Ludmila Milla is one of the co-founders of UJJI, an app which help people achieves their goals in a fun and rewarding way.
I understand that you have a passion for running cross country and running half marathons.
Running is the only sport that I’ve been doing for a long time. The last half marathon that I did was a cross country, one that I wasn’t expecting to be that hard and it was really hard but I made it in the end. The next one is going to be the London Marathon in October this year. This will be my first marathon!
That’s exciting! What got you into running?
I started when I was trying to lose weight a few years ago and I wanted to try something without spending a lot. I said when I was able to make changes in my life, I could spend more. I started climbing the steps in my house. When I felt like I was ready, I started running outside. The first time I ran was a block and I felt like I was dying. Since then I’ve been running when I’m happy, sad or bothered. It’s a big part of who I am.
How would you think that running helps you as a founder?
It sounds like a cliché but everything in life is a marathon, not a sprint. I believe that nothing in life happens quickly and everything takes a while to happen. It’s not something that you’re going to start and then immediately you’re going to see the results. It’s something that you have to keep building on.
I keep thinking about this and say that I’ve run a mile, and I have many miles to go and it’s fine. Sometimes you feel like powering through and sometimes you keep going one step after another, you cannot miss any steps so you keep doing what you know you have to do. This is how I face everything in life. You have to do one step after another and you will finish eventually. I believe that this analogy is very true.
You built the running up starting on the stairs and now you’re running half marathons. That’s awesome!
Yes! I am very proud of it, and now I have this even bigger challenge ahead as I’ve got a place at London’s Marathon.
That’s plenty, surely. Was it your belief that life is a marathon, not a sprint before you started running?
No, I never thought that I would run. I always thought running was something that you do for shorter periods or something where you go faster. Then I fell in love with longer distances. I don’t like sprints but I enjoy the idea of running for a long time.
I also believe that there aren’t shortcuts for anything. If you want to achieve something, you need to do all the steps that you have to do to achieve that. That’s something I always think about. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing now because you’re learning for when you have to build on this. Running was something that fitted perfectly with this mindset.
Can you tell me about a time when you thought that maybe a shortcut was the right way to go but it turned out that you needed to run the marathon in your work life?
There are so many stories. I was an architect which is very far away from what I do now. I think my career development was the marathon to bring me to where I am now. I learned so much and gained experience that helped me to build what we are building today.
Sometimes, you expect to do what you’re doing for the rest of your life and I felt like that when I was an architect. Sometimes, it’s a part of the journey that you’re making. We live for a long time so it’s not going to be fast.
You started as an architect and now you’ve built UJJI, How did you decide to take the steps from architecture to where you are now?
I never planned for this to happen. It was a combination of different things that happened and there was digging into my passion and how I could help people and also help me to achieve what I wanted to.
I’m originally from Brazil so it’s a little bit different there and you start your degree earlier than you would here. I got my degree in architecture when I was 21. I spent seven years working in a construction company.
First on site, then I moved to project management. It was there I learned how to deal with people and how to make them work in a better and more organised way and achieve their goals.
I was probably one of the people that best knew everyone in the company and they called me instead of calling HR when they needed something.
Then I had an opportunity to move to HR and work with organisational development. They asked me if I wanted to run this area of the company because they were making some changes. I believed that I could do something here around culture. And this was my first experience in HR.
I stayed there as an HR manager for three years then I left to start my first company in Brazil. That was a prop-tech company. I had a technical co-founder and I used to take all the business aspects. But I still liked the idea of impacting people’s lives so I started my second company that was a face to face coaching company.
We developed a methodology at that stage and we scaled through franchising. One day I had to step back from this company. I sold my part of this company and stayed only with prop-tech but improving people’s lives was something that was always in the back of my mind.
When I decided to move abroad, I sold my part of this other business and embarked on a trip around the world with my family. We just had three bags, starting in Australia then we went all the way to figure out where we wanted to live and what we wanted to do next. We ended up choosing the UK and I knew that I wanted to start something again - preferably digital and scalable.
And I worked for an ed-tech company in London for a short while, and that was when I started my EMBA here in Oxford. And then everything just turned out to be like the perfect place and timing to start this sort of company. I partnered with Rafael, who is my co-founder and who has a completely different expertise. So we were able to create something very unique. And here I am trying to put together all the experiences that I had before trying to impact as many lives as we can.
Take me back to the prop-tech company. What did you learn from some hard times during that period?
Okay, we had very hard times, especially since Brazil is not a very entrepreneurial country. It’s hard to run a business in Brazil, for many reasons, because the bureaucracy there is different from here. From a founder’s perspective to deal with business in volatile situations.
We experienced some hard crises in Brazil, especially one in 2016 with the Lava Jato. In the central point were construction companies in the country, and the majority of them were my clients so we had a very big issue. That’s why I decided to step back from the coaching company. Construction was my main business and I needed to pay attention to that.
