Homebound founder John Meyer created 'vulnerability dinners' where other founders can safely talk about their struggles, with a waiting list in the hundreds
As part of Business Insider's report on how startup founders are experiencing increased mental distress during the pandemic, Homebound founder John Meyer told us about his experience after his father died of suicide in 2017. Opening up to other startup founders over dinner was a "key" part of how he worked through his grief, he said. The experience helped him realize that founders frequently lack social contacts who can help them process personal problems, and they often fear discussing their mental health will lead to professional repercussions like being replaced. So Meyer started hosting what he call "vulnerability dinners" where founders can openly discuss their personal problems. The waitlist for these events, which Meyer held once a quarter before the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to stop, reached into the hundreds. Meyer said he hopes begin holding new dinners over Zoom in the next few months. Read the full story: "Startup founders are quietly suffering with increased mental health issues since the startup of the pandemic and fear being stigmatized"
In 2017, while John Meyer was running his previous startup Fresco News, his father died of suicide. The pressure of running a company while dealing with his personal loss was immense. And, like many CEOs, Meyer had been so dedicated to his work that he didn't feel he had people he could talk to about such a deeply personal matter. Then he found his pressure release almost by accident. During a dinner with friends who also ran startups, he took a chance and opened up about what he'd been going through. To his surprise, his friends started sharing similar experiences. "Once I did it, everyone around the table started doing it," Meyer, who now runs Homebound, told Business Insider. "I ended up realizing that most startup founders, at least these days, are going through very significant life issues outside of their company. But they can't really work through it because they can't find the time to go to therapy. They don't have normal friends who are not in business or startups to talk to about those kinds of things." Meyer found the experience incredibly therapeutic. "Opening up to these folks over dinner was probably one of the most key or primary ways that I worked through healing this crazy experience of losing my father to suicide while running a company," Meyer said. Meyer decided to formalize the dinners and started organizing "vulnerability dinners," where founders could gather and be open about what they were going through. Because the dinners are regional and only happen about once a quarter, Meyer said the waitlist for these events would reach into the hundreds. The appeal of these events is twofold. They're not just places to find support, but also spaces where founders can share their personal problems without having word of them leak out to the wider industry, where mental health issues are still "extremely stigmatized," according to Meyer. "Startup founders worry about if they share, let's say, something vulnerable about a big family issue they're going through that's creating a lot of anxiety and stress that they'll be looked at differently," Meyer said. "Or if it gets back to their investor that the founder is severely depressed, a startup founder worries that their investor will try to literally push them out of the CEO seat temporarily because they're worried that the founder is super depressed and might not be able to run the company effectively." Meyer isn't alone, as Business Insider recently reported, many startup founders, who are always under a lot of duress, are quietly suffering with increased mental health issues under the pandemic. Meyer hasn't held a dinner since the beginning of the U.S. outbreak of COVID-19 for safety reasons. He's also been preoccupied with the recent birth of his first child. But Meyer said he's hoping to organize a new dinner over Zoom "hopefully in the next month or two." "It started out with just me doing these little dinners on my own, sharing my own vulnerable stories," Meyer said. "And then I ended up realizing that a lot of other startup founders are going through similar stuff." Have a story to tell about mental health? Got tips about startups or venture capital? Email Max Jungreis at firstname.lastname@example.org, DM him on Twitter @MaxJungreis, or contact him on encrypted messaging app Signal at (907) 947-0299.SEE ALSO: Startup founders are quietly suffering with increased mental health issues since the startup of the pandemic and fear being stigmatized Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Epidemiologists debunk 13 coronavirus myths
More like this (3)
How to scale a startup and avoid common pitfalls, according to founders and investors who have done it
Scaling a startup is an exciting time, but one that is also fraught with challenges. Many...Scaling a startup is an exciting time, but one that is also fraught with challenges. Many founders wonder how to grow a business that's still relatively new, so we asked entrepreneurs, investors, and management professors for their best practices. The experts advised hiring to fill the gaps in your skillset and prioritizing company culture. Outlining your strategy in a business plan can boost your odds of success. Visit BI Prime for more stories. When it comes to scaling your company, "there is not a one-size-fits-all approach." That's according to Deepak Hegde, associate professor of management and organizations at New York University. Hegde also directs Endless Frontier Labs, which helps technology and science startups scale. (One alum is Analytical Flavor Systems, a machine-learning and artificial-intelligence platform that predicts individual taste profiles that's now being leveraged to design boutique bread flavors.) For one startup, Hegde said, scaling might mean locating a large-scale manufacturing facility to get a product