AN FRANCISCO — This is the land of Soylent and productivity hacks, a place so work-obsessed in some quarters that “hustle” is half-seriously described as the dominant religion.
Now, a new venture capital firm here is betting that overworked, unhealthy startup founders are bad for the bottom line.
When Alpha Bridge Ventures writes a check to a portfolio company, it will come with some unusual conditions. CEOs will have to seek concierge professional services to make sure they’re hitting goals like sleeping enough, working out, or eating right — and the VC firm will pay for all of it. Founders could get blood tests or acupuncture. Others might try yoga or a massage. And some will go to therapy.
No specific service is mandatory, but Alpha-Bridge-backed founders will be expected to try something. For each portfolio company, the firm plans to fund a maximum of $50,000 worth of services; the average Alpha-Bridge-backed CEO might get up to a year’s worth of services, worth about $20,000.
It’s about health and wellness, sure, but Alpha Bridge doesn’t hesitate to characterize its motivations in cold financial terms. Executives there even came up with a catchy slogan: “Healthy founders equal healthy returns.”
“That’s sort of the greedy capitalist impetus behind what we’re doing,” said Jake Chapman, a general partner at Alpha Bridge. “It’s cynical, I guess, to some degree.”
Chapman and the firm’s other general partner, Howie Diamond, know what it’s like to be harried founders. They both previously ran their own startups before getting into venture capital.
Chapman said he wants to help founders succeed personally and professionally where he struggled mightily. While running a now-defunct legal tech startup, Chapman said, “I maxed out my credit cards. I had a 6-month-old daughter. I had a company that was failing and I had to shut it down. It was one of the worst times of my life.”
Alpha Bridge is not the first VC firm to offer personal development resources to startup founders. Other major firms such as Union Square Ventures offer leadership coaching, for example. But Alpha Bridge is taking personal development a step further with investments in founders’ mental and physical health.
The firm, which will invest in early-stage companies across a range of sectors, is still raising capital and making its initial investments. No Alpha-Bridge-backed entrepreneurs have yet enrolled in the founder development program, called Project Atlas.
But Chapman and Diamond are already testing their idea with a three-month beta version of the program, being pitched to startup founders with no financial ties to Alpha Bridge, as well as others in the startup community, like VCs and accelerator partners. Professionals who want to sign up must be willing to personally pony up $5,000 of their own cash, or convince their own investors to pay for it.
(That price tag allows Project Atlas to break even. After the beta period, Project Atlas plans to raise the cost for participants unaffiliated with Alpha Bridge to $12,500, to cover staff time and to make a profit.)
Four people have started the beta program so far, with six more committed to starting soon. The majority are based in San Francisco, with a few others in Los Angeles, New York, and Boston.
Among them is Boston-based Artur Sousa, for whom life as an entrepreneur has been taking a toll.
Juggling a day job with his role as CEO of a fledgling pet adoption startup, Sousa has been averaging five hours of sleep a night. He never eats lunch. He doesn’t go out with friends or family. And the depression with which he’s struggled for much of his life has gotten worse.
In March, around the same time he started taking medication for his depression, his wife found Alpha Bridge’s website and sent him the link. Intrigued, he set up a phone call to learn more. He was so excited at the potential that he decided to pay $5,000 of his own money to sign up.
“‘What if?’ was my question,” he said. “What if this really makes a difference in my life? … What if the support can help me propel my business to new directions that I wasn’t even aware of?”
“I’ve gotta try,” Sousa recalled thinking.
For Sousa, step one of the program was taking a a quick registration survey. It asked about him and his work, as well as about the areas of his life, such as fitness or mental health, where he thought he needed the most help.
This week, Sousa is filling out a longer survey that includes screening questions for depression. He’ll also have a long phone call with Kari Sulenes, the program’s executive director.
Using that information, Sulenes will build out the group of health and personal development professionals who will serve on Sousa’s “life board of directors,” in the program’s parlance. He doesn’t know yet who and how many professionals he’ll work with, but he’ll have a wide menu of options for both in-person and remotely offered services.
Project Atlas’ network includes specialists in physical health (MDs, naturopaths, physical trainers, nutritionists, and sleep coaches), mental health (therapists and coaches focused on mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and charisma), and leadership (coaches focused on team dynamics and relationships between co-founders). The program also has deals with spas to offer acupuncture or yoga.
“It’s everybody who needs to be in the founder’s corner in order to help them move forward on their goals,” said Sulenes, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology.
Among the professionals in Project Atlas’ network is Bonnie Coberly, a holistic health coach with a private practice in San Francisco. She helps her clients identify the best type of exercise for their goals and build daily meal plans — and expects to do much of the same with participants in Project Atlas.
Luxurious though it is, Project Atlas’ pitch may be a tough sell for some entrepreneurs.
Tim Sae Koo is in many respects exactly the type of founder that Project Atlas is looking to enroll. He’s the CEO of a six-year-old digital marketing startup. And he’s struggled with balancing work with a healthy lifestyle: For years, he said, he deprioritized social relationships, worked 12-hour days lasting late into the night, and sustained himself in large part on deli takeout.
But while he called Project Atlas “a great step in the right direction,” he’s not sure he’d personally sign up. He prefers to work on his own mental health on his own, such as with a free group meditation session he runs each month out of his company’s office in San Francisco. And, he said, he’s a bit skeptical of anything combining mental health with a profit motive.
Operating a VC firm in concert with a health and wellness program, it turns out, comes with thorny ethical and legal issues. Chapman and Diamond had to set up Project Atlas as a separate legal entity from the VC firm, because “we can’t have our investors … take on the liability of running what is adjacent to a medical business,” Chapman said. That setup, he said, is also aimed at creating a wall to protect sensitive mental and health information that founders might not want to be accessed by VCs they’re trying to impress in hopes of securing another funding round.
In an interview with STAT, Chapman and Sulenes come across as deeply earnest about their plans to take on mental and physical health in a startup community that, fairly or unfairly, is better known for navel-gazing than for need.
(Sometimes, Project Atlas’ marketing reinforces that impression, such as with promotional language on its website that reads: “Founders are already heroes. We help them find their superpowers.”)
Chapman said he’s sensitive about the optics of lavishing yet more focus on, as he put it, “these people who already get all this attention, and raise all this money, and live in San Francisco in their $2 million, 500-square-foot apartment.”
He said he’d love to eventually offer the program affordably to everyone. But the startup community had to come first, Chapman said, because it’s “where there’s frankly enough money to support a program to start — we can’t do it for free.”
If only Project Atlas had been up and running a few years ago, Chapman mused, it might have saved Travis Kalanick, the disgraced former Uber CEO whose downfall was blamed in large part on his combative and mercurial management style.
“Maybe,” Chapman wondered out loud, “if we could have helped him build a stronger company culture, he’d still be CEO of Uber.”