What it’s like to build a self-development app with Despark

In the latest in our series of candid conversations with our clients, we go deep with CEO & Founder of CURV, Karl Brown, who approached Despark while Head of Innovation for coaching consultancy Working Voices. In this interview with Despark’s Jo Bradshaw, Karl takes us behind the scenes of CURV’s journey from side project to fully-fledged digital self-improvement platform. 

Karl’s also our guest at a webinar on 20th October, so make sure you grab your spot.

Jo Bradshaw: The CURV website says, ‘Imagine who you could be and what you could achieve if you progress yourself day by day’. I love the whole approach that you've taken to integrating learning, cinema and behavioural science. You’d already started doing some e-learning with Working Voices. What made you decide to ramp up the digital side of your business?

Karl Brown: One thing that we learned very quickly was that whilst we can get an amazing experience in the room, and whilst we can help people right there with their presentation skills, with the way they communicate, or their a couple of weeks’ time you'd ask, 'So have you put it into action?' and they'd be like, 'Yeah, I think I've done it a couple of times.' And then if you spoke to them a month later, they’d say 'Oh yeah, yeah, there was that thing... I stopped doing that, actually. I need to do more of that.' And then in six months' time, they've completely forgotten they had a course. 

But if you look at genuine human behaviour and genuine change in people, you need this simple day by day, step by step progression, that's the thing that actually moves something forward. So as a company, we started going into e-learning. And I started piping up and saying, 'I think you could do this, or you could appear on video more or it should be more human. I think the experience could be better.'  I annoyed [Nick, Founder of Working Voices] enough for him to say 'Cool. Do you know what, Karl? Here’s a very small pot of money. Go and make a couple of videos and tell me exactly what you mean. So I made a couple of videos focusing on procrastination and then Nick said 'Okay, yeah, I see where you're going with this. Keep going. Here's another small pot of money. What does the prototype look like of this?'

We then start to build this mini prototype and it was much more youthful and playful and extremely different than what we'd already got in place as an e-learning product at Working Voices.

JB: The original e-learning project product was aimed at corporate clients?

KB: Exactly that.

What I was obsessed with was creating something more human, that spoke to corporates but wasn't corporate in itself... something that didn't try and match the brand or legacies that many corporations have. Instead it was trying to be, right from the word go, different...

JB: When you go into a room, even if it's a big corporate, that room is still full of actual people.

KB: And you find that in the room, right? So when you're doing face to face training, if you go in there trying to be as formal and corporate as possible, you don't get anywhere, whereas as soon as you speak to them as humans and you just be yourself, effectively, you'll then help them be more themselves. And then in doing so you help bring out the best version of them, also yourself as a trainer. So I was trying to bring that experience through, or playing around with what that experience would look like online or via an app.

JB: It's interesting that you identify there the issue of follow through - maybe it would have been nice just to follow through with somebody for a year face to face, but it's not going to happen. And then you've got the idea of different types of nudges, of creating behaviour change.

KB: Definitely.

JB: Did you know what to do with the feedback you were getting? Or did it just develop organically?

KB: In regards to the idea and the concept, we got proof of that very early on and very quickly. As soon as people were talking about it or hearing about it, or watching the content we had, people were like 'Yeah, we want more of this' pretty much every single time, so that is really powerful.

One of the key things we did early on was looking at 'What are the things you want to work on?' And that's quite an open question: whether you're connected or not to us, actually, you can give a genuine answer to that.

JB: Did it surprise you - what people came back with? Did you have expectations of what they'd say?

KB: I had expectations and those expectations were met, which was actually really good to know. I thought I knew what people wanted to work on and for the most part I was right. But of course, we have to continue those conversations, and in fact, we've just been doing it recently on where we want to go next. 

JB: One of the questions I wanted to ask is about defending your ideas with your internal stakeholders. I'm not sure if you sound like you had to defend them too much. Or, you know, was there a process of having to convince the rest of the group?

