Meena Palaniappan of Atma Connect: “Here Are 5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App…

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Meena Palaniappan of Atma Connect: “Here Are 5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”

Know it isn’t an easy road to success for anyone! Every founder or entrepreneur has faced rejections. You are not alone. Everyone has self-doubt. Moving forward despite the self-doubt and rejection is something we all have dealt with and have in common.

I had a pleasure of interviewing Meena Palaniappan, Founder and CEO of Atma Connect, an award-winning nonprofit headquartered in California. Since 2014, Meena has led Atma Connect to become a globally recognized technology nonprofit focused on helping vulnerable people connect, neighbor-to-neighbor, by sharing actionable information and solutions, taking collective action, and building community resilience. In 2015, Atma Connect launched AtmaGo, a neighborhood-level mobile app in Indonesia for users to share real-time information and solutions to better prepare for disasters, to improve their access to basic needs, and to address chronic vulnerabilities that has reached over 5M people in Indonesia and Puerto Rico. Meena has been implementing community-based technology projects in the developing world for nearly two decades.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My background is in environmental engineering. I’ve worked on water and sanitation projects around the world for many decades and have also been actively involved in environmental justice in the United States. I’ve always been interested in and compelled by the need to ensure people who were suffering from environmental challenges were given the tools and the ability to lead the way to protect the planet and human health.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I was working on a project in India on water and climate change. While working on the project, there were two things that happened that served as my “Aha” moment for me. First, I met a woman who had an ingenious solution using valves and meters to reduce water waste and loss in her community water system, but no easy way to share with others in her community who could benefit. At that moment, I wondered why good ideas are not spreading from person to person in communities around the world? The second ‘Aha Moment’ is when I realized that many of the people I was working with actually had mobile phones but didn’t have water or sanitation. So, I began to think about how we could use the technology everyone already had in their hands to improve their access to water and better services.

While working on the use of mobile phones to improve people’s lives, I quickly realized that most of the existing tech for good projects focused on educating poor people on what to do or collecting information from low income people in the service of larger institutions. I realized an interesting need as a very small number of institutions were working on peer to peer communication. Additionally, none of these projects were reaching the massive scale of reach on Facebook or Twitter.

With all this mind, I wanted to create a social good product that would scale to reach billions of people to empower users to become agents of change by building on their innate resourcefulness and ingenuity. That was my inspiration behind creating AtmaGo, a neighborhood-level sharing app that helps build resilience in vulnerable communities by creating solutions to empower users. As mentioned, I envisioned a world where neighbors help neighbors prepare for disasters, improve access to basic needs, and overcome chronic challenges and AtmaGo does exactly that.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

It’s such a long journey to build something new in the world, filled with a lot of rejections early on. When you’re hit with so many bumps on the road, it can be hard to stay motivated, but I was confident in my product and its ability to change lives, so I continued to power through the hurdles. It was an incredible start when we won the Vodafone Americas Foundation co-sponsored Tech for Good Start-up weekend in 2013. Then, after a series of tough funding rejections, we received support from the Cisco Foundation, our flagship donor, and a blue-chip donor in the space of technology for good.

How are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Today, things are going incredibly well. Atma has reached 5M+ people in 100 places, across Indonesia and Puerto Rico. AtmaGo’s mobile platform for “neighbors helping neighbors” is giving people on the front lines of disaster critical tools and information to save lives and build social cohesion while encouraging governments to respond.

Last year, with the help of the Vodafone Americas Foundation and Mercy Corps, we brought AtmaGo to Puerto Rico to address needs for ground-up community resilience and government accountability on an island that is affected more by climate change than ANY OTHER place in the world.

This year brought more international recognition of the critical importance of our work. Atma was announced as a Vanguard member of the Million Lives Club, recognizing innovations that have improved the lives of over 1M people living on less than $5 per day, and was also the winner of the 2019 Global Resilience Innovation Award. We recently announced two new partnerships with Twilio and Amazon Web Services to use machine learning and AI to improve critical communication and response to disasters.

