CoCo Health provides on-site mental wellness support for employers and employees by bringing counselors and providers to the workplace, breaking down barriers for stressed employees to manage stress effectively, and to help reduce the costs of absenteeism and burnout.
The Garage sat down with CoCo Health founder, Jonathan Bateman (Kellogg, ’19) to learn more about CoCo Health and the startup’s future goals.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the problem you’re working on and what is your solution?
Jonathan: At CoCo Heath, we do one-on-one on-site counseling for employers. For way too long, we’ve ignored our own mental wellness, both in and out of the workplace. Ignoring it comes with really high costs in terms of turnover, absenteeism, and lost productivity. If you look at it, a CDC study found that in an eight hour work day, we get less than three hours of productive work done, which is crazy. One reason we’re stressed is that we don’t know how to be more productive or more engaged at work. CoCo Health is designed to help people come up with tactical plans to be more engaged and better at being themselves both inside and outside of work. We do the counseling in-person because we believe that it is a key barrier to knock down in order for people to actually take care of their mental wellness. We do it in the workplace because it allows people to get engaged and do it in a way which is non-stigmatizing, not invasive in their lives, and doesn’t take as much time as trying to go to a counselor or someone outside of the workplace.
What sparked the motivation for your startup?
Jonathan: There are a couple of things. First of all, my family has a very long history of mental health issues. Unfortunately, I have been able to see what happens when things go wrong with people, and it can sometimes be too late to help. CoCo Health is designed to help people before things go wrong. It aims to keep us at our best and allows us to flourish and be happy, which is not always an easy thing to do if you’re not paying attention to your mental health. I mean, think of this. We go to the doctor every year to get a preventive screening. We go to the gym to take care of our bodies. But very rarely do we ever focus on what’s going on in our brain and with our mental wellness. There was a time in my life when I hadn’t been to the doctor in almost three years because I was traveling every week and working long hours. What we’re trying to do with CoCo Health is to help break down those barriers so that people can get what they need and the care and treatment they want. In short, observing personally the effects of burnout and stress on people’s performance and on their own personal lives when things bleed over into the space, as well as seeing that no one ever had time to take care of themselves, either physically or mentally, is what lie at the origin of CoCo Health.
Why do you think mental health is such an important issue?
Jonathan: Part of it is our work culture and part of it are the expectations that are being placed upon ourselves. It’s hard. The challenging thing is that people historically haven’t understood that mental health matters. Your mental health is linked not only to your professional life, but also to your personal life. Your professional life oftentimes causes so many issues which spill over into your personal life, as well. If we can address it in the place where many of these things are coming from, CoCo Health can be extremely helpful to a lot of people.
How did you choose the name “CoCo Health”?
Jonathan: CoCo Health is the short for Continuous Conversation Health. The idea is that our mental health and our mental wellness shouldn’t be a one-off thing where you pay attention to it when something goes wrong or once in a while. It should be a continuous conversation between you and either yourself or someone else who can make sure that you’re expressing yourself in a way that’s tangible, constructive, and helpful for building your own life.
What has been your biggest failure so far? What did you learn from it?
Jonathan: I would say our biggest failure so far is understanding the sales cycle for wellness benefits. When we first started, we didn’t understand how to sell, who to sell to, or where to sell. We’ve started to narrow in on who are the right targets in order to avoid going after the wrong people such as companies that aren’t ready to have those conversations in the workplace. We also focused on how to create some urgency for people to understand that this is a problem that you cannot just address in a year or two. Therefore, we’ve been working hard to create that platform of urgency and make sure that we’re talking to the right companies. This way, we make sure we’re not wasting our time and not wasting their time.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?
Jonathan: I think the most important lesson would probably be that it is crucial to ask. You never know what people are going to say unless you ask. The reason is because while mental health has always been a passion for me, I initially didn’t think people were ready to have this conversation in the workplace. I didn’t think employers were ready to spend money on their employees’ mental health. I thought maybe we should do something with primary care, preventive medicine or things that are related to physical health. However, when I started conversations with my first ten employers, they thought the idea was interesting but highlighted that the main issue was mental health. I was shocked to hear that people realized the importance of it. We got lucky that people brought it up, because we were never going to ask the question because we didn’t think they wanted it. It turns out that was what they wanted all along. Therefore, from my perspective, it all comes back the importance of asking. If you don’t ask and if you don’t have confidence in your convictions, you’ll never get to the key insight.
Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?
Jonathan: I’m from Vermont so this is kind of a goofball Vermont answer. I have to admire Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben and Jerry’s. Because when they built their company from scratch, they never wavered from their initial convictions and their values. They built a company to align with those values and no matter how much money they were making or losing, they never deviated from those. They understood that they didn’t want to run a business with which they weren’t aligned with emotionally and mentally. So often you see people starting a business and then turning it into something else which no longer has those initial values. Uber is a prime example. The initial play was to connect the world and to get people around easier in an era where the taxicab industry is broken. Over time, it turned into this behemoth of a negative culture and a terrible attitude. That is because they didn’t have values they stuck to. They didn’t have values at their core. I think as you build a business, you always have to look back to what you stand for and focus on what you really care about. If you don’t understand what your values are or if you don’t stand by them, you’ll end up in challenging situations even if you’re wildly successful. I would rather be less successful, but be able to say “Look, I stood by what I believed in, and what I believe to be true”, as opposed to just going after the money.
How has The Garage helped you with your startup?
Jonathan: There are a couple things. First of all, The Garage is an awesome network of the Northwestern entrepreneurs, who are helpful and supportive. Even more than that, it is a great opportunity to start to connect beyond the Northwestern community. The Garage is an epicenter for entrepreneurship around the Chicago and Evanston area. The resources offered allow you to have conversations with people you never would have been able to talk to before. I’ve found mentors, partners, and students who are passionate about both entrepreneurship and mental health through the Garage, and the staff have been incredibly supportive in helping me find those connections and foster them, through both formal and informal programming. It’s a critical resource because it connects disparate groups who might not have otherwise come together.
Where do you see your startup going in the future?
Jonathan: I would love to have every startup and every kind of professional service firm have some on-site support for their employees’ mental wellness, because I think it is something that is not going to go away or change. I really hope that we’ve got the timing right and that people are ready for this conversation. I would love to eventually be able to expand this beyond Chicago to a point where our value add is a platform that connects talented people with opportunities for extra hours. The demand exists but it is difficult to match it with the supply in the marketplace. Right now, our expertise is about finding the right match between a company and a counselor. It would be great if we could do it at a much larger scale. However, we’re still testing out the initial concept so it’s hard to say where we’re going to go. Being able to help in a variety of different ways will be an awesome outcome.
What do you hope to get out of Summer Wildfire accelerator?
Jonathan: I think there are a few different things. The first one is to accelerate our acquisition engine and start to grow our pipeline aggressively. The second one is to develop our content and digital expertise, so that when people are starting to search for these types of mental wellness concerns in the workplace, CoCo Health is the thought leader in the space. As alluded in the previous question, our third goal is to think of other ways we can be helpful to startups and professional services firms in order to become the first call when human resources has an issue. It is also a great opportunity to connect us with the community of entrepreneurs in a thoughtful way. I know Billy is spending a lot of time making sure to find invaluable resources and build strong connections for CoCo Health for this summer and beyond. On a personal level, I think Wildfire is a great opportunity to continue to develop my own entrepreneurial skill-set and start to understand what truly makes me tick and productive in a very different type of work from what I used to do. At the end of the day, entrepreneurship is about so much more than the company that I’m working on, and much more about the approach, personal style, and tenacity that are critical for success.
Is there a final thought you want to share?
Jonathan: I would just say as a concluding note that for a long time, people have overlooked mental health and mental wellness. It gives me a lot of hope that people are finally starting to realize that it really matters. It is not just a bottom line impact; it is a person to person impact. At the end of the day even if we only help one or two people out there, it means we’ve already done something that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. At its core, it comes down to “are we making people’s lives easier or better?” I think that if we can do that, even one time, that means we can do it more than one time. I’m excited for where we’re going. I think it’s going to be an exciting summer!
This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here.