out to wider markets. For another startup, scaling might mean hiring a sales team. Whatever your company's challenge, you'll need a customized plan of attack — plus the willingness to experiment. One of the trickiest parts of scaling is transitioning from founder to people manager. Early on, said Alexi Robichaux, cofounder and CEO of the career-coaching platform BetterUp, "it's about you versus the world." As your company grows, you've got to build an effective team to help you tackle key challenges. We asked Hegde and Robichaux, plus several other founders, entrepreneurship researchers, and executive coaches, to outline the fundamentals of growing a business. Read on for their best practices — and the most common pitfalls to avoid. Start planning to scale as early as possible Formal planning might seem antithetical to the move-fast-and-break-things version of entrepreneurship. And while more research is needed to prove truly conclusive, studies of thousands of startups indicate that having a business plan can boost the odds of success. One study, published in 2017 in Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, looked at data from more than 1,000 entrepreneurs in the US between 2005 and 2011. The researchers compared pairs of founders who were otherwise identical, except one wrote a business plan and the other did not. As it turns out, planners were 16% more likely to succeed than non-planners. (Success was defined as the point when monthly revenues had exceeded monthly expenses for six out of the past 12 months.) Hegde explained why having a business plan can attract investors. "In order to scale, you need money," he said. "But in order to get money, you need to show proof of scalability." The plan is (part of) that proof. "Scaling really is about planning," Hegde said. "It requires thinking maybe two, three, four, five years ahead, rather than simply thinking about how are you going to do the best pitch to sell your first customer or your first VC." A solid strategy is to build a minimum viable product for that would be scalable with the right resources. Then show investors that any money they put in "can be deployed in ways that can meaningfully help expand the markets, or the customer base," and so on, Hegde said. Know why you're scaling in the first place Approach scaling with intention. That's what Hint did. Since 2005, Hint has marketed naturally flavored beverages. It's become a staple at Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook. More recently, Hint expanded its product offerings to include sunscreen and deodorant as well. Hint founder and CEO Kara Goldin has explained to Business Insider the logic behind this expansion. Her goal from the outset was to solve consumers' health problems — whether through safe, affordable sunscreen or nutritious, tasty beverages. In both cases, Goldin said, she realized that there were tons of options on the shelf but that people had no easy way to tell which was the healthiest choice. And even if they could, it would probably be out of their price range. Hint could change that. Remember, too: You're not obligated to scale your business. And it's best to figure out your ambitions around scaling before seeking venture capital. For Hint, scaling has meant reaching roughly 190 employees after 14 years and snagging John Legend as an investor. Scott Kupor, managing partner at Andreessen Horowitz, previously told BI that one of the first things VCs evaluate is market opportunity, i.e. how big your business can eventually get. It's perfectly ok to build a $20 or $30 million company — but it might be hard to convince a VC to partner with you on that. Hire to fill the gaps in your skillset … "As a founder, you are so used to doing everything yourself," Hegde said. "Your startup becomes your baby." That mentality can lead to a few mistakes — namely, trying to do much yourself or micromanaging the employees you bring on. The truth is that no founder is skilled at every aspect of running a startup. Typically, founders are talented salespeople: They can convince a VC to invest, a job candidate to join the team, and a customer to sign up. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll be a good manager — which, if you ask Cat Hernandez, an operations partner at the venture-capital firm Primary Ventures, is fine. "Let's assume that your business grows really quickly and you have hundreds, if not thousands, of employees at some point," Hernandez said. "Your job is to set the strategic direction of the company and, yes, be able to drive a leadership team." "Some parts of that require you to be a good manager — but if you know that's not your core skill, hire people [who have it]," she added. … and do it sooner than later Don't wait to build out your team until you're comfortable delegating responsibility. Do it now! Christine Beckman, the Price Family Chair in Social Innovation and Professor of Public Policy at USC Price, conducted research that found the most successful entrepreneurs hired for specialized roles — say, an operations expert or a marketing expert — early on. "They set it up right from the beginning, rather than trying to go back in time and fix systems and processes that were put in place at the beginning, but no longer work as the company has grown," she said. Beckman analyzed the executive team members at nearly 2,000 startups, plus how long it took those startups to raise capital and to go public. She discovered that founders who try to do everything themselves wind up "trying to cover more functional areas than they necessarily have expertise in" and "slowing things down because there's a bottleneck of decisions needing to go through these general managers," Beckman said. The founders who hired specialized talent were more successful because they saved the entire team time and effort. Steve Martocci, cofounder of GroupMe as well as CEO of the music-creation platform Splice, learned this lesson the hard way. "I waited too long to hire an assistant," Martocci wrote an email to Business Insider. "In