For this virtual event with WENYC, we sat down, connected & reflected with April Koh, Founder and CEO of SpringHealth. We dove into her story, exploring what drove her to start her business, discussed trials & tribulations, and also how she is positively impacting the industry she is in.
About April Koh:
April Koh is the CEO and founder of Spring Health, a comprehensive mental health benefit for modern employers. Prior to starting Spring, April served as Chief Product Officer at Spylight and Product Manager at Shazam. April has received honors from the American Psychiatric Association and Harvard Innovation Lab, and has been featured in Crain's, Wall Street Journal, and National Quality Forum. April Koh was named Forbes 30 Under 30 2018 in Consumer Technology, a Goldman Sachs 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs in 2019, and is a Yale Entrepreneurial Institute fellow.
WE NYC – Women Entrepreneurs of New York City- is the official initiative of the City of New York to support and empower women entrepreneurs. Housed under the NYC Department of Small Business Services, WE NYC is the first City program in the country to address the entrepreneurship gender gap by offering a set of business services tailored to the needs of women entrepreneurs. WE NYC programming is divided into four areas, WE Master, WE Connect, WE Fund Crowd and WE Legal. You can register online for their free and open to the public mentor sessions, workshops, events, and legal consultations at we.nyc.
Noelle Tassey 0:06
Awesome. Hi, everybody. Happy Thursday and welcome to today's Unfiltered with April Koh of Spring Health and in partnership with 5G Labs and WENYC. Thank you all so much for sharing your afternoon with us. I'm so excited about today's chat April's got an amazing story, amazing journey, amazing product, especially, you know, working with WENYC to bring this to you guys, obviously, total privilege. For those of you who don't know, I'm Noelle Tassey, CEO of Alley. At Alley, we are a community both digital and physical of entrepreneurs. We partner with large corporations such as Verizon 5G Labs and other innovation initiatives to connect the resources of our corporate partners to innovative early-stage startups. For more information, you can visit us at Alley.com. WENYC, our partners putting on this event for those of you who don't know, is the Women Entrepreneurs of New York City. It is the official initiative of the City of New York to support and empower female entrepreneurs and is the first program in the country to address the entrepreneurship gender gap. So we're super, super excited to partner with them, obviously, especially around this panel, and excited to hear about April. So April is gonna tell you guys a little bit more about herself. And then we're gonna jump right into the chat.
April Koh 1:30
Awesome. I'm sorry, should I just give a brief background on me?
April Koh 1:35
So I'm April, CEO of Spring Health. We started the company about four years ago. We're a comprehensive mental health solution for employers. Essentially what that means is that we work with some of the largest and most progressive employers in the country today like Pfizer, Cisco, Gap, Whole Foods, MongoDB, Box, Equinox to give their employees seamless, frictionless access to really high-quality care. So I started the company four years ago because I wanted to build a world where guessing had no place in mental health care. There's so much guessing involved in mental healthcare and not a lot of people talk about it. And everyone's really focused on improving access to care. But no one really talks about improving access to the right care. And I watched my best friend go through four different providers and seven different antidepressants and go in and out of the hospital and trying to find something that works for her. I've gone through my own trial and error journey in mental health care. And I wanted to build a world where we can use data to match people to what would work for them from the start so that people don't have to go through this guessing game. So I've partnered with Adam, who's one of the world's leading experts on computational psychiatry to build a platform that would essentially evaluate you holistically on your behavioral health or mental health, understand exactly what you're going through and then precisely matching you to the right care for you whether that's exercise or mindfulness or meditation. All the way down to full-blown therapy and psychiatry. Yeah, that's basically me in a nutshell.
Noelle Tassey 3:05
Noelle Tassey 3:09
Terrific. Thank you. And thanks again for joining us today. I'm so excited, at Alley you know, some of the topics that we touch on a lot for those of you who've joined several of these talks we talk about— a lot about mental health in the workplace, de-stigmatizing that, finding new solutions, pushing forward we talk a lot about female entrepreneurs and then just the journey of founding a company, launching it, growing it and all of the— you know the pitfalls and triumphs along the way. It's obviously a complete roller coaster. So really, really excited about this one. I guess just to start April, I know you gave us like the quick version of why you started Spring Health. I know you are actually a serial entrepreneur and you started another business for Spring Health. If you want to just give us kind of a quick overview of what that was and then how you ended up after starting a business successfully and exiting before even getting your college degree, which is incredible, you decided that you were going to start another business.
