Period tracking startup Clue has been backed by investors with $US30 million (£24 million), making it one of Berlin’s fastest growing tech companies.
Founded in 2013, Clue’s team of 50 people has developed a women’s health app of the same name that has several million users across the iOS and Android smartphone platforms.
Ida Tin, the startup’s Danish CEO, sat down with Business Insider at her office in Kreuzberg last week and spoke about Clue’s culture, the Berlin startup scene, Brexit, and her experience of working with Apple.
This interview has been lightly edited for the sake of clarity.
Business Insider: What is Clue?
Ida Tin: Clue is a brand for female health at the highest level but it’s also a tracking app to help women understand what is going on in their [menstrual] cycles and their bodies more broadly.
BI: Interesting you say it’s a brand. Are you looking at evolving beyond the app?
IT: Yeah, I mean, hopefully we’ll have a long company life ahead of us and we can do many things in addition to an app.
The core of Clue is really to enable people to understand what’s going on with their body and I think you can provide that value through an app but it could also take many forms. But the core thing now and for the foreseeable future is the app.
BI: How many times has the app been downloaded now?
IT: It’s kind of a vanity metric that we don’t really think about. We think about how many active users we have and that number is totally outdated. The last number we said is 5 million active users, which is now super old.
BI: Do you think it’s more like 10 or 20 million then?
IT: I can’t say. But yes, I mean, we’ve gone up.
BI: Where is your biggest market both geographically speaking and age-wise as well?
IT: Our single biggest market is the US and we have a pretty young demographic, which is basically as a result of our acquisition channels more than as a result of the product. I think we could, and will have in the future, a much more diverse age group.
We have about a third of our users in Europe. Latin America is big for us. And then another 30% is like all over the world.
BI: And it’s on iOS and Android?
IT: Yes. And the Apple Watch if you care to think about it.
BI: Are people using the Apple Watch app?
IT: It’s niche. But we also haven’t spent nearly as much energy on getting it to the next generation. I mean, I like my Apple Watch. Usually I’m wearing it, if I could only find my charger. It’s a new platform that’s still kind of finding its way I think.
I have to admit, I’m probably a pretty heavy user. I actually really like it. It’s not like a need to have like your phone. It’s helpful. You can see what’s your next appointment coming up. I like that you can call somebody and that you can bicycle and get directions. I like how you can receive a phone call and it actually works. Like, if you’re driving, people can hear what you’re saying and you don’t have to fiddle with your phone.
BI: How many staff are you up to at Clue?
IT: I think we’re around 45-50.
BI: Is this Berlin office your only one or do you have others?
IT: This is our only office. We have a couple of other people sitting around the world.
BI: Who are some of your biggest investors?
IT: Union Square Ventures in New York, Mosaic in London, Nokia Growth Partners all over the world, and Draper Esprit in London. We also have angel investors in Berlin and Germany.
BI: How have you been spending the $US20 million (£16 million) that you raised at the end of last year?
IT: Way too fast. No, I mean, it’s basically growing the team. That’s the absolute core expense. We don’t spend a lot on marketing. We’re not acquiring other companies right now. We’re focusing on building our product.
BI: How many engineers do you have?
IT: There’s probably 20 all in all.
BI: How many people did you have in November last year and how many have you employed since then?
IT: I would say we’ve probably hired about 10 people since November.
BI: How many more roles are you currently recruiting for?
IT: A few. We’re planning to grow to about 80 people within the next two years but I think we’re going to have a hard time keeping within that to be honest.
It’s like this balloon you know. At the beginning you’re a small team and your surface area is not so big and then as you grow there’s more holes everywhere. It’s this really funny dynamic.
BI: Which people do you need to hire the most?
IT: Engineers, data scientists, and machine learning people. We also have to start figuring out how to make some money so that’s an interesting area.
BI: How do you plan to make money?
IT: We have a lot of experiments that we’re starting to run now. We don’t know yet. We don’t know what will work and what won’t work.
I have kind of ambitions, we’ll see if they can come true. But I would love it if we could essentially provide so much value to people around understanding their body that that’s what people will pay for. So a very consumer-facing, kind of premium subscription type thing. But I think the end result will probably be many more different channels.
I think we can also do something meaningful with helping people find really, really good products and services. So some kind of lead generation revenue share or something. Hopefully executed in a way that will feel like a value add for users.