KB: What's interesting is that with Working Voices—and Nick, the Founder was always very much on board—what I was creating on the sidelines in my little Innovation Lab in my corner of the company was very different to what was going on with the rest of the business. So what's actually come out of that is that we've realised that Working Voices has its own brand and vision and voice and that is absolutely perfect for the work and the clients that they have. However, CURV, right from the word go, has been trying to do something entirely differently. So much so that we've decided to separate it entirely and it's going to become its own brand new business. Of course, the support and the collaboration and the connection to Working Voices will always be there because Working Voices have been absolutely key to everything that's come forward.

JB: And what made you decide to work with us, with Despark?

KB: I think it was four organisations that we met. And then effectively as I think, as with most conversations, it comes down to the connection in the room. Do you connect with them? Is there something where you feel like these are people you could work with? Are these people that get and understand the mission that you're trying to do?

As an organisation, you have a focus on mental health, then you've got examples of that in your backlog. But for the most part, it was that in the room it felt like ‘this is a conversation that can happen’. And then inevitably, from the calls after that as well. It just felt: ‘Okay, these are people that I can speak openly to and I get a sense of the work ethic that will come with that, because I know I'm going to push hard on whoever I work with. I'll perhaps unfairly expect brilliance in return.’ And Despark have delivered.

JB: Which science or readings help you to shape the content that you share at CURV, or is it just an amalgamation of everything you know, like a whole lifetime's learning?

KB: Yes and no. I've got a few years' experience behind me now in regards to training in this area. So there's an instinctive response to it. And I've got a good eye and understanding of how progression and behaviour change works. But the actual source of the content, every single piece was discovered or found through some form of research, which was me and Jake staring at laptops for hours upon hours diving through all of the best research that is available out there on the web or in books...

JB: So literally trawling through all of the research papers and citations...

KB: That's it. So we have an instinctive—based off questionnaires that we sent out—idea that we want to work on anxiety, so who are the key players in anxiety that know what's required to help move these things along? Well, there's these charities, there's these organisations and these research papers. Then from that, it’s converting that research into a simple action that you, me, anyone can do day by day.

There's so much research and so many ideas out there. But a lot of it lands with more of a thinking place as opposed to an action space. And the thing we wanted to focus on, especially initially was 'What's the thing? What do I do if I want to work on this?' And if I don't have an active thing to do, then it's not going to help me as actively as we want CURV to be, we want it to be an active app.

JB: So you're essentially having to condense all of this research without oversimplifying it, and trying to find the takeaway that you can then evaluate, put into actions. That's quite a difficult ask.

KB: It is. I mean, you may have heard of the app Blinkist? It's awesome in that it takes those books and it turns it into 15 minutes; what we're doing is taking that research paper and distilling it into one simple action. It's a similar model. Does it simplify it? At times, but does it therefore actually make it more useful? In my mind, most definitely. Otherwise, all this wonderful research gets missed and lost and never really used.

JB: And the researchers are just talking amongst themselves and meanwhile everyone's still stressed and procrastinating and anxious. So it's great that you're turning it into actual actions.

KB: What we've learned from our users so far is that people want to trust that we're doing our jobs properly, that what we are sharing with you is decent, proper, science backed. And once they get that, they say 'Cool, I don't need to know about [the research], I just want to know the action. That's the thing that actually matters to me’.

JB: They trust you. What I like about you guys is that you're saying, 'Try this. Now we've done all the science, try this action, see if it works for you'. And so people feel like they can actually experiment with something and you don't have the onus of, 'this is the only way to do it, and this person managed to do it, so why can't I?' So self efficacy comes into it, which is really important. 

KB: Totally.

JB: It makes total sense when you hear about it, but it is something quite new. I mean, people aren't really doing this.