April Koh 4:04
Yeah. So the first company that I started, I started with a few other college friends. We all went to Yale together. And it was an e-commerce. And it was based in LA. And we— I actually dropped out of school to pursue that. And it was a fun ride. And I learned so much. And I was a CEO. I was one of the co-founders, I was Chief Product Officer there. And so I learned a lot about building great products. And I left because I wanted to pursue something bigger. You know, starting a company is really exciting. But I wanted to do something bigger than help people buy clothes, and I wanted to do something that fundamentally changed the world. And so I left that company and went back to school to finish my last year. And I knew I wanted to do something big. I knew I wanted to do something impactful. I knew I wanted to spend a decade— decade or decades of my life to another project, and the only thing that I cared that much about was fixing mental health care. And so, you know, that's what I set out to do. And the story is actually quite, quite interesting and unique. So I was really intent on building something in mental healthcare. So I actually read papers coming out of Yale psychiatry. And I came across the big paper that ultimately led me to my co-founder, he wrote it, and it was published in one of the top psychiatry journals out there. And it was the first paper to show that we could use machine learning to actually outperform the average psychiatrists in matching someone to the right treatment for them. And I was so compelled by this approach, I fell in love with it immediately. I cold emailed the author— who was a Ph.D. candidate, and he's absolutely brilliant and somehow convinced him to commercialize IP with me and get the exclusive license on that IP out of Yale, and we did. And, you know, we started this journey with this fundamental vision that hasn't wavered ever since, which is to use data to transform psychiatry. To build a solution where we help patients collect their data and learn from their data to help future patients even better. And so that led us to build an end-to-end solution that we started selling it to HR and employers and we've grown quite a bit since then. So, you know, I remember the first Angel check that we got. And our first investors— like Kevin Ryan was one of our first investors and that was an incredible, incredible inflection point for us. We've raised 30 million to date. And we're about 60 people based in Gramercy Park. And yeah, it's a group of awesome mission-driven people just trying to change mental healthcare.
Noelle Tassey 6:55
No big deal, just trying to change one of the most important fields in modern healthcare, and something we need now more than ever. So there's so much there, I would love to hear more. So the cold email story is totally amazing. And I actually— when I left banking and got into tech, I got my first job in tech in a similar way, but it was a job, not a co-founder. So I'm curious— and that ended up being one of the most like fruitful working relationships in my career. But still, how did you— you know, you sent the email, I guess, you know, I assume you guys met for coffee? How did you know you actually wanted to go the distance, you know, 10 years tackling this huge, like societal issue with this person? And how did you convince them that you were for real too?
April Koh 7:41
That's such a good question. So I learned a lot about co-founder dynamics with my first startup. And so there were a lot of learnings from that that I kind of brought into this company and I think a lot of it's good. Like even before Spring Health when I was on campus, like trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I actually tested out a few other ideas and tested out a few other co-founder relationships and, you know, you kind of know very quickly if you're going to work well with someone. And so, you know, we would test it out a little bit by going out for pitch contests together and you know, prepping for that or putting together a grant application together or whatever. And there were these little tests, right? Like these little mini-projects that we would do to test out how we work together. And I— it just felt very natural. And so, you know, it wasn't so much like, okay, I'm gonna do this whole analysis to figure out whether you'll be a compatible co-founder from you. It's just like little tests that— testing character, testing compatibility, right? And then just the decision every day to work on our day together. So that's the co-founding relationship. And I grabbed coffee with him after reaching out cold, and first, he would— he was really confused why I wanted to meet. But essentially, he had this fantastic algorithm that I created a website for, right? To make his algorithm available to other people. And I also very quickly, I am a technical person, and I know how to code so I built it really quickly. I think he was really impressed by that. And he was really impressed about the idea that cool ideas could break out of the boundaries of academia, right? And actually make an impact in the real world. Like as soon as I put his algorithm online and build a website around it, he got it. He was like, oh, I should be doing this instead of publishing more papers.
Noelle Tassey 9:45
Love that. And when you go— when you put the algorithm online, what was like the end-game at that point? Were you kind of like, Oh, I'm still like— I'm kind of working towards starting a company with this person, we're going to change the world, or was it just like, let's just like put this up, see what people do with it— maybe a little bit both?
April Koh 10:02
It was a little bit of both. I think— I think what's so critical for co-founding relationships is to build moment— like, try to build opportunities for momentum wherever possible, because you— especially in the early stages, like you both, or you all if you're a co-founding team, you will all need like little reasons to keep going. And so for us, those moments of momentum were winning contests, winning grants, and we actually got 100K of non-dilutive capital and grant money basically to work with and that got us started. And then based on that we built enough to raise a small seed round, and then we raised a seed B Round and then we raised our A. So, yeah.
