Known as ‘The Queen of Apps’, Melody Adhami understands what it takes to build a business in a field without previous experience.
She learned early on that having the right partners and team is definitive for a company to succeed. That’s why, after leaving her traditional job, Melody Adhami opened not one but two prosperous companies and is now venturing into a third entrepreneurial journey with Pollin, a fertility-focused technology platform to power a full suite of person-centric reproductive health services.
When you were growing up, what did you dream of doing as a career later in life?
I probably faced all the challenges most young people face. I remember turning 17, 18, and being in high school and trying to figure out what happens next. Where do I go?
I visited my guidance counsellor, I was applying for university, and I was confused. Didn’t know what I wanted to do, and he sat me down and asked questions to try to get me to where my interests are. He said, ’What are you interested in?’ I go, ’Well, my favourite course right now is this programming course’.
I’ve taken it for several years and I really love it. And he turns around, and he’s like, ’So many people are going into programming and technology. It’s going to be so saturated when you graduate and there’s not going to be any jobs for you’.
He looked at my grades, and he’s like, ’Okay, you’re getting a 97 in biology. I think biology would be great for you’. And I ended up in biology, doing a four years undergrad program.
Right after the second year, I wished that I was in business. I used to have roommates in university, and they were doing projects on the stock programs and all these things that I had no idea about, but I was just so fascinated and interested in. But I decided I was going to stick with the program and complete it because otherwise I’d be set back or set behind some years.
So I finished it, but immediately after, I ended up doing my MBA and switched out of biology and a major in strategic marketing. Then, serendipitously, several years later I ended up meeting someone, and my husband and I started a software company because he was an engineer.
You worked for somebody else prior to launching that business, what was that experience like?
I applied for a job at Unilever, and I was hired in the marketing department. I spent a year there, and in the first three hours. I would pretty much be done with everything, and I would get reviews like, ‘Melody’s so fast. She responds so quickly to our needs. Everything comes back to us’.
I remember sitting the rest of the day and walking around asking people, ’Can I do anything for you?’ I felt like there was always more that I could do. And then, this one day, we had a celebration. We were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the director who had a corner office. And I sat there like, ‘Okay, so I have to go from this cubicle to this cubicle and then to this office, and then the next office, and then the room with the window, and then make it to the corner office’.
So I have to do this for the next 20 years.
I kind of knew, at the one-year point, and I watched my boss and I said, ’This is amazing. I’ve gained really great experience. I don’t have anything else lined up at this moment, but I know that whatever it is, it’s going to have to be my own thing’. So I quit, not having another job.
Really soon after, my husband and I were coming back from our honeymoon, and he said, ‘I think we should start our own business. We don’t have children. We don’t have anything to risk’. That was when we took the plunge and took our first foray into entrepreneurship.
Was it a risky venture for you? Did you feel like this was going to be a big gamble?
We ended up starting a software company. We hired a bunch of people, and we got our first client, Rogers. As a first client, it was amazing, but we had to hire people, and we had to get work done, so we didn’t have tons and tons of savings. We had a house with some equity and the way those big companies take a really long time before they pay you… It’s like net 60 days! And then they lose a check, and then they send another one.
We have $0 left of our account, and we basically went to the bank, and said, ‘Listen. We’re doing this thing, and we have equity in our home. We need a hundred thousand dollars that are in the house, and need to take that and pay our employees’.
For us, we take the risk out of our house. The worst-case scenario was we were going to have to move into my mom’s basement. People ask entrepreneurs, ’Is it luck? Is it hard work?’
Yes, it’s hard work, but you cannot downplay luck. I think we ended up being really early in an industry. We recognized it as an industry, but the industry really exploded on us as we were at the forefront of it. That played a big factor. And we took advantage of it.
What’s the biggest thing you learned?
I did business school, and one of the courses I ignored the most was human resources. And then, that came back to bite you. I remember the first year of business saying, ’Why didn’t I pay any attention in that class?’ People are the hardest part of this job! The most challenging thing is realizing that you are going to be dealing with a lot of different people.
And people have different needs, they work differently. And having to learn and teach yourself how to handle these kinds of situations is really important. Especially if you want to build a business that cares about its employees, is responsible and forward-thinking.
For me, that was always the most challenging and also the most rewarding thing. I’ve built some of my best friends through some of the companies, and I still have those relationships.
How did the idea of starting a new company come about?
2020 hit and I had made the decision that I was at a place where I wasn’t learning anymore, and the pandemic hit as well. I think I felt like that was the perfect time for me to take some time off.
I’d given my notice in May 2020, and I called it a sabbatical, to take some time and figure out what I wanted to do next. I have three young children, so maybe spend some time, and wind down a little bit.
Then, a friend of mine reached out and said, ’It’s the pandemic. The government needs help, and we need people in software. We need to build this software that gates places like schools and people say whether they have symptoms and the school can manage it’.
And this sounds like a really great thing to do. To really get involved in the pandemic and try to fix it. Try to change something. I wanted to identify what I wanted to do next, and I knew one of the criteria needed to be that I wanted it to mean something to me and be impactful. So, yes. I wanted that checked. The two boxes!
We started two weeks after I stopped working. And we really quickly realized that in order to have really good data within our software, we actually needed people to test.
