Maryanne Harris, Helen Hassan, Kay Saarinen

It’s true no two days are the same in the startup life. We chatted with three female founders at iAccelerate to openly discuss what the journey of being a startup founder in the current times is like. Sharing advice and insight about working remotely, the real impact of COVID on business, the importance of focusing on your customer, staying connected, and what motivates them every day.

Meet Maryanne Harris, CEO/ Founder of tappON, Helen Hassan, Founder of Living Connected and Bega Valley Innovation Hub’s Kay Saarinen, Co-Founder of Saarinen Organics – three smart and savvy entrepreneurs!

Maryanne Harris, Helen Hassan, Kay Saarinen


Tell us about yourself, what you do and your elevator pitch.

Maryanne: I co-founded tappON after my husband Daniel’s Spinal Cord Injury and our first-hand experience in having strangers come into the home to provide support. We wanted something that gave Dan back the control and flexibility in his health and wellbeing, and a way that we could meet people (even virtually) to get to know them and their experience before they came into the home. tappON helps family in the health and care coordination of their loved ones. We also have a second business RoboFit which is transforming rehabilitation using exoskeletons for people with SCI or stroke survivors.

Helen: I have been an academic for most of my life and currently a semi-retired Professor of Information Systems. Coming from a technical background, I have now become more interested in how and why people use IT. I founded Living Connected as a non-profit community organisation to help people, particularly seniors, learn to use digital devices to remain independent and engaged.

Kay: I co-founded Saarinen Organics, an eco-skin care brand with products developed from herbs grown on our Permaculture farm.

What’s a day “in your shoes” like?

Maryanne: A lot of what we do is customer-facing to make sure tappON is the easiest part of our customers’ day. That includes customer service, marketing, support calls, discussing partnerships, and trying to improve our systems and processes. RoboFit has just launched so working closely with customers in providing bespoke rehabilitation that drives neuroplasticity and recovery.

Helen: Living Connected is a network of hubs from Bulli to Bega. Our purpose is to help seniors learn to use digital devices. As a non-profit community organisation, most of our team, including me, are volunteers. My time is taken up with coordinating with partners, applying for grants, keeping records, writing reports, giving talks to groups, and on-boarding new team members.

Kay: My day involves morning yoga, starting home school starts, printing out and filling orders, checking on crops for some fresh air, harvesting herbs to dry, processing tinctures, or manufacturing creams. Add to that some marketing on the side that involves posting on social media platforms and answering customer inquiries.

Kay Saarinen with  husband Gregg and daughter Gemma at their Permaculture farm in Wyndham, NSW.
Kay Saarinen with husband Gregg and daughter Gemma at their Permaculture farm in Wyndham, NSW.

How has your experience been so far with the recent changes in the working environment and having to work remotely?

Maryanne: It has been an adjustment, given our support professionals are essential services, finding ways to support them and our members during this time as many services are necessary. We are appreciative of our tappON community and the ways in which everyone has adapted and are supporting one another. The sense of support and shared concern our community has shown one another has been. While our team is working a blend of in office on staggered days, and from home we are looking at ways we can continue to support our community during these rapidly changing times.

Helen: I have always promoted the use of technology to make life easier and more meaningful, so I have relished the challenge of putting our services online. We are successfully running group sessions for seniors on Zoom and provided individual help via phone, WhatsApp and Skype. With the COVID19 restrictions people better appreciate our services.

Living Connected has helped the West Wollongong Rotary Club in moving their weekly face-to-face meetings to Zoom. (Photo from Rotary Club of West Wollongong Facebook)
Living Connected has helped the West Wollongong Rotary Club in moving their weekly face-to-face meetings to Zoom. (Photo from Rotary Club of West Wollongong Facebook)

Kay: I work remotely anyway on our farm, after our farm burnt in the recent fires its been a positive experience to be able to mend our farm, having our daughter home as well we are healing emotionally and slowly getting our animals back as we rebuild their enclosures.

Working from home can be distracting; do you have some useful tips for businesses operating remotely?