Noelle Tassey 10:49
That's a little bit of momentum right into a whole lot. So— well, let's talk since you brought it up, let's talk about raising venture capital. I think this is one of the topics we get the most questions on at all of our panels. And you've got, I think, just such like a great story just in terms of, you've really been through the whole process at so many different stages of growth of your company. And you've done it like not only that, but you've done it as a woman, which is kind of like, you know, backwards in heels. You know, I don't think it's like a secret, but it is typically harder for female founders to raise. So just would love to hear about that experience. And then also we have an audience question about how you research VCs to approach. So—
April Koh 11:34
Yeah, so, fundraising. I have so many thoughts around it and fundraising is— no matter how good you are at it, it's never fun. It's like, it's— it's kind of like doing sales and so in that way, it's fun because you get that adrenaline rush. I love pitching, and I love meeting people and I love closing. But it's hard in that it's— it is, unfortunately, really sexist. And then you know, when you get your nose, you know, you start to fundamentally doubt yourself and the model, even though you know, it's not really a personal thing. But in terms of how I fundraise— so initially I used my— I used a— I started off with a small network, and then I basically used that network to build a much bigger network. So the small network that I started with was the Yale network, Kevin Ryan's is a prominent Yalie, and he's very involved in the community, and he's very well-known in New York. And so he opened up doors in New York for me. Our CB was actually exclusively female venture capitalists and I did that on purpose. I found it to be really fun and cool to have an exclusively-female VC round. I don't know if that's ever been done— I mean, I'm sure it's been done before. But it was really unique. It was like eight investors and all female. Really cool dynamic. And so I had a really fun board dynamic. And then we brought in a Midas list investor, PJ, who was the first investor in Spotify for the latest round, and that's really rounding up the board for us. But in terms of fundraising strategies, I think, you know, early on, I actually received some advice from a female entrepreneur, quite successful, really wonderful person who told me never to pitch without a guy next to me. And I remember thinking that that was some weird advice. It's probably pragmatic and probably works, but it feels like we're perpetuating, you know, sexism in fundraising. And so you know, sometimes I go out alone, sometimes I take Adam with me. But I've also received advice to always bring someone whether it's a man or woman because it allows you to cover ground much more naturally. And if you forget an answer to something, you have someone next to you who's able to fill in those gaps. So I would give that advice. Yeah, I have a lot of other ideas, but I don't want to keep going on and on and on. Are there any other specific questions around fundraising, maybe that I could answer?
Noelle Tassey 14:40
You know— and that's to our audience, if you guys want to use the Q&A function and jump in with fundraising questions, please feel free. Because I'm curious, we've talked a lot in our panels in the past about knowing when to raise and how important it is to pick who you're raising with. And obviously, you know, that you raised an all-female round, which is so cool. And certainly, if it's not a first, certainly a first for one of our panelists, which is awesome and genuinely makes me— it makes me happy just that they're even eight women that you could raise from frankly— like who are true VCs. Because if you look at like, where New York tech was, like 10 years ago, you would have been really hard-pressed to do that. So I think that's such great— a great sign of progress. But yeah, and I think everybody is always curious, how do you decide this is the time to raise, this is how much we're going to raise. There's so many little mistakes you can make in that process that will drive the growth of your company in the wrong direction, and force you to tie yourself to metrics that are gonna eventually crush you during down rounds. Like what are some of those pitfalls that you saw and dodged?
April Koh 15:48
Yeah. I think the one thing I'm really proud of is that we've always been really intentional with our fundraising. I think it's really easy to use fundraising as like a metric to success, like how much have you raised and you know, compare yourself to other entrepreneurs and the more you've raised, like, the more prestigious your company is. But in fact, it's sometimes the opposite. Like we have competitors who have raised so much and we've achieved just as much with much less capital, right? And so for me, I care much more about capital efficiency and deploying the capital strategically and well, rather than just like kind of hoard cash and build a huge, you know, war chest. And so what that leads me to do is like, really take a step back every time we fundraise and tell myself what am I trying to accomplish with this capital? What are the big milestones that we're trying to hit? And what is the bare minimum that we need to achieve these goals? And then double it just to be safe. Some lessons that I learned are— one is I would say— I finished up my last round very quickly. And I think it's because there was a lot of demand for Spring Health because our numbers were really good and we were growing really well. I very intentionally kind of time-boxed it and only focused on fundraising. So I think a lot of people fundraise and do a lot of other things at the same time and try to run their company. I actually really leaned on my SVP of operations who's fantastic, Riley, and I said, run the company while I'm fundraising. And that freed me up to just focus on fundraising. And then within a month, I had a term sheet, and we were good to go. So focus is everything and that's how I generally operate anyway, I always focus on just like one or two things and just keep my head down and work on those things.
Noelle Tassey 18:06
I think that's— that's so interesting. We hear so many founders come on who say kind of exactly what you did around like focus element, just how time-consuming it is to raise. I think you're one of the first who's truly just said, you know, I handed the reins over for a while because this was the most important thing for me to be doing. I think a lot of leaders and CEOs struggle with that. Was that like, hard for you to do or— Yeah.
April Koh 18:31
Well, I mean, I very intentionally make sure that my exec team are people that are better than me and who I trust very, very deeply, and because that trust was there, and we were communicating constantly throughout, but, you know, because the trust was there, I felt comfortable doing that. He's so fantastic, like everyone who meets him is so impressed. And so I was happy to do that. And thankfully, it wasn't a long period of time. You know, we knew what we had to get done in the company. There were no huge fires that happened while I was out, you know? So that's—
Noelle Tassey 19:07
For sure. We— we've— yeah, we've talked to plenty of founders and I've had experiences as well of being like, you know, you really need to focus on this one thing for the survival of the company to take it to the next level. And then all of a sudden, there's a dumpster fire somewhere else. And you're like, great, now what? Anyways, so up next, really want to talk about the product and just learn more about the product, how you scaled it, and really like, you know, what you thought you were going to build and what you've ended up building?
