Turning an injury into a thriving startup
How Anttoni used personal injury as fuel to build a company and help thousands improve their health
In 2009, a football-related injury led Anttoni, the CEO and co-founder of Veri, down a path he could never have predicted. "Because of that injury," he recalls, "I had a lot of struggles with my metabolic health. Unexplainable things were happening with my body."
As you would expect a founder to act, Anttoni started to delve deeper and deeper into metabolic health, becoming fascinated by these aspects of the human body.
Little did he know that his curiosity would soon transform into a successful company that has to date raised over $10 million from some of the top VCs and helped thousands of people around the world improve their metabolic health. Let's discover how he did it.
While Anttoni was trying to cope with his injury and understand his body’s changes, on the other side of the Atlantic, his future co-founder, Verneri, was undergoing a similar journey of discovery. At the age of 15, Verneri faced a significant health challenge of his own—ulcerative colitis. This left him bedridden for an extended period, exposing him to the shortcomings of the U.S. healthcare system.
When Anttoni and Verneri met, they instantly bonded over their shared curiosity. "We started studying this space almost full-time," Anttoni recalls. "When we came across continuous glucose monitors we were mesmerized by the capabilities of the hardware but pretty underwhelmed by the software, especially when it came to prevention."
More specifically, they were looking for a tool to understand how their habits impacted their glucose levels and, and how those glucose levels impacted their long-term health. Since there was nothing like that on the market, they started tracking their own data in Excel and sharing their learnings online. That’s when something unexpected happened—dozens of people started reaching out for help with their metabolic health.
Anttoni knew that there was an opportunity to build an app to solve this problem but he isn’t a developer and neither is his co-founder Verneri. Anttoni's background was primarily in economics, while Verneri was a mechanical engineer and designer. As a non-developer myself, I feel the frustration of wanting to build something and not being able to! In hindsight though, this constraint actually turned out to be their strength.
"Since we couldn't develop an app ourselves," explains Anttoni, "we focused on the things we could do at the time, which meant doing things that don't scale. We analyzed people's data in Excel, talked with them on the phone, and gave them guidance to curb glucose instability." By talking with users all day, not only did Anttoni and Verneri validate the idea for a tool like Veri, but they also came to understand exactly what people needed. As Anttoni puts it, "We were basically getting paid to do customer research."
On the other hand, if you're a technical founder, your instinct might be to build software right away without any kind of customer discovery. Anttoni notes, "You might end up writing six months of code only to find out that nobody needs it." And I must admit, he is right. We have also seen this in another episode of Founder Secrets. If you are a developer, your first instinct is to build things, and this might lead you to skip the “does anybody need this?” part.
As more people found out about them, their circle of clients grew, until they reached a point where there was just no more time for calls. That's when they started building. However, Anttoni has never forgotten the lesson: "We extended this approach to our way of operating the company. Before we commit to building anything, we always try to talk to our users and validate our ideas." And it's exactly by talking with users that they realized their assumptions about their customers were wrong, which led to significant changes in both marketing and product.
One revelation from talking to users was how they perceived their target audience. Anttoni explains, "We were thinking of Veri as a tool for someone like an athlete who wants to optimize their performance." That’s why they had designed Veri with a focus on extensive data for biohackers. However, user feedback revealed something different: "Users wanted us to dumb it down. They wanted us to guide them and make the data as understandable as possible."
This resulted in a significant shift in their product strategy. He explains, "We shifted from building a highly robust DIY sandbox tool to creating a more guided program and experience for our customers. As we move forward, we truly want to build something for the mass market."
This led to changes on the marketing side as well. First of all, users didn't identify with the people in Veri's marketing—young, fit individuals. "This is something that we changed dramatically in our last photo shoot, matching our models with our actual customers," explains Anttoni.
Second, users were not using terms like 'optimize' or 'biohacking' at all. Instead, they were talking about Veri in terms of 'better health' and 'taking control of their well-being.' This led to an immediate shift in Veri’s positioning and copy. And this is a significant lesson when it comes to crafting copy. Writing using the language that our users use is always the most efficient way to communicate with them. And it was by talking with customers that Anttoni also realized that just around the corner, there was an untapped opportunity to serve the B2B market.
Anttoni's initial vision was to cater primarily to consumers. However, this vision expanded when they introduced an affiliate program that attracted a wave of nutritionists and coaches who started selling and providing Veri's insights to their clients. Seizing the opportunity, the Veri team started to work closely with this new type of user.
"We talked with a lot of them, and the feedback was clear," explains Anttoni. "They wanted a more effective way to communicate with and guide their clients using a dashboard that offered a comprehensive view of their health." This feedback prompted the team to quickly develop a bare-bones MVP. When presented to coaches, they "absolutely loved it."
Anttoni reiterates the importance of listening to their users instead of assuming things: "Something that I have learned to understand, by building this business and the multiple branches inside the company, is you have to assume nothing. The more you assume things, the more likely it is that you'll just fail in delivering that core value proposition. Assume nothing. This will keep you humble, you'll be less surprised about things, and you'll just be much more resourceful."
Another topic I wanted to discuss with Anttoni was working as a hybrid team. I know firsthand that while it does offer the benefits of both worlds, it also comes with its fair share of challenges. Interestingly, hybrid was not initially part of their plan. Anttoni recalls, "When the coronavirus hit in 2020, we had just arrived in Finland and we were planning to get back to the US and start the company there." However, COVID-19 forced them to reevaluate their strategy as they were in lockdown in Finland. "In hindsight," he says, "this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.”
"We have always believed that sitting in one room and having a center of gravity is important," notes Anttoni. "But it was also clear to us that we needed the best possible talent in the world. And talent is not going to be limited to a single country." That's why they made a deliberate decision to maintain a hybrid team even after the COVID-19 pandemic, while still having offices in Europe and New York. When it comes to making a hybrid team work, Anttoni has three main pieces of advice:
Act as a remote company: As a remote worker myself, this really struck a chord with me. "For hybrid to work," says Anttoni, "you have to operate as a remote company: have a lot of documentation, be very transparent, and ensure communication happens at all levels."
Hire individuals who care about your mission: "If you hire people who truly care about your mission, it's much easier to stay aligned and motivated, even as a remote team."
Have enough face time with each other: "If you're always on your laptop at home, you can quickly become alienated. That's why we organize off-sites where the whole team comes together and spends a week somewhere. The agenda isn't packed with strategy or execution, but focused on allowing team members to connect on a personal level and strengthen their relationships."