Support your hires. Listen to them, be transparent with them, challenge them, meet them where they’re at.
Be willing to be supported by your team. Running a company is exhausting. Be willing to hand work (and energy) off to others.
CELEBRATE. It is AMAZING that we get to build products and services that build a better world. Celebrate with your team, and celebrate with yourself.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ariela Safira, Founder and CEO of Real. She has been passionate about improving mental healthcare for years. Starting her career at IDEO, she studied, researched, and developed new concepts to approach mental healthcare and mental wellbeing. Ariela earned a BS in Mathematics and Computational Science from Stanford University, where the impetus for her work began. Later, Ariela joined Columbia’s Clinical Psychology program to train as a therapist and left the program in 2019 to launch Real. She has biked across multiple countries to fundraise for suicide prevention, and she is the recipient of the 2019 American Psychiatric Association’s Innovation Award.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After a close friend attempted suicide, I quickly encountered the inefficiencies of the mental healthcare system. Shaken by my friend’s experience, I dedicated the next six years to examining every aspect of the mental healthcare system–from touring rehab and inpatient facilities to studying why design decisions are made at IDEO and Cityblock Health to biking across multiple countries to fundraise for suicide prevention. Most recently, I pursued a Master’s in Clinical Psychology at Columbia University to train to be a therapist and dropped out after feeling that the training was outdated and inconsistent. I made it my mission to develop a new therapy model based on patient-centered care, and Real was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
In March 2020, we planned to open Real’s first mental health studio. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and in-person care was not an option, our team quickly pivoted to build a digital platform in just 8 days called Real to the People, which provided complimentary therapy services to those in need of mental health support at home.
Through May, Real to the People provided care to anyone in crisis during the pandemic. Offering Group Salons, therapist-led events, and one-on-one sessions, our mental health services provided support through a range of topics including pregnancy during quarantine, the trap of productivity in a pandemic, thriving while single in quarantine, and more. After seeing incredible demand for our therapy services, we decided to extend Real’s offerings through June and officially launched Real to the People as our longstanding, complementary crisis-response initiative.
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’m not sure how funny this is to others, but the final stage of our therapist interview process is to send secret shoppers to our therapist candidates. These secret shoppers have earnest therapy appointments with said therapists, they do not share that they have any relationship with Real, and after their appointment, they share with us their review of the session. Like any delirious startup founder, I decided to squeeze in appointment-scheduling when I really should have gone to bed, and alas, our dear therapist candidate received a “new inquiry for an appointment” signed “Ariela Safira”. We still laugh about it!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Relaxing — truly relaxing — has proven difficult. Especially with the many right hooks that 2020 has brought us, building a company, pivoting a strategy, and maintaining the positive morale of a team are all exhausting. It’s all doable — it’s just that I can lose sight of the fact that internally, I am sprinting. And even when you’re a great sprinter, sprinting is tiring.
My drive comes from many places — from being raised by a family with relentless drive, from competitive sports, from a support system that consistently picks me up when I run out of fuel.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m fortunate to have many people in my life who I credit Real to — college professors who encouraged me to start a company, the Real team, my dad, my brother — but the person who comes to mind first is my best friend, Dani Freid. She’s actually the person who brought me to therapy for the first time. During my sophomore year at Stanford, I had encountered depression for the first time in my life. Even though I definitely didn’t have the words to properly convey my depression and the fact that Dani was living across the country, she understood what I was going through and put an immense amount of work into booking, funding, and pushing me to attend my first therapy journey. Needless to say, the work didn’t end with a therapy appointment — she, herself, was the rock that pulled me through my own depression, through entrepreneurship-related uncertainties, through bike accidents, and through everyday hiccups that all played a role in getting me to where I am today.
When I closed Real’s first round of funding, one of my investors asked if I was in a romantic relationship, which I was not. They very earnestly shared that the solo founder experience is incredibly lonely, and one they don’t think is possible to do as a single person. I look back on that conversation now and realize that the comfort, stability, and love their partner provided them with truly are needed to survive the solo founder experience, and I’m unbelievably lucky to get that all from Dani.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Someone I met this summer taught me the mantra that is “not your spoon”. My fudged memory is likely misconstruing the origin story a bit, but I believe it comes from a cafe owner, who would lay out a finite number of spoons which represented his capacity to give his energy to others — be it providing empathetic care to a friend, doing a favor, or diving deeply into a project. Whenever he was presented with another energy-consuming opportunity, he would decide whether or not it was worthy of his limited capacity. If it was, he’d remove a spoon from his collection. If it wasn’t, he’d share, “not my spoon.”
