Sesh and Tori Bergeron
Building a business that provides online group support led by licensed therapists during the global pandemic
Sesh is a mental health app that provides online group support led by licensed therapists. They have sessions for a range of topics from body positivity and anxiety to grief and depression. Tori Bergeron founded Sesh in 2019 based on her firsthand experience of the effectiveness of group support. She was frustrated that it’s often saved for the final part of someone's therapeutic journey, but now Sesh makes it easily accessible for more people when they need it.
They began testing their concept for Sesh with offline in-person sessions in New York City in 2019 and quickly sped up their online offering when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. Later that year in September, they launched their mobile app, which would later be a Webby Award Honoree. Their mobile app was a big step forward for their business and helped them capture the attention of a larger audience.
I connected with Tori a year after they began to pivot their product strategy from web based zoom sessions to a more robust mobile app experience. In our conversation, Tori talks about:
The founding story and how her own experience with group support inspired her to start Sesh
How building an app was an important signal to investors that Sesh was a robust business ready to scale to a larger audience
The challenges of shifting the product experience from web to mobile and how she stayed close to customer feedback channels to manage it successfully
The outcomes data she looks at to measure the value they are providing to their customers
How she doesn’t believe all of the pandemic’s impact on mental health have fully materialized, yet
My questions are in bold; this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Let’s start at the beginning. Can you give me a quick overview of how Sesh started and what you’ve done over the past year?
Tori Bergeron: I was in inpatient treatment for an eating disorder in my early 20s and that's the first time I had exposure to the group modality. It was something that was by far the most transformative part of my recovery, much more than 1-on-1 therapy. It was a great supplement to that. The founding story comes from my first hand experience as a group support consumer and how frustrating it is that it's saved for the final hour of your therapeutic journey.
Additionally, Sesh is solving the supply and demand problem between the surplus of therapists who want to facilitate groups and the individuals who want easy, affordable access to mental health care. We do this by elevating the group modality and bringing group support to the masses. Sesh was founded in 2019 and we started by doing in-person groups. Is this consumer behavior palatable for people? We found out quickly that absolutely, yes it is. And as the pandemic began we were able to scale much faster because we immediately switched to virtual sessions.
We were lucky to be on the receiving end of some of the consumer behavior changes during that time. People were much more willing to go meet virtually and we were able to grow our user base much faster. We built an app in mid 2020, launched it in September of 2020, and then we closed our seed round, led by Polaris, in November. Since then we’ve continued to stay focused on building.
That’s a powerful founding story. You mentioned that the in-person NYC sessions were just to validate the concept. So does that mean when you founded Sesh, before the pandemic, that you had been planning to build a business focused on virtual group sessions?
TB: Yes, totally. Geography is a barrier for group sessions to work. For example, in New York City it could work, but even so you're fighting subway lines, trying to find a physical space to hold these sessions, and more. So it’s tricky even in one of the most highly populated cities in the world. Now imagine if you are an individual in Mississippi who is part of the LGBTQ+ community and quite literally may have no community or therapist-led community that identifies in a similar way. So if you think about geography as an actual barrier, then the virtual group experience becomes a much more natural choice. And again, I'm grateful that user behavior has changed so much over the past year to become much more accepting of that fact.
Definitely, the pandemic and shelter in place has forced us to realize that we can achieve a lot of the same things over video. It's not exactly the same, but you can get a lot of the benefits without some of those costs.
TB: Right, and for us, we're able to have more unique groups on topics that even in a city like New York, you wouldn't be able to find a critical mass of individuals that we're identifying in the same way. I'm talking about people that are suffering from specific illnesses, people that are grieving in specific ways. When you open up to the world, the only thing you really have to worry about is the time of day that a person might join a group. We offer group support sessions led by licensed therapists, not group therapy. There are some specific differences I don't think are worth getting into now, but ultimately this nuance has allowed us to serve communities that might not have been able to come together in one specific date, time, and location.
Let's talk about the shift of your product during the start of the pandemic. You went from Zoom calls to moving everything into a native app. How was that transition?
TB: The transition from in-person to virtual was pretty easy, actually easier than you would think because we didn't have a choice and no one else did. But then switching from one version of virtual experience to an app was definitely hard. You have users who are excited about what you're doing, which is very energizing, and then you throw in another shift, which is telling them to move over to a third platform: their phone. So, yeah, that was tricky. But staying close to our members with candid and earnest feedback loops has been really helpful. Especially with the ones that have been with us since the beginning, because they've seen such growth, but we want to make sure that they know we're providing them with new updates and new features that actually serve them and their experience.
How were you gauging the success of the switch to the app in September? Did you have a specific metric you were looking at to know if you made the right decision?
TB: We did find that some of our users had a more difficult time than others, but we were capturing a much larger user base with an app. We have both an iOS app and an Android app and we were a Webby Award honoree this year, so our apps are something that's certifiably nice to use, I guess, if that's a metric in some way. We were able to capture the attention of a larger audience with an app. Frankly, if we had tried to raise money by saying we're a cool company but we don’t have an app, it may have been more difficult for us to raise capital.
