time. It's not a quick fix. It's a process.
We've been looking at other apps like 'Couch to 5K', for example, that help you get off the sofa and in shape to run 5km just one step and one kilometre at a time. We're doing the same with sustainability.
What’s been your greatest challenges since you created Ailuna?
I think the biggest challenge is launching an app. No matter how much testing you've done, it's only when it gets in the hands of the consumers that you really start understanding what works and what doesn't.
There’s also optimising the app to drive better engagement. It’s taken a lot of trial and error. I think we probably spent a good three-quarters of a year getting it right before we felt that we had nailed it. I still don't think we've nailed it completely.
On the user acquisition side, how are you finding your users so far?
Our user growth is organic. We've been creating content where people go to a site, they learn about Ailuna, and they download the app.
Furthermore, we've been driving a lot of downloads through Facebook groups, through LinkedIn, through our own network, through partners, and more.
What we have not done deliberately is invested in paid customer acquisition because we don't necessarily believe you get the right users that way.
Because our aim has been to break into the B2B segment, rather than spending a lot of time and money on paying to acquire consumers, we've deliberately waited. We want to make sure the product is right before we start investing time and money there.
What sort of team have put together, and what's their background?
We've got a team that spans nine countries. We've got engineers, UI and UX designers, we've got a content team, marketing, and we've got people who are experts in behavioural change on sustainability.
Getting experience from people in different parts of the world has been something that that's been important for us. Having said that, the UK is our home market. That's where we spend the majority of our time and effort, with the US being number two. Still, we've got users in more than 50 countries now. We think that’s wonderful.
In terms of milestones, what have you achieved and what's next?
We've achieved several things. Launching into the consumer space, Ailuna being used in more than 50 countries, launching into the enterprise space, it goes on.
But the next step or that is for us to really roll out commercially into the enterprise space. It’s something that we'll be doing around the third or the fourth quarter of this year.
What's your product roadmap from the consumer standpoint?
One of the things we're working on is creating a new community. Currently, there is a community per action within the app, but there's no overall global community.
The other thing we're working on for consumer is the onboarding. We’re all different people who have different motivations for wanting to change, but they don't necessarily know how to get started. So being able to guide our users better is something that we are investing in.
I have a question for you: do you think that belief drives action? Or does action drive belief?
I don't think it's a binary answer. But, if you forced me to choose one or the other I'd pick belief driving action!
You'd be surprised. More and more research is pointing to action driving belief.
That's important in the way we are developing Ailuna. What we want to achieve is people starting to do something through action. Then, they believe it's actually a good thing to do.
If you look at all the information there is in the press, all the media coverage there is around sustainability - a lot of that is negative. It doesn't make people want to change. But, when they try something new and they see it works, that is when you actually see change happen.
An example is back in 2015, when the 50p or 5p plastic bags were introduced in the UK. A lot of people said "this is never going to work - I'm never going to bring my own plastic bag to the supermarket! I'd rather pay 5p".
But when you look at the numbers, the majority of people have now adopted reusable bags.
And by doing that action, they see that it wasn't that hard and that it actually works. That makes people want to do more. So we absolutely believe that it's action that drives belief rather than belief that drives action.
Epic. Thanks, Lars!
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