KB: No, I haven't found it anywhere else yet. There are apps that try and change your behaviour. They're effectively trackers. So you can track when you've drunk water, for example, or 'Here's something to think about and do' but it's over a six week plan or something like that. Whereas what we're trying to do is take away that pressure and make it a little bit more fun. Fun, you know, like, 'Here's a thing for you to do today and that's it, just one thing today'. In fact we're going to stop you, you're not allowed to do more than one!

JB: Talk to me about imposter syndrome because this is something I'm all too familiar with. Did you become an expert in it because of suffering from it? Or did you have a problem along the way with CURV?

KB: There's this strange thing that can go on in people's brains, and I definitely feel it myself, where you can feel absolutely confident that what you're doing is the right thing. And yet at the same time, there's this other part of your brain, which then kicks in and says, 'Stop, stop, stop, you're not right for this' or 'Stop, stop. You don't know what you're doing', or 'Stop stop stop. Do you really think that this is the way to go about it?' And what I've learned in regards to imposter syndrome, from a personal perspective, is that actually, that voice is sometimes useful if it's managed. 

Whenever you feel yourself questioning yourself, whenever you feel yourself going, 'Can you do this?' You just come back to okay, well, take a breath, what's the mission? Where are you going? What are you doing? And what's the next thing to help you get there? Don't think about anything else, just focus on that one thing.

JB: What you said there about being clear and your mission and your values: is that what you'd say helps you to ship, to break through whatever imposter syndrome or resistance that you have? 

KB: It all comes down to one clear mission. And that is what I think of as CURV's mission to make self improvement an easy part of your everyday, whoever you are, and whatever the goal. Now if I then think, ‘Okay, that's our mission and our vision at the same time. That's where we want to go’ I might be questioning myself on how I'm going to get this spreadsheet of these incredibly complex financial projections to a finance director who's been doing this for years and years and years.

Being open, honest, allowing yourself to make mistakes, using failure: all of that stuff plays its part in building a business and also working on your self improvement and progression in yourself. Actually it's okay. You learn by doing step by step, bit by bit, brick by brick.

JB: I was going to ask you about your decision to share the behind the scenes process. I loved your #CURVIsComing hashtag on Instagram, and all the videos: 'We don't know what we're doing, but we're building an app!' It's quite unusual seeing that kind of radical honesty. Did that just come naturally, organically? Did it land well, is this something you're going to continue?

KB: What initiated that was that I listened to a podcast called StartUp, which is about the founding of Gimlets. It was just a guy with an idea, wanting to try and make that idea into a reality. And he talked about things like 'What shoes do I wear to this meeting?' It was so inspiring to me, and it really helped me go, 'Yes, you know, I can do this too'. 

There were two things going on in my mind off the back of listening to that. Firstly, we have a responsibility here to the people that we're connecting with. If you think about our audience and the people that we're trying to help and guide, these are also people who are probably quite entrepreneurial in their spirit, or there's a part of them that thinks 'I want to achieve that big goal. But how do I do that?' If they think to themselves, 'Well, the people that are there already knew how to get there, they've somehow just landed and that's just the way it is’, that's not going to inspire them to help them move forward.

So therefore, let's share the genuine, proper open human story that's going on in the background. That was always our plan. It is our plan. Then the second side of it was that actually, as we were going, we realised we didn't know what we were doing. In itself it became a really interesting journey of progression, and… that's what we do. That's our whole motto. That's our mission, so why not share it?

JB: Part of our process of Discovery is really drilling down into everything and questioning it, being the kind of annoying child, helping you work out a strategy for what your approach is going to be, where you're going to put your money. We may not have done your training in terms of all of your professional background, but then we still have the experience of working with many related industries who have gone through the same process. So it's a sort of synergy isn't it, between people with a similar goal and mission? They want to get this project off the ground. And so you combine expertise.

KB: And that's where it's so important you have the right people around you. When both sides are open to what's being said, and you have the mission in mind all the time, always coming back to the mission, that helps you then align and improve yourself through it. I thought that was definitely achieved through Despark, especially through those early phases. It was really valid and important work, and at times I wholeheartedly disagreed with what was being suggested, but went with it anyway. And I'm so pleased that I did.

