From MBA to Entrepreneur Part 4: Lynette Seow, Safe Space
In Singapore, the stigma around mental health and therapy is still very strong. Lynette Seow, a native Singaporean and first year MBA at MIT Sloan, felt that challenge when in 2015, one of her childhood friends committed suicide and she was left to deal with the fallout. Recognizing the problems in the space, she dove into the mental health industry and understood there was tremendous potential for a new solution.
In her research, she discovered Safe Space, a very early-stage start-up that had just been founded and completed a crowdfunding campaign. The company offers live support, therapy, and online resources that anyone seeking to enhance their mental wellness can use. After starting as a volunteer to get her hands dirty, she quickly committed to becoming the co-founder and COO in 2021 and the rest is history.
“The stigma around therapy is ridiculous. It’s everywhere and everyone has had a first-degree connection to someone with mental health issues. Especially in Asia, nobody’s talking about it but everybody’s going through it. This is more than an academic exercise now, this is something that is a real problem, and that we are eager to solve,” Lynette said.
The company offers therapy sessions that are tailored to the lifestyle and commitments of their client. They pre-screen qualified therapists to provide each business and employee with a bespoke course of treatment. Thus far, she and her team have seen rapid traction in their B2B offering, growing over 10x each year since founding and are keen to raise a Series A round within the next quarter.
Even more important, the impact that the company is generating has been immensely impressive. 77% of users currently agree that Safe Space has had a positive effect on their mental health and the service’s usage is around 40% (compared to 2–3% for its peers). They aim to be the leading trusted digital mental health ecosystem partner and have 416% client growth in just the last 10 months.
I sat down with Lynette to discuss her road to entrepreneurship, the company’s rapid growth, and the status of her fundraising.
Thank you for sitting down with me. Tell me a bit about your background and how you started with Safe Space.
My background is in tech consulting but as I prepared to go back to school, I had some time due to COVID around June 2020. I’ve always been interested in psychology and in 2015, mental health became more real to me after one of my friends committed suicide. It was like a shock, and I never expected it. I knew then that I wanted to focus on entrepreneurship and mental health, so I started looking at the mental health industry globally and doing some desktop research. I wanted to get my hands dirty now, and I saw this company called Safe Space. I connected with the CEO on LinkedIn and dropped her a message. After looking through my CV, I started at the company as a product volunteer. From the very beginning, I just loved it — I have never been more passionate about my work and I started taking on more and more work. In January of the following year, we talked about going full-time and I joined the company in a COO and co-founder capacity.
I was just telling my co-founder yesterday that I’m living the perfect dream. I get to work on something that is extremely meaningful and fun with a team that I love. The fact that I get to do this incredible work while still being able to pursue a personal dream of graduate school is unbelievable. I’m incredibly happy.
How big was the company when you first decided to join?
The original MVP first came out in 2019, but the company has since pivoted from text based to its current business model offering online and face to face therapy. At that time, we had about 12 therapists and were manually creating the zoom for meeting rooms, so to look back at that time and see how far we’ve come is crazy.
Mental health is a huge issue. Even in the United States, it feels under appreciated and I’m sure it’s even more the case in Asia. Can you talk about the work you’re doing and how you’ve structured it?
We offer a B2B2C mental health ecosystem where we match individuals with therapists for offline and online therapy sessions. We’re trying to fix the access issue for credible therapists by doing quality check verifications and offering personalized care by using a short questionnaire to provide therapist recommendations. Using our platform, users can book a visit within 24 hours. We also do webinars and workshops as well as a self-paced course on mental resiliency.
We combine all those offerings into a package for corporations, but it is also open to the public to sign themselves up. Lastly, we also recently launched a research and consultancy vertical. This surprised us but some companies have approached us to analyze the mental health landscape in a given country or for a given demographic. We have yet to formalize this service offering and it’s been pretty ad hoc but it’s very profitable.
In January 2021, we had two full-time employees — just me and my co-founder. Now, we have 15 plus another 10 freelancers and volunteers. We had two corporate clients at the start of last year, and now we’re at over 60 so it’s been a crazy 2021.
