Article

Real heart, enabled by AI: Talking it out with Sibly founder and CEO Moe AlKadi

By Pedro Muller, Group Manager, Startup Initiatives

Published May 21, 2020
Last updated November 3, 2020

I had the pleasure to sit down with Moe AlKadi, co-founder and CEO of Sibly, and ask him a few questions on his entrepreneurial journey and the founding of Sibly.

It takes guts to launch a startup and Moe is no exception. He dropped out of college, moved halfway around the world and took a leap of faith in business.

Feelit was your first startup, can you tell us a little about how it came about?

I grew up in a conservative society where it wasn’t typical to discuss one’s feelings. I knew others were experiencing similar challenges, and that was the main inspiration behind Feelit. I wanted to create a platform that provided the opportunity for people to anonymously share their feelings, thoughts and ideas.

What made you realize you had to drop everything to build Feelit?

I had recently read an article in which the reporter interviewed people at the end of their lives and asked about their biggest regrets. The most popular answer: not living a life true to themselves, but instead to meet others’ expectations. I loved learning but I was learning more from building a startup than attending college. I realized that I was attending college to meet society’s expectations and that’s the moment I decided to drop out.

What happened next?

In 2013, we launched the app and it was a hit, attracting more than 200,000 users in Saudi Arabia. After seeing the platform’s success, I decided to drop out of college and pursue my startup dream. We knew that emotions are a global language and Feelit should be too. This inspired us to move to California by the end of 2014 and launch the platform globally with the help of BootstrapLabs — but it wasn’t an easy ride.

How so?

After years of iterations, it became clear that Feelit couldn’t grow beyond a certain point. By the end of 2015, we decided to shut Feelit down. This was the hardest period of my life. I felt like I failed everyone including my team, and myself. I felt like an imposter. I was depressed and alone in a country where I had no friends or family. I felt incredibly isolated. At that moment, all I needed was someone to talk to.

I imagined what could be a better future. I felt that would be a world where everyone had someone to talk to. This is how the idea of Sibly came about — a product that would provide on-demand support for folks going through tough moments in their lives. The name comes from “sibling” and I named it that after my sister. Research shows that one out of five Americans has no one to talk to and half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. I truly believe that everyone should have someone to talk to about their general well-being — in a compassionate, helpful and always-there-for-you way. And that’s how Sibly was formed.

Tell us more about Sibly

Sibly Heroes overview

Sibly provides employees with on-demand mental health and wellness coaching around-the-clock and in real time to help navigate life’s challenges. The text-based platform gives members and their spouses someone to talk to. Sibly’s coaches, called “heroes,” are trained in science-backed tools. Sibly’s heroes help employees take action on their health and make personalized recommendations to resources to meet their individual needs.

We originally created Sibly with a strong focus on mental health problems but since launching, the service has evolved to embrace the whole person and a variety of modern challenges and life events we all face. Sibly helps members cope with behavioral health concerns — things like loneliness, stress, anxiety, and substance use, as well as habits related to physical wellbeings like healthy eating, physical activity, and adherence to public health guidelines. Ultimately, Sibly enables individuals to identify and make progress toward their personal and professional goals.

Our co-founder and chief scientific officer, Dr. Paula Wilbourne, has spent the last 20 years implementing empirically-based tools to improve behavioral health problems. She designed Sibly’s coaching methods and trained our heroes in motivational interviewing, a scientifically tested method for helping people take action on their well-being. In her previous role as the national program coordinator at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Paula utilized motivational interviewing to successfully treat veterans nationwide struggling with mental and behavioral challenges. Omar AlEisa brings years of experience in design for leading tech firms to our leadership team. We first met in college where I recruited him as my co-founder at Feelit. We continued together to Sibly where he is a co-founder and the head of design & user experience. As a seasoned founder and designer, Omar has built expertise in consumer products, user experience, and the development of scalable applications that have served hundreds of thousands of consumers. His greatest strengths are in his focus on delivering quality and creating user-centered products.

How did you get involved in corporate benefits packages?

When we first launched Sibly, we tested the product directly with consumers and it was a huge success. Because 89% of health care benefits are paid by organizations, we shifted our go-to-market strategy to a business-to-business approach ⁠ — positioning Sibly as part of a benefits package that companies can offer employees.

And how did that work out for you?

We saw an amazing adoption rate by employees. At some companies, we’re seeing a higher rate of use with Sibly from their workforce than other benefits. Currently, Sibly supports a variety of industry-leading companies such as National Debt Relief, Cleary Gottlieb, Zynga, and others to integrate itself as part of their overall benefits offering. The platform is designed to help companies take care of their most important asset: their people.
Sibly develops a relationship with each employee. We work to understand each member’s unique situation and personal goals. This relationship allows us to make personalized suggestions that range from employee benefits and community resources to Sibly-developed content and programs — Sibly helps employees reach their goals and simultaneously increases the value and utilization of employee benefits packages. Additionally, it offers employers unprecedented insights into the needs of its workforce and gaps in existing benefit design. Sibly seeks to expand the reach of offering “someone to talk to.” To date, 75% of Sibly members report not having an existing relationship with a therapist or counselor. Upon utilizing Sibly, employees act on 60% of recommended resources and employee-offered benefits.

How do you see the role of AI in your organization?

We developed a robust training program to empower our “heroes”, who provide the 1:1 services through the app. AI technology powers the training but also plays a role in quality assurance. It makes sure that “Heroes” use the right language and approach when dealing with each member, boosting the satisfaction rate.

As you scale your operations, do you see AI or Bots engaging directly with customers?

No, it must be a human. The human connection is crucial to providing users with the compassion and empathy that make these interactions work, while the AI side helps our heroes be more productive and continuously ensure we are providing quality support.

Testimonial from a Sibley user

What is Sibly doing to support users and/or give back amid the COVID-19 crisis?

Sibly recently pledged three months of free wellness coaching for organizations to help employees cope with the isolation, uncertainty, and overall stresses brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to on-demand coaching, Sibly is providing employees and their spouses with up-to-the-minute national guidance on COVID-19 and helping companies promptly answer employees’ most frequent questions and concerns surrounding the pandemic. Amid unprecedented fears and social isolation, Sibly gives users someone to talk to around-the-clock and in real-time to manage stress and anxiety related to the outbreak.