After 17 years co-leading successful fintech startup eVestment, Heath Wilson (HCB, ’96) embarked on a new entrepreneurial journey: creating a product that helps families to put down their smartphones and spend time together. Aro, an app and phone system that uses gamification to motivate users to set aside their technology, was birthed out of Wilson’s own struggles to prioritize his family. Wilson and his wife, Mistye, had four young children when he realized something needed to change. With work and travel, he rarely felt present, even when sitting across from his kids at home. With the time he spent on his phone, he knew he had no room to chastise his children about their own technology use. “I’d been a terrible role model in that way,” he says. “It’s hard to tell your kids to put their phones down when you’re staring at yours.
Wilson’s Entrepreneurial DNA
Wilson grew up experiencing entrepreneurship at a personal level — his father was a financial advisor who cold-called prospects to find new clients. “I remember seeing him call people at random out of the white pages,” Wilson says. “I was watching the entrepreneurial experience, and I think there’s an element of risk built into my DNA from growing up in that world.”
After earning his finance degree from the Haslam College of Business, Wilson went to work in Chicago for a year before taking a job with a benefits consulting firm in Atlanta. The firm advised pension funds on how best to invest their money. Wilson’s role involved lots of paperwork and manual processes, which he found archaic and time-consuming. One day in the late 1990s, while he and a few coworkers were eating lunch, they realized that many tasks could be digitized for greater efficiency. “We saw a business opportunity to take this type of work onto the internet,” says Wilson. While they debated the risk of starting their own company, Wilson recalls a mentor who offered sound advice: “‘Try it. If it doesn’t work out, someone will give you a job.’ That was the permission we needed to go for it.”
Over the next 17 years, their startup company, eVestment, grew from the original four founders to more than 500 employees and $100 million in revenue. Wilson poured his energy into the company’s success — and discovered his passion for entrepreneurship. When NASDAQ acquired eVestment in 2017 for $750 million, Wilson knew he would not transition well to a traditional corporate environment. “I quickly realized I’m wired to be an entrepreneur,” he says. “This is what I’m made to do.”
Business With a Purpose
After the sale of eVestment, Wilson’s wife suggested he take a year off, but the sabbatical only lasted a few months before a new venture started to take shape. The idea for Aro sprang from an ongoing conversation between Wilson and his friend, Joey Odom. Both saw the problem of technology overuse in their families and wanted to solve the issue. “As we looked around, we realized everyone is struggling with this,” Wilson says. “We have an entire generation of kids whose parents are staring into screens instead of their children’s eyes. We know a lot about the importance of eye contact and child development, and many children are not getting the undistracted human interaction they need.” Following one of their conversations about smartphone overuse, Odom remembers getting a text from Wilson out of the blue, asking if he’d meet for lunch to talk about a potential business. As Wilson explained his idea for what would become Aro, Odom, co-founder of Aro, was drawn into the possibility through Wilson’s humility and positivity as a business leader. “His optimism,” Odom says, “is contagious.”
Aro, a Māori word meaning “to notice, take heed or turn toward,” is a combination of an app and a smartphone storage device that prompts users to put down their technology and spend time with others. While most household items have places to be put away, Wilson notes, smartphones are typically kept within reach all the time. The aesthetically pleasing storage box, which is also a charging station, acts as a “home” for a family’s devices. “If your phone is in your line of sight, it’s already in use because you’re anticipating it,” Wilson says. “When you give it a home and put it away, you can break your captivation with that powerful device.”
The Aro app nudges users to take a break and put their phones away for a while. Once devices are inside the box, the app takes note of how long each user is apart from their phone and creates a report. Like fitness watches, where users create daily exercise goals and compare progress with others, Aro users can set personal goals and compete to see who can put their device away for the longest time.
Going Aro to Create Priceless Moments
The Wilsons call the practice of putting away phones and spending time together “going Aro.” “We ‘go Aro’ when we want to be 100 percent engaged with one another,” says Mistye Wilson. “It’s an act of love in our family.” She appreciates how Aro clears the way for meaningful conversations. “Last week, our teenage son was so invested in our conversation at dinner that he wanted to keep it going, so we all cleaned up the kitchen, went into the living room and talked for another hour. Those moments are priceless.”
From the beginning, the entire Wilson family contributed to Aro’s development. Mistye and their four teenage children beta tested the app, gave suggestions for improvement and celebrated when the product officially launched in November 2022.
In the meantime, the Wilsons moved to Knoxville, where Aro’s first office was in the business incubator at the Haslam College of Business’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.
Already, users are sending feedback about positive life changes they’ve experienced from reducing device dependency. “My number one hope is that Aro can help change or save marriages and create more intimacy in parent-child relationships,” says Heath. “We live in a very lonely, depressed and anxious society, and most of that started when the smartphone was introduced. I’d love to be a small part of the solution to shift culture — and make it cool to not be on your phone.