Maryanne: I think making the time to use video conferencing tools for lunches, Friday afternoon catch ups to try and normalise and keep face-to-face engagement. The biggest priority is checking in on your team and others to make sure they are ok and have the support they need. This experience has been a challenge for our society as a whole, and we are all challenged in different ways, but it can be a catalyst for us to check in more often and be more aware of mental health and wellbeing of one another.

Maryanne at the iAccelerate Pitch Finals in 2019
Maryanne at the iAccelerate Pitch Finals in 2019

Helen: I appreciated the benefits of working from home with good technology and internet, I find the workplace more distracting. I walk around when I am thinking, which is easier to do at home. I encourage people to plan to work from home one or two days a week when life returns to normal

Kay: To avoid distractions we have a morning meeting, set out a realistic task agenda and stick to it, routine and organisation is key.

What were some of the changes your business implemented during this pandemic?

Maryanne: We’ve increased our customer support hours and focusing on our customer service and being there to help people who need additional support. This has led to us shaking up our product roadmap. We have integrated virtual bookings and increasing mental health supports available through tappON. These are changes that reflect the changes we’ve seen in the industry and we think some of these will be here to stay.

Helen: Pre-COVID19, we held group sessions in community centres and aged care facilities. We also did home visits. It was a challenge to roster helpers at each location, now geography is no longer a problem, it makes rostering of helpers easier and enables us to extend our services to more remote areas. Making first contact is harder.

Kay: The biggest change is no face-to-face markets so we are stepping up our game online and also more education and have released a new cream to help with over washed hands.

Describe the most exciting minute of your entrepreneurial journey.

Maryanne: That’s a hard one, as sometimes it feels like the success of solving a problem is short lived, as another one will be there before you know it. Releasing a new part of the product is probably part of being exciting because you know that you are continually making improvements to improve the community. And often the customers are involved in co designing it so there is the shared win of bringing a new feature to life that helps people.

Helen: I don’t like to single out just one exciting minute. I get great joy from the gratitude that our clients have for the help we give them and the satisfaction that our team feel when clients express this gratitude.

Kay: My most exciting minute was realising I had a minimal viable product that was in demand and I created it from scratch, with very little money and on my own.

Saarinen Organics' products are all made from their permaculture farm and laboratory in Wyndham, NSW (Photos by Honey Atkinson for Will Work for Food)
Saarinen Organics’ products are all made from their permaculture farm and laboratory in Wyndham, NSW (Photos by Honey Atkinson for Will Work for Food)

What’s your least favourite part of being an entrepreneur?

Maryanne: Due to the uncertainty and daily challenges if you don’t have the right support structure around you it can be a lonely and difficult journey. It’s important to maintain good mental health practises.

Helen: In our enterprise we rely on grants which are usually short term, getting a sustainable source of income is our challenge and frustrating.

Kay: My least favourite part is having to pay taxes!

What’s a perfect work-life balance situation for you and how do you manage yourself after a long and stressful day at work?

Maryanne: I don’t know if I have figured this one out yet, as we are growing, work is more of a dominating force. I’ve been using tools like Calm for mindfulness practice, and exercise after a long stressful day, even just taking our 2 labradors Barney and Stanley to the beach to burn off some energy.

Helen: I have always worked at something I was passionate about, so tend to over do the work side of the balance. My de-stress methods are to spend time with young people, particularly with the grand kids and to get into the garden and watch things grow.

Living Connected helps seniors with problems associated with using digital devices.
Living Connected helps seniors with problems associated with using digital devices.

Kay: Work life balance I have mastered with incorporating farm life into our business which is a passion of mine, the whole fam gets out there with me and we garden together. We used to incorporate travel and work as well pre C19. After a stressful days work a good walk around the farm is magic to unwind, breath the fresh mountain air and take in the glorious end of day bird songs.

What past experience have you drawn on that has helped you better your business? Have your entrepreneurial motivations changed since you first started?

