Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024
Shelpful co-founders, from left, Lydia Swift, Sharon Pope and Chris Morse. (Shelpful Photo)

Shelpful, a Portland, Ore.-based startup that combines artificial intelligence and human empathy to help people stay on task and get stuff done, has checked a major item off its to-do list: the company has raised $3 million from Apollo Projects, the venture fund run by OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and his brothers.

Shelpful — as in super + helpful — is designed to nudge members and provide reminders for any number of things, from taking medication, to getting some exercise, to knocking out simple projects, and more. Those nudges via text message are generated by both human accountability coaches — Shelpers — or an AI productivity assistant — HabitGPT. Or, both, in a three-way chat.

The startup launched in 2021, when co-founder and CEO Sharon Pope was feeling a bit overwhelmed in the midst of the pandemic. A marketing vet who has worked at Y Combinator, Poppy and elsewhere, Pope was working at a startup and just had her second child. She felt like she was getting everything done for everyone else and nothing done for herself.

“I was having that familiar feeling of just being last on my list,” Pope told GeekWire. “I needed a support system, like a little helper sitting on my shoulder reminding me to take care of me.”

The service, which operates mainly over WhatsApp, starts working after members sign up and initially share what they’re working on and interested in. Shelpful’s tech generates core reminders based on those preferences and its AI or human helpers are proactive about reaching out each day.

Pope said she was perfectly happy working at startups and never had a specific desire to start her own, but “it just felt to me like this didn’t exist and it needed to,” she said.

Calling herself a non-engineering “hacky person” proficient in no-code product development, Pope joined forces with co-founders Lydia Swift, a college friend who was handling Microsoft PR at WE Communications, and CTO Chris Morse, who previously worked on Amazon’s Alexa.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman worked with Shelpful’s CEO Sharon Pope at the startup accelerator Y Combinator. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

After talking to friends in her network and posting about Shelpful on social media, word of what Pope was working on reached Altman — the two previously worked together at Loopt and startup accelerator Y Combinator, where Altman was CEO. She received a text — from one of the most powerful figures in tech and AI — in which Altman said he’d heard about her new startup and wanted to catch up.

“We talked and he loved the idea,” Pope said. “He specifically said the element of having humans involved felt important to figure out. In the very beginning we were planning on including AI, and obviously there’s no way I could have known how soon that would be, and how great generative AI would be in that next short while.”

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The $3 million from Apollo Projects is Shelpful’s only funding thus far.

“I’m very, very aware that my fundraising story is the exact opposite of every woman who has ever stepped foot in Silicon Valley,” Pope said. “And I’m exceedingly grateful for that.”

Shelpful now offers three tiers of chat help: HabitGPT (AI) by itself for $35 a month; HabitGPT plus a human assistant for $65 a month; and HabitGPT plus Zoom coaching for $165 a month, in which users get the immediacy of AI, plus quality time with a coach who can talk through issues.

HabitGPT is built on OpenAI’s GPT-4, so members can ask for suggestions and recommendations for such things as recipes or podcasts right in their chat. Members also can vent to the bot at any time and Pope said it’s responses are “surprisingly warm and comforting.”

Shelpful’s HabitGPT chat bot sends reminders and suggestions to users via text message. (Shelpful Photos)

Shelpful has been especially helpful for Pope, as she heard from users who said the product was a perfect tool to help with their ADHD. It led to Pope’s own late-age diagnosis of the neurodivergent condition. She also relied heavily on the tool to help her in April after she had a stroke in her eye and needed more support, including reminders on medication, to-dos, meal prep and more.

After the three co-founders, the startup counts a software designer as its lone employee, along with about 20 contracted Shelpers.

There are other companies, services and apps focused on helping people manage daily life in different ways, including Motion, a smart calendaring system; Inflow, which helps people manage ADHD; and Focusmate, a virtual body doubling service.

“And there are accountability coaches who will be happy to charge you $300 a month to keep you on track,” Pope said.

Are you a Pacific Northwest startup? Here’s how to use GeekWire as a resource.

Shelpful is in the process of enhancing its AI capabilities to provide smarter, faster, and more intuitive services. Upcoming features include advanced habit and task completion reporting, as well as the exploration of AI-hosted Accountability Groups. Calendar integration is another possible addition. And Pope said an app may end up being built.

Shelpful is not therapy, but it is therapeutic, and Pope believes there’s a lot of benefit from feeling heard and feeling like you have a support system, even if it is a bot.

And while she’s continually surprised by what the AI side is able to do, Shelpful will continue to have a human component.

“I think you’ll never beat the speed and efficiency of AI. It’s so powerful,” Pope said. “As the world gets more efficient with AI, I think that there will be an even more stark and apparent place for human touch. Humans will always need humans.”

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