the early stages of building the company, I always felt guilty about the expense, because at that point I was so focused on the product that it seemed okay to go without [an assistant]," he said. "But as the stakes got higher, I started missing important meetings that had a material impact on the company," Martocci added. "Having since hired an experienced assistant, I can attest to the significant value that she has provided me, and by default, the company." Learn to delegate So you've hired some new team members. The next step is letting them do the work they signed up for. It's not as easy as it sounds. To Robichaux, cofounder and CEO of BetterUp, it's about deferring to people with more specialized skillsets. "If you're a really good early-stage founder, you're probably a high performer who's a really talented individual contributor in some vector," he said. "You may not be good at everything, but you're good at programming, you're good at product, you're good at sales. That only gets you so far." As your startup grows, he noted, you have to get comfortable managing a team that's more high-performing than you are individually. Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith has explained why delegation can be difficult (for new managers in general, not just founding CEOs). Successful people typically advance by proving over and over again how intelligent they are. They're inclined to do the same once they're in a leadership position — even though that can backfire. The biggest challenge for new managers "is not always winning," Goldsmith previously told Business Insider. Instead, they learn to position others to do the winning for the organization. Prioritize company culture — and tweak where necessary "Culture" might seem like a fuzzy concept, but Hegde emphasized its importance. He said founders should make sure the people they bring on are aligned with their culture — even if they don't yet have a section of their website that outlines the company's mission statement and values. Another common mistake is "not subtracting when you add," said Ethan Mollick, associate professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "The things that made you successful early on aren't always useful later," he said, such as all-hands meetings (a.k.a. all-staff meetings), which might not be helpful or even feasible once the company reaches 500 employees. Other misadventures in scaling have played out in the examples of startups like WeWork and Away, each of which struggled to balance their unique company culture with extraordinary growth. For WeWork, the party-like atmosphere that may have appealed to the earliest team-members appears to have hurt the company's attempt to go public. Business Insider spoke with current and former employees who described non-stop work requirements amid an alcohol-fueled, highly sexualized environment. Revelations about WeWork's culture — in addition to its financial health — devastated its reputation with investors and the public, and led some employees to worry about their career prospects with other companies. And for Away, the luggage startup's VP of people and culture told Business Insider that the leadership team prioritized employee experience, and was developing sophisticated HR practices for such a young company. But less than a week later, news broke that the high-pressure work environment led former employees to accuse the company of bullying and harassment. The resulting scandal led cofounder Steph Korey to step down from her role as CEO. Scaling, in so many ways, is about adapting to the organization you've created. Accept that you need to take care of yourself first Somewhat counterintuitively, your top concern as a team leader is … you. And Robichaux said that's where most founders go wrong. "We think our job first and foremost is to take care of other people," he said, when in fact "your No. 1 job as a leader is to take care of yourself." Justin Kan, the founder of Twitch and Atrium, recently shared about his firsthand with the challenges of entrepreneurial mental health. "You can be burned out no matter how successful you are, and you can be unhappy no matter how successful you are," said Kan, who sold his first startup for $1 billion. The stress trend is a national one: a 2012 Gallup poll found that entrepreneurs were more likely than other workers in the US to feel worried and stressed. That doesn't mean you invest in self-care at the expense of the company's well-being. That also doesn't mean you take a monthlong vacation while your company's imploding. By taking care of yourself, Robichaux means getting "in a good mind space" and having "the emotional resources to be compassionate and not snap at someone." It's why Robichaux prioritizes physical workouts as well as mindfulness exercises in his schedule. "That is more important than looking at this other document at 11 p.m. That is more important than getting someone feedback late at night," he said. If Robichaux doesn't make time for exercise and mindfulness, he's operating from a "faulty foundation and everything will suffer."SEE ALSO: The first-time founder's ultimate guide to pitching a VC SEE ALSO: A Columbia professor who has taught MBA students for 15 years says graduates no longer aim for Goldman Sachs or Google. Here’s what today’s top talent want to do with their degrees. SEE ALSO: The cofounder of GroupMe was 27 when the text-messaging platform sold for $85 million just a year after launch. Now, he’s raised $107 million for a music startup that could make him even more successful. Here are his lessons for pitching, leading, and building a company. SEE ALSO: An employee-coaching startup used by Airbnb and LinkedIn just raised $103 million in a Series C round Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Tax Day is now July 15 — this is what it's like to do your own taxes for the very first time
The coronavirus lockdown has made mental health startups more important than ever, according to founders and investors. Here's why the sector is exploding.