BI: That sounds like an ad. What kind of ad is valuable to your users?
IT: We could allow people to sign up to birth control subscriptions through an app, for example.
BI: How much would a premium version of Clue cost?
IT: I don’t know. We are going through that whole process now. We don’t have big goals in terms of making a lot of money in the next year. I think for us it’s really about learning and understanding our experiments until we find something that we can scale.
BI: When do you think you will start making money?
IT: Next quarter. We’ll make little things, nothing substantial.
BI: Going back to technology, how can Clue capitalise on machine learning technology?
IT: We have an incredibly unique and interesting data set right now. It’s large. I feel we are making some sense of the data and providing some value back to the users but I feel there’s still so much more potential.
We are building algorithms right now and we have something in beta, which is about basically enabling people to understand more about what’s about to come in terms of body symptoms. So that’s one area.
We just did a data hackathon last week. We had a really nice group of people come together. We did it together with a startup here in Berlin who takes a dataset and makes a synthetic version of it that data scientists can play around with so that you don’t have the privacy issues. It was a perfect partnership.
I think there could definitely also be something more like a conversational interface where you could imagine machine learning playing a role. I think you could also imagine matchmaking between a user and a service.
You can also imagine machine learning being used to help find a fertility clinic that has the best outcome for the type of patient that you might be.
BI: So maybe putting like a personal assistant into the app?
BI: Is Berlin an easy place to recruit?
IT: I don’t know if it’s easy anywhere because of different things. I feel we’ve been doing good so far. In terms of data scientists and engineers, I think we’re OK. I think where it gets more challenging is when you try to find VP-level of C-level people just because it’s a young ecosystem. Not many companies have scaled and grown enough to have that level of expertise yet. So we are definitely looking across the pond for hiring.
We are definitely looking across the pond for hiring.
We are also looking here but we feel we maybe have to look further to find that senior talent.
And that’s not just for hiring but also for learning. I’ve just spent some time in San Francisco just talking to people. You know, the VP of growth at Pinterest, or the VP of growth at Airbnb. People that have walked that path. There is some knowledge there that isn’t really in Berlin yet.
BI: Interesting, the head of people at SoundCloud said the same thing.
IT: We actually just hired a superstar recruiter from Silicon Valley. She recruited all of LinkedIn’s executive team. We need to power up a bit to get that kind of talent.
It all depends on your ambition level. You can always find someone to fill a position.
BI: Would Clue have done just as well in London do you think?
IT: That’s a really good question. Berlin is a little slow in some ways. But on the other hand, I’ve had two children on the way. I don’t know if I could have [in London].
It’s also a full life that has to come together. Or it is in my case. And you have to be able to do that for many years. So maybe sustainability is a little bit higher here.
In Silicon Valley, things would have moved faster. We would have also lost more people along the way and maybe we would have made mistakes because things are pretty fast. Or maybe you’d just go crazy or run out of money because things are pretty expensive. I don’t know, it’s just a different path.
I think if you know the limitations of Berlin, I think it’s a really good place to start from because it’s livable and cheap. And you also have the concentration to actually get shit done.
When you run around London there’s constantly amazing things and amazing people to meet and then you have much more to follow up on than you can ever do.
I’m from Copenhagen. I will say I don’t know if I could have done it there because that’s slow, there isn’t really an ecosystem, and it’s expensive. It’s getting better, though!
BI: Have you heard about any UK companies coming this way as a result of Brexit?
IT: No, and it’s so surprising to me. We had this whole infographic ready after Brexit saying this is how you actually move to Berlin. We published that on social media really expecting this flood of people but they didn’t come.
People are also saying it’s horrible what’s happening in America. It’s just super conflicting in all directions. Maybe it just takes time for people to be like: “OK I’m going to start a new life in Europe.”
BI: Not too much has changed in the UK yet. If founders realise that it will be hard for them to potentially recruit people from Europe then they might think twice about where they start their businesses.
IT: It’s super interesting to see what way it’s all going to blow.
BI: There have been one or two small startups that have left London and come to Berlin. But they’re only small at this stage.
IT: People that might have had the curiosity to go the other way (to America), that has slowed down now.
I’ve actually cancelled one US trip. It’s not the same kind of excitement. I also had one experience where I was taken out for extra security in an American airport and it was such an unpleasant experience that I kind of fear my citizen rights, actually. It sounds crazy, maybe. I could end up in some weird office somewhere in an airport for like a week and nobody would care.
