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  • Writer's picturepeterkdurant

“Don't strive for perfection!" Start-up Founders Fireside chats: Tim Johnson, co-founder, Couply.

“Don't strive for perfection! Instead strive for something a little bit scrappy, put it out there and see if people use it and how they use it.”

The life of a founder is a unique one, filled with unbelievable highs and lows. In a series of fireside chats, I meet some of the people who’ve shunned the security of a paid 9 to 5 and are instead bringing their visions to life. The creators and adventurers who believe they can create good businesses for the future. I ask, What’s their vision? How did they go from big bang idea to the practical reality? What role does marketing play? Looking at the start-up success stories from the last decade; people always mention their brand and story. Where does that fit? When does that fit? And what tips would they give to an aspiring founder who’s looking to make the leap in 2024?

This week, I sat down with Couply CEO and founder and published sci-fi author, Tim Johnson. Tim was born and raised in the UK before moving to and making Canada his home. Now residing in Toronto, Tim was formerly Director of Brand Partnerships at content success story Wattpad. Prior to that he was Sponsorship Manager at the Canadian Red Cross, having begun life working hands-on with the British Red Cross, helping reunite families separated by war and conflict.

Tim Johnson, Start-up founder, Couply in a grey Couply tshirt
Tim Johnson, Co-founder, Couply

I first met Tim when he was at Wattpad and we immediately connected over a love for storytelling. Being an author, obsessed with messaging and content, I thought Tim’s views would differ from those of other founders who come from a more technical or product world.

Tim is super confident but very relaxed, immediately disarming and warm (I suspect he’s been doing some tests on Couply to hone his conversational style!), which meant I quickly threw out the tough questions. Best start simply…

What is Couply?

There are many apps out there that help people get into a relationship, but not so many that help people stay in a relationship. Couply is the app that helps couples do precisely that: stay in a relationship and deepen the foundation of their partnership. When couples use Couply, they improve their bond and are less likely to get divorced. And divorce is still a big issue. Forty-three percent of marriages end in divorce, so we essentially take relationship science into an app form - two users can work together in an organised and structured way to discover, improve and deepen their bond. That’s incredible that almost one in two marriages end in divorce. It’s shocked me actually; I didn't think it was so high.

Yes, it is. And what's even more heartbreaking is that of the people that break up, 33% of them both say that they wanted the relationship to work but didn't have the tools to help them make that happen. There's such huge gaps between what people want, the problem they have and how they can get the resolutions. So Couply provides couples with the tools to help improve their relationship for the long term.

It's interesting that even after the TV show Couples Therapy, relationship counselling still isn’t as widespread as you might imagine. Maybe this relationship stuff is still a touch taboo?

In recent years I think we’ve seen amazing progress in people being more open to reaching out for help, at Couply we’re huge proponents of relationship therapy. It's amazing. However, couples have historically waited six years of being unhappy in their relationship before seeking professional help. And many relationship therapists have a three-month waiting list before that they can see couples in the USA… so there is still work to be done.

Wow. It's actually a fast growing and very exciting market. Recent stats show that 25% of couples in the USA have paid for relationship therapy. At Couply, you can use our app on your own, as a couple, but we also work hand-in-hand with our relationship therapy partners to provide homework for couples alongside their couples counselling. So, there's a lot of work happening in this space and we're very much a part of the cutting edge in that. So when and what was,(and keep it clean!) your big bang moment? That moment of creation?

Well, I'm divorced! I'm in that 43% of people that get divorced and my life has been through multiple ups and downs. But the major ‘up’ happened when I moved to Toronto. I was working at an app called Wattpad, I’d bought a condo in Toronto downtown and was feeling really established. I was also in a new relationship with my partner, Mary and life was really, really good.

Unfortunately, my condo was destroyed by a fire, putting me in a bit of a pickle! Mary very kindly let me stay with her and I remember thinking, “Uh oh, if this relationship doesn't work out, I'm on the streets in every sense of the word!!” Our relationship was great, but I had done enough relationship research to know we were in the honeymoon period where everything is new and special.

But could we use this time in our honeymoon period to really create the long-lasting behaviours that we want to see for the rest of our relationship? So, I started looking for an app that could help us do that. And, at that time, there wasn't anything! So Couply was born.

Women holding a coffee, uses Couply app on her smart phone
Couply app poses all sorts of questions to help build and understand your love language

How did it get from your head to an app? That's quite big journey.

At the time I was working for an app, which is important, as I already thought a little bit in app format and pitch decks. So, I made a deck of all of the features that I felt could be really useful for couples. I'd read some therapy books like John Gottman’s The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, Gary Chapman's The Five Love Languages, Amir Levine’s Attached and Esther Perell’s Mating in Captivity and found these learnings so inspiring and thought they’d be really powerful if they were structured product form.