Mental health startups have seen a boom in usage since the coronavirus lockdowns in Europe took...Mental health startups have seen a boom in usage since the coronavirus lockdowns in Europe took effect. The sector had long been subject to stigma around mental health, therapy, and counselling in the UK and Europe, compared with the US. However, data from Octopus Ventures indicates that global venture capital investment in mental health technology increased almost five-fold between 2014 and 2019. "Whilst Covid-19 has helped to sharpen focus on the need for mental wellness — with so much uncertainty in the world — even before the pandemic, we're keen to invest in a sector that helps more people to focus on self-care, improving their mental health," said Eileen Burbidge, partner at London-based VC fund Passion Capital. Click here for more BI Prime stories. Mental health startups have seen a boom in usage since the coronavirus lockdowns in Europe took effect. The sector had long been subject to stigma around mental health, therapy, and counselling in the UK and Europe, compared with the U.S. Mental health, costs are estimated at $650 million in Europe according to the OECD in 2018 while in England alone, the Department of Health estimates that the cost of mental illness to employers is £105 billion ($136 billion). And that's not including the human cost of mental illness. However, data from Octopus Ventures indicates that global venture capital investment in mental health technology increased almost five-fold between 2014 and 2019. VC funding went from £120 million in 2014 to £580 million in 2019 but there is still a long way to go. "It's crucial that we open up a discourse around 'taboo' areas of health, and the venture capital industry has a role to play initiating this," Kamran Adle, early stage investor in the Future of Health team at Octopus Ventures, told Business Insider. "Mental health is a complex and nuanced field and no two individuals will have the same experience, meaning the issue cannot be addressed with a one-size-fits-all approach. To meet this demand, we believe investors will need to support a variety of companies and solutions as this is not a winner-takes-all market. In total, £2.04 billion was invested in mental health technology over those six years, representing 15% of total investment in digital health companies. Unsurprisingly, coronavirus has brought many ongoing mental health issues into stark relief with many traditional forms of support seemingly unavailable to most. "Whilst Covid-19 has helped to sharpen focus on the need for mental wellness — with so much uncertainty in the world — even before the pandemic, we're keen to invest in a sector that helps more people to focus on self-care, improving their mental health," said Eileen Burbidge, partner at London-based VC fund Passion Capital, in an interview. Startups are booming Much in the same way health tech startups in other fields have pivoted to support key and essential workers, mental health companies have seen spikes in usage during the pandemic. London-based Spill, a message-based therapy app designed to help improve workplace well-being, had the same amount of inbound enquiries in the past two months as the previous two years, the company told Business Insider. Month-on-month usage of its video therapy service is up four-fold since lockdown began in the UK. Similarly, another London-based startup Juno, which provides wellbeing services for employers, has seen weekly usage increase from 65% to 80% during lockdown, with users moving away from "traditional" wellbeing services like mindfulness, to things like help with sorting groceries, the company's CEO, Ally Fekaiki told Business Insider in an interview. Mental health provision in the workplace has equally become a key issue with many staff forced to work remotely, if at all, during the current crisis. UK tech startup Unmind is hopeful it can help treat some 10 million people going forward and praised the message of "kindness" being utilized during this year's Mental Health Awareness Week. The startup began offering its services to NHS workers for free during the pandemic and has had more than 30,000 essential workers sign up since March. "We cannot underestimate the long-term impact of this pandemic on our mental health, but should also remain optimistic about what this means for the topic," Nick Taylor, CEO and cofounder of London-based mental health startup Unmind, told Business Insider. Covid changes Investors are in agreement that more can be done to back mental health startups. Even before Covid-19, the sector had seen greater maturity and a general shift in values from both users