April Koh 19:40
You know what's really interesting is that our go-to-market has dramatically changed but our vision has stayed the same from Day One. And I actually think that that's the right way to build a company like there needs to be a constant North Star, even with everything around you changing internally and externally, but our North Star was, as I mentioned, to build a world where guessing has no place in mental health care. Where we go from what might work to what will. So instead of my best friend going in and out of the hospital and trying seven different drugs, really getting it right from the very start using data. That— and if you think about what mental healthcare will look like in five to 10 years, it's gonna look very different from how it looks today. Right now, you sit in front of the psychiatrist, and you do a 90-minute evaluation, and then they say, let's try Lexapro at 40 milligrams and come back in two weeks, and we'll see how that goes, right? And that doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in the person who's really struggling to muster up like the courage and the hope to try that dream, right? In five years, 10 years, we really dream of a world and we're building a world where instead of a psychiatrist subjectively being limited to trial and error and treating you, we would use a platform and data and machine learning to match you to exactly the what will work— what will work down to the specific drug and dosage if that's necessary, if it's not necessary, maybe connecting you to exercise, a specific exercise regimen or a specific modality of psychotherapy. So that's the vision that we've always had. In terms of go-to-market though we've changed quite a bit. And so we started off with this incredible IP, Adam has since published over 30 papers in the world's top medical journals on computational psychiatry describing this approach. But we basically started off creating a software for providers, we started selling to help the health systems and we were trying to give their providers a clinical decision support tool to help them make the best decisions. We pivoted away from that idea for a few reasons. One of which was you know, we— those sales cycles were so long and we wanted to— we just didn't have the patience or I would say the capital at the time to pursue a go-to-market that would involve such long sales cycles. And also, it didn't give us a lot of control over the data that we were collecting, it was really hard to modify provider behavior. And so we decided, okay, we need more control over the data that we're able to collect in order to realize the vision that we have. And so what that led us to do was create an end-to-end solution including care delivery, including a provider network that would allow us to get in front of patients directly and collect the data that we needed. And so then we were looking for a buyer or market that would be receptive to this end-to-end care delivery model and kind of accidentally ended up in HR but has ever since been thriving in that space. So we pivoted I would say two times like one big time, a few other times to really lock in the product market— (inaudible). But ever since then we've been focused on scaling that model.
Noelle Tassey 23:03
Very cool. And in terms of the technology, I mean— so we are partnered with 5G Labs, like I said at the beginning and something we talk about a lot in our conversations with them and that community, of kind of how machine learning is evolving so quickly right now. I mean, we had an AI panel yesterday where we talked about this pretty extensively. Where do you see the product in five years? You're kind of working on something that is so cutting-edge. I can only imagine like the leaps and bounds that you're seeing in the future.
April Koh 23:32
Yeah, well, it's very much what I— the vision that I just described. Right now, our predictive capabilities are the strongest in the market and in the industry, but they're still limited because precision psychiatry or computational psychiatry or precision mental healthcare, those are very early fields. And so even though our research represents the forefront of that space, it's still pretty early. And so for us, the goal is to collect the data of hundreds of thousands, ultimately millions of patients, so that we can start to build models that say, no matter who you are, no matter what condition you're dealing with, we can pinpoint exactly which treatment will work specifically for you.
Noelle Tassey 24:22
Awesome. That's so cool. This is one of those fields— I think that a lot of people that don't have a lot of direct experience of mental health are very surprised. Just— like you know, everything you've been saying, of just trier— trial and error and it's like, okay—
April Koh 24:37
Noelle Tassey 24:37
Should I be doing yoga? Should I be taking like Lexapro, Wellbutrin? Now how do I deal with the side effects? And it takes three weeks to even figure out if it's working. And in those three weeks, I have to like, take this drug every day when I'm kind of not even motivated enough to get out of bed. It's really hard and then you have to go back to the doctor. So anything that makes that easier for people is a huge step forward. So you have 60 employees now. You started just the two of you. I'd love to talk a little bit about like the culture-building and team-building side of this. You know, how did you grow as a people manager as a founder, grow a healthy culture and like really put structure in place around that and scale a team? Because it's, I mean, I know from personal experience, it's hard, it's time-consuming, even if you're a people person and you have an amazing team of like, smart, brilliant, committed people you really love spending time with it's still just, it's really hard.