We have thousands of stories of the impact of AtmaGo to solve daily challenges and acute crises. AtmaGo helped people find food, water, and shelter in the hours after disaster, communities whose needs had long been ignored were finally being responded to by governments, and AtmaGo has been helping people take community collective action, from planting trees and mangroves to preventing plastic pollution. An evaluation found that people were evacuating, warning others and moving valuables based on AtmaGo warnings. At a scale of 1 million people, this meant, AtmaGo could add 6,980 years of healthy life and save $106 million in avoided damages every year!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

The advice we kept getting from Silicon Valley tech advisors was “focus, focus, focus.” So, we ended up focusing on peer to peer water price sharing for the urban poor (who in developing country cities can pay 40X more than wealthier people for water). Because Gas Buddy — a gas price sharing app was popular then, we were encouraged to call the app — “Water Buddy.” A hilarious name for a product that was going to serve people that didn’t speak English.

We went ahead and launched an MVP of Water Buddy in Jakarta and had very few users and flat user growth. It was a failure, a failure we learned a lot from. Using our foundational principles of a Lean Startup (Build, Measure, Learn, Re-build) and human centered design, we kept asking our users how to make this better for them. Our users said, “I really would like to exchange more than just water prices with my neighbors.”

So, we threw away what we had built and re-launched it as a hyperlocal social network — AtmaGo: neighbors helping neighbors. Immediately, people started using it in areas with chronic flooding in Jakarta. Users would share with their communities how to avoid floods and get help. We learned there was a huge gap in peer to peer information exchange during a disaster that we didn’t even know existed.

Now, the platform is being used in ways we wouldn’t have imagined. They’re using it to spread solutions on how to create products for sale from plastic waste like prayer mats. They’re using it to monitor and share local government budgets. Local governments and elected officials are using this to find out what their constituents need in order to prioritize those needs and improvements. And residents are using AtmaGo to prevent the next disaster by planting trees and mangroves and clearing garbage.

What I learned from this experience is that Silicon Valley tech advisors know best how to build products and companies that serve people who look like them, and that to build products for low income people living in other countries, you need to let them lead the way.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Atma Connect is unique in four ways.

1) Our technology solution amplifies the voices and connections of people on the ground in low income communities in Indonesia, and in Puerto Rico. Rather than extracting data from them that can be used commercially, we aim to give marginalized people more control and agency over their surroundings in order to build climate resilience. Our app is designed for low-end phones and intermittent internet connections, making it uniquely suited to the communities we serve.

2) We operate at the neighborhood level, positioning us to address the climate resilience challenges of each low-income neighborhood or village by providing relevant alerts and information. This hyperlocal focus allows our socialization workshops to be about post-disaster clean-ups in one village, about planting mangroves along the shoreline in another, and about restoring peatlands in yet another location. Ultimately, climate resilience depends on the geographic characteristic and culture of a given location, and our program is designed to be flexible and adaptable accordingly.

3) Our team, including our software developers, are based in the areas we serve. We also have strong ties to the communities where our users live. This provides cultural context for product design.

4) We believe in rigorous evaluation of our work. An independent impact evaluation conducted by the Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance (CIPG) in Jakarta in 2017 concluded that 67% of users found AtmaGo very or extremely helpful in assisting them to prepare for disasters. The same study found that the use of AtmaGo extended healthy years of life, reduced disability and reduced economic losses in disaster.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them thrive and not “burn out”?

Keep coming back to and grounding yourself in why you are doing this. There will be a lot of grinding along the way with late nights, early mornings, long days and challenging situations. What makes it bearable is focusing on the ‘why.’ How will the world be different if this vision succeeds? Whose lives will be changed and how? Focusing on that makes everything possible.

Make it fun! Life is too short for any time spent being miserable. The untimely deaths of founders I respected over the last few years, Leilah Janah, Priya Haji, James Le Mesurier brought this home again. I really believe that by following your joy, you open more doors to opportunity than if you try to force things.

Know it isn’t an easy road to success for anyone! Every founder or entrepreneur has faced rejections. You are not alone. Everyone has self-doubt. Moving forward despite the self-doubt and rejection is something we all have dealt with and have in common.

