Posted on June 21 2017
Today, we are talking to designer Cat Noone - founder of Iris, the modern-day emergency alert - about her background, what got her interested in design, and some of the startup lessons she has learned along the way. Cat is also a Techstars mentor and previously co-founded Liberio, an eBook publishing tool.
Newnham: What were you like as a kid/when did you first get interested in design?
Noone: As a kid, I loved playing outside as much as I did sitting in front of a gadget, but often chose the former— scraping my knees and playing sports on the hard concrete of Brooklyn, New York. Inside, I continually switched from coloring and drawing these worlds and characters, sketching out my own cars or painting. I lived for art. And my gadgets? Obsessed.
I grew up with my grandparents and two aunts in a two bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. My aunts and I shared a room so they’re more like sisters to me than anything. When they weren’t playing beauty salon with me 🙄 or we weren’t singing around the house, my grandmother would need to peel us (mainly me) away from the Super Nintendo, Atari, Sega, and eventually the computer once we got one in the house. Which, might I add, was a pretty monumental moment.
Having said all that, I think I was always interested in design, I just didn’t know it at the time. I loved beautiful products, the way they functioned, knowing actual auto companies all start off with a sketch that is then digitized in some form of fashion. I functioned better with simplicity in all areas of my life. In a lot of ways, the pieces were always in front of me but I wasn’t aware at the time that they were pieces that could fit together. In fact, I didn’t realize design was a thing until I was in high school, as silly as that may sound.
And that’s when it happened. I realized the drawings of products, worlds, characters and more that I had sketched and painted throughout my entire educational career - as my sketchbooks eventually became and replaced my notebooks in class - could be transferred to a computer. Enlightenment was an understatement.
Newnham: You started your career in special education - how/why did you make the leap to the world of tech?
Noone: My first job was actually as a web designer for a limousine company in Brooklyn while I went to school full-time, and was building my portfolio on the side... Don’t ask. But in terms of a true career, yes, Special Education.
I ended up in education because I couldn’t shake the mindset from before— that I couldn’t support myself by working in design. I needed a backup plan and education was it. I worked for the New York City Board of Education and, while I loved working with kids, I knew that if I stayed I’d be miserable because it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I made the leap after lining up some clients and having a portfolio that would garner some attention.
And I was genuinely happy. I should have saw it coming though and again, looking back, all of the pieces were right there. I just didn’t know how to connect them, but I’m glad I didn’t, honestly. My education, and experience in education, gave me a different world to live in for a while, and knowledge that would play a large role in how I pursue my work.
But I was always doing something tech related. In high school, I was burning and selling CDs, helping folks figure out the internet, and buying and selling iPhones on Craigslist (hindsight: most dangerous thing I’ve ever done in the name of product and tech love). I guess those were my first steps into the world of running a “business” too.
If I could go back and do it all again though, I would. I’ve loved every minute of it.
Newnham: So you are working in tech then you move from the US to Berlin - what do you see as some of the differences between startups in Europe vs US?
Noone: Four years ago when I first moved to Berlin, I knew I was headed to a baby startup scene and I loved the idea of being a part of something that would grow from ‘nothing’ to 'something.' At the time, there were only a handful of well-known startups there (Soundcloud, Wunderlist, Dubsmash, Onefootball, Clue, etc.) but much like you see in the States, they started to sprout left and right. The climate was perfect for it—counter-culture, artsy, cheap and located in the heart of Europe. What isn’t there to love?
At first, I would have said the types of startups sprouting up were different. The ideas weren’t all that grand. Nobody (for the most part) was building startups that were going to have major impact on finance, medicine, communities etc but that’s all drastically changed. Some of the most well-known, top performing companies are all over there now.
But I think the most prominent characteristic that separates European startups from US startups is that European startups hustle. It’s not a word I like to use, but for lack of a better one, they do. They’re hungrier because they have to work with less, considering the amount of funding provided to US-based companies far supersedes what you see in Europe. And I’m not saying the amount that is available, I’m saying the amount that is actually invested at such a rapid rate for some questionable companies over in the US vs Europe.
So European startups have to prove themselves more - for that reason alone, I love European companies. They learn how to be a company much faster than US based founders because they’re often forced to do more with less in a shorter period of time. And investment is often a byproduct of some milestone of success rather than raising for the hell of it.
Newnham: Can you tell us about Liberio and what lessons you learned from it?