April Koh 25:40
So hard. Oh, man, this has been such a journey for me. And I think that there are unique challenges to a first-time CEO, a young— very young CEO and female CEO, right? There are unique— those are a unique set of challenges and I'm dealing with all three. And I've made so many mistakes over the past four years and tried really hard to learn from those mistakes. I think early on, I was really focused on survival. So— and I'm a very intense person as it is, I'm super passionate about fixing mental health care, so laser-focused on the goal that I was in survival mode. And I actually didn't think that much about the culture that we were building, even though we were building a culture, even with eight people, like that's a culture. And I didn't internalize that for a long time, unfortunately. And so I think there was a turning point, I would say, like, about a year and a half ago, when I looked around and realized there were like, 30 people around me and we were a company of 30 people and I realized there's a huge opportunity here now not only to fix mental healthcare and to change the world from that perspective but also to build a very unique, you know, power— powerfully fulfilling workplace. Like there's an opportunity to build an incredible culture and workplace and company and that's in and of itself a very worthwhile goal, right, and a worthwhile mission to create a wonderful workplace. And so I had that lightbulb moment that's like very obvious to a lot of people, but I had it just a year and a half ago. And from that point, I really started to be a lot more intentional about articulating our values, making sure I'm embodying those values, hiring for those values very intentionally, putting in more structure in our recruiting process that we're constantly vetting for those values. And now, our culture I am really proud to say, very confident to say that it's so fantastic. Every single person at Spring Health is so, so mission-driven, and I think it's a pre-requisite really. Because I think if people joined the company and see every— just see how mission-driven everyone around them is, I think if they didn't feel that mission— or if they didn't resonate with that mission, I think that they would think it's just like kind of jarring and weird. And so our team is incredibly mission-driven. We're super smart, super ambition, we're all super passionate about fixing mental health care. So I'm really proud of the culture that I've built today. It is hard though because as a startup, there's nothing worse for your mental health than trying to build a startup— as a founder, as an employee. Like startups are hard. And so you know that— there's a little bit of tension there, right? Because, you know, especially early on all the odds are against us, right? Like we were default dead right? A lot of companies are default dead and you have to overcome that default deadness with like, so much energy and so much work. And so it's been hard to kind of balance our need to work really hard and work really passionately with this need to protect our mental health. And I talk about that constantly with the team. And I think the best way is to just when you're working, work really hard, work super passionately. And then just let people disconnect over the weekends and evenings off-hours.
Noelle Tassey 29:23
Definitely. And I think you're selling yourself a little short there when you say that the realization that like you want to make your company a good place for people to work is obvious. I think it's something people pay lip service to, but to truly internalize that concept is really hard. We talk a lot about like, wanting to be a company and to have companies in our space and our community that both are good capitalist enterprises for shareholders, but also like just genuinely good places to work, right? And it's hard to balance those things and, and draw the right lines especially, you know, as a first-time CEO, young female leader like you were saying it's a lot to balance. I'm curious, you talked about kind of doubling down at 30 people realizing like we need to articulate our values, we need to hire for those values, we need to be really deliberate about this. Did you get any pushback from the team when you kind of came in and you were like, okay, these are our values? Were there any people that kind of had to self-select out as you pivoted the culture? And also, you know— I mean, how did you just manage that transition? It's a tough one, especially at 30 people, it's like, just big enough to be unruly, but not so big like there aren't people who are going to come back to you— everything— you know.
April Koh 30:42
Noelle Tassey 30:42
Mass is something you can see.
April Koh 30:44
I think, yeah, when I see I've made a lot of mistakes, I think some of it was— I think the crux of the big mistake that I made was not being clear on the culture that we were trying to cultivate so that people could self-select out in the recruitment process, right? So what ended up happening was people self-selected out, once they joined, right? And like we started to articulate our values and get a lot clearer on like, what type of person would thrive at Spring Health, and then I think naturally, we had, you know, some adjustments where people were leaving, or we were asking some folks to leave. Now it's stabilized with my work. We— I feel very confident about the type of profile that would thrive at Spring Health, but my co-founder, Adam, is amazing. And he's constantly reminding me of the fact that we need to hire for a specific profile that works in the culture, but you know, we can't do that by compromising diversity. And so, you know, while I'm always looking for, okay, does this person add to our culture and fit in with our culture, he's always looking for does this person bring diversity of thought, attitude, personality and fit to the company? So yeah, I think that he's really pushed us to grow our culture in a really healthy way.
Noelle Tassey 32:05
Yeah. diversity of thought is such an important one. I'm curious you— for your first few hires, how did you kind of go out and find people that you know, presumably were like diverse enough to propel the company to where it is? You know, I think there's a lot of small, tight, founding teams are like, all these people knew each other, they all went to the same school.
April Koh 32:27
Noelle Tassey 32:28
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. So I'm just curious like, network hiring is a hard thing to fight. On the one hand, it's really great, and you don't have time to interview like everyone in New York City, but on the other hand— and you're like, wow, we're all the same. It's tough.
