Founders Talks: Startup with a mission. How Wellbee destigmatises mental health and makes lives more comfortable

12 minutes
When the Wellbee platform launched in September 2020, its mission was clear: to encourage Poles to take better care of their mental health and to help them get professional therapeutic support. We talk to Wellbee's Paweł Chrzan and Darek Milewski about what other goals the founders have set for the platform, why it is a two-speed start-up and how building Wellbee was different from building other businesses.

How did the idea to create Wellbee come about?

Paweł Chrzan, Wellbee’s CEO: Wellbee was established in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, which undoubtedly affected the creation and shape of the platform significantly.

I come from an industry that was hit quite hard by COVID-19 and this has motivated me to look for niches in the market that would prove resistant to this type of unexpected crises. From the beginning, the segment I found most interesting was mental health, mainly due to my interests and the innate need to support people in improving the comfort of their lives. What’s more, not without significance was the belief that the pandemic would not end anytime soon, and the social need for psychotherapeutic support, which COVID-19 mercilessly exposed, would increase over time.

COVID-19 has disrupted the market, which in many respects has worked in favour of our startup. One of them was the ability to launch services fully remotely, which sidestepped the necessity to open traditional psychotherapy clinics ifrom the very start. In our plans, we still have to operate in a hybrid model, but the gradual arrival to this point undoubtedly facilitated the whole process.

Darek Milewski, Wellbee’s COO: I, in turn, joined right after Wellbee’s launch. I’d been involved in the mental health sector before the pandemic broke out. My background is in consulting and in this industry I have seen many professionals for whom finding life-work balance was an increasingly difficult challenge. What’s more, already a decade ago I was convinced that supporting mental health at work would become the new normal for employers. However, the general awareness of the importance of these topics was still relatively low at that time, and in some circles they were even considered a taboo subject. Nonetheless, the gradual social changes that have been catalysed by the pandemic have made people more and more willing to talk about problems such as burnout or low mood.

Interestingly, before the COVID-19 outbreak, I was also involved in a project aimed at creating a network of psychotherapeutic clinics in Poland. These plans were thwarted by pandemic restrictions. So I knew that this business model urgently needed to be adapted to the new reality. That’s when I met Paweł. We realised that we had a similar vision and values and decided to join forces.

As the pandemic began to unfold, access to psychotherapy was a lifesaver for many patients who urgently needed professional support. However, it was impossible to “meet normally”…

PCH: Our hunches were confirmed. We knew that this nuisance would become a hot topic, and the importance of mental health would grow with each passing month. Therefore, we devoted time to building key (from our perspective) competences in the area of psychoeducation. We focused on building awareness about mental wellbeing, working towards the destigmatisation of  mental health issues and seeking a language that would allow us to tell the story in a positive way. We began to talk about the fact that regardless of where we are in life, it is worth introducing new, positive thought patterns and healthy habits. In addition to psychoeducation, we decided to concentrate on tools that would make it easier to start therapy, instead of those that get in the way. We are aware that these days each and everyone of us is overloaded with information. This also applies to the process of choosing a specialist and form of therapy. That is why we used the curated marketplace model and came up with the concept of a therapy supervisor who, on the one hand, is able to provide patients with reliable information, and on the other hand, choose the person who will be most suitable to conduct therapy.

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An additional advantage of this approach is that we minimise the probability of a situation in which after the second or third meeting the therapist declares that they will not be able to help the patient or even worse – decides to continue the therapy sessions without having proper knowledge nor experience. This is one of the worst-case scenarios and when it unfolds it can strongly discourage psychotherapy.

DM: What I found intriguing is the fact that while patients were open to receiving online therapy, psychotherapists themselves were quite sceptical about it. But as we got used to the new normal, specialists gradually learnt to treat patients remotely. We tried to help with this by building the Wellbee platform with the goal to make it not just user-friendly, but also therapist-friendly. 

How long did it take to prepare Wellbee for its market debut?

PCH: Despite the many challenges posed by the pandemic, we cracked on with the project without delay. The ability to act and make decisions quickly is an important element of our DNA. We launched the platform in September, i.e. the month after sorting out all the formalities, setting out the conditions with Tar Heel Capital Pathfinder, creating the team and getting the funding round.

