Founder's Guide

Modern Health’s Y Combinator Journey

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We’re changing how society thinks about mental health. This is how we worked with YC to take on the challenge.

Modern Health began with a realization: if I were going through a mental health issue, I would feel a taboo around getting support.

When I talked to my good friend and now co-founder Erica Johnson, we realized that a company could have a huge impact by removing that stigma. As soon as that light bulb went off, we realized this was our calling, so we took the leap to start Modern Health.

Modern Health gives employees someone to talk to no matter what, in whatever form they need:

  • Meeting in person
  • Talking over the phone
  • Texting
  • Meeting digitally

We knew we’d need support to get it off the ground, so we enrolled in YC. This has been an amazing experience for us with many lessons learned.

5 Pieces of Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs

By going through Y Combinator and our version of the typical startup growth process, we’ve learned a lot — and strengthened some of our prior convictions. The following five takeaways represent my biggest pieces of advice to entrepreneurs.

1. Make Something People Want

Our biggest takeaway from Y Combinator? Make something people want.

It’s a piece of Paul Graham wisdom that’s repeated by the partners over and over again. It might sound obvious, but it’s incredibly impactful. You can come up with a great product or solution that improves someone’s life, but if they don’t want it, it doesn’t matter.

Modern Health once dabbled with the idea of building a big grandiose digital-only solution. But digital-only is not what people want in mental health, so we ultimately shifted back to the original product idea: a simple solution based on the fundamentals of human psychology.

When you boil it down, Modern Health is really a simple idea: our culture has an epidemic of loneliness.

There’s huge value in being able to talk to someone. Human contact is a human need that people will always want. People will never be completely happy when exclusively connected to technology instead of other humans.

While it may be easier to access more people with an exclusively digital interface, we’d rather have a small number of users love our product than a large population feel lukewarm about it. There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all solution to emotional well-being.

It’s so simple to say “make something people want,” but the real implications never resonated with me until we were actually in the thick of it.

2. No One Tells You When You’re Wrong

In a normal job, someone can tell you when you make a mistake, but you have to learn most parts of a startup by doing and iterating.

You have a lot of great resources and mentors along the way, of course, especially if you go through YC, but the facts vary so much for every startup that no one knows every right answer.

Most of the time, you just do your best until you come to a roadblock and realize you need a different approach. That’s one reason startups have to move fast—you need to reach roadblocks sooner, not later, so you have time to try a different approach until you ultimately get it right.

3. Seek a supportive environment like YC

Since everyone’s sharing the common goal of presenting well at demo day, I expected YC to be competitive, but it’s actually an incredibly supportive environment. With everyone in YC working hard, getting beaten down day in and day out, you start supporting each other.

I’ll never forget my first practice pitch for demo day. Although everyone in the room had prepared well, we were nervous.

Once everyone started clapping for each other and helping improve our pitches, we felt a lot more comfortable. YC gave us a supportive environment and network that I’m glad I found–it truly feels like we’re all on the same team.

4. If You Do Apply, Be Your Honest Self

When we pitched YC, we just presented ourselves honestly. Erica and I both want to improve the way people get support for their mental health. Nothing is going to stop us, so during the interview, we just said:

  • Here’s what drives us.
  • If you want to jump aboard this rocket ship with us, awesome.
  • Either way, we’re going after it no matter what.

The interview itself just felt like an opportunity to share our vision and our mission. I think it was 10 minutes long, but it felt like 30 seconds. They peppered us with questions and fired shots, so we just shot back.

The only surprising part was how straight-faced they were. We had read up on the interview beforehand, but it was still spooky. They’ve seen so many pitches and had so many interviews, even just that day, so they put on a poker face and you just jump in with no time for pleasantries.

As a former athlete, preparing for the interview and experiencing it felt like practicing for the big game and then executing what we practiced.

We put in the necessary effort and were committed to each other and the mission, so we knew we would persevere even if we didn’t get into YC. I think that mindset is the best thing for the company and is also what ultimately got us into YC.

5. Listen to Advice but Make it Your Own

Erica and I have received incredible support from men and women of all different backgrounds. We’ll take their feedback, synthesize it, and transform it into our own version. For us, one of the most important strategies is just having the conviction, confidence, and grit to make it our own.

As a female founder in the startup space, where a majority of companies are male-founded, it’s easy to get caught up listening to advice and recommendations. But, at the end of the day you know your company better than anyone else, so it’s important to take your own spin on it and implement your own, unique, specific solution.

Two good friends of mine—both female founders who went through YC—were originally the ones who inspired me to take the leap of faith. Had they not encouraged me, I never would have applied. So now I pay it forward by inspiring the next cohort.

Especially for female founders, who often underplay their success or think their work isn’t worth praising, my biggest advice is to be bold every day.

Each day, we come into the office on a mission to change the world. We’re committed to ourselves, we’re thinking big, and we won’t let anything stop us.

Next for Modern Health

Going forward, we want to help as many people as we can.

We’re growing the Modern Health team and looking for more employers interested in taking better care of their employees.

We’re helping along the way, but it’s really the employers that are moving the needle, changing how society thinks about mental well-being.

If you’re an innovative employer who knows the importance of employee mental health, reach out. We’ll be here for you, no matter what.

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