April Koh 32:43
Yeah, honestly, we are so diverse. Like, actually, just yesterday, we were celebrating our four-year incorporation anniversary. So bitter— not bittersweet, it was just wonderful and we were celebrating, and we were just reflecting on how diverse the company already is. And Adam was reminding me that, you know, it's really— your company is really as diverse as your founding team and those early people. And actually I— I didn't mention this but we actually had a third co-founder who, you know, was just so critical and instrumental to the success of the business and he ultimately left but the three of us were all immigrants and were all you know, people of color and that, like founding diverse DNA has led us to build a really diverse team that I'm super proud of. We have a really great gender ratio, probably one of the best gender ratios honestly for a tech company in New York. We've been very, very intentional about that. And we also have a great racial diversity and ethnic diversity in the company, too. So yeah— diversity is something that we very much value and have been intentional about from Day One.
Noelle Tassey 34:00
Awesome. I love to hear it. And we— more and more this is something, again 10 years ago, you just really weren't seeing as much. Every CEO that I interviewed with in tech was a guy. And now, here we are! Look at that! Which is cool. So we had some questions from the audience about investments that you made early on in the business, whether that was certain things that you focused on or like actual— just put cash into that you think really made the difference for you?
April Koh 34:36
Oh, that's such a good question! Well, first, we never skimped on talent. So if we find someone that's talented, we pay them I would say very much above average market. And so— and our board is very supportive of that strategy. You know, I think some founders and entrepreneurs like to be a little bit more frugal in their compensation. But I would say for us, we've always been willing to invest. So that's one thing that comes to mind. This isn't really answering the question directly, but I would say it really helped that the three co-founders were all technical, and we could build whatever we wanted among the three of us. That was very important to us. And then I would say we invested in operational experience too late. And so there was a little bit of a catch-up period there. I'll also say a lot of founders make this mistake, especially B2B founders, but— or maybe founders generally, but invest in marketing early. We probably invested in marketing a little bit too late so we're playing catch-up right now. But marketing is so key to success, in my opinion, it's potentially even more important than sales in the early days. So, yeah.
Noelle Tassey 36:10
April Koh 36:10
I have a lot of mistakes, I don't know whether have many— good advice there.
Noelle Tassey 36:16
Those are all good ones. I think investing in talent, you know, it really— really is people. So you were saying you and your other co-founders, sort of the three of you, everyone was technical. So what was your third cofounder's technical— Sorry I (inaudible)
April Koh 36:35
Yeah. So I have a prime background— I mostly focus on front-end, I was full-stack, but you know, generally for the early product and the VP, focus on front-end. And then I would say after Year One basically stopped coding altogether because they just wanted me out of the codebase because I am mostly a hacker, not really someone who writes beautiful code. Abi is— was our CTO and he was, you know, he's just a brilliant computer scientist generally. But he worked on mostly the back-end and ultimately everything. And then Adam was initially focused on the data science and the machine learning. Now, Adam oversees the entire product. And he's really the visionary behind the product. He owns the engineering team, the product management team, the data science team, the research team. And so he oversees it all right now. And I'm the CEO, so I'm not so often in building the product anymore.
Noelle Tassey 37:39
So— and that brings me to my next question, which is, you mentioned that you focus pretty tightly on one to two things at a time, which I think is— it's actually not something that a lot of people in like leadership roles will like own to very much. I think it's actually quite common. You just don't hear it. I'm curious how do you manage that focus in terms of like these are the two things I am laser-focused on right now? Yeah, I'm sure some of these are like ongoing processes where you're like, alright, I'm stepping away from it, it's done with me at least I don't need to be involved in this anymore. It has its own life. And like kind of communicating that with your team because those are very fluid things right? Like I think we all do this. I certainly do this. Like I have like two or three things right now I'm laser-focused on. The stuff from two months ago it's running now.
April Koh 38:25
Noelle Tassey 38:26
Doing a better job with it than I ever will like it's good. It's got its own life, keep (inaudible). But yeah, just curious how you manage that because it's tough.
April Koh 38:35
It's definitely tough. Prioritization was a muscle that I had to build but I think it's always been very intuitive to me to like be very intense about one thing at a time. I've always had this like weird tunnel vision and I think it served me really well in building a company because I just don't think about anything else, I just think about Spring Health. But I think what— and some of the tactics that I do are, we write a— the executive team writes a quarterly memo that sets the strategy for the quarter. And in prose, we describe, you know, our logic behind (inaudible) particular strategy and things that we as a company need to stay focused on. And usually, I lay out in this memo also my key priorities, I explicitly lay them out in this memo. Sometimes it's things like hirings and things like fundraising or whatever. And then we disseminate it to the entire company so that they have the full context behind why we're pursuing a particular strategy. And then from there, we create OKRs, which are common, but we have teams specific to OKRs and then once the OKRs are agreed upon, the executive team has looked over them and everyone's happy about them, we launch the quarter. And then basically every week the executive team actually reviews all the OKRs and all of our key KPIs to see if we're on track. And then in those meetings, I give updates on my parts against my own priorities. I do weekly memos to the team where I just kind of randomly talk about things that are on my mind, things I'm worried about, things I'm excited about, and things I'm working on. And that keeps the team connected to me. And then we have bi-weekly on-hands. So, yeah.