A lot of projects that we were working on were put on hold and the new contracts stopped coming in. We needed to learn how to adapt to that so we had to be very agile to adjust our team, our finances and our cash flow. We also needed to figure out what to do next.
So we needed to pivot from real estate, that was the majority of our business, to something else that we could apply our expertise to. We spotted opportunities in retail and it turns out that was really good. The company is still growing and a big part of its revenue today comes from this new vertical that we developed.
How did you overcome that problem?
We were looking at our skillset and how they could be translated to different types of clients.
We started to understand these clients and how we could approach their pain points. Our first opportunity came from a big drugstore chain that had business all over the country, it could be compared to Boots here in the UK. That saved the company at that stage. And then we started to sell this for other people. But basically, it was understanding what we had and how we could apply those skills to different markets.
After selling your shares in the coaching company, and also stepping away from prop-tech, you decided to travel around the world, which sounds amazing, and you landed in the UK. What was it about the UK that felt right?
We fell in love with London, it was the place that we decided to stay. It was the perfect combination between somewhere that’s big enough but it’s still with the sense of being in a small city because you go to the neighbourhoods and they feel like these little towns. So we felt that this was the place that we enjoyed.
And also there were so many opportunities for both of us. My husband works in tech too. So he was in conversation with a big tech company. That is where he works now. And we felt that we could have many opportunities here. And if I wanted to start something, London is a perfect hub so it made sense.
And then after a few years, we decided to move away from London to the countryside. London is great but after a while being able to experience the countryside, especially Oxford, made me enjoy the UK even more. We don’t have plans to move.
What then brought you on to have the idea for UJJI?
With the coaching company, and the whole experience that I had, I always had in mind that it should have a way to help more people to believe in themselves. When I was coaching people, usually people came with an idea. And actually, they said they wanted to change jobs but after a few sessions, they found it was because they were unhappy. It’s so shallow how we face the things that are blocking us.
It was great to see so many people pursuing things that they like and being happier. And so that should be a way of scaling this in a way that we could impact more and more people’s lives.
The main reason why I’ve joined Oxford was the entrepreneurship aspects of the course.
Myself and my co-founder Rafael, have been for the past many years going into work every day dissatisfied with life and noticing people around us were doing the same. That’s why we developed UJJI, to make day to day better through little wins every day. And we’ve done that by truly understanding the pains of our end user. Everything we do at UJJI is done with our end user close at heart, pulling the strings around behavioural sciences and behavioural economics to understand what makes human beings tick.
And the idea struck you whilst you were studying for your EMBA?
Yeah, it was when I was in the middle of the course.
So I can imagine some people are reading this and saying it’s all good being just struck with an idea. But did it happen that way?
It was a combination of what I wanted to do next and what I liked because I already had a business before. It was always about people coming to me and saying they wanted to live more fulfilled lives but they didn’t know how.
I knew I enjoyed supporting and talking to people and thought about how this could be a business. And doing something you enjoy is important when you start because it’s so hard to build a business.
It takes so long. There are a lot of days that you will doubt yourself especially in the beginning when you don’t have a team or milestones, investment or people pushing you.
If it’s something that you don’t love, it’s asy to give up and try the next idea. This is what made us stick with the idea for such a long time so far.
You’ve said that starting a business is hard and it is. What were the first few hardships and problems that you came across when starting UJJI?
I think it was understanding what we were trying to do because we had a lot of ideas. It was hard to shape it in a way that was big enough as we wanted to be, but doable and understanding how we could start. So this was the first one.
The second one was about technology, we decided to build something that’s a game. So we should use game technology, for example, Unity which is what we use. But also, we wanted to have an app, that is a completely different technology that is React Native. So the technical aspects of trying to run Unity inside a React application and make this a product that is usable, reliable and doesn’t consume battery is tricky. That was something that took us some time to figure out.
I think the third one is starting a business in a foreign country. I think it’s been hard for me and Rafael. It’s not an easy thing to do because you don’t know all the ins and outs of the legislation so you need to relearn how to start a business and also rebuild your network.
It was much easier for us to fundraise in Brazil than here in the UK in the early days. So it’s been a journey to restart and to get all these connections and to make this here.
How did you go about making those connections starting from the ground up? Because that’s quite a feat.
Yeah, it’s hard but it’s doable. I think you always have something in common with another person and you need to find out what it is. You could like the same sports or you could have visited the same country. You’re going to find something that you have in common.
The big deal breaker was when I decided to come to Oxford. I started growing from here and it made me feel secure then I started reaching out.
We got accepted by the incubator and managed to have Oxford as our first shareholders. This opened other doors with their connections and then we used this network to find more connections. In the beginning, it was hard because we had to take chances and have a lot of rejections before getting a yes.
I can imagine somebody reading this and thinking that it’s all very well attending an EMBA course and getting loaded contacts from that to presumably other directors and senior level leaders who have some money behind them. You can befriend them and they can put some money into the company. And the programme has an incubator that can help you fund. Is that what you think has launched UJJI entirely?