Always celebrate. This was a little mantra of mine riffing off ABC, “always be closing”. I prefer ABC to mean “always be celebrating”. Celebrate all the little successes. There is always more that needs to be done, but the energy to do that comes from celebrating and being grateful for everything that’s already happened.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

When we were starting out and Atma Connect was just an idea for peer to peer information sharing to help low income people, we entered a Tech for Good Start-up Weekend competition in San Francisco. That experience was transformational because we won!

The Tech for Good Start-up weekend was sponsored by Vodafone Americas Foundation and Better Ventures. June Sugiyama, director of the Vodafone Americas Foundation, presented at the award ceremony. I was inspired by this group of people and companies committed to scaling technology solutions that improve people’s lives. June has continued to help us along the way, bringing us to pitch at SOCAP. The Vodafone Americas Foundation stepped in again to help fund AtmaGo’s arrival in Puerto Rico to address the tremendous recovery needs on the island and engage women as leaders in disaster resilience and community empowerment.

Other key funders, partners, and other awards helped fuel this forward including Qualcomm, Cisco, IDEO.org, the Global Resilience Partnership, Red Cross and Mercy Corps.

Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

We’ve reached over 5 million people in over 100 locations in Indonesia and Puerto Rico. The main steps we take to build such a large community are:

  1. Invest in building a trusted platform: We prioritize local content moderation so that misinformation is addressed at the root. As a result, our platform is highly trusted. IDEO.org conducted a study that found 81% of users trusted AtmaGo. We establish trust through partnerships with trusted local organizations, and conduct offline activities like Digital Literacy, Citizen Journalism trainings, and resilience events like tree planting and garbage clean up events. This allows people to see real positive change in their communities, leading them to trust and want to engage in the platform.
  2. Use offline and online marketing: We have a network of Community Ambassadors that contribute and moderate content and promote resilience events and information on AtmaGo. This is amplified by reaching users on other platforms they engage in like Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Because our users don’t use email, these other platforms give us a way to engage our users in an ongoing way.
  3. Keep iterating and listening to users. We are constantly testing new marketing strategies from online contests, and user testimonial videos. We measure what works and grow that.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

Our commitment has always been to provide AtmaGo for free to users. We currently earn income from contracts with humanitarian organizations that pay for AtmaGo to be extended to new locations for services such as our Citizen Journalism training and reaching users with information on earthquake resilience or other objectives. We recently won the Zurich Innovation Championship for Indonesia and are exploring strategic partnerships that will build on the proven evidence of AtmaGo’s ability to reduce property loss, morbidity, and mortality during disasters.

We’re also committed to not selling user data or monetizing in ways that do not build resilience and opportunities for our users. Since we’re focused on growing mission-aligned income, we are continuing to iterate on how best to do this to fuel our growth.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app? Please share a story or an example for each.

Always listen to your users. We continue to learn from our users every step of the way. From expanding the platform from water price sharing to a platform that encourages users to share information on a range of issues, our users drive the development of the app and the platform to better meet their needs.

Make sure you give a voice to those who are often overlooked. We started focusing more on women users and found that women-only focus groups effectively enable women to feel comfortable participating. We paid close attention to their challenges around feeling like they had little to contribute, and developed Citizen Journalism and Digital Literacy trainings to better engage women.

An app is never done, it is always improving. It worries me when people talk about creating an app to solve a problem. What I’ve learned is that creating the first version of the app is the first step. It is an ongoing process of improving user experience and responding to user needs.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

That movement would continue to be Atma Connect — a movement focused on neighbors helping neighbors! I’ve seen the tremendous impact of a platform and a movement built on mutual support. We need alternatives to the divisiveness and fraying of the social fabric happening around the world, and a positive example of the good people can do when working together. Atma Connect is proud to be a part of a movement that builds and amplifies solutions from the ground up.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

We’d love to connect! Feel free to connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. If interested in learning more about our work in Puerto Rico, check us out on Facebook and Twitter.


Meena Palaniappan of Atma Connect: “Here Are 5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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