JB: Were you surprised that you got that level of pushback?

KB: One of the reasons that I wanted to work with Despark in the first place was that I got the sense that if we were to have a conversation, we'll have a proper conversation, you're not going to be a nodding dog to this situation, you're going to ask the right questions, and have a clear view and thought process on this yourself. That was extremely valuable because the thing you find when you've been thinking about and working on something for as long as I have been, you can become pigeonholed and of course, the thing you need to do is the complete opposite. You need to open yourself up and go 'Well, what is the vision for this? What could it be? Where could it go? It might be entirely different to what I had in my mind.'

JB: What do you think a) the most frustrating part of the whole process was and b) the biggest value you got out of working with Despark was? 

KB: I think the biggest value was in breaking down 'Okay, well what do you actually want to achieve here?' And then from that being shown the vision of that, the user experience that comes behind that, because I went into it expecting one way that the experience would work. And what I learned was that there are many different routes to achieving that goal. Through that process, we were able to figure out where we are now, which I think is a really solid version of where we want to go.

I think one of the biggest values was the openness and passion and boldness that Despark brought to the conversations that then enabled the development to go in the way it went. We would spend an hour, hour and a half just honing in on that one detail. And at points, it was proper full-on debates. That passion and commitment came right back at me, which was exactly what the product needed. I love the fact that through that process, they stood firm on key bits of information that they genuinely believed in and they were totally right about. They were equally as passionate as I was about the project in hand.

JB: Yes. You can tell that, you can sense that if someone's just playing a role.

KB: The other side of it, which was really powerful, is the openness in conversation. Basecamp was a very easy way of communicating. I would send messages and I would get messages back very, very quickly. It felt like there was an ongoing process all the time, you know, I was never forgotten about, there was always something moving forward. 

JB: You can see behind the scenes, it has to be open and transparent.

KB: I think from a third perspective, as well, it's the design work. We went into it with, as I said before, quite a youthful design. And it wasn't right. I didn't know what the answer was, but pretty much from the first version that came through, there was an energy and an experience in mind that was different to what was there before, and was much more aligned with what we needed to do. And they formulated that very, very quickly. It just set us up on the right path because they instinctively understood it and got the mission and the brand that we wanted to convey.

JB: I wanted to touch on managing user attention. So you can go in and do your daily CURV. You can't binge, so you can't just let it suck your whole day up. As an agency, we see it as our responsibility to manage attention wisely. We don't want to create things that will be detrimental to the mental health of a user. So how do you see your responsibility in terms of  a product like that?

KB: Oh, very, very important.

We wanted to build a product that wasn't about being on the product. This app is about getting you out there into the big wide world - an encouragement to go and do something in real life as opposed to on the app itself.

And so every action and everything we talk about is not about being on your phone. Instead, it's about talking to that person or thinking about the way that you go about things, or it would be about going and doing something good for someone else. Everything comes back to a positive reinforcement of what you can go and do that day. And because it's one thing a day as well, it just means that we limit the amount of time that people are spending on their phones, because it means that it's more time on your action. 

We don't want you to just sit there on your phone and just watch loads of videos. Instead, what we want you to do is watch one video, be inspired by that video to then go and do something differently that day, and then come and reflect on it later on. And then you come back the next day, and you do it again and again and again. So actually, in theory, you're on CURV for two to five minutes a day. The rest of it is about going and doing something differently.

JB: What are you learning about early users of the app?

KB: What we're learning is that people want something that they can do right there and then. That means we need to be able to set up the actions and the content that we share to make that possible. 

One thing right at the beginning that I thought was going to happen is [as a user] you would go through this tick box progression of working on your confidence… a set, direct path. But actually, what people are getting a lot from is the variety. So one day I'm working on procrastination, the other day it's all about talking to people in a different way. And then the next day, it's all about thinking about observation without judgement, or letting go of something or communication instead. In regards to people learning, what people are interested in is their whole selves. 