It’s easier when you have all this support because you feel more confident. I pitched the idea to my friends. Of course this helps but I think everything comes down to the execution and hard work, even if you have the contacts. You have to pitch to so many people to get a small amount of money, especially in the early stages.
It’s not because you know someone who’s very wealthy or influential they’re going to give you money. It’s not like that. Having those people around helped me a lot with insights that I never thought of. But the majority was about working and trying to build this.
UJJI’s being launched and you’re now in your going to market phase. What are you doing in that?
There are a few companies who are already testing with some cohorts. We are fully launching in April, with the app available on the App Store and Google Play we are going to be able get the companies onboard fully through these platforms. Now we are going to the market to expand our client base.
What are the types of businesses that you’re targeting as users for the app?
We’re targeting businesses who have teams in their 20s to their 40s because they’re more likely to embrace game based technology. UJJI is very holistic, so employers can talk to their employees and help them. The idea is that the user comes to UJJI and they are able to choose what they are looking for and then they go to the sessions.
We aggregate data for the company to see where they can make a push and create real life changes in the company. We need enough data for us to benefit from this. There’s usually over 20 people using the platform so companies with over 20 people are our targets too, especially here in the UK. We are looking for companies that have a frontline in stores or that they can benefit a lot from having UJJI for those people who don’t have access to computers the whole day and they can use this on their phones.
Yeah, that’s interesting, isn’t it? I hadn’t thought about people who haven’t got access to a computer or are not desk bound. How do they get onto some of these platforms that are available? Having the app is a perfect way of getting around that. So you mentioned a moment ago that you had a load of test companies using the platform to test it? How did you get them on?
We partnered up with a recruiting company who has 180 clients in the UK and we’re using them to deploy UJJI as part of the benefits that they can offer to their clients. We selected a few that made sense and then we contacted them through the recruitment company. So this is something that we are doing quite well, finding companies and especially other startups that are pretty much in the same position, and how can we benefit from their network and so they can benefit from ours. This is something that we are doing quite well, using this shared interest. There is probably a founder trying to find clients for them or beta testers, so we can be a beta tester for a startup, and then this startup can help us with another step. This is how we are approaching this.
It’s probably a brilliant, additional service that they can add on for their clients. Right?
Exactly! The idea is that we are working with a few of them to distribute this through partnerships so that they can offer this as an added benefit. This is a way that we can imagine scaling UJJI very quickly.
Awesome! You’ve mentioned that the platform’s game based. Why did you go with that?
It’s not a simple gamification. We are using the concepts of serious games, which uses complex narratives to provide the user with some sort of learning. There are some studies around this that show this can improve mental health and this is the first time that has been used for coaching.
We’re transforming coaching techniques into serious games. The user is transported to this virtual world and they can train in a simulated environment of things that happen in real life. And then they feel empowered and confident enough to use this in situations in the real world. It can be something around challenging your limiting beliefs for example.. In this game the user is taken to a maze in the shape of a brain, where they find the monsters, talk to them, challenge, and win the battle. You can learn how to do this through a game that is very fun and quite easy to understand. And then when you face the situation, you can recall this technique and do that.
There are quite a few games like that, for example, which help you stay in the present or become a better listener, etc.
Interesting! Is that research going into recognition and prime decision making or something else?
Everything that we are doing is based on behavioural science principles and we have different researchers coming for each of the features that we have. The first thing that we did before launching was conduct neuroscience validation experiments in the lab and then with the customers who are using UJJI. This was carried out by a neuroscientist at Oxford. It was nice to see our ideas proven.
Interesting! Okay, so let’s go back to getting the app out on the market. What are your next steps in doing that?
Now, we are going through different channels. We have a few companies lined up to start using UJJI in a bigger cohort. These companies weren’t part of our trials. We are going to expand. This is where we are going in the next few months, and also targeting B2B partners that give rewards on the platform.
What do you think are the one or two biggest things you’ve learned from your previous businesses that have allowed you to launch UJJI and be successful with it so far?
No one wants to build a business alone. You need to have the right people around you, especially your co-founder. You should spend more time finding the person and then start building the business together instead of bringing in someone because they have expertise and you think they’re going to be a good co-founder. It makes or breaks you, especially in the early days.
And the second thing is don’t get too bogged down with ideas and discussions and endless meetings that don’t take you too far. Try to build something that can be a prototype and aim to achieve concrete advancements as fast as you can. You should be able to see progress every day. You can always correct or improve your ideas but if you don’t start, you’re never going to finish it.
What plans have you got for the app for the rest of 2022 and beyond?
Our plan is to achieve the product market fit in the UK this year. We have a few interesting iterations that we are going to do with more features, perhaps more games. But the idea is to stay in the UK for this year. After that, it will roll out in other English-speaking countries and then in different languages and markets.
Cool! Sounds amazing. Thanks so much for taking the time. I appreciate it and best of luck. Where can people find out more about Ujji?
People can find out more about us here!