I love to give to others, and like any founder, I love to give to my work. Because our energy capacity seems so intangible, it’s easy to overdo ourselves. In my case, I frequently overdo myself to an extent that requires an isolated, solo 2-week trip, in order to regain my energy. I don’t foresee a future without this ongoing cycle of overexertion-to-isolation on repeat, but remembering my collection of spoons makes the cycle a little more manageable.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Real is the first true approach to healthcare for your mind. The real issue we’re solving for is that most people access mental healthcare when they’ve reached rock bottom — after they’ve lost someone they love, after a divorce, after a suicide attempt. We haven’t built an ongoing health regimen that involves taking care of our mind, and as a result, we’ve built a society of people who don’t understand themselves deeply. Through our monthly digital and in-studio membership model, members are encouraged to practice mental healthcare always, not just in moments of crisis, and to not only understand themselves more deeply but to feel supported and celebrated for doing so.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We offer relatable care that speaks the language of people today, and that works with our everyday lifestyles such that we realistically can maintain our mental health regularly. A huge issue with the 1:1 therapy experience today is that it’s an indefinite black hole — if you go to a therapist for the first time, they will essentially tell you, “I have no idea how long it will take you to feel better, I don’t know what we will talk about, I have no previous examples of my work, but trust me, you will feel better eventually…at $300 per hour.” It’s not just the price tag that scares us; it’s the lack of clarity.
Real has demystified the experience by building therapy pathways, which are 12-session topic-based therapy experiences on topics like Exploring your Sexuality, Family Patterns & Dynamics, Owning your Single Life, offering members clarity and expectation setting such that they can trust and understand the process they’re signing up for. Within each pathway, we don’t only ask members to offer their stories, but we also offer knowledge on our end, guiding members with language and tools to better understand their own stories.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We just launched Real’s first digital membership in August! Our membership is affordable, at $28/month, and incorporates our learnings from the past 6 months about how COVID-19 is affecting mental health, offering a mix of group and individualized formats including our signature Therapy Pathways, Therapist-led Events, Group Salons, and monthly mental health tracking–all through the member portal.
As opposed to basing care on illness like depression and PTSD, we’re offering a first-ever therapy approach based on life experiences, focusing on topics like sex and intimacy, working from home as a parent, understanding the role of race in your life, and the like, ensuring that we’re understanding the depth of the human experience, not just their manifestation of illness.
We still have plans to open Real’s brick and mortar studio in New York City, as soon as it is safe to do so. Featuring modern designs, bold prints, and a welcoming studio layout, Real’s therapy studio is intended to be everything a traditional, outdated therapy office is not — celebratory, fun, and welcoming.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Take a break! We are human. We are more than sales 🙂
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
We don’t have a sales team, but I’d think creating a high performing sales team requires taking care of your sales team. Sales is exhausting — every call, every pitch, every client dinner is another spoon taken from your team’s collection. How can you replenish them?
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
Be human. We can get so trapped in business and clinical and elite jargon, we forget that we’re (hopefully) building a world that we, humans, want to live in. How do we want to live? How do we want to feel? What words are needed to express that?
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Don’t call them customers! Welcome them with language you would feel proud of being labeled as.
Listen. Don’t hide behind scripts or jargon. Speak and listen with presence and purpose.
What feeling do you want to instill in people?
Don’t think of actions or purchases. Think about how you want people to feel, and let that guide your research and testing.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
We plan to do so by listening to our members, learning how their mental health is changing over time, double-clicking into the intimate stories they are ready to share versus those they need more time to, and building accordingly. We are growing Real with our members, building a space alongside them.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Your team is everything!
- Hire people who get it.
- Support your hires. Listen to them, be transparent with them, challenge them, meet them where they’re at.
- Be willing to be supported by your team. Running a company is exhausting. Be willing to hand work (and energy) off to others.
- CELEBRATE. It is AMAZING that we get to build products and services that build a better world. Celebrate with your team, and celebrate with yourself.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
A movement for empathy! I’d love to build and be a part of a world with immense empathy (and more bike paths!).
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂
Megan Rapinoe. Is an explanation needed?