Wellbee, however, is a two-speed startup. We quickly filled the gap in the market, responding to the very need emphasised by the pandemic – improving the mental health of Poles. At the same time, however, taking into account long-term goals, we want to develop our business as a holistic service with well-being at its foundation. Simply put, we want to help people live better lives. This is what we are focusing on the most at the moment, both in the context of our B2B and B2C activities. We want our curated marketplace to be an assembly of a wide range of specialists with highly diverse specialisations, operating both online and offline, consulted by professional therapy supervisors and making use of technology that facilitates patients’ access to high-quality psychotherapy.

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Why did you decide to work with Tar Heel Capital Pathfinder?

DM: Both Paweł and I already knew the people at Tar Heel Capital [a private equity fund cooperating with Tar Heel Capital Pathfinder – editor’s note] – that is why we were aware of Pathfinder. The existing business relations proved to be the best referral that convinced us to build Wellbee with this fund.

The result? Thanks to the support of Pathfinder, we have already raised PLN 2.5 million. Even so, we’ve retained free rein and the fund’s team great trust in us. This is a source of great comfort in developing our business.

At what stage of the platform’s development are you at the moment?

DM: Over the last several months, we have proved that we can talk about mental health in a substantive and credible way. Now we are expanding our competences to other areas, working on enriching Wellbee’s offer and expanding the portfolio of specialists also with other specialisations, including psychodietetics, psycho-oncology and psychiatry. We are close to completing the project in the MVP version, but we can already say that the market has positively verified our assumptions.

Ultimately, is Wellbee to become a platform offering therapy in a 360-degree model?

PCH: Even more than that. A wide portfolio of specialists is not enough. Ultimately, we imagine our services as an app that (depending on the preferences and openness of the user) is able to continually analyse our lifestyle and build awareness about how this translates into our mental well-being. Thanks to this, we will see an increasing awareness of mistakes or problems that result from everyday habits. We want the platform to become a well-being assistant, i.e. patient well-being. This is what’s missing on the market at the moment.

All these tiny elements eventually influence our mental state.

DM: Exactly. What’s more, all this additional information will help enrich the therapeutic process: psychotherapists will be able to make better decisions at the level of diagnostics, but also the ongoing support they give to patients.

Your plans related to cooperation with employers are also interesting. Especially in the light of growing statistics on burnout in Poland…

DM: In the case of actions directed at employers, we must address the needs of different groups. On the one hand, we have an end customer, a platform user whom we want to support, i.e. an employee of a given company. On the other – we must also respond to the expectations of their employer, cooperating with HR departments or management boards. This requires us to properly implement and integrate Wellbee into the organisation’s infrastructure, build proper communication models and encourage employees to use the platform’s services, and regularly remind them that they have access to this type of support.

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Currently, we reach companies that employ a total of about 20,000 people. We observe that interest in this type of services is growing, regardless of the company’s profile. Employers are increasingly interested in the option of providing psychological support to their teams. This is a very positive trend that has grown on the subsequent waves of the pandemic.

How was building Wellbee different from creating other startups? It seems that when it comes to your platform the level of responsibility was incomparably higher.

DM: That is indeed the case. At the end of the day, Wellbee deals with the human psyche. This is a very delicate area in which we had strike a balance between aggressive growth, which every startup cares about, and how we want to communicate with patients, what value we want to offer them and what conditions of cooperation we want to set. It’s a fine line.  This also affects the processes of testing new solutions – when it comes to different types of products and services the freedom of experimentation and validation is incomparably higher and the margin of error is much wider than usual. However, we have no doubts about our priorities – we make every decision with the patient’s best interests in mind.

PCH: It is also worth noting that some limitations and differences are a consequence of focusing on the curated marketplace model, which does not allow for such an extremely fast growth rate as the startup environment is usually leaning towards. Instead, we’ve decided to focus on long-term value. It happens that some organisations – not just start-ups – put growth above all else. Our approach allowed for a healthy development of Wellbee without significantly affecting its pace. We consulted most of the decisions with specialists on an ongoing basis, having the patient’s interest at heart. Currently, we cooperate with our scientific council members including Krzysztof Bąk, an experienced supervisor who supports us in decision-making processes. This is the highest level of the start-up building art that yields fantastic results if we look at how many patients come back to us regularly. And many of them have been with us for over a year, having had several dozen psychotherapeutic sessions.