Noelle Tassey 40:20
Very cool. Let's see, we have a bunch of activity in the Q&A. So I'm really excited. Okay, so this is such a good one, and I think anyone who's tried to get a company off the ground can really relate to it. So can you share an experience from when your company was at a point where you thought the idea might not work, and how did you approach it and either pivot, turn it around, or just overcome that moment of doubt? I think anyone who started a company has probably had a lot more than one moment like that.
April Koh 40:52
Yeah. Wait, you— I couldn't hear the question, exactly. So it's like, a moment where I didn't think it was going to work?
Noelle Tassey 40:59
Yeah. And then how you pushed past it.
April Koh 41:02
Oh my god, that's so interesting. A moment when I started the company wouldn't work... and how did I push past it? You know, early on, I think because I didn't have like the pedigree or the resume or really the— you know, I didn't have the network very early on when I was fundraising, we got some nos, and it was really hard to push forward with all of those rejections in the very early days. But I think— and that's just one example, like you— I think that it's easy to get discouraged and I— you know, I sometimes get to the verge of burnout and I can feel it and— but generally what happens then is I tell myself that I'm burnt out and I need to be in a better like headspace to really evaluate like objectively if this is working. And so I try to— I try to approach it without being emotional and if I'm tired I can't approach like the analysis of whether to keep going and whether this is working, I can't approach it unemotionally if I'm tired, and so I just take breaks and I totally unplug and I go away for a few days and I just get completely refreshed and read a lot. And then come back and if I feel— if I still feel really tired and burned out then— actually, I've never gotten to a point where you know, even after I take this break, I feel so burned out to the point where I don't think I can keep going. What I will say, though, is that so much of founding a company and being a CEO is just keep going. Like, even though you might not see the light at the end of the tunnel, and, you know, you don't really have a clear strategy for how to overcome whatever challenge you're dealing with, just keep trying and just take it one day at a time. I know this, like sounds so cliche, but sometimes that was all it took, right? Like, there were moments when I thought I was gonna break and things like got really, really hard, and I call it like, mini-traumas, right, that the founder goes through on their journey. And I think I just kept going. Yeah.
Noelle Tassey 43:56
Yeah. I mean sometimes that's all there is for it. We talk about this a little bit at Alley like you have the messiest, like periods of time where everything is like, why isn't this coming together? We're not getting past this. There's no clarity. And then all of a sudden you wake up one day and it's like, oh, well, that was the process of getting to clarity. It's fine.
April Koh 44:18
Noelle Tassey 44:19
Catch our breath for a week. And then let's do that again with the next problem.
April Koh 44:24
Yeah, sometimes you just have to push through it. I will say though, I have a personality type, which is like, some people when they deal with problems, like they, like freak out. And they— they're like, paralyzed, like, in fight or flight, I think my natural inclination is to fight. And I think that in the early days, like when the deal fell through or something happened, like, I noticed that people around me might react like "oh my god" and panic and freak out. Whereas I like immediately went into problem-solving mode. And I think some of that was just like repressing the panic, right and then suppressing it and try not— but I think some of it— some of that repression is actually unnecessary for surviving because you can't sit and wallow in the pain and the fear like you just have to do it. Like you just have to say, okay, sit down, this is the problem, how do I tackle it? 1-2-3. I think I do that quite well. And yeah, like, I'm not great at a lot of things. But one thing I am really good at is like, fighting as opposed to flight.
Noelle Tassey 45:30
Yeah, and breaking things down into small— smaller pieces. It's one of those pieces of advice, it's always floating around, it never feels that revolutionary, but it's just like, it is always the way to go.
April Koh 45:40
Yeah, I am one of the lucky entrepreneurs that is surviving and thriving at this time. And we see it as a really unique opportunity to step up for the world when they most need us. And, you know, the demand around mental healthcare has risen significantly, and I think 70% of Americans reported last month that they're dealing with moderate to severe mental health issues. And normally it's around like 15% to 20%. And so there's a lot of speculation that suicide rates are gonna increase during this time as well, especially as the economy is unstable and continues to suffer. So it's definitely a unique opportunity for us right now. I can talk to COVID into— from two perspectives. One is like how did I deal with it as CEO and one is like, what did we do as a company?
April Koh 45:40
Noelle Tassey 45:40
That's really great. So I think we have time for like one more like, big serious question, then we'll like, end on a fun one. With the current crisis, obviously, I think something people talk about— are talking about a lot and I can only see this you know, increasing over the next year, as we deal with the aftermath is mental health, right? And that's the space you're in. How are you planning to kind of respond to that as a business in terms of just increased demand in a country that's already suffering from a massive underreported, undertreated mental health crisis?
