VC firms offer group therapy for founders due to the COVID-19 outbreak

Founders face many trials and tribulations when building their companies, from fundraising woes to visa challenges to product failures to company failures. 

And according to Kari Sulenes, “almost everybody who has built a company has a burnout story.” Her startup, Atlas, connects venture firms and startup founders to specialized therapy sessions. Plus, it views the silver linings of burnout stories: “There’s also a large number of people who have a burnout story who have an impact story that comes out of it.” 

More recently, as a response to the coronavirus outbreak, the company was hired by a number of venture capital firms to provide mental health services to portfolio companies. The uptick in business — that is, clients looking to provide founder-specialized therapy during uncertain times — makes Atlas projected to double its estimated revenue this year.   

We’ve interviewed VCs that, in the wake of the novel coronavirus disease, have told their startups to hold off putting excessive capital to work. Others said to keep your head down and work on the product. And some that say it is business as usual until the dry powder dries up

Beyond business economics, mental health remains largely unaddressed from the slew of issues that founders struggle with, oftentimes alone and in private. Atlas’ utilization sheds light on how the tech industry’s financial arm is prioritizing health. 

It’s just one data point, but it’s an important one, nonetheless.

Starting this week, Atlas is launching a small group founder program with the following firms: Primary VC, Corigin Ventures, SoGal Ventures, Spero Ventures, Lerer Hippeau and Crosscut Ventures. 

Atlas is also working with the venture capital firm it spun out from in the first place: AlphaBridge VC. Sulenes, the founder and executive director, noted that while these firms were in prior communication with Atlas, the outbreak helped increase their business with the company (in other words, the world ending inspired the firms to bring its mental health resources out to its portfolio founders).

Atlas in action 

Here’s how small group sessions for founders will shape up: Atlas will hold a virtual group program that connects six to eight founders, mixed between all the portfolios of client venture firms with a minimum commitment of six months. Each small group will meet twice a month for one and a half hours, and it will be facilitated by a trained life coach. From there, Sulenes says, there is not much structure. 

“Founders can’t bring [anxiety] to their company, they have to hold steady and strong,” she said. “We are the place they can have their freak out that they can’t have every other place.”

The small groups will be created by a three-interview process led by Atlas. Sulenes noted that she matches groups based on stage of company, plus goals and personality structure “so the people who want to go deep and talk about existential problems” can. Others, she said, might want to keep it to business impact. 

Atlas “anti-matches” on sectors so there aren’t competitors in the same group. The company also has an offering in which it embeds a coach in a company to work with employees, executives and managers for mindfulness and development. 

Before the outbreak, Atlas relied simply on word of mouth. 

“We are different from coaching firms who are charging a lot of money and looking to be seen as experts — we are who we serve,” Sulenes said. There are no clinical psychologists within Atlas, but there are individuals who are trained to be life coaches.

Sulenes says that the team was thankfully “at scale” for massive interest with a group of trained coaches on deck. Right now, due to the pandemic, the startup is offering any founder a preliminary conversation, free of charge. 

Of course, the startup has had to respond to the novel coronavirus outbreak in-house as well. While the meetup is usually done in person, Sulenes said that the small groups will be done virtually. Next week, they’re having a free event for group coaching — it is titled Homeostasis Happy Hour.