Podcast Ep 91: James McGann, co-founder of Frankie Health, talks about the company’s growth journey as it addresses mental health in the workplace.
Until recently mental health in the workplace was a subject that could be filed under ‘T’ for taboo, was rarely mentioned and often brushed under the carpet. In the meantime, people suffered in silence and most likely with devastating personal results.
Hopefully we live in a more enlightened age and perhaps – because of the Covid-19 lockdown and surge in remote working – a spotlight on mental health and isolation matters is finally happening.
“Before the pandemic around 18% of millennials were suffering from anxiety. Now, in the last couple of months the statistics show that around 56% of millennial employees are suffering from anxiety and/or depression”
Just like how technology made the vast workplace upheaval caused by the pandemic bearable, in the case of Frankie Health technology is being used to address mental health in the workplace.
Described as a “personalised mental health platform for workplaces” Frankie Health recently closed a $1.25m investment round led by E15 VC that brings total funding to $1.5m so far.
As a result of the funding Frankie Health, founded by James McGann and Seb Poole, generated 20 roles across engineering, design and marketing teams in the next 12 months.
Frankie says relax
Seb and James were building separate start-ups in South East Asia when they were both asked to volunteer with a non-profit reducing plastic waste in Bali. Having both witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of mental health issues on family and friends, they decided to set up Frankie Health.
Frankie Health works to reduce anxiety, burnout and stress by using a preventative approach with virtual delivery. It offers personalised, clinical, evidence-based exercises to build mental resilience and, when greater support is needed, connects workers to a community of experienced therapists that can be accessed from home or the office. Frankie uses end-to-end encryption for privacy and machine learning to improve effectiveness.
In an interview with ThinkBusiness Dublin-born co-founder James McGann explained: “My mum started one of the first private psychotherapy practices in Ireland in the 1990s. So mental health was always something that was talked about in our house before it was a topic in social and public settings. And so, I was lucky enough to have that kind of understanding quite early in life.”
Despite this, McGann admits to feeling invincible growing up until a burnout in his mid-20s disabused him of this notion. “I’d moved to the US after finishing college to work for a few start-ups there. Two of these start-ups failed, the relationship I was in collapsed and I fell into a dark place for the first time ever. I had no support structure around me. Thankfully, because of my mum’s practice back home I was introduced to a therapist to do Skype calls with back home. And this was in 2013, before anyone else was doing it. I also got into meditation from there. And so I embarked on a self-care path and this continued to support me through my career.”
McGann returned to Ireland to work at Web Summit before travelling to California and then Asia to work in fintech. “The mental health supports that I picked up in 2013 really just helped me and empowered me on that journey. It’s actually very commonplace, especially in start-ups and fast-growing tech companies, that burnouts happen.”
In 2019 while working at a fintech overseas, McGann saw many people struggle with stress and burnout. “And I was able to stay balanced because of the supports I had developed.”
It was at this time that he and Seb Poole, who had just successfully exited from a previous venture, realised that there was no specific platform available for identifying and preventing a burnout in a business ahead of time. “We went for it and went about building Frankie Health into the business it is today.”
Millennial mental health tsunami
McGann says that mental health problems in the workplace have spiralled because of Covid-19 and most employers are unaware of this. “Millennial employees aged between 25 and 40 are struggling with it. The past 18 months have been really challenging. Before the pandemic around 18% of millennials were suffering from anxiety. Now, in the last couple of months the statistics show that around 56% of millennial employees are suffering from anxiety and/or depression.
“So that’s a huge increase. Frankie Health identifies where someone is at on the spectrum. It’s a continuum. We all move up or down based on inputs that we can control in our lives – like the pandemic, like a relationship breaking down, like having to move house – whatever it may be, our mental health is changing on a weekly basis.
“So the first thing that Frankie Health tries to do is understand where someone is at on their mental health journey. We do that through passive data where our machine learning system starts to understand and process, and through active data which means interactions on a one-to-one basis. All of these interactions are kept confidential between Frankie and the user. Based on that insight we are able to then recommend a series of supports based on where they are on their mental health journey. It’s a predictive model and through those supports, our aim is to be able to correspond to all of the different needs you might have based on the change you’re currently going through.”
The platform connects users with vetted coaches, therapists and counsellors in 10 different languages through encrypted calls.
“We also have a complimentary suite of preventative mental health exercises and content that users can access in their own time.”
The Frankie Health platform also integrates with wearable tech such as Apple Watch, Fitbit and Garmin devices.
McGann explained that the company derives its revenues by providing the platform via a software-as-a-service (SaaS) route for business owners and HR teams.
Already operational in Ireland, the UK and mainland Europe Frankie Health is scaling globally. “We recently expanded into Australia, New Zealand and Singapore and we will be going live in North America with clients in January.”
Think global from day one
As a location to build global, scalable businesses, McGann believes Ireland has the right ingredients, but needs to actually bake the cake.
“I think Ireland has a wonderful opportunity to develop a very prosperous and unique start-up community, but it needs to be developed. It’s not there at the moment. I think, you know, we have a couple of unique challenges. A lot of the young tech talent goes to work for larger corporations in Ireland and because they’re such well paid jobs and they’re very well looked after. And unfortunately, that does mean it’s very hard for local start-ups to find great talent at a good rate that’s affordable. So, you end up having to, you know, use equity and other levers that you can try and get the best people involved in the team.
“But ultimately, this remote opportunity has given Irish start-ups like us the ability to go and hire overseas and work around that challenge versus trying to work through it.”
Ireland’s low tolerance for risk also needs to be addressed, he says, but it is changing with more graduates skipping the milk rounds and going to work directly for start-ups. More inventive tax policy to encourage people to invest in young companies could go a long way, he adds.
The ultimate reality is that for any business beginning in Ireland, the local market is too small, and founders need to think globally from the outset.
“You need to be able to operate outside of Ireland from day one. And I think one of the best ways to do that is to understand the world of opportunity outside of Ireland, so go and travel, experience it before you do and make your first start-up missions happen. And, you know, always operate with the mindset that Ireland isn’t a market. It’s just a place that you live, and then you operate in a much broader market.”