Sandy Jen: Rethinking Home Care @ Talks at Google (Transcript)

JORGE CUETO: Prior to the interview, I was just reading on this market. And it’s actually a huge business opportunity in terms of how much money people spend on home care and elderly care every year, but it’s something that I don’t think tech has addressed up to this point. Why do you think that is?

SANDY JEN: It’s interesting, because people think technology, they think old people, and they’re like, they just don’t mix. And the way we thought about it is– if you think about your grandparents or your loved ones who are older, they use microwaves and toasters and TVs and cars. And that’s all technology, but it’s not in their face as technology. And so you have to sort of rethink about how you use tech to address needs for that kind of audience.

And so for us, I think there’s just been that stigma in Silicon Valley– and just generally in technology as a whole– that seniors don’t do well with technology. I think it’s a mistake to kind of over-cater to a senior audience by having giant buttons and giant font and basically treating them as children without really understanding the problem you’re trying to solve. And so we definitely don’t think of ourselves as a technology company. Honor specifically positions itself as a services company, because at the end of the day, our product is a person. And I say this very often, that we are a human services company.

The person that we send to your home to help you do your activities and daily living– that’s our product. And so all the technology that we build is in service of that. So a lot of stuff that we build, the end consumer never sees, but it’s completely built to deliver the best care possible.

JORGE CUETO: What was the hardest part of the process as you were starting out with this company?

SANDY JEN: I think as technologists, you have this sort of want to automate everything and make everything really efficient. And so you come up with a bunch of assumptions. And so as engineers, we’re like, OK. We’re just going to build this thing, we’re going to build that thing. This is the way it works. You just go to visit, you do this, you do that. And then when you actually start to do it– we all ended up volunteering in your homes to help out.

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And you’re like, wow, that’s not how it is. And so we had to basically learn to strip away all of our assumptions. And in the very beginning, we had folks who were running care and delivering care and working with our care professionals. They were doing one thing, and the engineers and product team were doing another thing. We were trying to build things for each other, but we weren’t really in sync as much as we should have been.

And I think that’s a common problem, because you make assumptions, you work one way. You make assumptions, you work one way. But at the end of the day, you really have to work together– like really, really together– to understand what’s going on. And so once we figured out that we were not building the right thing, that changed the course of how we did product development, which I think is different than what you’d find in a more traditional software or technology company. We really had to sort of rethink how we did that.

JORGE CUETO: You mentioned that you went to visit some senior homes. What else did you do in terms of use of research or validating the product and getting feedback on the product?

SANDY JEN: Yeah, so we knew we didn’t know anything, really. And if you think about home care, it’s basically two-sided. Actually, it’s multisided. You have the person receiving the care– so the care recipient who could be older or have different medical conditions. You have usually a family member, sometimes not, who might be the one responsible for helping care for the senior. And then you have the person who’s actually doing the care– the care professional. They’re traditionally called caregivers, but we really wanted to raise their profile. The work they do is really difficult, so we actually call them care professionals– and then care pros for short– to give them more of the respect that they actually deserve. And so we had to basically talk to everybody.

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So we plucked ourselves out of the Bay Area, because the Bay Area’s kind of weird. As you all know, it’s a little bit of a bubble. So we went to different areas, talked to different care pros, asking them, what is it you do? What’s hard in your life? Why do you do this work? A lot of folks who at this wage level could literally make more flipping burgers at McDonald’s, but they choose to do this work because they really care. So it’s like, why are you making that decision? What are the hardships in your life? Why do you work for this agency and not that agency? So just really being open to understanding how they’re thinking. And then when you start to get the same answers over and over again, then you start to think, OK, now I’m seeing a pattern and a trend. And that can then inform the product that you build and how you want to create that interaction.

JORGE CUETO: Your comment about the wages that the caregivers are earning reminded me that I saw the CNN article that mentioned that in 2016 you transitioned from a contractor model to an employee model. Is that something that continues today, and why did you choose to do that?

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