and employers that mental health concerns had greater validity. "Covid has raised the importance of mental health overall, but also changed the way people are willing to communicate, and I believe those attitudes toward communication will remain post-Covid," Carlos Eduardo Espinal, Partner at early stage fund Seedcamp, told Business Insider in an interview. The inability to visit a therapist or enjoy other treatments, distractions, and medical benefits, has led people to consider virtual offerings more than ever. The expansion of telemedicine and greater trust in chat services offer a glimmer of hope that tech can change the way humans seek help for mental health issues. SEE ALSO: These are the 15 European health startups investors think will blow up during the coronavirus pandemic Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Why thoroughbred horse semen is the world's most expensive liquid
Work-at-home VCs are changing how they do deals and one of Silicon Valley's most prolific seed stage investors says that's bad news for startups courting new investors
Venture capitalist Semil Shah says a founder's relationships matter more than ever in a work from...Venture capitalist Semil Shah says a founder's relationships matter more than ever in a work from home era. As investors adjust to a new normal, they might not have "the mental headspace" to build a relationship with entrepreneurs they don't know, according to the Haystack partner. Shah said that institutional funds might be more inclined to spend their reserves funding and reinforcing their existing portfolio companies. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. As the coronavirus recession looms larger, venture capitalists are being forced to make tough decisions about how they invest their money — and relationships with startup founders are more important than ever. The good news, says Semil Shah, one of Silicon Valley's most prolific seed-stage investors, is that funding deals that were in the works before early March are still closing. But, he says, the disruption and caution caused by the virus means a lot more uncertainty for startups looking to bring new investors into their next round. "So much of this is a trust game," Shah told Business Insider. "I don't know in general if most VCs have the mental headspace right now to build a new relationship. I'm sure some do." Like much of the global workforce right now, venture capitalists are adjusting to a new normal working from home. They are taking pitches on Zoom video chats and deciding on deals in virtual partner meetings. On top of it, Shah said, "most decision-makers" have kids just outside the video frame that they're trying to keep occupied. The disarray means that partners at institutional firms could be more likely to pass over founders who they have no prior relationship with, because it's too much to handle right now, Shah said. "This is why I feel existing relationships will increase in value," Shah recently wrote in an essay on his website. "Psychologically, it is much easier for a VC to gain conviction in writing a check when he/she already knows the CEO, some team members, and so forth." He added that check size matters. It's going to be harder to convince an investor who the founder doesn't know to write a check for $15 million for an oversize early round, than it is to collect smaller checks at the seed stage. A venture firm has to decide if its reserves would be better spent funding and reinforcing its existing portfolio. It's going to take longer to close deals without a relationship Shah puts in overtime as an investor, holding partner roles at both Lightspeed Venture Partners and his own institutional seed-stage fund, Haystack. He said he's not closed off to meeting founders he doesn't already know. Haystack is establishing processes for making decisions remotely, which Shah told us might require more diligence than is typical. The firm might ask for more references or reach out to more customers. The extra effort could spread out the time it takes to make an investing decision. Shah also wants to have a virtual coffee date with the entrepreneur before backing them, the purpose of which is entirely social. It's not unusual for an investor to grab a meal with a founder near the end of the deals process to get a better sense of their character. "You can't really hide at dinner," he said.SEE ALSO: The Sequoia investor who left to start his own VC firm says startup founders can table their plans to raise funding. Here's what they need to do instead. Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: 4 potential coronavirus treatments that researchers are working on right now