We set up a location to do testing and the business ended up becoming FH Health. Before we knew it, we had 25 locations, and we were testing 10,000 people a day at the height of the pandemic. They were travellers and people who needed to see their parents abroad.
At that time, we felt like we were helping so many people, people who needed surgeries and needed testing.
Being from software, it felt like we had gone back 30 years. There was so much opportunity! That kind of set us on the path. If we’re able to do with covid in such a short span of time and make such leaps and bounds and efficiency in building software and platform, why can’t we do it for another industry?
We did the covid testing for two years, and now what we’ve actually ventured into is the fertility space. With technology and patient experience, I think we can really transform the space. We’ve partnered with some amazing doctors, and we’re really bringing a change in the fertility space that I think is going to be great for consumers and the industry as a whole.
Both your businesses were in fields you didn’t know in depth. How was that learning curve? And how do you make sure you’re getting the information you need to be successful in those areas that are new for you?
Entering a new space takes courage, and people are often scared that they don’t know enough. But I don’t think, as an entrepreneur, that your job is to know everything. Our job is to be able to align the right teams and the right people to get to a solution for what you’re looking for.
I’m not a fertility doctor. So we spent the first six months finding the perfect doctor that was going to represent a brand, believed in our technology mission and vision, wanted to change the space and had the right knowledge and expertise to help us get there.
I have a business partner who’s in marketing and communication that helps. He has one of the largest independently owned advertising agencies, so he’s helping us with the branding and the marketing.
My partner, his background is in software engineering. We built Plastic together, so the platform and the technology that’s being built, we have experts there. It’s about assembling the right team, bringing all the elements that make good business, and then working towards solving problems.
I think my expertise is problem-solving. I always say I put out fires. I hire a lot of amazing people, and they come to me when they are stuck. It’s scary because you’re going into a new field, but if you align yourself with the right people, then I don’t think it has to be scary.
What’s your definition of leadership? How do you define yourself as a leader?
One of the things that’s most important to me in leadership is to be present and approachable to your team. Oftentimes, in leadership positions, people are scared of you or feel like they can’t come to you. They think that they need to solve everything on their own. And I used to say the best employees I’ve ever had are the ones who aren’t afraid to ask good questions.
Not a question that you could just Google, but real questions, and coming to me with real problems. And having the courage to say, ’I don’t know’. I also think it’s on leaders to be approachable and to be a person in their companies to allow their team to be able to do that.
The other thing that’s important is being able to properly position and have people in the right roles. Sometimes you have some employees, who you feel you know, that aren’t thriving. I don’t think that makes that person a bad person or terrible at their job.
It just means that the job they’re in isn’t right for them. And often times it’s about figuring out what people are good at and putting them into things and areas where they can thrive and really shine.
What’s the secret to working alongside your partner, your husband, in business?
Swim lanes! We have swim lanes.
We came up with swim lanes before we became business partners. I used to care about the design of the house. So I said, ’I’m the director of design. And my design decision-making should trump. And you can be the director of technology and electronic equipment’. And I didn’t get to comment on what TV he got to buy.
We carry that same concept into business. So we have our swim lanes. I trust that he’s very good at the things that he’s really great at. And he respects and trusts the things that I’m really good at. And while he runs the technology, and he’s really great at it, he’s also really good at business development. So he’ll assume those roles. And then I will assume other roles, like operations. I love the operating side of the business. And he doesn’t really love that. I love handling the finance teams and working with the financial numbers.
And that’s not really his favourite. We’ve divided the roles and tasks. And I think, after 15 years, it’s just really easy. We know who sits where. What gets really tricky is when everybody wants to make the same decision together. Because at the end of the day, some of these decisions are opinions and I may think something’s going to work, and you may think something else is going to work, and you don’t really know until you try it anyway.
What are your top three pieces of advice for women entrepreneurs?
The first thing I would say is if you are starting a business, you’re an entrepreneur, you need to find yourself a partner. Entrepreneurship is hard. Starting a business is hard. There are times when you need somebody who feels the same thing as you.
Even if they just want to feel terrible with you. And then there are other times where you feel terrible and someone has to bring you up. I think a business partner can do that. I also think sharing the workload and having somebody there when things just feel really tough is so important.
My second advice would be there are really, really high highs, and low lows. And you need to have a coping mechanism. My husband and I used to call it a reset button. A reset was sleep. So we’d have the worst day, the pitch failed, and this person quit, and the lease is up, and we don’t have another space.
And everything that could go wrong in one day has gone wrong. And that client is so angry and has called you 15 times. We would just be like, ’Okay, you know what? It’s eight o’clock, we’re sleeping in two hours. That’ll be a reset. Tomorrow morning is going to be a brand-new day’. And honestly, for us, it was amazing what a night’s sleep would do and how problems that were so bad the night before were easier the next day.
For us, it was sleep, but for other people, it could be meditation, exercise, a holiday, whatever. It has to be. That kind of healthy reset is so necessary.
And the third one, which is super cliché, is to do what you love, or at least what you like enough, and figure that you’re going to be doing it for the next 10 to 15 years. You have to wake up every morning and want to do it. Because it’s going to get hard. And when it’s hard, it’s nice to at least like what you’re doing.
Listen to the podcast interview with Melody Adhami, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of FH Health & Pollin, HERE.