We’re all guilty of taking things for granted. Those of us who haven’t experienced chronic knee pain don’t consider just how often we use our joints everyday. On average, 70 million adults in Canada & the United States report joint pain. So in 2016, while playing ping-pong in a garage, three good friends came together & decided to challenge the status quo on what it means to have a comfortable, adjustable & functioning support system to alleviate knee pain. Zack Eberwein, Cam Massullo, & Scott Morgan, cofounders of Embrace Orthopaedics, decided to change up conventional hinges and rigid materials into a meaningful brand & lifestyle choice; one that doesn’t impede your day-to-day life, but enhances it.
By joining forces and building Embrace, it’s fair to say that Zack, Cam, and Scott have become ambassadors for the cause: helping & encouraging others through their recovery, not only by leading example on building a successful product, but showcasing that great friendships can go a long way in building a trustworthy and reliable business. All the way from beautiful Vancouver BC, we learned a little bit more about their inspiring story!
What was the inspiration behind your startup’s name?
Cam: The name is kind of a funny one. Zack and I were playing pool and just thinking of names for this company we wanted to build; we knew we wanted to make a knee brace. We started throwing some names back and forth, and third game in we thought – how about ‘Embrace Orthopaedics?’
Zack: Not a very glorious story but now that we turned it into a company, it’s the perfect name – it really captures the fact that we want to live life the way we want to, and to do that – you have to embrace you injury, your recovery, and moving forward. So it really does capture our culture.
Cam: I guess you could say it was a happy accident!
How did your idea come about?
Zack: The idea really came about 2 years ago. I did a local mountain climbing challenge. I had two prior knee surgeries before this, and I had refused to wear my knee brace because I found it too uncomfortable. Halfway through the challenge I had to stop because my knee flared up really badly because I hadn’t worn my brace. I looked at Cam and said this is ridiculous, I shouldn’t be held back because of my joint pain. We started thinking about what other options I had at the time. So the conversation really grew from there. I immediately ruled out the solutions that were available to me at the time. But the main questions we had still lingered: What else could we do? How else could we support joints? We started talking to people and validated the idea, and we decided to turn it into a venture.
Why did you decide to focus on Orthopeadics?
Zack: All of us come from very different backgrounds. I’m a biomedical engineer, Cam is a kinesiologist and Scott’s an Olympic gymnast. So sport, and health during sport was really important to us, we wanted to build a better joint pain solution for millions of people like us.
Okay, so we have to ask: With such diverse backgrounds, how did you find each other?
Scott: So Zack and Cam have been childhood buddies. But I met Zack through the mountain biking community in North Vancouver, we both worked at a local bike shop together. I’ve known Zack for about 7 years now, and I met Cam through Zack. When these guys were talking about this new venture, the next day, while I was playing ping-pong with Zack in his garage, he asked me what I thought. I distinctly remember, it was 3 weeks before the Olympic games in 2016, and my head started spinning about all the applications it could be used in, and the people it could affect. When we started to work on early customer validation I helped as an advisor, but eventually it just made sense that we could bring our skill sets together to help this problem. That’s really how it all began.
Sounds more like a brotherhood than anything! The level of trust you have with each other seems second to none.
Zack: One of the things we’ve been really proud of since day zero is our team. Yes doing business with friends has its challenges – but we have a level of trust that we see most founding teams don’t have right away. That’s been priceless to us. We’ve been able to attract advisors, employees, and contractors who share those values and want to come along for the ride with us. It’s been amazing to fall back on such a great team.
How did you validate your idea during its early stages?
Zack: Very early in our company’s life, we got involved with accelerator programs at UBC. Through that, we were encouraged to do an incredible amount of additional customer validation. We actually did over 200 interviews in the span of 5 weeks. That included customers, practitioners, retailers, surgeons, physiotherapists, athletic therapists (the list goes on). We really tried to understand the problem and what our concept needed to entail in order to be a winning one. It’s about talking to as many people as we could, and that’s where we got the most amount of validation for our product. Frankly, that’s what we’re still doing today.
It’s really interesting to see how many touch points & people this problem space affects on a day-to-day basis.
Zack: The market is a lot bigger than people think. It’s about $5 billion globally, and it’s growing with an ageing population. There are two other big competitors, but the approach really hasn’t changed in the last 50 years. Braces still use hinges and rigid materials. Our focus was really breaking down the problem and trying to tackle it from an entirely different angle.
Do you have any mentors or advisors that helped push for your initiative along the way?
Cam: Without mentors and advisors, we would not be this far along today. They were instrumental in our progress as a business. We have our own expertise and background but business is not something we’ve tackled before. The entrepreneurship program at UBC helped us in meeting mentors and making connections in the community that conduct business. We got to learn from people who have the expertise that helped us craft a business that can work, not just a product that people want to have. It’s one thing to build a really cool knee brace, but you have to be able to get that out to the market, and run a sustainable business and have it affect the millions of people you want to.
So Advice + Mentorship = Goldmine!
