Monday, May 9, 2016

Muhammad Abdurrahman and Reemo: A STARTUP Success Story

Muhammad Abdurrahman, PhD, of Reemo

Muhammad Abdurrahman is a tech entrepreneur and co-founder of Reemo. After graduating from Morehouse College, he pursued his doctorate in linguistics at the University of Minnesota, where he founded Playtabase, a company that eventually became Reemo. While at the University, he also cofounded and led the Youth Music Education Foundation and participated in the STARTUP class at the Carlson School of Management, where he worked on building Playtabase. Since his participation in the course, Reemo has undergone residency at Microsoft and is now a Samsung Enterprise partner.

Muhammad’s company Reemo is a remote monitoring and remote control wearable software solution built from day one to enable seniors to age gracefully and build peace of mind and awareness for loved ones and care providers.  Reemo tracks seniors through their day, sends critical notifications, and with Reemo, seniors can control their home appliances simply by waving their hands at the device even from across the room.

1. What initially compelled you to pursue the idea of Playtabase (now Reemo)?

At the end of 2011, six months before I started working on Playtabase, my father had several strokes and heart attacks.  As a result, he had difficulty living at home alone because he was prone to falls and couldn’t easily adjust appliances, windows, etc. in his home.  On top of that, there was always the chance that he’d have another attack or fall into a coma alone; there was no way to rest safely about his well being in that situation.

I was already interested in how speech recognition systems might help control a smart room, but given my studies for the master’s degree and now PhD in Linguistics, I was familiar with the ultimate limitations of those systems especially for stroke victims.  So, I developed an idea to complement those systems to fix their shortcomings and also give me notifications if my dad had a life-threatening event such as a fall or coma.

2. What were some of the most pivotal moments that caused the idea to evolve into its current form?

I see three pivotal moments.  The first was in the first two months of ideation back in 2012 when it was just me and an undergraduate engineering student arguing whether I was crazy.  I did an analysis of where the consumer electronics industry would likely find greatest success in wearable technology if it ever took off; this was well before the major companies got into the smartwatch game, so it was a real question.  After asking around and considering a number of factors, I ruled out placing Reemo on fingers (despite Lord of the Rings appeal), and the forearm.  Designing for the wrist would give us the best opportunity for observability, comfort, a move to software rather than making hardware, acceptance with seniors, and ultimately acquisition.

The second big moment was when Playtabase was invited to stay at Microsoft for several months.  There, we got a lot of great design input, including the advice to add a screen to the band. Before that, we resisted having a screen for numerous reasons.  This eased our transition to the third moment.

The third big moment was when the consumer electronics industry finally started introducing smartwatches in the market regularly.  This gave us our long awaited chance to move away from hardware, so that we could focus on software, analytics, monitoring, etc.  Today, Reemo no longer makes hardware.  Reemo is a Samsung Enterprise Partner, and Reemo software runs on their smart watch.

3. How has the university environment and the STARTUP class in particular affected the path of this idea?

The University of Minnesota’s environment at the time was a great place for me to build up Playtabase.  I knew I wanted to be a tech entrepreneur two years before I started and talked my way into clubs in CSE and Carlson, the engineering and business colleges, to gain experience and information, even though I was a CLA student.   I applied for internships through those programs, and competed in their competitions.  I was motivated enough, that I was able to overcome objections, and it was uncommon enough that there were no rules against it.  So by the time I started Playtabase, I was already running a 2 year old non-profit with friends I met in those clubs and had experience in business and technology.  

My engagement in clubs from various colleges, gave me a tremendous opportunity to connect students and organize them around a common purpose, a skill I learned in the U's Entrepreneurship Club.  Although there were many places in the University where I was laughed at and ridiculed as a weirdo with an improbable idea.  The wealth of clubs and opportunities made for multiple chances to access an amazing experimentation, recruitment, and training ground for the skills necessary to boost Playtabase up.  Additionally, support from involved and caring faculty in those colleges like Paul Imbertson in CSE and Steve Spruth + John Stavig in Carlson, was tremendously helpful in opening doors and introductions for me, as CLA graduate student with a crazy idea.  This all lead to an all student or recent grad team of about 12 pretty quickly as we gained steam with students from across the university helping out, running out of dorm rooms and school areas.  It was a lot of fun, and we all learned a lot.

Although it was still in development at the time, the Startup Class was one of those wonderful resources available to students including me, because I had sought to drench myself in awareness of the programs at the U.  In it I was forced to develop the Playtabase’s first public presentations, work on business modeling, and had the luxury of being held to account for progress on a regular basis and gain feedback on company efforts.  Being your own boss for a sane idea is tough.  When you’re trying to turn grandma’s into Jedi,  a lot of wild ideas float around, so that enforced discipline was critical early on.  Plus it gave me a break from my teaching and dissertation writing, though my advisors likely wouldn’t have liked that.

4. What advice do you have for current and future STARTUP participants and student entrepreneurs?

This is just my input:

For Startup Class participants, I say your business is not a class.  The class is a short-term adviser you paid for.  It’s not about the grade; it’s about improvement.  If you can’t measure that, it didn’t happen.

Student Entrepreneurs:
  • Train your gut, then listen to it.  Having your sanity questioned isn’t always bad; it may be necessary.
  • Succession planning is planning success. Get a mentor; be a mentor. Stay focused, humble, and weird.
  • Verify your biases whenever possible. Seek out opportunities. Enjoy the journey. Prefer optimists.
  • Attend the U’s Entrepreneurship Club and related opportunities with the intensity of a professional athlete.