This week’s guest on Famous Failures is Bea Arthur.
A child of entrepreneurs, Bea Arthur has used her tenacity and creativity to become a successful therapist, entrepreneur, and media personality. She’s employed her clinical training to develop innovative companies in the mental-health sphere including In Your Corner, and her new company, The Difference, which uses machine learning to modernize mental health services. As a celebrated woman in tech, she’s been a TedX speaker, Forbes writer, and the first black woman admitted to Y Combinator, the world’s most prestigious start-up incubator.
What follows is an edited version of our conversation. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
- How you can view your failures as stepping stones
- Why too much strategizing can be to your detriment
- How to stay true to yourself as you build your company
What have been some of the most valuable failures you’ve had in your life?
My very first company was called Me Time, and our tag line was: “Little escapes from your little ones.” I came up with that concept because, while in grad school, I babysat part time. I worked with a lot of women primarily on the Upper East Side, women who had waited to have their kids, very accomplished women, and I started to notice that whenever they came back from being out, they always asked me to hang out later. And I thought, “Wow, you miss adult company?”
That’s how I got the idea for Me Time. I wanted to see on-site child care with a grown-up play date for these moms–trapeze lessons, cocktail making–just to remember the woman inside of the mother. I did my thesis on it at Columbia and I got my first investor from another part time job I had. Unfortunately, I graduated in 2008 and this is when the market crashed. So all of these Upper East Side moms, the women I was targeting, were the wives of all the men who had just been laid off.
That failure was fast and furious. My investor said, “Well, it was a good idea, but it’s a bad time.” And I said, “No, I’m going to do it anyway.” And I did – I tried to scale it down and make events, and spend all this money, and just got super broke that I had to get a regular job. I was so depressed. When it died a very sudden, sad death, I had nobody to talk to about it. I remember thinking, God, I just want to get over this and get on with my life. I should do therapy.
Keep in mind, I had just completed graduate school for clinical psychology. All of my friends at the time were therapists, all of my mentors were therapists, and I still didn’t want to ask for help. I still found it hard to find a good therapist. I thought, “If I’m a practitioner in this space and an advocate for this service and it’s hard for me to take the steps to get therapy, how hard is it for someone who doesn’t even know that it’s a good thing?” There are so many barriers to entry.
That failure ended up leading to my biggest joy, which was my last company. I always tell people, don’t consider it a failure, consider it a stepping stone. All of my failures brought me to where I am now.
Even though Me Time was a good idea, when I look back at it now, it was never going to work. I wasn’t a mother; I just looked at that population and said, “Oh, this is something they could use.” But now I know, as an actual mother, when moms have a free hour to themselves, they’re not going to want to go and make new friends. They’re going to want to take a nap or catch up on laundry or Netflix.
What did you take from the failure of Me Time to your next company?
I took the desire to design an experience that I would want. Last time, I was trying to provide a solution to something that wasn’t necessarily a problem. This time, I was my target customer. The company was called Pretty Padded Room. It was purple-themed and had an all-female staff. The tag line was “A nice place to go crazy”, because I really hated the clinical way therapy was always talked about. We put it online and had video counseling. In addition to video, we also had interactive journals. Instead of the typical rates of $200 an hour, it was only $200 a month.
That took off pretty quickly. I was in all these newsletters and the New York Post. My first mistake was thinking that press equals money and success, because I quit my job and I thought, “Okay, I’m going to do this full time.” But the honorable thing would have been to work nights and weekends until I could actually pay myself, because I quickly had no money. When you’re desperate, you make careless decisions because you’re in a scarcity mindset.
But things eventually picked up with Pretty Padded Room. I did a lot of business competitions. We made lots of money. We ended up expanding to 30 countries. I was the first black woman in Y Combinator and I got to do a TED talk.
After Y Combinator, we rebranded to In Your Corner, which is what it’s known by now. I also started doing things the startup way – paying for users, hiring engineers, getting office space. That was the beginning of the end. It was a blessing and a curse with Y Combinator, because even though it was a major endorsement, doing things the startup way isn’t necessarily how you build a profitable business. I got caught up, drank the Kool-Aid, and spent all of our fundraising money. And then we ran out of funding in May of 2015.