Noelle Tassey 47:16
April Koh 47:18
As CEO, again, going back to fight-or-flight, I immediately went into problem-solving, and I— and this was when COVID hit like initially and there was a lot of anxiety and uncertainty in the world around what would happen next. I braced myself for the worst. I told the company to brace themselves for the worst and I pulled together the executive team and I pulled together a four-page COVID memo and said these are all the risks that we may be facing because of Coronavirus and because these are the risks and because these are the uncertainties, we need to create a lighter, more conservative plan for the time being. So we did that very quickly. We did that in a week. And we very thoughtfully put together a little bit more of a conservative plan. And then we also had a plan for monitoring key metrics to see exactly how the market would respond to COVID. And over time, it became very clear to us that Coronavirus is actually going to help us build momentum as a company and it was accelerating sales cycles. It was increasing demand for our services. And so based on that, I've been very proactive about updating the rest of the company on some of the things that we're seeing in the market and reassuring them that the company is in really good shape, and is doing quite well right now. So I'm actually pretty proud of the way that the team and I worked together to respond to Coronavirus very quickly. I think the worst thing you can do as a leader is to sit on a huge problem and not do anything for a bit. No, you need to act even if you— even if you readjust after the initial decisions. So the second bit is, you know, what are we doing as a company? Well, there's increased demand, there's been a spike in utilization, you know, we've seen double the normal utilization in our services in the past month because people are much more anxious and stressed during this time. And so there's a little bit of "I need to hire for that." And we had big, you know, hiring plans pre-COVID, and we've continued to hire against that plan. And so we are building our ops team to be more robust, to handle more of the volume that's going on. We've slightly changed the product roadmap to respond to COVID. We've opened up our products to employers that weren't customers, we provided a free— we provided unlimited therapy to HR leaders because we understood that, you know, HR leaders are actually struggling quite a bit right now. Like they are dealing with a lot of layoffs, they're dealing with the messaging, they're trying to take care of their teams. And so we opened up our product to them. And we've been doing, you know, manager trainings and COVID-related webinars. And really, we've been trying to serve our community as best as possible right now. And I think it's been received really well. But yeah, that's a little bit about what we've done so far during COVID.
Noelle Tassey 50:23
Very cool. So we're gonna end on a fun note, which is— what was like the moment, I think everyone has one of these at some point in their journey, where you were just like, "Oh my god, I think we've actually done it. Like, did we— did we make it? We made it?" What was like that moment for you that like, okay, like, let's pop champagne. this is a victory. I mean, you know, you never feel like— I think most entrepreneurs never feel like they've fully made it, right? That's why you pick up and you keep fighting every day. And we're still talking about pretty early-stage companies, but there's just that moment of triumph, It's like this is a real thing. We did this.
April Koh 50:59
You know, actually, last— I think for 2020, I set a resolution for myself that I would actually celebrate the wins because it's so easy to just be like, okay, check the box onto the next thing, right? Like not celebrate it at all. And I had a bad habit of doing that. And so— but key moments that stand out— You know, when we went when we got our first investor check, you know, we had a little celebration in Central Park and— the three co-founders, and we were just so happy and I just remember that happiness. There was a moment when we moved the company from New Haven to New York, and we were in a really janky pencil factory in Greenpoint. But they had a fantastic rooftop and it looks out on this— Manhattan and you know, the three of us went up there and it was at night, all the lights were up in Manhattan, and it was such a beautiful sight. And, I don't know, that just felt like we made it even though it wasn't really like a milestone we just had— went up to the roof, like, for the first time in New York together. So it's those little things, you know, it's not like necessarily tied to big things. The big things are just stressful, so it like, kind of takes the glee of those moments out because they're so stressful, like fundraising, all that stuff. So, but, yeah.
Noelle Tassey 52:25
Yeah. I love that. I also love the pencil factory in Brooklyn. Every good startup story, you've got to have like the janky first office, it's critical.
April Koh 52:38
Noelle Tassey 52:39
I'm gonna have too many beers and like, fall asleep on the couch there. You know, whatever. It's gonna be great. I'm nostalgic for those days.
April Koh 52:48
Yeah, me too.
Noelle Tassey 52:51
You know, we have like a grown-up office now. As you guys do, too in Gramercy. Awesome. Well, I think that probably is a wrap for today. Yep, we are right on time. Thank you, everybody, who's joined for sharing your afternoon with us. April, thank you for sharing not only your afternoon but your wisdom and your story with us. This was really fun. We're gonna have the whole thing up on Alley.com tomorrow, feel free to share with your community. And check out some of the events we have coming up next week. We're going to be doing a lot of 5G and culture-type events with our current 5G Labs. That's going to be a really good time. But again, April, thank you so so much.
April Koh 53:29
Thank you, Noelle, really. I really had so much fun. Thank you, guys.
Noelle Tassey 53:33
April Koh 53:34