Scott: Yeah! We haven’t done this before. When you start a new venture of your own, you need assistance and there are always a million things on your plate – it’s almost necessary to have that support. Mentoshipship in the entrepreneur space is really encouraged, and we’ve seen the benefits of it firsthand.
What would you consider your earliest point of validation for product development?
Zack: We would be talking to people a various social events and would have them give us business cards and say: call me when it’s ready – I will buy this. And that’s pretty much the best validation you can get. We found an early adopter who had a large enough problem that they were so compelled to willingly wait 2 years to buy a knee brace that didn’t even exist yet! That was probably the earliest point we had validation. Once we went through these accelerators and learned how to sell our story properly, it started resonating with people. That’s when the validation really continued to grow.
There’s got to be something you didn’t anticipate when building your startup.
Zack: For me it was how iterative the process was – there is an ‘order of operations’ at a startup. So you’re supposed to start with customer discovery, or understanding the problem – yet we’re a year in and we’re still doing customer discovery and understanding the problem. Every time we make a pivot, we’re going back and talking to people, trying to understand how that change affects them. Even if you look at how iterative it was to tell our story – I’ve spent hundreds of hours on pitch material alone. Just building our story and in a way that resonated with people; every time you make a pitch, you learn something new. I guess you could say going in, I definitely thought there was a process, but building your own startup is not a liner concept.
Cam: Yeah it’s like the process itself is a process. You have to be comfortable with it’s ambiguity. Sometimes, you take five steps forward to make one step back. Ultimately, you end up moving forward but in this jilted pattern that is both exciting and frustrating. Every bit of time and effort we put in is worth it in the end. Whether it’s putting hundreds of hours into a pitch; getting the validation of delivering that pitch makes you proud of what you’ve done. That’s what’s really inspiring and keeps you moving, right?
What about days when you wake up and you feel like you’ve hit a roadblock? What keeps you going then?
Scott: It’s the fact that we’re a part of something bigger. As a founder, your startup really is your baby. There are days that you don’t want to go into the office. But you know that every one of those days you’re getting one step closer to this vision and product that resonates with you and all of the people build for in your community. When we started this venture, right from day one, I thought to myself: not only can we create this amazing product that can change peoples lives, we can do something that we love, we’re passionate about and work with a great team. There will always be days that you go into the office and you feel discouraged, but when you get to go into work with your friends, it’s the best support to fall back on.
What is the easiest or hardest part of building a startup?
Zack: The easiest part is wanting to come into work. I don’t think everyone is an entrepreneur, but I think that we have built a team who embody entrepreneurship. In fact, every single person on our team has been an entrepreneur at some point in his or her life. I think Scott said it best – we’re a part of something bigger. It’s easy to know I want to come into work, and knowing that this is our baby. The hardest part is knowing what to do next. And that got easier as soon as I realized that it’s okay to ask for help. Asking for help gets easier when you put your ego aside and stop pretending like you have to know everything.
Cam: Being in a startup is like a game of golf. There’s always that one shot you make that keeps you coming back. You have that beautiful drive were you think: you know what, let’s do this! The hard part is focusing on the little things. And it’s easy to get caught up on one tiny little detail, and becoming focused in its difficulty, because it feels impossible. But then you get over it because you feel encouraged working with your team. That’s when you think to yourself: this is good and this is something powerful and inspiring – lets keep going. So for me, the easy thing is jumping in with two feet and trusting the process, believing in your team, and enjoying the ride. Focus on the pieces that go really well and get you through those tough times.
To end off, what would be one bit of advice from each of you to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Zack: Its okay to ask for help. You can’t do it alone. I can only speak for Vancouver, but the community of entrepreneurs that we have been exposed to in have been incredible. People want to help. They’ve been exactly where you’ve been before. Find the people who share your vision and ask for their advice.
Cam: Don’t be afraid to fail, or to take that risk. It’s not really a failure; it’s learning and experience. If the absolute worst-case scenario is that you learned something – that’s not really a bad thing at all! The potential upside is a successful business and helping a lot of people.
Scott: I learned this along in my sporting career time and time again – you talk to a lot of people who thrive in their environment but perhaps aren’t necessarily happy. It’s really easy to do something you’re comfortable doing, but frankly that’s not startup life. You’re constantly challenging yourself in new ways and you don’t know what the outcomes going to be like and what you need to succeed. Anyone that has either looked into entrepreneurship or wants to explore it – it has many unknowns. So to reiterate what Cam and Zack have said – take the risk, put your ego aside and ask for help. Put your heart and soul into and you’ll have your reward!
Don’t miss a beat, stay tuned on what’s to come from Embrace by following the rest of their story here:
About the Author:
Maryam Zaidi is a user experience/ digital strategist currently working in healthcare. As a graduate from the University of Toronto in the Master of Information Program, her interests lie at the intersection of human-computer interaction and empathetic design. In her spare time, she loves to read, run, and occasionally code! You can find her on Twitter as @MaryZai