In Your Corner literally was my life, so I just couldn’t see it ending. After we ran out of money, I laid off all my employees but I kept the contractors, and I stopped paying my rent to make payroll. I just beefed it up for another 11 months, which I’m actually proud of, but it ended up being to my detriment. I was broke and then I got evicted. We ended up closing in April 2016.
Was there a silver lining in the failure of In Your Corner?
My mom said to me at the time, “Just because it didn’t work out, doesn’t mean it didn’t work.” I started that company because I knew what it was like to feel really lonely and not have the energy or the resources to reach out to anybody and get help. We did that for thousands of people in 30 countries, and I’m really proud of that. I’m the godmother of that space.
Even though it’s a failure, it did more than what I thought it would do. Now that the pain has subsided, I only have fond memories, and I’m really proud of the work we did there.
Most people would have quit after Me Time or would have quit after In Your Corner, but you kept pushing forward. How do you find the motivation to keep going in the face of failure?
My family is from Ghana in West Africa. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs. My older sister is an entrepreneur. Africa is the perfect place for the startup mindset. Because there’s very little infrastructure and the idea of starting something and it being orderly just isn’t as big. If I walked into a bureau and said, “Here’s my application for an LLC,” that paper isn’t going anywhere. So, naturally, there’s a by-any-means-necessary kind of mindset. You do what you have to do to make it work.
I’ll say that I’m really blessed to have this fearlessness. I wasn’t scared because I didn’t know to be scared. Don’t do too much homework. Don’t listen to too many podcasts. Just do it. You can follow all the formulas you want, but the unique power of execution is in you and the way you do things. Be flexible and don’t be too bull-headed.
Even with this tenacity, the closing of In Your Corner was really tough. The disappointment was so deep. I called the suicide hotline four times in 2015. Being an entrepreneur and being a boss is such an isolating experience. You can’t tell your employees how you feel. You have to keep morale high. You can’t tell your investors. Your friends see you on TV and think things are going great. It was a really lonely experience.
My family and I got really close through that experience so I promised myself I wasn’t going to commit suicide because what would that do to my family? I didn’t want to make things harder for them. Luckily, because I’m a therapist, I know that it wasn’t that my body wanted to die. It was just that my mind wanted my problems to stop.
How’s your approach different with your new company?
As I’m starting my new company, The Difference, I’m a lot more cautious and fearful. Your heart has a muscle memory. It’s like getting a divorce and dating again. It could be great, but I’ve lived through what it looks like when it doesn’t work out.
I want to do it anyway. This time, it’s not so personal. I’m really curious about this new concept. I want to see it in the world. And if it doesn’t work out, I’ll be okay. I’ve learned all these lessons, and luckily I now have professional detachment so I won’t make the kind of mistakes that I made last time.
I’m not going it alone this time. One of my biggest issues with my past companies was that I didn’t have a technical co-founder. This time, I have a CTO who is a graduate of MIT and Columbia. She cared about the concept so I raised the money to fund her.
I’m more prepared and more intentional this time around. I wouldn’t have known how valuable and necessary that was without having the calamity and chaos of the last two experiences.
Can you tell us more about your new company?
The new concept is called The Difference, as in “The right talk at the right time can make all the difference.” It’s a machine learning mental health startup. It’s like 23andMe for mental health.
There’s no therapist in the first session. We give you 30 minutes to answer a series of questions, take an audio recording, and then our machine learning layer listens for certain signs of stress and hesitation, and keywords like “I hate my job” or “boyfriend problems”. We then assign you a therapist who specializes in your issue, and they get back to you with a deep dive report.
Texting your therapist is popular these days because it’s convenient and cheaper but it’s also an easy way to disengage. You can edit a text. Real therapy is about stream of consciousness thinking. Freud designed it so that you lie on a couch and you speak as if you’re talking to God. People work so hard to suppress their emotions so a lot comes up when you hear yourself verbalize it.
If you want to know a man’s true face, give him a mask. We’re going straight to the source by decoding your emotions and voice. We want to give you actionable data to make a difference in your life.
I don’t think therapy should just be about talking. It should be about learning.
Read more about the Difference and join the waitlist for the launch at The Difference.