Moms about town

App aims to connect Houston mothers using AI technology

Houston-based Social Mama uses its platform to connect mothers based on location, interests, and the things their children have in common. Courtesy of Social Mama

Sometimes, to be a mom, is to feel utterly alone. Not every mom is the same, and it's tough for women to find the right support systems — people who are going through or have gone through the same struggles.

A new Houston-based app, Social Mama, is providing a solution. The technology uses artificial intelligence and data collection to learn about its users and match them to other users based on their location and specifications. It's like online dating, but for mothers, co-founder Amanda Ducach says.

"The social impact of the product is so important," Ducach says. "I can't explain to you the isolation and the problem that exists in motherhood. I was completely unaware of it before I started the company."

The idea came to Ducach when she moved across the country to Houston from Minneapolis. Her best friend was in sudden need of a new network — preferably moms who liked wine, spoke Spanish, and had peanut-free households so her son could play without the risk of his allergies. Wanting to help the friend they had abandoned, Ducach and her husband, who is a data architect, decided to try to find a way to get there friend a new friend she could relate to.

"We realized there was nothing that existed that allowed two mothers to connect based on where they lived and their interests, that also took information about their children in account," Ducach says. "We decided to create it."

The app, which is based out of Station Houston, has been in beta with a couple thousand users, but, based on users' experiences, Ducach says they are making a lot of changes before they launch to the public in spring of this year.

Beta lessons learned
Thinking that mothers are too busy for lengthy setups, Ducach made signing up for Social Mama simple.

"We completely put out the wrong product, which isn't a bad thing," Ducach says. "We assumed they would want us to figure out who to match them with, but it's the complete opposite."

The mothers are happy to spend 10 to 15 minutes during the sign in process after downloading the free app, Ducach says, because they want to give the app as much information as possible. They are looking for niche matches.

Another surprise for Ducach was that, similar to dating apps, starting a conversation with a stranger — ideally matched or otherwise — is tough.

"We thought that because it was two women, and there's no sexual chemistry, that it would be easy for them to reach out and start a conversation," Ducach says. "But they actually still find it incredibly awkward."

The app will have things like ice breakers or games to help get the ball rolling.

She also didn't think the mothers would want something like a newsfeed. However, users who might not be in a highly populated city primed for face-to-face friendship still might want access to asking fellow mothers advice in a post on a forum. So, Social Mama will have a customizable, AI-generated newsfeed — kind of like a forum. Posts will have tags, and users will only see things they have an interest in.

"As you continue to use the app, it will create a persona for you," Ducach says, "and it's not mothers that are like you, but mothers you tell us you're looking for."

The app will know when a mother transitions from newborn mother to toddler mother, so that her matches stay relevant as her child ages.

Making an impact
This year, Social Mama will go live in the spring, and Ducach has several growth plans surrounding launch. The app will be fundraising for pre-seed money in 2019, and expanding the team to include a data scientist, as well as other department hires. The company currently has eight employees — most of which are in the Houston HQ — but some reside in Boston and around the world.

The core components of the app are the matching and AI-generated newsfeed, but hosting event meet ups is another successful avenue for the app, as is the potential to recommend products to the mothers. Ducach says this could be a part of the the app's business plan, as is a subscription model for moms to opt into extra perks.

"We know so much information about these moms that they are telling us, that we have the ability to send them recommended products from other mothers," she says.

While Ducach says the initial launch will only be in Houston, the app is already in big demand worldwide. She says they had to shut down the beta version because they had so many international downloads and they were concerned about cybersecurity.

"Moms want this in Germany, China, and Cypress, Texas," Ducach says. "It's really a need everywhere, and we're really excited to expand and see which markets take off."

Ducach says she is excited for the app to go live and affect these moms' lives.

"We're really excited because it should really change the trajectory of these women's lives and create a support group they've never had before," Ducach says.

social mama Social Mama went through a beta phase, but when it launches in the spring, it will be totally different. Courtesy of Social Mama

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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