Maryanne: Before we launched tappON I worked in our family’s business as a 4th generation family member. It was a challenge to work in our growing Aged Care business and be involved from the ground up in the design and construction of our new facility. We worked on transforming the Elder care experience and it was rewarding as my Nan who founded the business ended up moving into the facility. She was a force to be reckoned with and was still running the show right up until she passed away. Lessons I learnt there have helped me building our startup. The customer comes first, relationships matter, invest in your staff and your team and importantly enjoy the journey along the way.

Helen: My research in information systems and networked organisational structures has given a sound basis for the design of Living Connected and the program we deliver We are focusing on what each client wants to do, not on the technology. I continue to be motivated by the desire to put my research findings into practice.

Kay: My Permaculture education I draw on constantly for its all about changing and adapting, not listening to ego, if it’s not working, realise it and move quickly to change it, basically testing and measuring in the business world.

If you had the ability to mentor another female founder what would the first thing you would cover?

Maryanne: Who do they have around them that will support them during this journey. Dealing with a large amount of uncertainty is incredibly challenging. You need people around you who you can be vulnerable with and use as sanity sounding boards particularly when you are going through challenges. Which in a startup is all the time!

tappON's Maryanne Harris aims to bridge he gap between individuals and support workers.
tappON’s Maryanne Harris aims to bridge the gap between individuals and support workers.

Helen: Keep the big picture firmly in mind and don’t compromise it when making day to day decisions. At the same time, be as pragmatic as you can.

Kay: The first thing I would cover would be: What is your Purpose and Passion!

If you could offer a first-time entrepreneur only one piece of advice, what would it be?

Maryanne: An idea is great, but what matters is taking that idea to your customers and having a conversation with them to make sure it resonates with them and it is solving a real problem. There are so many tools out there now that will help you test your ideas. Also, define what success means to you, knowing yourself and how the business you are building will fit into your life is incredibly important.

Helen: Speak out whenever you see unfair treatment or bias of any kind. Make your point but don’t waste time in arguments that will get you nowhere.

Putting her research into practice, Helen Hassan's Living Connected has now provided digital inclusion to seniors in the Illawarra and the South Coas
Putting her research into practice, Helen Hassan’s Living Connected has now provided digital inclusion to seniors in the Illawarra and the South Coas

Caption: Putting her research into practice, Helen Hassan’s Living Connected has now provided digital inclusion to seniors in the Illawarra and the South Coast.

Kay: As a woman in business I say “it doesn’t matter, its Ok, don’t put a barrier up in your head, change the voices in your head, go with confidence, if anyone has a problem with you, it’s their problem”

What is the most important piece of advice you’ve been given from a fellow female founder?

Maryanne: My Nan always taught me to be customer obsessed. Make sure what you are doing helps or benefits your customer. Everything we do at tappON is about improving our customers’ experience and having a positive impact on their life. You can only achieve this by staying close to your customer and not losing sight of what matters to them and what their unmet needs are and knowing how you solve or help this need.

Helen: Not advice exactly but recognition for what we have accomplished in Living Connected.

Kay: From a fellow female founder advice was “I’m here to listen, bounce anything off me”

Kay Saarinen at the Bega Valley Innovation Hub
Kay Saarinen at the Bega Valley Innovation Hub

As a founder, what inspires you to keep going?

Maryanne: While we have achieved a lot with tappON, we are so early on in our journey. We are excited about the things that we are bringing to our community to help remove barriers and helping them achieve their goals.

Helen: Knowing that I am doing something that benefits both our clients and our team members.

Kay: My inspiration to keep going is it works and my products sell and the feedback is inspiring, good and bad. Good makes me feel amazing, bad gives me a challenge to make it right.


About tappON

tappON is an online platform where individuals living with a disability or aged care needs can connect with, chat, and book care and support workers. tappON allows users to connect with an appropriate carer based on qualifications, past work history, and personality. Read more.

About Living Connected

Living Connected provides an integrated and individualised program for older people who are becoming increasingly isolated as they age. Read more.

About Saarinen Organics

Saarinen Organics creates eco-friendly, sustainable skincare, crafted from herbs organically grown on their Permaculture farm. Read more.


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