Laugh, praise and smile. Your attitude will be contagious to your team. And, in the moments when you do need to step in with a firmer re-direct, everyone will notice the contrast and be quick to respond.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Abigail Hirsch, Ph.D. She is a psychologist by training but an entrepreneur by trade. She launched her own digital health company, Power of Two, right after wrapping up her academic career, and followed that up by helping found a behavioral digital health tool that was acquired by Livongo (which was acquired by Teladoc, a 23 bn+ dollars company). Most recently, Abigail launched her newest project, Lin Health, which she is building with more passion and gusto than ever
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’m the daughter of a psychologist and an entrepreneur. I think I grew up with both in my blood, but after much deliberation about what to do with my life, I found myself studying for a Ph.D. in psychology because I thought being an entrepreneur would be too stressful to do while also trying to raise a family.
Lo and behold, I founded my first company, a digital health tool for building relationships, right out of graduate school. Since then I’ve helped launch a digital behavioral health company (myStrength, exited to Livongo, now owned by Teledoc) and more recently founded Lin Health, an integrative digital health solution for chronic pain.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Every day I am truly blown away by the successes that our members are making. For example, just today, I was reviewing the progress of a woman who came to Lin for help with a broad set of pain syndromes including Lupus, migraines, and debilitating back pain. For the first time in years, she’s gone two weeks without having a migraine. What makes that so interesting? Well, what’s fascinating is that she actually did this with no medications. She’s just transformed her life in a whole bunch of little ways that have made a huge difference in both her quality of life and her quantity of pain. For me, seeing this kind of magic (of course, it’s not magic, it’s hard work with lots of support) is the most interesting thing ever.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh my. Well, I think the funniest mistake we’ve made at Lin is what we fondly call the great SMS disaster. I came to work one morning to find our entire dev team in a bit of a state of panic. Basically, they’d turned on our ability to send SMS for the first time, and in testing it, had accidentally triggered a closed loop that sent 10,000 SMS messages to the developer who was doing the testing!
So, this was one of those moments where it was so clear that how I reacted was going to have a huge impact on our team. After a quick internal pause, I just started laughing. And then the dev team started laughing. Once we’d all had a good chuckle, I just reinforced that mistakes happen sometimes, to all of us. And that what matters most is not that we made a mistake, it’s that we all stay positive and focused on fixing the issue and then preventing the same mistake in the future.
Now when we hit bloopers, all someone has to say is “at least you didn’t send 10,000 SMS’s” and the whole atmosphere lightens so we can just get back to problem fixing.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m incredibly grateful to Scott Cousino, who was the CEO and co-founder of myStrength, the last start-up I was at. He gave me an incredible opportunity to have the experience of going on a successful journey, napkin to exit. One thing I adore about Scott was his enormous bag of computer connector dongles and insistence that we arrived at every sales call at least an hour early. Jokingly he’d say, “once a boy scout, always a boy scout.” What I really learned is that everything that can go wrong with technology and demos will go wrong (plus some things that really couldn’t possibly go wrong will go wrong too). By being over prepped, over-equipped, and over early, none of these bumps ever kept us from winning business.
As I’m now sitting in the founder’s seat, I know how much work goes into securing every sales call or fundraising meeting. I’m so grateful that, despite never having been a boy scout, it’s just in my automatic routine to be ready for anything!
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience, what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Well, to start, as much as I wish I could say it was possible to found a company and be a fabulously present Mom, the bottom line is that it’s just really hard to do both. I think many women (like I did) opt to take a role that has a little bit less weight on their shoulders while they have young kids.
But then this can become a trap where spunky younger women find themselves settled in something “good enough” as their kids get a bit older. When you have a good salary and a good job, it’s scary to take the leap into founding a company.
That said, it’s the most fun, crazy, exciting thing I’ve ever done. So I hope that collectively we can all encourage women who are mid-career, that there’s no better time to found a company. Your odds of succeeding are higher, your mistakes will be more sophisticated and, if you have kids, they will be incredibly proud of their courageous mom!
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
First and foremost, if you are a husband to a woman who wanted to found a company but didn’t (yet), encourage her to follow those dreams! I am so appreciative that my husband found ways to adjust his career so that I could found Lin Health and give it the focus and attention a growing company requires.
And as a society, I think we just all need to be on the lookout for anywhere we can find places to applaud women founders, to celebrate their successes and to support their companies too!
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Women should be founders because we often build companies with a different flare. I’ll give an example — I sometimes go to classes at a center for adult women’s extended learning. The building was built by women, for women. There’s no missing that from the moment you step in and see big gorgeous floral paintings. You even feel it in the bathroom with lavender-scented bouquets at every sink.
Every time I am there, I think how different the world would feel if women were designing more buildings. Well, same for companies. The companies women build often do have a slightly different touch, and that’s fabulous! We need more of this!
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
I think the biggest myth is that the best founders are young kids just out of school with a great idea. Life experience makes you a better founder, not a worse one. So if you are in your 40’s or 50’s, you’re probably the best age of all to consider founding a company.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
No question, founding a company, and especially one backed by VC and poised for rapid growth, is not for everyone. It’s a wild ride, and not for the faint of heart. For me, founding my own company was this itch that I just knew I had to scratch
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Trust your instincts. They are your superpower. I’m not saying ignore data, data is super important. And I often have a hunch far before there are clear data to support something. This is true for staffing, for product design, for business approaches . . . .
2. Build a team you adore. The best part about being a founder is that YOU get to pick who surrounds you. Pick people you trust, you like as people, and who you know do what they do far better than you ever could.
3. Work your tail off, but don’t be a superwoman. There’s no question that founding a company is a massive project that just takes oodles of hours, no matter how good your Getting Things Done skills are. But your team needs you also to take care of yourself. Delegate and trust others so you clear time to re-group and replenish.
4. Appreciate your family. They are doing a lot to make it possible for you to found this company. While you may be with them fewer hours, make sure the ones you are with them are loaded with positivity and warmth.
5. Laugh, praise and smile. Your attitude will be contagious to your team. And, in the moments when you do need to step in with a firmer re-direct, everyone will notice the contrast and be quick to respond.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I founded Lin. It’s insane that at least 1 in 5 Americans are struggling through their days with chronic pain. Especially because the latest neuroscience research shows an incredibly high proportion of chronic pain is treatable. We hear every day from grandmothers in too much pain to pick up their grandkids, moms who want nothing more than to be able to stand at the stove long enough to make a nice dinner for their children, and young women who have stopped heading down a career path because all they can do is tread water in an ocean of pain.
I’m on a mission to change this. And the team at Lin is making it happen.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My greatest wish is that every physician, behavioral health specialist, physical therapist and nutritionist would learn about modern pain science. Too many people out there are hearing things from well-intentioned providers who are accidentally making their patient’s pain worse — when, a simple switch to sharing current understandings of pain, could empower patients to hop on the train to better!
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Yup, calling out loud and clear to Lady GaGa. Fibromyalgia IS TREATABLE!!!! Come help us tell the world. Even more important, come help us get hundreds of thousands of people who as you know are suffering terribly into warm, supportive caring integrative, pain-science informed care.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.