Listen to your gut and run your gut by the experts. I’ve learned to lean on experts for advice and to invoke their expertise when presenting thoughts to my team. For example, if I have a gut instinct about something, I try not to say, “I just have the feeling this is the right thing.” I first talk to a few people whom I respect and whom my team respect, get their input, adjust my gut instinct accordingly, gather data, and then lay my findings out step by step to my team. That works best when approaching the big, strategic decisions.
I had the pleasure of interviewing April Koh, co-founder and CEO of Spring Health, a digital wellness platform making mental well-being easy to navigate for businesses and employees. With its clinically-validated AI, Spring Health eliminates the trial and error that typically comes with identifying the right treatment course, with users receiving plans seven weeks faster than average. April has been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, Harvard iLab, National Quality Forum, Yale University, and Forbes 30 Under 30.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started Spring Health because I wanted to spend my 20’s and 30’s building something that mattered and helped people. There has never been an industry or space that I’ve been more interested in than mental health care, and this passion has been driven by both first-hand and second-hand experience. Most poignantly, I watched my best friend in college go through seven antidepressants and multiple providers in her mental health journey. I remembered thinking how random the process of recovery seemed. My thinking was: my 20’s are the freest, most energetic years of my life. Why not channel all that energy and idealism into a start-up dedicated to improving mental healthcare?
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I always love hearing about how start-ups find product-market fit. They’re often so random and almost accidental. We originally sold a clinical decision support tool to health systems. After chatting with one health system a number of times, one of the senior executives we talked to recommended we chat with the health system’s benefits department, since employee behavioral health seemed to be a priority for them. It’s hard to forget the feeling of seeing the HR leaders’ eyes light up when we pitched them a solution for their employees. It was the first real “aha” moment for me. After that, we started selling to a ton of employers, just to see if they would have the same reaction. They did. That’s when we knew that we needed to build a full service mental health product for employers.
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?
I’ve made so many funny mistakes and still do. One that immediately comes to mind was when I was raising our first round of funding. I had built projections and estimated exactly how much money we would need, and it came to a total of $950,000. So I told every investor I was pitching that I wanted to raise $950,000. Finally one straight-shooting investor sat me down and told me that I needed to raise one million or two million, because $950,000 was a “strange amount.” What I’ve learned since then is that you raise what you can, not according to some budget you set for yourself. Because a) you’re not going to raise exactly $950,000, and b) your budget is probably wrong anyway.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Spring Health stands out because we question everything. There are a few ways in which our early collective inexperience may have worked against us, but one way it helped is that as newbies to healthcare, the team was able to see the conventional healthcare experience for what it is — overly and needlessly complex and confusing. From day one, we’ve voraciously consumed industry knowledge, and along the way we’ve continued to ask, “Why? Why is it done in this way? Why not another way?”
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My co-founder Adam Chekroud just published another paper (his 24th!) on the correlation between exercise and mental health. We’re really excited about the possibility of “prescribing” exercise to our patients and including that in our recommendation engine. Spring Health exists to eliminate every barrier to mental health by personalizing the mental health journey to each individual and connecting them with that they need to feel better — faster. Our proprietary recommendation engine predicts what treatments will work for someone, and we’re so excited to include exercise as a recommendation for patients moving forward, in addition to medication and psychotherapy programs.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Always add, “because” to any request or task you assign. Even the most mundane, menial tasks need a “why.” I’ve learned that when your team understands your thinking, it’s much easier for them to question your thinking and start a conversation with you, and they may become more motivated to work on the project. Never assume that your team can read your mind!
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I don’t think I have any female-specific advice here. I will say that I’ve learned over time that your company is your people. It starts with the people, and nothing is more important than the people. So take care of your people! And hire people you trust will do a better job than you would in their role.
None of us are able to 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 always look back to the early days of Spring Health and marvel over how much faith our early investors placed in us, given how little we knew about the space going in. I wouldn’t be here without the support of those early investors who took a bet on us — so I am definitely grateful to all of them. One person who probably doesn’t know how much she’s helped me is my former boss at Shazam, Rhiannon White! It was the first time I’d been managed by a woman, and she showed me that leadership doesn’t have to be showy or chest-puffing. It can be calm, kind, and humble.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m still early in my career, so I’m hoping I can do a lot more in the future, with a lot more success! But for now, I hope I add diversity to panels and inspire other female student entrepreneurs to dive in. We don’t see a lot of female dorm room wunderkinds. Let’s make it happen.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1: Listen to your gut and run your gut by the experts. I’ve learned to lean on experts for advice and to invoke their expertise when presenting thoughts to my team. For example, if I have a gut instinct about something, I try not to say, “I just have the feeling this is the right thing.” I first talk to a few people whom I respect and whom my team respect, get their input, adjust my gut instinct accordingly, gather data, and then lay my findings out step by step to my team. That works best when approaching the big, strategic decisions.
2: Be kind and resilient. I decided a year ago to anchor my identity on things that I can always control, instead of things that are outside of my control. And two things I can definitely control — or try to control — are kindness and resilience. Of course, I have my bad days, but by and large I prioritize those two qualities as a leader.
3: Share more and often. I think I’m very transparent as a person — if you ask me what I think about something, I will tell you. But it’s not enough to just answer questions. You need to anticipate the questions and answer them even before the questions get asked. I realized over time that my team wonders what motivates me, what I’m thinking about, what I’m concerned about. I have a general tendency not to talk about myself — I think I was raised that way — but I’ve been trying to get more comfortable with sharing more unsolicited thoughts to the team, because it helps contextualize the work.
4: Exercise. You’ll feel better! It also has been proven to improve your mental health. I have some “aha” moments in the mornings on my runs.
5: Focus. I have weekly themes that dictate what I will focus on. I generally reflect on weekends about how I spent my time, and I do calendar pruning for the upcoming week to make sure all meetings are in line with that week’s focus. Focus is so powerful and allows me to move quickly.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I feel like Spring Health is starting a movement of better mental health support in the workplace. By focusing on that goal, I’m doing what I think will bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Live life as though it is rigged in your favor.” Arianna Huffington says that it’s her favorite quote, and it’s become mine. It makes me look for the silver lining in all the inevitable challenges that I face in building Spring Health.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Follow me on Twitter: @aprilkoh_
Thank you so much for these inspiring insights!