Meet Selina Tirtajana: Founder of SØVN, your next sleeping companion fixing teeth-grinding and jaw clenching!

Hi Selina, FEM-START is happy to have you with us today! Tell us, what inspired you to start your own business, and how did you come up with Søvn? 

What inspired me to become an entrepreneur is my mother. As far as I can remember, she has always had side businesses, from candle-making to a chicken farm to a knitting factory. She wasn’t always successful but it definitely planted the “entrepreneur” seed in me. 

After graduation, I worked for a big company and I was involved in startup acquisitions. These were startups that developed innovative, category-defining medical devices, and I got to interview and be inspired by these start-up founders. After that, I worked for scale ups and startups, in various functions, and these experiences progressively showed me that I also could launch my own venture. 

The idea for SOVN came to my partner and I during our sabbatical (Covid-19 lockdown). I broke my mouth-guard one night – that was a real wake-up call for me. So, I went down this rabbit hole of researching teeth grinding and clenching, only to find out that what I’d been hearing didn’t quite match up with the science. It’s not just about the teeth and the tight jaw muscles due to stress; it’s about sleep disruptions and sleep habits, which tie into so many things. I talked to hundreds of strangers with the same issue, and realised: nothing on the market was actually solving the root cause. So we very naively said: “OK. We’re going to take this on.” 

What are some essential steps and actions you took to get your business off the ground? 

As a start-up entrepreneur, there are always so many moving parts to coordinate. I actually don’t know what the essentials are, because it always feels like everything has to work, or else. But if I have to pick, I’d say one is finding the product market-fit. We use pre-sales to prove to ourselves that there is a market, that people are willing to pay for the solution. 

Secondly, it’s finding the right people and partners to help us build the product in a scalable & cost-effective manner: how to build the MVP – which consists of the hardware, the algorithm, and the app – without hiring a team of twenty. It takes a lot of creativity and doing a lot of things ourselves. 

And finally, proving that the technology works. Both by working with clinical partners to validate it in the clinic, but also with our customers who are the beta volunteers, so we can incorporate their feedback and iterate faster.

Did it occur at any time you had to pivot your business model or quickly implement changes in how you work as a CEO and with your team? 

There weren’t any dramatic pivots or changes, but there’s been a steady evolution in our product, business model, and team structure. Which is what a start-up is, I think. Constantly experimenting, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. For instance, we initially used audio detection but quickly realised it wasn’t going to work, prompting us to pivot to an alternative detection method. Our target customer base has also shifted from our initial plans. From a team perspective, we never anticipated having such a robust partnership with an earbuds manufacturer, but it happened, and I’m incredibly proud of the team and all that we’ve achieved together.

You have won the Consumer Technology Association Innovation Award this year, how has this impacted your business and journey, did it help building a customer base? 

Winning an award really helps in gaining credibility with our future B2B customers and partners. During the CES trade show in Las Vegas, tech scouts from major brands came to our booth and we had some great conversations. Even consumer oral and dental care brands showed a lot of interest, which sparked curiosity and really put us on the map. From the consumer side, it gives us external validation. It’s also cool to see people visiting our booth sharing their struggles and wanting the product, giving us yet the confidence that we do have the product-market fit.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you made along the way, and what did you learn from them?

In our team we always say that mistakes are just lessons we learn along the way.  Making mistakes, assuming you quickly realise it and quickly learning from it is how we grow as founders and as a startup.

Looking back, my most significant mistake has been not trusting my instincts, especially when it comes to hiring people. We have, at times, ended up working with individuals who aren’t aligned with the company’s vision or culture. And no surprise, it led to some not-so-great teamwork. I believe it stems from a lack of confidence, something I as a first-time founder, often grappled with – feeling like I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s easy to be swayed by those who seem to have all the answers. 

Now I’ve come to realise that our team are the best people to create this product. There are very few people in the world who have dedicated countless hours to this particular problem, and know the product, the technology, and the market as deeply as we do. So, my big takeaway is to trust my instincts better.

What is your biggest achievement since founding the company, and how did you get there? 

The day our patent got granted and when we first analysed the earbuds’ signal from our volunteers were among the proudest moments of my life. It’s so rewarding to be coming up with the idea and then actually realising it. We had the basic idea at the beginning: integrate a jaw tracking mechanism into sleep-friendly earbuds capable of delivering stimulation. But turning that concept into reality was a long and winding road filled with trials and errors. We experimented with 6-7 different technologies, went through countless prototypes, and collaborated with various technical partners, each taking us a step forward but never the full way.

Honestly, it’s been tough not to lose faith, especially with hardware and how time- and resource-intensive each iteration is. What keeps us going is keeping our eyes on the endgame: what the product will ultimately deliver for our customers. Persistence, or some may call it stubbornness, is what gets us there. Also being able to sell the grand vision to collaborators, investors, and partners to help us get to the next level.

Now, I’m eagerly anticipating the day when our MVP actually helps our customers – that will be the ultimate achievement.

What advice would you give to aspiring female entrepreneurs, particularly those who do not seem to believe they can do it? 

Everyone, even the most successful entrepreneurs with multiple exits under their belt, has at some point questioned their ability. I think it’s a reflection of this prevailing narrative where we associate certain profiles with success. And what does it mean if we don’t fit these profiles?

I certainly struggle with confidence too. I used to believe that I needed x,y,z experience or degrees to be ready. That’s why I waited for years, amassing skills and experience before starting my own venture. Now that I’m actually in the trenches, I can say that there’s no such thing as being “fully” ready. I still struggle with self-doubt, I just get better at managing those moments of uncertainty. I talk to my friends and loved ones, and they quickly give me counter-examples, external viewpoints that show how I’m capable. They really help me be kinder and more generous to myself.

Another thing that helps me is focusing on my mission. I’m deeply passionate about healthcare access and equity, and I’m willing to make it my life’s work, even if success isn’t guaranteed. Mission is what drives me, and I’d rather give it my all and fail, than not try at all. During moments of crisis, I think about all our customers who have tried so many different solutions to no avail. It shifts the focus from my personal ability to the impact on others, on why I do this in the first place.

What’s next for SØVN? What can we expect?

We plan to launch next year, and hopefully introduce new features beyond teeth grinding & clenching in the next few years. Our aim is to be the sleep hearable solution that gives people better sleep. And we hope to improve the sleep of 10,000 people by 2026.

If you would like to know more about Selina’s company SØVN, click here!
 

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