Eighteen months into a pandemic, the importance of caring for our mental health isn’t the fringe idea it once was. In 2021, we’ve seen mental health championed by corporations, politicians, athletes and celebrities alike. This move towards de-stigmatization is important news, since almost everyone is impacted by mental health challenges in their lifetime — either personally or through a loved one.
So why is finding the right mental health care still so hard?
That’s the question my co-founder, Shanna Traphoner-Liu, and I sought to answer when we founded bekome, a modern therapy matching platform. Our startup aims to restore trust in mental health care for young Americans by humanizing the therapy-seeking process and redefining how we find — and think about — mental health care.
A PARTNERSHIP COMES TOGETHER
Now three months into the first beta test of our technical platform, bekome is changing the process for dozens of therapy seekers to find therapists who are a good fit for their therapy journey. To do this, we are leveraging the science of thin-slicing, or the idea that we can tell a tremendous amount about someone and our compatibility with them in just a few seconds. In the process, we’re building a service that enables therapy seekers to gauge personality and cultural fit with a potential therapist off the bat. Like the “Hinge” for therapy, our users can peruse jargon-free therapist profiles that contain introductory videos, pithy short answer questions, and even testimonials and endorsements from other clients.
Building bekome has not only been a deeply personal journey, it’s been a deeply Kellogg one. In fact, Kellogg’s courses, resources, and culture have fueled bekome’s journey from nascent idea to technical product in many ways.
To start, I was introduced to my co-founder, Shanna, in a quintessentially Kellogg way. Working on a startup with students, a teammate who knew my passion was found in mental health, paid it forward and connected me to Shanna, who had an idea for a mental health startup. Both Shanna and I were given the courage to pursue entrepreneurship through Kellogg’s strong entrepreneurship curriculum and support ecosystem. Shanna, who is pursuing Kellogg’s “MMM” dual-degree MBA and Master’s in Design Innovation, benefited from the MMM program’s training in human-centered design.
Shanna also joined the Garage at Northwestern as a Propel Fellow in 2020. As a Propel Fellow, Shanna was immersed in female entrepreneurial empowerment, meeting weekly with a group of eight women over eight weeks to keep each other accountable to goals and share resources and advice to help each other — and their businesses — grow. It was here that Shanna was connected to her first few customer discovery interviewees, received her first $1K in funding to make progress, and commiserated about mental health for founders that further fueled her passion for and commitment to pursuing bekome.
BACKING FROM KELLOGG
I chose to dive into Kellogg’s experiential “New Venture” series, which is designed to help students navigate building a venture from initial hypothesis to launch. Together, we took advantage of the second course in the series, “New Venture Development,” to hone our plan for the business, learning to test and validate core assumptions and iterate where necessary. Initially, we set out to solve a therapy-seeker pain point; a key assumption underlying our business is that therapists are willing to pay for our platform. This course pushed us to test the market’s willingness to pay far earlier than we would have required. While it’s daunting to sell a product that isn’t yet market ready, we gained as much, if not more, insight from the “no’s” as the “yesses.” Those learnings have been pivotal to our ability to reduce risk as we grow.
Over the past six months, we’ve grown bekome from a rough idea to a revenue-generating business, partnering with dozens of therapists and building a modern technical platform which we’ve used to create nearly 20 successful client-therapist matches. Beyond Kellogg’s curriculum, we owe much of this early success to the financial and non-financial resources Kellogg offers. For example, we were able to zero in on our customer archetypes through marketing tests funded by Social Impact at Kellogg. This summer, our team was selected to participate in the Garage’s Jumpstart pre-accelerator program where we received additional funding, resources, and coaching. We’ve met many of our key mentors and advisors through Kellogg’s faculty; we have been blown away by the extent to which even the most well-known professors have been willing to take time out of their jam-packed schedules to offer us advice. For example, Carter Cast has helped us refine multiple versions of our pitch, no doubt contributing to bekome’s selection in all five competitions where we’ve applied, and he continues to advise us on how to successfully modify our pitch for investors.
We’ve received even more support and guidance as social entrepreneurs at Kellogg. bekome strives to make mental health care more accessible, with a particular focus on communities and groups who are often left out of the mental health discourse. To ensure we’re reducing — not creating — barriers to mental health care, we’re committed to keeping access to therapist profiles on our site free for therapy-seekers, despite the extra challenges of operating in a marketplace where only one side pays. The social impact community at Kellogg has been instrumental in supporting us through these challenges. We have also benefitted from advice and financial support, including $5,000 a quarter in funding from Social Impact at Kellogg available to students pursuing social enterprises.
A YEAR TO REMEMBER
Shanna and I are excited to return to Kellogg for our second year with the intention of accelerating bekome’s traction and fundraising our seed round next spring. We recognize that by focusing our efforts on bekome, we won’t have the typical 2nd year MBA student’s journey of recruiting. As for us, we’ll be spending this year balancing between pursuing courses that build our entrepreneurial acumen – I’m taking “Business Law” while Shanna takes “Building Innovation, Teams and Culture”— and growing our business. To help us scale, we plan to apply to the Zell Fellows program; build community as part of the Garage Residency program; participate in the final New Venture course, New Venture Launch (where we’ll be given $5000 to start shaping what bekome post-product-market fit); compete for $150,000 in non-dilutive funding at VentureCat; and continue leaning on and learning from our various established peer founder networks and amazing Kellogg mentors.
We’re extremely energized to continue growing a sustainable, scalable business that provides people with a new and better way to find the right mental health support. And it feels good to know that the MBA program we chose will continue to provide the culture, community and resources we need to achieve our vision.
Vanessa is a second year MBA student at the Kellogg School of Management and co-founder/COO of bekome. Prior to Kellogg and bekome, she worked in strategy, communications and operations roles driving growth in the nonprofit, political and private sectors, including co-founding and leading an equine-based mental health nonprofit called Bright Strides. A recovering Type A personality, you can find her researching the latest wellness trends, eating her way through Chicago’s restaurant scene and relaxing at home with her husband and dog.
Shanna is a second year MBA student at Kellogg School of Management co-founder/CEO of bekome. Prior to Kellogg and bekome, Shanna worked as a Human Capital Senior Consultant at Deloitte, where she specialized in partnering with Fortune 500 companies to improve their customer and employee experiences, conduct digital transformations, and in her last two years as a consultant, collaborate with board members across 45+ Fortune 500 organizations to develop and execute diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies. Shanna is a self-proclaimed introverted extrovert and enjoys fitness, exploring the outdoors, and wine tastings.