Interview with James Allen: Founder & CEO of ‘Chronic Insights’ Pain Tracking App
James Allen is the CEO of Chronic Insights, a company he founded to help people who have chronic health conditions. His first product is the Chronic Insights mobile app, a symptom diary for people with chronic health conditions. Chronic Insights is designed to help users recall, visualise and gain insight from changes in symptoms over time. This is inspired by his own experience of living with ankylosing spondylitis (AS).
What was the inspiration behind creating the app?
I have an autoimmune disease called ankylosing spondylitis (AS) which, like all other autoimmune diseases, means that my immune system is attacking cells in my body. AS is similar to rheumatoid arthritis (RA), but whereas RA tends to affect hands and feet, AS tends to affect the spine, shoulders, hips, ribcage and occasionally other joints and the eyes. Like RA, AS causes inflammation, pain, and fatigue.
When I see my rheumatologist, I only have 10-20 minutes to explain everything that’s happened to me in the past several months. It’s difficult to put into words, or even just to remember, especially after bad patches, or changing medications.
The other thing that I found frustrating is that they only see you as a snapshot in time, just that one moment that you’re there for the appointment. And it was usually a good day when I went to see them. I’d think, if you saw me yesterday, you might have a completely different picture of what I’m actually going through.
That’s what got me started thinking about symptom tracking diaries. I tried lots of different symptom diary apps, but I just didn’t really like any of them. I really wanted to be able to record where on my body the pain had been.
How did you get started with building the app?
It started as an electronics project. I made a watch with three physical dials that I could turn to say how much pain I was in. Inside was a little Bluetooth chip, which would talk to my phone.
Then at Newcastle University I was inspired by a lecturer who had also created their own business. At that exact time there were people recruiting for a startup accelerator called Ignite. We were taught how to start up a business; things like finance, marketing, and customer development.
In terms of the actual app development, I’ve done it all myself. I had my experience of programming from Perfect Image. But I had never done a full mobile app before.
What did you do at Perfect Image?
I started at Perfect Image as a developer, working on web and desktop apps. Then we specialised in Qlik and I became a Business Intelligence consultant. I worked on projects with customers who wanted to understand their data more and what’s going on in their business. What would allow them to find out what’s going wrong, make good decisions, and plan for the future?
That sounds a lot like your app – helping people to find insights into what is going on with their bodies, helping them to use data about themselves to their advantage. What was it like, juggling a full-time job and chronic pain?
There is a lot of overlap. I hadn’t quite connected that because there was a while between PI and me starting the app.
AS is really difficult to manage alongside any job. My condition is constantly up and down, I can’t really predict it. It became really difficult to do the travelling that I needed to do. Perfect Image were really good about being flexible. They got me a standing desk and a special chair to use.
Then I had a really bad flare up. I was basically living on the sofa for eight months. It took me a long time to get my strength back because I lost a lot of weight. I was able to come back to work really gradually. They did everything that they possibly could have done to help me. I’m really grateful for that. And Rob [Hankin, now CEO], especially, he came around to my house just to see me and check on how I was doing.
I left Perfect Image because I realised that I needed to do something that was more flexible with time. I went back to university to study for a PhD, to get into lecturing, because I like to teach.
testimonial about james & chronic insightsI've known James for a number of years, having worked with him at Perfect Image. Having suffered chronic pain myself for the past 24 years, after a spinal injury and numerous surgeries, I know that a big challenge in managing pain is tracking how you feel day to day and being able to communicate this back to medical professionals. Chronic Insights fills this gap perfectly. Now I can track my pain day to day and show or even share that information with my pain management team. James's drive and determination is an inspiration! Dave Elliott, Global Solutions and Data Innovation Manager at Mayborn Group
What was it like to start your own business?
I’ve learned a lot about mobile app development. I’m using a development framework called Flutter, which cuts down a lot of time, and that’s helpful when you’re doing everything yourself.
When you think about startups, you think about long hours, working every day from the crack of dawn until the last thing at night. But for me, I just can’t do that. I started two years ago on this. At first I thought, can I actually do this with a condition? Maybe this is the worst thing that I could have picked, because I know I can’t work as much as maybe other people. But I’ve just taken it one day at a time and made sure that I make a little bit of progress every day.
There’s the well-known saying of “you can’t be what you can’t see” and seeing your success will be inspirational for others with chronic pain doubting whether they can start a business, as well as your app being helpful. Where is the app currently at in its development?
The iPhone app is fully live on the App Store, even though it’s still at an early stage and will be changing a lot as I get feedback. The Android version is on the Play Store as a beta. With Apple, betas can only be released through an app called Test Flight – however Test Flight doesn’t allow any real in-app payments. For me that’s a big limitation because I need to continually measure how many people actually pay for the subscription while I’m iterating through different designs of the app, so that I know what works and what doesn’t.
What have you learned about starting a business?
What I learned is that when starting a business, it’s really important to focus on one specific thing and not try and make it an app for everything. I know AS and it’s something I’ve lived with for 20 years, so that’s what I’m focusing on. You get a 3D model of a person which you can rotate and record pain. But in the future, it could be used for all sorts of other conditions like fibromyalgia, endometriosis, migraines, MS, lupus – the list is endless.
You’ve got the app out there, and you’ve got people downloading it and trialling it. I’m interested in your short term, more practical goals, and if there were no boundaries, what you’d love to achieve long-term in the future?
The first thing is to listen to what people think of the app, see how many people subscribe, and see what I can add to improve the app.
The mid-term goal is to basically see if I can make a sustainable business. I’m going to be doing a lot of social media to build up a community around the app. I’m going to review products that I think might help people, and get into affiliate marketing as a potential revenue source.
Long-term, I have a few ideas. I might set myself up as an independent app developer and use what I’ve learned to help other start-ups create their first product and get it out to market – that would be really cool.
I keep coming across startups that have a great idea but don’t have a technical founder, and need help figuring out what to do next. People tell me that I can communicate and teach pretty well, and finding people who are technical but can explain the basics to non-technical founders is pretty hard. I’m also considering doing online courses to teach non-techies what they need to know to learn, hire or outsource IT, or how to find a co-founder. Alternatively I’d like to be a technical advisor on the board of another startup.
So back to that consultant role again – it’s all come full circle? The online courses sound like they would be ideal and would put you in control; you can record courses and put them out there?
Yes, and I imagine demand is increasing for people wanting to re-skill in IT and start up their own businesses. It’s a good time to start doing something like that.
On that point, what advice would you give to people who are considering starting their own app or business?
But what I would say is pick out the advice that applies to you. Figure out what works for you. Because what works for you doesn’t necessarily work for other people.
Figure out what you need to do today to move your business one step further forward. Just do it. Try not to be overwhelmed with the whole thing all at once. Just figure out what one thing you can do today, and focus on that.
Thanks to James for his time for this interview!
Connect with James Allen
You can check out the Chronic Insights website for more information about his business and app.
Connect with James on LinkedIn for his latest updates.
You can email James at [email protected].