"I share my journey with therapy, starting with when my husband and I got separated and went to couple’s therapy, with anyone — my teammates, customers, reporters or investors."
, one of the most well-known text-based therapy companies, is in demand right now.
The company has seen user growth increase by 65 percent since mid-February, a statistic reflective of the fact that people are looking to maintain healthy and safe attitudes while lockdowns, quarantines and closures currently sweep the globe.
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Talkspace has promised free online therapy to healthcare workers on the frontlines of the crisis and started offering a special 16-day program (for subscribers) aimed at addressing coronavirus-related stress. The company has also opened a free therapist-led Facebook support group where non-users can seek guidance and resources directly from licensed therapists.
Roni and Oren Frank (who are married) founded Talkspace in 2012 with the goal of using technology to make therapy more accessible and affordable, a mission that’s being tested now more than ever. But back in 2012 — when therapy was more taboo and online therapy was mostly unheard of — the company almost failed. Of course, Talkspace eventually went on to raise $110 million in from investors, with over 90 percent of its business rooted in text-based therapy.
We spoke with Roni about how she first found product-market fit in customer support emails, how she thinks about marketing when it comes to teens and college students, and how she personally practices mental health as a founder.
When did you first realize there was a need for a product like Talkspace?
My husband and I went through a crisis in our marriage. We separated, and after a few months, we both felt like we needed to give it a second chance but we weren’t sure where to start. So we went to couples therapy for about a year. This was in 2005 — we paid a lot of money and it was 90 minutes per week. But it was very effective. We learned how to communicate and embrace our differences, and it changed our whole relationship. We’ve now been together for over 20 years, we’re co-founders and we have two daughters.
It was about two years into my individual therapy when I started realizing that I’m really passionate about this field of psychology and psychotherapy. So at 32-years-old, I went back to grad school to study psychology. I was a student learning about mental health care and at the same time, the world was changing because digital communication was taking over. I kept telling myself — how come therapy remains so traditional and not disrupted at all? There was a huge access issue and I kept thinking about how tech could help bridge this gap to make therapy more accessible and affordable.
So you decided to build an app for group therapy. How did the initial launch go?
We launched in 2012 and nothing happened. We had users signing up, but not subscribing. After a few months, we decided the product wasn’t working at all. After nine months, we understood that we failed, so we decided to offer individual therapy versus group therapy. But when we launched individual therapy sessions, it didn’t work either.
When was the turning point?
On the bottom of our website there was a link to a customer support channel. All of the sudden, we started getting emails through customer support where, instead of talking about technical issues, people were sharing their anxiety, depression, and relationship issues. I started getting more and more of these emails, and at some point there were a few hundred emails from customer support about personal problems. So we just asked these people why they weren't scheduling sessions through our platform and writing customer support instead, and they told us they just wanted to text for therapy. Some wanted to just talk in that moment, versus schedule a video call, and others just wanted to text when it was convenient for them. That inspired us to reinvent.
We then spent six months building out “Unlimited Messaging Therapy,” a modality where clients could message with therapists at any time, from anywhere, without scheduling an appointment. It felt like starting a new company. After we launched, it immediately started selling and it was really inspiring to see the difference. When you refine the right product-market fit for your audience, it’s so powerful to realize that the mission is the same, but the initial execution was wrong. As a founder, you have to listen to your clients. They know better than you what they need.
How did you get therapists on the platform?
When we launched in 2012, I recruited about 10 therapists. I just started posting on Facebook and Google that we were looking for people, and we also reached out to friends and family who knew therapists. Back then it was so hard to get folks who believed in online therapy, or even in video therapy. They would tell us that it was all about in-person interactions, and there was a lot of resistance to our idea.
You have to remember that when you're disrupting a market, it’s very intimidating for the community and professionals in the existing market because any change is intimidating. We were telling people that we were building a product that would change the way they delivered therapy, so naturally they felt resistant.
Of course, there were also early adopters who were more interested in technology and the future of mental healthcare. So we recruited people who were excited and passionate about the idea that technology could help open access to therapy. But when we launched with the messaging in 2014, it was a disaster. Therapists were very skeptical about it and told us that texting wasn’t deep enough for effective communication.
Since then, the world has changed so much. Today we have 5,000 therapists on the platform, I’m onboarding about 150 new therapists per month, and we also have hundreds of applications from therapists who want to work with us. Therapists are actually telling us that they want to do text message-only therapy instead of video sessions because it’s so convenient.
How do you get in front of new customers, and especially teens and people in college?
For teenagers and college students, there is actually less stigma around therapy. Young people are really open, but the problem for this group is money. So we’re marketing to their parents because ultimately, they're the ones who will pay for this service and you can’t provide mental health services to a minor without parental consent. In our marketing to parents, we focus a lot around educating them to notice signs that indicate that their child is struggling, since so many kids hide their issues from their parents.
For college students, we’re partnering with universities to form programs where Talkspace is free for students.
How else do you address the stigma around therapy through marketing?
We do a lot of events and conferences to push the conversation forward. The way to reduce stigma around mental health is to talk about it over and over again until everybody feels comfortable discussing these issues, simply because it’s out there. I see a lot of progress in the media — there’s a lot more awareness and reporters are covering mental health more. There’s also so many celebrities who are sharing their struggles. We worked with Michael Phelps on a campaign, which was important for us because he delivered such a powerful message as a successful athlete who struggled with depression.
What are some ways that you build credibility as a telehealth product?
The way to build credibility and trust is to do what you say. Don’t promise anything you can’t deliver, and if you’re telling your client that the therapist is going to respond to them at a certain hour, it must happen.
With these products and services, you really need to add value to your clients. It’s important not to do anything for the sake of revenue. Instead, build valuable products and services based on customer feedback, data, and behaviors that you observe on your platform.
We also only hire people that care about the mission and are passionate about mental healthcare. It’s such a critical part of the product that we’re building.
How do you personally practice mental health as a leader?
Well, of course, I’m in therapy. I use the platform and I’m very open about my own struggles and why I was attracted to mental health in the first place. I share my journey with therapy, starting with when my husband and I were separated and went to couples therapy, with anyone — my teammates, customers, reporters or investors.
If I want to ultimately reduce stigma around therapy, I have to walk the walk and talk about my own struggles. But I’m not afraid of talking about it and I’m not afraid that people will think I’m a weak person because I suffer from anxiety, et cetera. It’s very important for me to talk about it and I think it inspires employees to talk about their own struggles too.