It sounds like you have almost a product led vertical and a service led vertical. On the therapy side, one of the key challenges is having enough quality therapists in each location. How have you guys been able to do that as you expand to 10+ countries?
One thing that has been interesting as we’ve expanded is the additional need for localization as we get therapists in the rest of Southeast Asia including South Korea, Japan, and others where the local flavor adds a challenging dynamic to the therapy. We had 12 therapists one year ago but now we have over 100. We work diligently to find and verify them through local psychology or counseling associations, working with each country to understand local regulations. They also require a minimum of a Masters degree in psychology or counseling to qualify and they need to be appropriately registered in their given location. This can also be challenging because we interview every therapist individually and it can be difficult if they don’t speak English as we use that for business communication.
This seems like a rapidly growing space. I know in the US there are a number of start-ups competing for market share here — how have you thought about the competitive landscape?
Two years ago, when we were doing our first seed round, there were no competitors which made it hard to convince investors that there was a market for this. We had to gather a lot of research from the ground up to convince investors that this was a space to be considered. Now, you see new competitors popping up every week, so the landscape is definitely intensifying. A few trends that have generally picked up include chat bots and self-paced gamification. However, we believe the human therapist still has a central role to play in the treatment process. I think the two can complement each other, but the focus and user experience needs are totally different.
There are also several companies focused on life coaching where the requirements for therapists are not as strict. We see that as limiting the kind of operations we can conduct. We will move into the coaching space as well, but it will be life coaching done by qualified therapists. The nature of our business is very high touch — we work with each company to figure out what the employees needs are and have constant consultations to focus on usage and retention. We are the largest start-up in the Asian market focused on live therapy.
In terms of traction, you raised a seed round last year. What was that process like and what are your thoughts on fundraising in the upcoming year?
We raised our seed round in October 2020 from angels and then a bridge round in May 2021 for a capital injection. Since 2021, our revenues have helped us not require funding and it’s nice to raise to accelerate growth, not because we desperately need to.
We’re informally talking to some VCs so if you’re interested in participating, please do reach out. We’ve talked to mostly Asian VCs but we’re more than happy to talk to US or international investors.
That’s really solid funding. In terms of traction, how has your growth been tracking?
We’ve grown over 10x every year in terms of revenue and user base. Our B2B and B2B split have reversed as we focus more and more on the B2B side (~70/30 split).
With all this growth, what does success look like for you in the short and long term?
Ultimately, we want to build the business in a sustainable way with high recurring growth. We always want to be the centerpiece of mental health in the APAC region. We want to help people get access to affordable, high quality mental healthcare and help therapists get more clients as well as be paid fairly for their work. On our platform, therapists can set their own prices which is unlike most platforms.
We want to work with insurance partners, hospitals, schools, and other partners to ensure that the industry is working smoothly. Public mental health institutions in Asia require ridiculously long waits and individuals can go up to 3 month wait times just for an initial consultation of 5 minutes which is mind blowing. If we can partner with those other channels to improve the standard of care for mental health across the board, that would be a massive success.
Switching gears a bit, it feels like in the US, it’s become commonly acceptable that this is a necessary benefit to provide to employees. Are you still feeling like there’s quite a bit of resistance when you talk to big corporations around the region?
The bigger corporations are the ones who are more likely to acknowledge the need for it across the board, especially due to the pandemic. Instead of us having to reach out to them and convince them about the value of looking after their employees’ mental health, they’ve been reaching out to us more frequently.
Older family run businesses are usually the most resistant to the idea of our product. They know it can be important but are also challenged by their budget, so they are hesitant to commit. However, we don’t have a minimum spend so they can give us a budget and show how effective the solution is. The biggest proof point for us is that the standard employee assistance program (EAP) usage is 2–3% but ours now is about 40%. Having these data points has made it a lot easier to have these conversations.
That’s incredibly high utilization… What do you think is pushing Safe Space’s utilization so much higher than the competition?
I mentioned the high touch culture and the nature of the way we run all our onboarding sessions, which I think plays a big part. We use that session to explain the platform, reduce stigma, and interact with the audience which gets the employees quite open. We explain how private information is stored and demonstrate exactly what information HR will see in their dashboard to assuage their concerns around privacy and confidentiality. Once they start seeing how easy it is to use the platform and book sessions, they often come back frequently. We also offer couples and family therapy which widens our offerings, and we vet our therapists regularly to ensure they are up to speed. If the therapist is qualified based on our recommendations, they are much more likely to book subsequent appointments.