It’s super unpleasant. Where does it say you have the right to do this? You can’t get any information. And then when you’re like: “Where can I file a complaint? Where does it go to?”
“No, you’re just going to write me up on your stupid list.” It’s really unsettling.
I was at this founder event and some many people said: “Yeah, I’m also on some list.They pull me out every single time.”
It’s not good.
BI: Why might people want to come and work at Clue, other than the vision?
IT: I do think people really do come for the vision more than the perks. I would love Clue to be a place where people can come to grow to the next level. We’re doing a couple of things to not just make that a nice wish but actually help people.
Everybody has a budget of about €2,000 (£1,729) that they can use for training or learning or conferences or a coach or whatever it is to help them to get to their next level.
I think we have a very flexible work culture. People can bring their babies, their dogs.
We don’t know when people come to the office. People have a lot of flexibility and it comes with a lot of trust, and a lot of responsibility that people have to take for their own work.
We have our own values, which I think are also very important. The sense of care. Care for each other and care for our users. The science part is very important to us. We want to be accurate and scientifically valid in everything we do. And execution, which basically changed to effort. You cannot take anything for granted in a startup. You have to work really hard and everything can be gone in a minute.
That’s one down side about Berlin as an ecosystem. When you are in Silicon Valley, or London, or New York, you have a sense of competition. You have a sense of urgency. You can see how people work. And here, it can get a little bit cosy. We are also like that. And I personally really appreciate being in an environment that is friendly. But at the same time it’s like: “Guys, you’ve got to move shit here.”
BI: Why did you decide to base your company out of Kreuzberg?
IT: It’s a little bit random. We used to be around the corner. We were at betahaus [a coworking space] for a while then this became available. It’s like you will always go to Mitte anyways, but if you’re in Mitte all the time, you don’t really go to Kreuzberg. So this kind of expands the city, I feel. There’s lots of good cafes, it’s well connected, and now there are many more startups around. It feels very central.
BI: With regards to the work that you were doing with Apple, was there much follow up there? Have you still got much of a partnership with them?
IT: No, and that’s a little bit because we have been doing a shitty job at doing that. Also a little bit because the main contact we had moved job and I haven’t been over to Silicon Valley to kind of … it’s just one of these things on my to do list.
There’s much more we could explore with them which I feel we could do if we just got our act together.
BI: Like what?
IT: I think the whole thing they have done with CareKit and ResearchKit is super interesting and to really understand the whole ecosystem of data. I don’t think anyone really understands that system yet. And how we sit together with Apple there and other people sit there. But to kind of pick their brains a little bit and understand that and see if we could maybe do something together. I don’t perceive them as competition.
BI: What else could you do together?
IT: I think we have the possibility to create some sort of standard for how you receive data around the cycle, which could be part of many other apps. We could create that standard and we are not doing that yet.
Why are we not doing that yet? Because there are so many other things that we are also doing.
Another totally random Apple thing, is we want to do a series of femtech events. I spoke very briefly with someone doing events at their space in Kurfurstendamm.
BI: We heard they were hiring quite a lot of mapping people in Berlin from Here.
IT: That’s good. Damn, we need competition between these mastodons to keep things in check a little bit. Google also just opened their Community Centre down the street and they’re opening a new office here, apparently. It would be fun to do an event with Apple in Kurfurstendamm.
BI: Would Apple be open to that kind of event?
IT: The first conversation we had went very well. But until it’s real, it’s not real.
I’m totally biased but I feel there is so much potential with building sensors that can go into the body on a molecular level.
There is so much potential with building sensors that can go into the body on a molecular level.
I had an idea for such a sensor almost 10 years ago and I don’t know how it’s possible that it’s not on the street yet as a product. I feel like some of the big diagnostic companies and pharmaceutical companies have been sleeping.
It’s like, so little has happened. We have cool new wearables but they’re still kind of very kind of surface.
If Apple is really serious about health can they build something that would make me look into the body?
When the Apple Watch first came out I thought it would do blood monitoring through the skin and stuff like that. Like really cool stuff. That I would be very excited about. But it doesn’t do that.
BI: Would the device come out of the iPhone or be separate to the iPhone?
IT: It would probably be separate because I think you want to build something which is optimised for your use case.
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