Self-care, primarily beauty and skincare, has emerged as one of the dominant industries in the corona-conomy. But what about taking care of your brain? Business partners Dan Murray-Serter and Joel Freeman are diving head first into the nascent world of brain health with their latest venture.
It’s clear when browsing the website for the first time that Heights is not Dan Murray-Serter and Joel Freeman’s first company. It’s too polished and thoughtful to be the work of first-time entrepreneurs. First the name: Heights, designed to invoke a sense of going beyond. Then the color palette: a calming sky blue on reassuring navy. Finally there’s the font, Athletics, uplifting the way a snow cone on a hot day is uplifting.
Spend some time in the Heights universe and you’ll find yourself learning new recipes, puzzling over brain teasers, committing trivia about leisure time to memory. You’ll be captivated by a photo shoot centered around vitamins. You’ll become so absorbed by the content you might even forget what’s at the heart of all this: supplements designed to elevate and extend cognitive performance.
There’s a strategy behind this approach and it’s one the duo obsess over in detail, a red thread that announces itself the more pieces you put together from their time as mobile entrepreneurs through to their current post as science-obsessed founders.
Beginning in 2013 with Grabble, the “Tinder of Fashion,” and Popcorn, a movie trailer app, Dan and Joel learned the importance of content early in their careers. Around the same time Goop was perfecting the commerce-led publisher model, the two were bullish on the need to curate and sell product in the context of storytelling, encouraged by millions of users between Grabble and Popcorn, each reaching the top of the app store in their native UK and the latter going on to chart in Sweden and several Middle Eastern countries.
“We caught the movement of mobile shopping at exactly the right time and rode that for about four and a half years.” Ultimately, however, the business model proved too complicated and both apps fizzled out after being unable to grow the margin. Catching the mobile shopping wave early had its drawbacks.
Nonetheless the two picked up a few lessons that would go on to inform the work they do now, chief among them the importance of a sustainable business model.
“If the business model isn’t there, you’re not going to work it out later—even if you are scaling.”
“If the business model isn’t there, you’re not going to work it out later—even if you are scaling,” says Joel. Dan takes it one step further, challenging the Silicon Valley mantra of hire fast, fire fast. “It’s a difficult philosophy because you spend a lot of time unpicking bad mistakes and bad thought processes that embed themselves into the way you do things.”
Back at square one, Dan and Joel offered to return the money their investors had put into Grabble and Popcorn. The investors countered, offering them three months’ time to come up with a new idea from scratch and use the remaining money, around $1 million, as pre-seed for a new idea. Dan and Joel got to work.
The most minimum of minimum viable product, Heights began as a weekly newsletter, each edition penned by Dan himself. The newsletter, the same one Heights still sends out every Sunday, was the result of a two-part question based on their previous experience building content-led apps: “What does neuroscience and mental health look like in the context of a really engaging content company? And what’s the MVP of that?”
Long the realm of academics and neurologists, Dan and Joel intuited the inclusion of mental health in broader culture and figured it would give them the chance to learn more about the world they’d be operating in, while allowing others to come along for the ride. At the same time, they knew the newsletter was just the first rung on the ladder. In order to get a better sense of what they wanted to develop, they reached out to the smartest people in their network, mostly other entrepreneurs and founders, to learn about their personal routines and habits.
The concept of “natural” was something that came up again and again in their conversations, and while it meant something different to each person, it was always discussed as something that exists in food and something that can be understood without a PhD. They also quickly discovered a huge gap in the wealth of knowledge surrounding brain health and mental wellbeing.
A pattern began to emerge. Those in their personal network and those following the Heights story from day one were looking for something tangible to help them reach their heights. Just one thing was missing: an actual viable product.
Approaching the industry as curious outsiders had its pros and cons. Pro: they spoke the same language as their customers, giving them a natural ability to communicate with an audience they describe as D2C: “direct to community.” Con: without a scientific background, they’d need experts to help create better brain food.
Dan used the former to bolster the latter, reaching out to Dr. Tara Swart on Twitter, introducing himself and Heights, and sending over a copy of the newsletter for context. Dan made no attempt in those initial conversations to conceal the fact that the company was looking for a Chief Science Officer. Over lunch in London, the two discussed the role further and Dr. Swart was in, responsible for the company’s direction and product formulation.
The Science and Wellness Advisory Board, better known as SWAB (“we’re particularly proud of that one”), was officially launched, soon to be rounded out by Dr. Rangan Chatterjee, Chief Wellness Officer, and Sophie Medlin, Resident Dietitian. With guidance from SWAB, Heights got to work formulating a supplement.
