I schedule most of my meetings in the mornings, when I am able to think quickly on my feet.
One night, after a 3 a.m. phone call from the emergency room, Dr. Wei-Shin Lai had so much trouble falling back to sleep that she decided she had to do something.
Her husband suggested she listen to relaxing music, which was a nice idea – but there were no headphones on the market comfortable enough to sleep in. They put their skills to work and designed the first SleepPhones, a comfortable, innovative headphone solution designed to help people fall asleep. Dr. Lai would come home after work to sew headbands while her husband soldered the speakers on the kitchen table. By 2007, they’d created a website and sold the first 500 set of SleepPhones. RunPhones were developed in 2008 by popular demand from SleepPhones customers who wanted a lightweight version for working out.
Born in Taiwan, Dr. Lai came to the US when she was 7 years old while her father completed a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee. She grew up under the strict tutelage of a “tiger” mom, competing in piano, learning algebra in 5th grade, and leading numerous science clubs in high school. She went on to earn a B.S. with distinction in Cellular Molecular Biology at the University of Michigan with the intent of studying the Ebola virus. However, her thirst for adventure and travel was tamed when she realized that for her to be truly happy, she had to interact with people instead of staying holed up in a lab. She graduated from the University of Virginia Medical School and went into family medicine.
Dr. Lai loves being a mom and continues to work part-time at Penn State University’s Student Health Center as the only Mandarin-speaking physician on staff.
Her hobbies include swimming, hunting for wild mushrooms with the Central Pennsylvania Mushroom Club, archery, and gardening. She enjoys eating and cooking spicy international foods and is obsessed with eating healthfully, including at least 5 fruits and vegetables a day. She’s one of those moms who hides vegetables in everything she cooks.
She sleeps 7-8 hours a night on average, and her favorite music on her SleepPhones is a hypnosis track by her friend, Dr. Steven Gurgevich who teaches at Dr. Andrew Weil’s Center for Integrative Medicine.
Where did the idea for SleepPhones come from?
As a medical doctor taking phone calls at 3am, it would be hard for me to get back to sleep. I needed a non-drug, safe, and quick solution to help me stop thinking about everything. My husband suggested listening to relaxing music, like meditation or guided imagery. That was great, but headphones prevent me from sleeping on my side, and earbuds hurt my ears. There was nothing on the market for such a product, so we designed our own. When it worked so well for me, I thought that many of my patients could use something like this instead of sleeping pills.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I schedule most of my meetings in the mornings, when I am able to think quickly on my feet. Between meetings, I check and respond to emails and field employee questions. I am still learning to delegate to make my day even more productive. In the afternoons, I take care of my toddler and try to get some exercise. In the evenings, I get back to work, taking calls from overseas. When my toddler goes to sleep at night, I do the more complex tasks that require a lot of concentration.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I visualize them and sketch them out. Then I talk with designers and engineers to see what’s possible and what just requires more creativity. I think that everything’s possible, given the right perspective and out-of-the-box solution. I have a large black sketchbook that I’ve had since high school. I draw my best ideas in there. Coming from a family of engineers, I think in diagrams, charts, and schematics. I also love lists and prioritizing.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
Despite being trained in traditional medicine and prescribing lots of drugs, I believe that there is so much we don’t know about the human body. Science is not yet sophisticated enough to understand how everything interacts. I’m excited that more and more people are starting to accept an integrative approach to healing.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I don’t watch TV.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
I worked at a fast food chain for a month in high school and learned that I don’t like to follow rules.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
If I had known how successful we would be now, I would have dove straight in rather than continuing to practice part-time as a doctor. But hind-sight is 20-20, and throughout, we never took on more financial risk than what we were comfortable with.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I never stop learning, and I’m never too proud to really listen to other people’s suggestions, whether the ideas are from customers or from fellow business people.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
We keep company with nice people. There may be some really persistent sales people out there or highly skilled employees with equally high egos. We prefer to stick with people we like and trust. In turn, that shows in our image to the outside world, from sales to social media to customer service.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Version 2 of our headphones was a complete flop. They were a lot easier to sew (which was necessary since there were only 2 of us sewing them), but harder for the customers to use. We didn’t have to sell many of them for me to realize that it was not working. I ended up hiring a local factory to sew the headbands instead. It was far easier to pay someone else to do it than it was to try to do it all myself.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Living in the North, it’s cold and dry in the long winters. I’d love if the heat and humid air from the shower or clothes dryer could be pumped back into the house instead of being wasted outside. There should be a mechanism to either keep the heated humid air in the winter or to let it go outside during the summers. It would pay for itself in energy savings and help a home be that much greener!
Tell us something about you that very few people know?
I grow and harvest my own shiitake mushrooms. I love them fresh the way my grandmother makes it, and in instant noodle soup.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
Because we had hired a lot of part-time employees who worked remotely rather than have everyone come over to our basement to work, we rely heavily on collaborative software. We use many Google applications, Quickbooks Online, Dropbox, Skype, and Asana. We are also fans of Apple computers and open-source software (Drupal, OpenOffice, Mozilla Firefox, Gimp).
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Crucial Conversations. If you’re a nice person, conflict is sometimes difficult to handle. This book shows you can always be nice in confronting a bad situation with anyone.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
One product that influenced us early on was the marketing style of EasyBloom, a device to help keep plants healthy. We loved the clean, cute design that appealed primarily to women for a tech gadget. More recently, Zappo’s CEO’s book Delivering Happiness has made me think about how I differ from an entrepreneur with a similar family background and childhood upbringing. I think I am different from most entrepreneurs in that I am far more risk-averse (which is necessary as a doctor). But that means that may be a pitfall in business