You can certainly build a strong profitable business without having big institutional investors, but if we're talking about the arms race that is the digital health world, an app was an important ingredient for us to be able to position ourselves to investors as a robust business ready to scale to a much larger audience.
That's really interesting. You were a Webby Award honoree and you intuitively know you’ve built a good product, but I hadn’t thought about the impact to fundraising. I suppose it’s because you can build a stronger relationship with a customer via an app, it’s on their phone, there’s higher retention, but also it’s something that an investor can download from the App Store.
TB: It does make a difference.
Right, and by having an app you can build out an ecosystem with additional products and services if you decide that’s best for your business.
TB: Like I said at the beginning, we're solving the supply and demand problem of quality caregivers and people that don't have access to mental health care via the group modality. But we're also building a product for therapists. We're onboarding amazing, amazing therapists who want access to facilitating groups. What is going to help us become much larger and more exciting to people as we grow is the fact that 1) we treat our therapist facilitators really well. They're integrated into our product. And 2) we acknowledge how important their passion and their work is to serving our members. So that becomes its own ecosystem pretty quickly.
As you've invested in this marketplace and app, is there anything you've spent time on from a business or product perspective that now, six months down the line you’ve realized didn’t move the needle very much or help you achieve your goals?
TB: It's a good question. I've done plenty of things that have not yet yielded success. But we are early enough that I believe all our well intended efforts toward our goal are going to maybe show their fruit a little bit later. So I can’t really answer. Let me answer that in 12 months and I’ll tell you what was a complete fucking waste of time. But right now, I’m hopeful that a lot of things are going to iron out and be worth it.
That’s fair. A founder that I spoke with a few months ago had a similar answer in that there wasn’t anything in particular she regretted spending time on. But, she did wish she had spent a little less time deliberating on decisions and instead had been better at making them quickly so that she could keep the company moving forward.
TB: I think I'm more of a fast and loose decision maker within the bounds of knowing if X or Y is staying true to our value, mission, and goals. The mission is so clear and close to me. I don't have to deliberate over decisions at a philosophical level because it's so close to my heart.
Can you tell me about how you measure the value you are providing to your customers? Do you look at the number of group sessions attended per week?
TB: We are a subscription business, we have one plan for consumers. You pay $60 per month for unlimited access to all of our sessions. For growth in general we look at the number of paying subscribers. Then, of course, we look at churn. If you’re talking about our unit economics, we certainly look at the number of individuals in sessions on a weekly basis and the growth month over month.
There’s also outcomes data. How are these groups actually affecting people? Early on, we made the decision to add a short survey that asks about general anxiety and general depression as part of the onboarding experience. After members have taken a few sessions we ask again and this helps us understand how we are helping users along their journey. Ultimately, that’s hugely important to us. Does Sesh actually impact people in a way that is meaningful?
When it comes to outcomes, it reminds me of the problem that dating apps have which is if they do too good of a job then someone finds a partner and doesn’t need to use their product anymore. Is that something that you think about at all in relation to group support?
TB: That's a great question. For us, it's less “one track”. You are a being that goes through different things all the time. You're probably not going to need, I hope, our grief groups all the time. But at some point you might. You’re not going to need our postpartum groups all the time, but you might at some point. The idea is that there's always something for you at every phase of what you're going through. We are people that are parents, we are people that are students, we are people that just need some extra community. We don't necessarily have a billable diagnosis for our insurance company to warrant some sort of reimbursable therapy. We are people that are just trying to prioritize mental health for a lower price.
Switching gears a bit. As the pandemic is receding and more people are going out and interacting in person, is that changing your product strategy?
TB: If you look at data from the past year about telemedicine, people are going back to the doctor's office, but many people are not going back to brick and mortar therapy. What we're seeing is confirming that. We're continuing to grow. As grim as the pandemic has been, I don’t believe all of its impact on mental health has fully materialized, yet.
My last question for you, a lot of entrepreneurs struggle in that first year as they try to find product market fit and the buzz from the launch has worn off. How did you manage to stay motivated and focused after the excitement of the initial launch?
TB: I like to stay really close to our members and hear their feedback. It's like a shot of motivation every time I talk to a user. Also, it fires me up that mental health services are mostly built for a monolithic audience and that it’s still so difficult to access therapist-led groups.
Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about or advice that you want to share to an entrepreneur who is just starting out?
TB: Well, first I’d say congrats on starting. That means you are doing something that you’re really passionate about. I’d encourage you to continue to check in with your values often. Why are you doing this? And it sounds funny, but take pictures, document it. There is a picture of me at my first in-person group in New York and it’s nice to have photographic evidence of the very beginning. So much changes so quickly.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. Where can folks go to learn more about you and your business?
I hope you enjoyed my interview with Tori and learned a few things. If you did, give it some love on Twitter with a RT or Like. This helps more people discover my newsletter 😊 -Tyler