The lab couldn’t understand why they would possibly want a product without caking agents or synthetic fillers, feedback they took to mean they were on the right track. “That was literally the opportunity: to make a real high-quality product.”
As anyone that’s dabbled with supplements can attest to, quality is something open to interpretation. Not for Dan and Joel. For them, quality was something with easy-to-define ground rules: science-backed, no fillers, no contaminants, vegan-certified, non-GMO, allergen-free, and gluten-free. Ingredients were boiled down to the essentials. Dosage amounts were backed by science with a unique double-capsule design that enables each ingredient to be properly absorbed.
The next step was to nail the packaging, a design virtually all supplement manufacturers take as a given. “Lots of supplements get forgotten about because you have a boring bottle—it goes in the cupboard and you never see it again. We wanted to create a bottle that you’d enjoy having around.” The process, done in collaboration with Pentagram, took longer than anticipated but at this point in their careers, Dan and Joel placed a premium on getting things right instead of compromising to speed things along.
10 months later, the Heights Smart Supplement was ready for its debut.
With 10,000 organic weekly newsletter readers, the Heights community was a natural place to introduce the product Dan and Joel had been working on ahead of a public launch. Of those 10,000, 100 were given a three-month subscription of Heights for free. Of those 100, 86 opted to sign up to receive Heights regularly at full price once the trial period had ended. Like other signposts the duo had encountered on the road, that number only bolstered Dan and Joel’s confidence in their product.
While Heights’ first would-be customers were embarking on their own brain health journeys, Dan and Joel remained focused on content and the brand at the center of it, moreso ahead of introducing Heights to a wider audience.
The Instagram page went live with its first posts September 8, 2019, giving the upstart a few months to define its content strategy across channels while running parallel to the experience of the Heights 100. “We’ve always been more invested in building the brand than we are in selling the product. There’s just such an opportunity to communicate in evidence-based ways that are fun and engaging, and that build trust.”
“There’s just such an opportunity to communicate in evidence-based ways that are fun and engaging, and that build trust.”
Across Instagram and the website that line of thinking manifested itself in a version of the newsletter on steroids or, rather, Heights. The two took their trusted approach, “making everyone sound smarter at a dinner party,” and stretched it to cover every notch of that spectrum. “The content architecture literally goes from a one-sentence summary all the way down to ‘just how nerdy are you?’” (For the nerdy: hyperlinks to science papers.)
The two enlisted London agency Ragged Edge to help nail the brand strategy and creative. Photography was handled by Heights advisor and award-winning commercial photographer Kuba Wieczorek, capturing vitamins as if they were Vogue cover stars. Scrolling through the content now, it’s impossible to imagine one without the other, striking that elusive balance companies tend to labor over for ages.
By the time Heights launched publicly in January 2020—a lifetime in startup years, lightning fast for anyone watching on the sidelines—the vision couldn’t have been more clear. Playful yet educational, fun yet informative.
The Heights Tribe, its most loyal newsletter subscribers, joined in too, sharing their personal mental health journeys, reinforcing another of the duo’s hypotheses: “being open and vulnerable to your community and leading from the front enables people to respond and give back.”
“Being open and vulnerable to your community and leading from the front enables people to respond and give back.”
Results came quick and early. Orders from newsletter subscribers were the first, followed by newcomers spurred on by cosigns from influential figures such as legendary British comedian and broadcaster Stephen Fry.
Among the most telling orders came from an unexpected source: the laboratory that developed the formula. While the lab initially didn’t understand what Heights was attempting to do, once the product was released, it ordered supplements in bulk for the entire team, something it had never done before.
Nine months into Heights’ public life, Dan and Joel are as busy and ambitious as ever. They recently launched a three-month subscription option for those that want a taste of Heights without the year-long commitment. They’re developing even more sustainable packaging, one that will go beyond the bottle’s current reusability, feeding the raw materials back into the supply chain. The company’s first hire, the one that joined in April, will have at least eight other colleagues by the end of September.
Because the landscape Heights exists in is so forward-looking—“our development cycle is a year”—they’re constantly thinking about the future. If psychedelics are legalized, will Heights fold them into its product portfolio? If so, how would it do so in a way that is authentically on-brand?
These are the kind of questions Dan and Joel think about constantly. They’re also the kind of questions that experienced entrepreneurs are able to answer by distilling their company’s mission into a few short sentences: “We’re about trust, not about being first. Anything that pertains to the brain that can be sold with trust, credibility, and science is within our wheelhouse.”
With such a solid foundation, the sky’s the limits for Heights.
All images courtesy of Heights.