Often a high touch model can be tough to scale. Do you think this will need to shift as you gain more volume?
I think that’s a great question. There is a strategic tradeoff between high touch and volume. I think from my perspective, trust is at the center of our DNA and values. The high touch part is meant to create and build trust so I would not like to move too far away from that. Instead, I would love to automate more of the operational aspects within each department to accomplish more high touch and high value activities. This way, we would spend less time on generating reports or answering FAQs but instead spend quality time building relationships.
Has there been a beachhead market for you guys that has been particularly successful? What does your marketing spend look like?
At the start, we worked with quite a few companies in the advertising and media sector as it’s a stressful industry. However, now our clients currently come from a wide range of industries and company sizes. When we started, we conducted an email marketing campaign that targeted HR managers and we’ve now focused on being at conferences and getting our name out there. We’ve continued to do promotion, but we also get a lot of referrals as well.
I’d like to switch gears a bit and talk about your journey more. Those close to you know that you’ve been putting in a lot of time amid difficult time zones. What has your experience been working remotely with your team in Singapore?
For me, I do think the time zone is as convenient as possible — especially because I’m not working normal office hours in Cambridge. Most of my classes this semester are in the afternoon which is when Singapore will be asleep. I like to work nights here in Cambridge which is perfect because I catch the first half of the day in Singapore before logging off. In terms of being remote, it hasn’t really had too big of an impact as we’ve been remote since the company began so we’re used to it. We didn’t even have an office until March last year but having the option to go back into the office when I return to Singapore is so much fun.
In terms of time management, I’d say I’m learning as I go. Last semester, my routine began with classes at 8:30 which took up my whole morning and then I’d sleep through lunch and go to my afternoon classes. Afterwards, I would start work at 7 or 8 pm and go until 2 or 3 AM. I would wake up early for certain team meetings because we usually do team bonding events at the end of the day in Singapore and it’s still important for me to be connected to the team. I’ve found power napping or napping in pockets to be very useful. This semester has been better because my earliest class is at 10 which makes a lot of difference, because for the first time I can sleep in late even if I go to sleep at 4 AM.
I just sleep when I’m tired and that’s worked well for me. One of my philosophies is that if I’m tired, I’m going to sleep because you’ll waste more time finishing the task when you’re tired as opposed to sleeping and doing it when you’re fresh.
Given this, what would you say is a normal day for you?
I wake up around 7 and have a few hours to myself to plan my day, do some work, and get in some exercise. I then head for meetings and classes which typically end around 4 pm. After that, I work on the start up from 7 pm until 1 am for meetings before I start prepping for class for the next day. I take an hour or two between the end of classes and the start of work to decompress and clear more administrative tasks. I use weekends to do work that requires more blocks of focus time for deep thinking.
Working across borders has added extra stress to the process of founding a new company. How do you support yourself when things get particularly stressful or hectic?
Usually, I try to remember the process and think about the broader purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish at Safe Space. It makes things a lot more fun than stress-inducing but when it comes to stress, I think I’m pretty good at talking it out with people. My main go to is to have conversations with my co-founder, friends, and bring up anything that’s bothering me whether it’s school, work or anything else. They’ve been so supportive and are always asking how they can help.
I also focus on taking time when I know I’m overthinking things or in a state where I’m not productive. Occasionally changing my physical environment helps and I can go visit my brother who lives nearby or take a trip to New York to visit my friends. Taking that time off helps me reset and come back with a new perspective.
Lastly, I’m not a perfectionist by any measure so I’ve learned that it’s important to get something done and iterate on it. I don’t want to sit on something for too long trying to make it perfect because it creates more stress and even guilt, so I’ve learned to be comfortable with good enough and constant improvement, which has been super helpful but difficult to internalize.
How do you incorporate the social aspects of the MBA experience?