Ninety-plus percent of people are choosing CURV All Rounder as their aspiration. 'I just want to be the better version of myself, generally across the board, as opposed to working on a specific thing'. It's nearly everyone.

Curv - who do you want to be?

JB: If you just told them that they were going to the All Rounder programme, they might put up some resistance. It's nice having it bracketed by other options.

KB: That was really key to us right from the beginning. On the budget we have, how personal can we make this experience? And that seemed like the best, and only, really, route to help make that a personalised experience. Of course, where we want to go is to make that even more personal and to ask just a few more questions, and then, once we've got more content as well, create a journey which is specific to that person. 

This is phase one of an app that I'm hoping there's going to be phase 1000 of. And that is just the way that building apps works. You can never stay still. So as the person behind the vision of CURV, I'm never satisfied. Because I'm always wanting it to be better. The really powerful thing with Despark is that I think, as a team, we're both on that same mission together.

JB: You have to have the confidence to say, 'Okay, stop, we're going to ship it now with this set of features, and then test and get feedback and then continue, because that will inform everything’.

KB: At the beginning of this, of this, I presumed in my head, 'What we'll do is we'll build an app. And then there's going to be this ginormous launch, the bang, and that's the way this works'. Of course, it isn't how it works at all. Because what you need to do is build an audience, have people ready to go so that you're going to have users from day one, and we had that. 

You're going to learn so much off the back of the first month. If this is going out to people that are perhaps at the beginning of that journey or thinking about that journey, it's an important thing to think about as an ongoing process, that it always continues. And that's the best way to get a great product: to always keep that momentum and not focus on there being a finish line, because it doesn't exist.

JB: Is that something you wish you'd understood better before you started?

KB: If there was a bit of advice I would give myself at the beginning of this process I would say to always encourage and listen to the users' and the developers' ideas as much as possible. Get to test the product as soon as you possibly can. Even if you've got practically nothing, talk to people about it as soon as possible. 

I think I did that too late in this process.  It took me maybe two or three weeks to start genuinely listening to Despark instead of just sort of nodding, and actually the best parts, the best features and the best moments in the development process, were when I thought about the developers as co-founders in this space. It wasn't just about me, instead it was much more of a collaboration. I think if I'd known that earlier, if I'd been doing that right from the word go, that would have been valid, would have helped the process. 

I almost didn't want to let go of it too early because I was scared people wouldn't like it. And that's imposter syndrome. That's fear. That fear is not useful. Instead, you want to get it out there as soon as you possibly can and learn. Don't let your ego get in the way.

JB: Because you're giving this to the world and people who could use it and really benefit from it. At the moment there's a mental health crisis in the UK - there's these massive waiting times for child and adult mental health services. People want actions that they can take straight away. They don't want to just go on a list for an appointment for a year or 18 months, so it's incredibly valuable what it is that you've created with CURV and I think it could have a really big impact on mental health.

KB: That's the thing. You come back to the mission every time. So what's the choice right now that makes sense to help that vision become a reality? So often it isn't what you thought it was and that's important to recognise, but also at the same time, when I think back, at the beginning of this process I had a very clear core vision in my head, and that core should never disappear. And it hasn't. 

It still comes back to, as someone at the beginning of this process of building an app, 'What's the absolute fundamental? In a sentence, in a line? What's the thing that you are doing?' The rest of it should be interchangeable and developed and worked on and you should get feedback on it. But you've got to have a clear core goal at the centre of what you're doing. Without that, you don't have a direction. So be definitive on what that is.

Karl, thanks so much for your time, your infectious enthusiasm and your honesty. CURV is gathering momentum (and great reviews) as a life-changing app, and one with the potential to scale up at speed. Find more about CURV, and download it here

Have more questions? Join Karl and Despark’s Chief Commercial Officer Stoyan in a free webinar on how digital platforms are key for personal development and resilience. Get your place for 20th October, 3pm BST.


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