Noone: Liberio was a self-publishing platform that allowed you to easily create and publish an eBook. We wanted to do for eBooks what the App Store did for software — enable everyone to create, build and monetize on what they’d made. It was the first company I had co-founded and it came with high highs and low lows. It was challenging in the best ways, exciting and at times, anxiety filled. But all in all, I learned a ton of lessons I’m grateful for. Here are some of them:
- Building a product that solves an actual problem for a large group of people is half the battle. You’d be surprised at how many people are willing to get on board when your mission is to help
- Treat the small decisions the same way you do big decisions, the way you sweat the small details in a product. They all have impact
- I truly do love working on products in traditional markets that need to be flipped on their head
- Bootstrapping is hard. It taught me that lean and frugal is key but knowing when and where to dump the cash is most important. I knew what was going in and out, and that prepped me in the event that we would raise from investors
- You have to be able to have the tough conversations
- Celebrating wins and failures, quick recovery, and positive patterns are critical to culture
- Sometimes you have to work late at night or on the weekends. It’s not something worth celebrating and not a badge of honor. But it just needs to be done
- Figure out who your product’s community is, build around that and then tap into it
- There comes a point where you let it go or let it drag. And letting it drag not only makes it worse for us, but seriously tarnishes the experience you work hard to continually provide for people using the product
Newnham: Your new app is Iris - can you tell us more about that and how you came up with the idea for it?
Noone: Sure! To put it simply, it’s is a modern day emergency alert app. Through hospital detection, Iris connects people with their loved ones, and their health data with medical professionals in the critical moment when they need it most—specifically when they are mentally or physically unable to provide it themselves. Think elderly with Alzheimer's or other chronic diseases, car accident abroad, non-verbal individuals with autism, etc.
The idea came to me about four years ago, not long after I had just moved to Germany. Benedikt and I were driving back to Berlin from Southwest Germany by the French border where he grew up. At some point in the middle of the eight hour drive, I turned to him and said, "You know if we were to get into a severe accident and couldn’t speak for ourselves, I’m f*cked." And he just looked at me confused.
I was a foreigner with no family there, and had my passport on me which only tells ER nurses and doctors that I’m American and probably speak English. But it doesn’t tell them about me. Am I pregnant? Do I have cancer or diabetes or lupus? Am I allergic to the medicine that they may want or need to give me? But who makes medical decisions for me when I can’t? Ben and I weren’t married. Who could tell the doctors that I’m actually allergic to a specific medication? Goodness, who would figure out who my family is in enough time to inform them of what’s going on and that I may not live long enough for them to get there before I’m gone? Is this a problem being solved already and if so how the hell do I get it?
So many unanswered questions, and given two of my biggest fears are ending up in jail or the hospital in a foreign country, anxiety ensued. At the time though, I was building my first company so I put this to the side and promised I’d revisit it when the time was right. Eventually that time came, and when it did, I set out to find the answers to those questions. In doing so, I realized how critical data is hardest to find in critical moments. Loved ones aren’t informed instantly because there is a middle man involved and medical professionals don’t always have or can’t always be given the information necessary.
After polling doctors and nurses from all over the world, along with people I thought this could be useful for, there was enough validation for me to move forward with building it. But given the type of product this is, I knew it was going to be a hell of a journey. My assumptions weren’t wrong. 🙃
Newnham: During this time, you also had a little girl - congrats! Has becoming a mother changed the way you approach design/work in any way?
Noone: For sure. As a person, I’m much more empathetic and hyper-aware. I realized how significant community is. It truly takes a village. I learned how to strike a better balance because I had to. Having my daughter taught me how to maximize productivity within the hours that I know I have. So while I have less time, I’m significantly more productive because I know I won’t be able to do it “later”. At the end of the day, it’s balancing time as a family, specifically with her 1:1, personal time, work, friends, etc. Time design is everything and if you look at my calendar there are time slots set up for everything.
I’m also much more confused and eye-roll the hell out of folks in the industry who completely boast about killing themselves mentally and physically over work, convinced it takes 18 hours in a day to get these things “done”. No.
I’m also less tolerant than I already was about the hesitation in this industry when it comes to hiring women with children; I know that certainly, with Benedikt, he values and prioritises the same way that I do. If anyone, male or female, knows how to prioritise and balance having children and full-time work, to me, they’re a hell of a team member. Those are the people you want to work with, the people who understand the meaning of true value and respect for another human being. Those are the people who see users as humans on the other end of the screen, not just a number that converts to a dollar.
When your people succeed in their personal life because a company sets up a support system to make it easier for them, the company succeeds. Every time. It’s family first over everything on our team and when it’s needed, everyone on the team knows we’ll be each other’s village.
Newnham: Finally, if you could go back in time, is there any advice you would offer a younger Cat?
Noone: I think there’s advice I’d give to both my professional and personal self, and some things are completely applicable to both:
- You're a beginner; keep that mindset even when it's mastered
- Share your story. It’ll be an adventure and messy, but beautiful. Love it all.
- Jump off the cliff, your best lessons are at the bottom
- Forgiveness is the greatest gift you can ever give yourself
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help
- The past is a place of reference, not residence
- Learn the fundamentals of your craft first. You can't paint a house without a frame.