I think people didn’t really see me at social gatherings and events until maybe October or November as I was just trying to figure out a routine to get started. I’ve been trying to get better at this and have been trying to set aside time every week to go out at least once. I recently started No Meetings Thursdays (Singapore time) so my Wednesday night here in Cambridge is free to go out. It’s nice because of the time difference, Friday and Saturday nights here are the weekend in Singapore so I am able to use that time to go out. I’m trying to broaden my horizons through conversations with people from different backgrounds and expertise and that’s a big part of the MBA experience — I think it’ll be valuable not just to me but also to the company as well. My goal for this semester is to meet someone new every week.
You touched on this briefly, but how do you think the MBA program at MIT has helped you in your entrepreneurial journey?
My goal for the MBA is more experience focused rather than outcome driven. My aim is to fully take advantage of the experience — it’s fun and totally different from what I’ve experienced geographically and culturally. The interactions with people from all over the world from different backgrounds and aspirations, and just having authentic conversations with others has been amazing. I enjoy the thought leadership and learning across topics that I’m interested in — for example, I’m auditing a class in the media lab called AI for mental health and it covers the latest research in mental health technology in an academic space which is exactly the type of information I’m trying to learn about. Even classes like entrepreneurial founding and teams has made me think more deeply about my co-founder relationship and realized how grateful I am for our positive relationship, open communication, and complementary skills. My goal for the MBA is to broaden my perspectives and I think I’m accomplishing that goal.
Having grown this company quite rapidly, is there anything that you would tell yourself two years ago before you began on this journey?
I would say you are one lucky person and it’s going to be a phenomenal ride. I’ve learned so much over the last year and a half, but I think I needed that process for the learning to sink in. My main learning was around tradeoffs — before going into start-ups, I always thought it was about time management and if I could manage my time, I can do everything. But I quickly learned that wasn’t true, it’s a whole different ball game when you have so much stuff happening. I had to make a lot of difficult decisions around personal relationships, social life, and figure out what was the highest priority for me. Spreading yourself too thin means that you won’t accomplish anything too impactful. There needs to be focus and I am very conscious about where and how I’m spending my time.
One other big learning is around conscious leadership as we’ve started to determine the company culture. My top value is authenticity and I’m pretty much the same in any setting I’m in. Being disingenuous as a leader doesn’t work for me, and I’m explicit with my team and everyone I work with that how we achieve success is as important as overachieving on targets. We need to do it ethically and in a way that we are comfortable and proud of. I want all my employees to be able to bring their full self to work and share whatever they are comfortable with so we can support each other. The responses from our employees have been phenomenal and if you are always authentic, then you are less afraid of vulnerability that comes with worrying what people might think of you.
Those are crucial learnings and super helpful to anyone who wants to start their own business. If you met another MBA who wanted to found a start-up, what advice would you give?
First, I’d focus on solving a problem that really resonates with your soul and motivates you intrinsically. I’ve tried to work with other startups before but if it’s only causal motivation then it’s hard to find purpose in your work. When you’re passionate about something, there is a whole different level of motivation for your idea and that gives you more capacity and grit to push through the tough times (and there will be many!).
Second, I would say focus on your co-founder. There is overwhelming research in support of having at least one co-founder, but also recognize how difficult it is to find a good partner. I would be very conscious about who you choose and make sure they are complementary in terms of skills, personality, perspectives, values, and commitment. You also need to have mutual trust and respect because there will be hard conversations and you need to come out of those stronger rather than resentful. When I joined Safe Space, I started in a trial period. Everyone always says co-founder relationships are like marriages, so I would advocate dating first before jumping in because divorces are incredibly expensive.
Third, I’m of the camp that tends to analyze things closely before doing something. However, in this instance, I’d tell people to just go for it. The opportunity cost is so low and school is a great time to experiment. You can always make the money back in a full-time job but now is the opportunity to take a risk and try something new that could change your life, and hopefully have a positive impact on many others.
Last question from me — what is the number one thing you’re excited about for Safe Space in the next year?
I’m very excited about geographical expansion. I’m excited to go back and start opening new offices in other countries and spending time there. I’m excited to learn more about individual markets and I’m excited to see the continued growth in the Asian markets. I think this will be a huge year for Safe Space.