Ariel Garten has turned a knack for connecting the dots between things that seem to have nothing in common into a successful startup.
A burgeoning interest in science led Garten to assist with research in a stem-cell lab during high school, when she also started a clothing line that she sold door-to-door. Garten continued to pursue both interests through university and beyond, when she opened her own clothing boutique in downtown Toronto and eventually became a practicing psychotherapist.
“I was always looking for a way to marry these things,” Garten says. She found it when she launched InteraXon in 2007. Though the company didn’t have any products immediately, Garten says wanted to explore how brainwaves could be used in computing technology.
“The first big a-ha moment,” Garten tells Fast Company, “was that we could control big things outside of ourselves.” How big? During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the company’s brainwave-sensing headband–basically operating like an EEG machine in a hospital would–allowed wearers to light up landmarks across Canada just by using their minds. “We could apply it to the grandest things,” says Garten.
These grand schemes don’t always turn into viable revenue generators. Garten admits the InteraXon team spent the next year on product-market fit and developing what she calls “the language of brain sensing.”
The technology that had captured the imagination of millions was then incorporated to develop a headband called Muse. It sells at retail stores like BestBuy for about $300 and works in conjunction with an app called Calm as a tool to increase focus and reduce stress.
If you always wanted to learn to meditate without those pesky distracting thoughts commandeering your mind, Muse can help by taking you through a brief exercise that translates brainwaves into the sound of wind. Losing focus or getting antsy brings on the gales. Achieving calm rewards you with a flock of birds across your screen.
The company has grown to 50 employees and has raised close to $10 million from investors including Ashton Kutcher. Garten says they’re about to close on a Series B round, “which will be significant.”
Garten’s obviously at ease bridging art and science, technology and mindfulness meditation. But you don’t often see fashion designers or psychotherapists (or a blend of the two) starting a software business without knowing how to code or earning an MBA. Here’s what Garten shared with us about creating success.
“I have a healthy inner critic,” she says. But Garten notes that her training as a therapist gave her the ability to identify negative thoughts, which is a technique that the Muse headband supports as well. The trick, she says, is that “you don’t need to give space to these negative thoughts.”
Though she admits to being an extrovert, Garten confesses she does get nervous speaking in front of large groups. As CEO, Garten is called on daily to speak about the company and the product to groups of all sizes. Standing up on stage, Garten had to learn to consciously push aside the thoughts that lead to the anxieties that rattle so many when they step up to the mic.
Garten has also learned when to listen to others. “I originally imagined something futuristic,” she says, describing her initial concept for the Muse headband. With wearables, it’s particularly challenging, she says, because people use them not only for how they look, but what they signify. Garten discovered that users wanted something symmetrical. “The design is not simply about how it looks,” she says. “It’s how it feels and functions.”
The good news is that unlike some of the other wearables on the market that aren’t very wearable or functional, the Muse headband had something a Ringly or a Netatmo June didn’t: the potential to control the mind.
“We catapulted on trends,” Garten says. There’s nothing like having science prove that we spend almost half our waking hours thinking about everything except the task at hand and having that be the source of our discontent. Being in the right place at the right time is certainly part of Muse’s success. But Garten maintains that the product continues to sell because “people love it and reviews are positive.”
As a psychotherapist, Garten is able to understand motivations and intentions more than the average manager. Though she refrains from delving more deeply into the personal lives of her staff, Garten says she looks for alignment between those motivations and the goals of the company when hiring new employees.
She says that listening plays an important role at InteraXon. Reflecting back on what you think you heard is an exercise she encourages, especially in meetings. When the development team is building a tool, for example, they use their Muses to meditate and focus, which then allows for listening more attentively and nonjudgmentally.
Garten doesn’t dwell on her status as a woman in a mostly male-dominated sector. That goes for securing funding for the startup too, despite the notorious bias venture-capital investors have against women startup founders.
“I am sure I lost deals because I am a woman, but also because the idea didn’t resonate,” she says, adding, “I’m sure I gained some because I am a woman, so it is unfair to put a blanket statement on it.”
Yet Garten is the only female member of her C-suite, something she says “is just the way it happened.” Casting the net recently to fill the role of chief operating officer, Garten says there weren’t any women in the running, in part because the position required hardware experience as well as knowledge of working with the Chinese.
She did just hire a woman to be senior vice president of sales and marketing, and says, “When we are hiring younger staff, we are gender agnostic.”