I took the idea to my friend and technical co-founder Denesh Raymond, a software engineer who helped build Wattpad, Facebook products, Peloton, eBay, and we then started creating this new mobile product.

So did you just go up to him and be like, “I've got this big idea”? Yes! His first reaction was “I love the idea but there must be something out there”. He thought it seemed too big of a problem for someone not to have already tackled that. At that time, we both did a lot of research and there wasn't anything. So off we went.

Are you seeing competitors in other languages and from other territories now?

There were a few products that launched at the same time as us and subsequently, so there's definitely more action in the space now!

So growth is really key for you. Marketing is obviously a route to growth, but that can traditionally come with a price tag or expectation. With you thinking so much about product, when did the marketing side first cross your mind?

First of all, we wanted to confirm that this idea had legs, so we did a bunch of customer validation interviews. We interviewed around 25 couples, which was really powerful. Through the interviews, we discovered problems and we built features to solve those issues that were backed by relationship science. Then we officially launched the app and went back and asked those people to use the app properly, trying it and recommending it. And then, we also then had our first 50 user reviews for the app store that kickstarted the app’s progress.

In there is a product cum marketing approach. You've upped your unique users well into six figures now, which means marketing can become really complicated. How do you keep it simple and accelerate it to help deliver the growth you need?

Our main driver of growth has simply been the fact that people like our product, and have told their friends about it. Word of mouth is still our number one growth driver. That, combined with ranking well in the Google Play Store, has driven our growth. We don’t have a sophisticated approach and we’ve definitely not dropped loads of money on Facebook ads. We haven't invested in those channels yet because we’re still deepening our understanding of the users, their problems and how the product truly, truly solves them. Otherwise, you have what apps call a ‘leaky bucket’: you can put loads of users into it but they will quickly disappear, which we do see with other apps in our vertical who have spent a lot and died. With that as our base, we’ve purely been about rankings to get us visibility and uptake. Quality early adopters can propel our community of people upwards.

So, from a goals point of view, obviously usage and validation was your aim for any sort of marketing activity. Which, even if it's zero cost, is still a version of marketing?

Yes, in my opinion: community, word of mouth, plus app store optimisation is something that’s very interesting to me right now.

Is your strategy going forward about true growth or potentially about unlocking future venture fund raises? Could there be conflict in that?

Yeah, this is such a good question because there is this dichotomy that you face in a startup between getting numbers for raising versus doing what's right for your product. It’s a balancing act that startups can fall on the wrong side of. For example, you can fake growth by dumping all of your cash into ads that show charts that go up into the right.

And you might want to do that, because at this point you're desperate to raise. But then the expectations are that the charts will continue to go up into the right and unless you're planning on throwing everything you've raised into more Facebook ads, that might not be the case, unless your products are genuinely really good.

Couply co-founders Tim and Denesh hold laptops and smile at the camera
Tim with Co-founder Denesh

Equally, on the other side, if you don’t get enough traction, then you can’t raise even if your product is good, because not enough people are using it. So it’s a tightrope to walk if you're on this venture-backed path.

For me, and the way that we're thinking about it with something we’re so proud to have launched, it’s about putting into place longer term partnerships with major established relationship expert creators, who we can partner with and they can support our growth and we can support theirs. Our current experts roster includes:

Dr. Tara Suwinyattichaiporn: Sexpert PhD in Sexual Communication: 2.1M Followers on Tiktok

Dr. Tara is an absolute BLAST!! Such good energy, such a good person – and she really covers the intimacy side with a playfulness and openness that people just love. She's really all about destigmatising the conversation about intimacy and she's done so, so well; her podcast Luvbites is crushing it and she was recently a judge on the UK TV show Celebs Go Dating and a few more TV appearances coming soon!

Macken Murphy: Evolutionary Psychologist from Oxford University: Currently doing PhD in Psychology: 130K Followers on Tiktok

Macken is just such a legend. His focus is sharing a ton of research about relationships, love, beautification, "human mating" and evolutionary psychology. He's a super interesting dude and a blast to speak to. Macken also loves to blast incorrect relationship takes with science.

The Laughing Couple: Ryan and Brittany Ostofe; 992K Followers on Tiktok. #1 Podcast on Parenting in Canada.

Britt and Ryan have the #1 podcast in Canada for parenting and relationships. They are so, so honest (and hilarious). I love these guys because they have this innate ability to take conversations that we are ALL having in private; from vasectomies to parenting woes and make them relatable and hilarious. They also have the best skits I’ve seen.

We’re so excited to have these people onboard as part of the Couplyverse! So marketing, and using an affiliate-partnership-influencer approach alongside an app store approach, becomes less of an overhead and more about powering the app and placing you at the heart of the industry?

