How Nick Schwab grew his Alexa skill from a hobby to a business with 5 employees

Staff Writer Jun 16, 2022
Alexa Live Alexa Skills

Sleep Jar develops ambient sounds designed to help users sleep, relax, meditate and focus. Since it began in 2016, Founder and CEO Nick Schwab grew the company from a one-person startup with a few thousand customers to a six-person company serving millions of users.

Schwab achieved this growth by recognizing the possibilities inherent in shaping voice-forward experiences for customers. He also credits his success to being disciplined about growth – he says that businesses pass through different phases as they evolve, and there’s a right time for doing everything, from user research to marketing. 

Phase 1: Focusing on a customer need

After being laid off from his full-time job in 2016, Schwab began researching new technologies in between applying for positions. He got interested in building for Alexa after a friend purchased an Echo device during its limited first release. 

“When the Echo was announced, I saw how voice could shape the next generation of computing,” says Schwab. 

Schwab started using the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), which provides self-service APIs, skill components, and other tools needed to develop Alexa Skills. He began by creating Bargain Buddy, a skill that surfaced daily bargains and deals on Amazon to users. He then built Opening Bell, a skill that checked the current price of a publicly traded stock. 

Schwab continued to build Alexa skills even after he accepted a full-time position. He developed the breakout hit Sleep Jar skill, which plays calming sound loops to help listeners fall asleep faster, sleep better, relax, meditate, or drown out distracting noises. 

Schwab developed the skill to cope with a noisy neighbor who had moved in upstairs. 

“Her dog would bark for hours after she left for work, waking me up at 6am every morning ,” says Schwab. “I made a skill that played ambient sounds, and it really helped me sleep through the noise     .” 

In October 2016, Schwab published the first sleep sounds on the Alexa skills marketplace which would later be brought under the Sleep Jar brand umbrella: Rain SoundsOcean Sounds, and Thunderstorm Sounds

“We created something that didn’t exist yet, and it solved a real problem.” In summer 2017, Schwab registered Sleep Jar as a company after receiving his first payment from Alexa Developer Awards, which provides money to developers for eligible skills that drive some of the highest customer engagement.

Phase 2: Bettering the user experience

Sleep Jar received positive customer feedback and was named as one of the top Alexa skills of the year following its launch. Having worked at startups in the past, Schwab understands the pitfalls of doing too much too quickly. He decided to focus on bettering the user experience, instead of devoting time on public relations or marketing.

“Growth is a balancing act,” says Schwab. “At Sleep Jar, we have always stayed laser focused on helping people sleep and doing it really well.” 

Schwab began by growing Sleep Jar’s library of sounds from three recordings to over 100 sound loops by early 2021. Many of these recordings were requested by customers themselves, including lawnmower sounds, snoring, and a loop of a panting dog. 

“I firmly believe that putting the customer first and having an extensive library is what really helps set our brand apart from the competition,” says Schwab. “Our dedication to the user experience has helped establish Sleep Jar as a strong player in this space.” 

Cut to the present day – and Schwab is expanding Sleep Jar’s capabilities to include narrated stories and guided meditations to help people relax - day and night     . 

“For guided meditations, we focus on helping a customer achieve a calm state of mind, by using relaxing sounds such as a serene lakeshore or a chorus of crickets,” says Schwab. “These experiences combined with affirmations and self-reflections help the customer achieve peace of mind.”

Schwab implemented in-skill purchases for Sleep Jar by launching a premium membership. Sleep Jar’s premium version provides users with longer loops, higher quality sounds, and exclusive content for $1.99 per month. The project was a resounding success; in 2019, Sleep Jar won an award from Project Voice for the best monetization of an Alexa skill. This decision to provide in-skill purchases also provided the company with a steady and predictable stream of revenue that supported its growth. 

Learn more about designing for in-skill purchasing here.

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Phase 3: Beginning to market Sleep Jar

It was only after Schwab had built a strong user experience did he begin to focus his efforts on marketing Sleep Jar. “For the first four years of the company, we focused on building a great product and seeing natural growth based on customer referrals,” says Schwab. “We didn’t actually spend marketing dollars until 2020.”

The Sleep Jar team kicked off marketing efforts by analyzing the best ways to reach audiences across multiple channels.

“There are different thought processes associated with different types of ad mediums,” says Schwab. “We’re still working on finding the perfect marketing approach for us, but we like to experiment with different ideas.” The company runs audio advertisements on Amazon Music, Spotify, and Pandora, as well as visual advertisements on social media sites.

Click here to learn more about growing voice-based businesses on Alexa.

Schwab now employs three full-time employees and two part-time workers at Sleep Jar, including a head writer, two voiceover artists, a product designer, and a mobile developer. The company is looking to expand to at least five full-time staff members by the end of  2022. Sleep Jar is now used by millions of global users, including over 100,000 premium subscribers. Today, Schwab uses Sleep Jar to help him, his wife, and their 7-month old enjoy better sleep.    

Based on customer feedback, Schwab’s team is launching a companion app on Android and iOS (coming soon) to help customers enjoy Sleep Jar’s content on-the-go. Even in the midst of the expansion, Alexa will continue to remain an important technology for Sleep Jar’s growth. 

“We continue to see amazing growth and customer retention on Alexa,” says Schwab. “Offering more exclusive content to our customers on Alexa remains one of our top priorities and we can’t wait for people to listen to our first wave of stories and meditations in the coming weeks.”  

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