Absolutely. The final thing that’s a major growth lever for us is that we're starting to see more and more therapists refer their couples to Couply as homework.

After their sessions, couples are using us to continue to deepen their knowledge about relationship science and using our practical tools to help improve their relationship as well as deepening their understanding about each other.

They learn their love languages, assessment styles, Myers Briggs Enneagram to show conflict styles, their communication styles and more. Couples can do check-ins with each other to show how happy they are with things like communication, the amount of quality time they're spending, the way they're splitting the tasks at home, the levels of intimacy, sharing their stress levels with their partner and so on.

These are little features, but they show how Couply can have a major impact for a couple.

It's kind of like a fitness app that’s used alongside a personal trainer, but for relationships.


Woman using Couply app to create a date with her partner

We've talked about avoiding the leaky bucket and not being reliant on Google or Meta ads. When does brand come into it? Because you're a small organization of founders at this stage, does it matter? Or as a start-up, being close to everyone, is it really easy to communicate? Do you think it’s something that you need to clarify now, because if you do get to that next stage of growth where you can’t be hands on with a team of 30, you’re going to have to reverse engineer back in?

Yeah. And you nailed it. Thirty is the magic number where you need to define more clearly your values and mission, according to what I've been told from other founders. For us, it's really simple.

Our mission is to help the world create incredible relationships. Very, very simple. In terms of brand voice, and we talk a lot about voice because we have a lot of content (Couply has over 300,000 words of content currently in the app), it has to be that of your best friend. Someone who's done the work themselves, is an expert in relationships, calling you forward to discuss issues and help you improve.

Urging you to go plan a date night, do something sweet for your partner etc. They’re saying, “Come on, let's do this! Let's make some magic happen.” And that’s the voice that we try so hard to have. We don't want to lecture people. We don't want to attack people. We don't want to make people feel guilty.

We're all about helping people create an amazing relationship and doing things that will contribute to that.

It's really interesting because that best friend can pivot so much. They can be brave and tough but can also disarm through wit and fun. From a consumer point of view, there’s a beauty in that simplicity, and it comes naturally. Whereas a piece of AdTech must work hard to really infuse identity and experience.

You came from another job, another world even, at Wattpad and before that. Drawing on those experiences, what is it that frustrates you about marketing and the marketing industry? How do you plan to navigate that? I think one thing that perhaps we overlook in marketing is the power of community and how powerful it can be to create a supportive community. When I think back to the days of Wattpad, they started with non-scalable endeavours, such as going to writing conferences and persuading existing Wattpad writers to reach out to other people within their creator networks to bring more people in. They also brought in big writers from different platforms and thus their audience with them. It got to a point where Wattpad organically generated, without any marketing, 153,000 downloads a day. Where I think a lot of markets can struggle, is that the most important thing is the power of product market fit and the community that you can build around it.

These things should generally generate success! I think in marketing we can often overlook that, because these things are complicated, take a lot of work and are non-scalable.

Google ads is an easy thing to switch on for immediate impact. There are people overlooking the power from connecting with your users, and experts in your area.

As founders, we do that as part of the job but, when you look at the industry, there’s not a lot of focus on that element.

You're right, a lot of people try to retrofit or engineer a group of people on social media when that's not a true community. If you had three recommendations or three things to say to a new startup founder, or someone who is sitting there going, “I've got an idea” or even “I've been starting to build my idea”, what would they be?

First is about focussing deeply on the problem you're solving. It shouldn’t be about something cool that you want to build or leveraging a new technology for the sake of it, but asking what the problem or conflict is you’re trying to resolve and who are the people impacted by this problem. Go speak to them and deepen your understanding of how they're impacted, how they’re currently solve it and if anyone else is trying to help.

That’s also key: is there white space around that area that you can build something in?

Second tip is, don't strive for perfection. Instead strive for something a little bit scrappy, put it out there and see if people can use it. And how they use it. Because the biggest mistake that we all make as founders is wanting a perfect product from day one. So, for a v1 it doesn’t need to be your exact vision. Something without all the bells and whistles can be a really good first test, help you unlock more finances and help you go on the product journey which will always keep evolving.

I’ve seen founders find some really big success with a completely different idea to the one they started with.

Last tip is to get out there, go speak to people. So, connect, build a support network of fellow founders, visionaries and changemakers. Go make some magic happen. Thank Tim. I look forward to downloading the app and learning about how I am in a relationship. I imagine there’s an in-app badge/prize for ‘perfect’?

Oh boy. Good luck, you’re going to need it!

Couply, the app for couples, is available on Apple and Android on your relevant stores. More can be found here:

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