How therapy startup Real is reinventing mental-health care online

  • Ariela Safira hoped to launch Real, her therapy startup, in March with a brick-and-mortar studio in New York City, however these plans had been disrupted when the pandemic hit.
  • The Real group rapidly pivoted to construct out a digital providing, creating your entire product in per week and main them to land $6 million in funding from Forerunner Ventures, Female Founders Fund, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
  • Safira’s mission is to make therapy “inviting” and reinvent mental-health care by ongoing publicity, together with common group-therapy classes, occasions, and check-ins.
  • The firm has tailor-made its choices to clients’ wants as we speak, corresponding to methods to deal with isolation and delaying huge occasions, and serves as a extra inexpensive different for female-identifying and nonbinary individuals.
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In mid-March, Ariela Safira anticipated to be placing the ending touches on the brick-and-mortar studio house for her therapy startup, Real. Instead, she and a colleague discovered themselves operating throughout the road from the West Village Airbnb that their group had been working from to refill on as a lot hand sanitizer as potential.

“This was that doomsday week in New York City,” Safira mentioned. It was “incredibly overpriced,” she mentioned, however price it. “We bought a ton, thinking in two weeks we’d be in the studio.” 

While the Real group had been buzzing about the potential for the then novel COVID-19 pandemic interfering with its launch plans, they remained hopeful. Head of Therapy Rachel Hoffman felt strongly about Real’s face-to-face mannequin. 

Investors, in the meantime, questioned if Safira ought to merely join therapists to shoppers by way of cellphone or video chat. Given the mounting well being considerations associated to the pandemic, and Safira’s insistence that Real supply a brand new method to therapy, neither of those choices appeared like the suitable repair.

Competitors like Talkspace hyperlink therapists with shoppers on this method, however for Safira, overhauling therapy is about extra than simply making it extra remote-friendly and versatile. Her mission is to assist shoppers develop a longer-term relationship with their psychological well being, construct a rapport with a therapist who can train them methods to categorical their feelings successfully, and supply academic supplies so individuals can care for themselves earlier than a disaster. 

The inspiration for Real dates again to Safira’s faculty days at Stanford University, when one in every of her mates tried suicide. After commencement, she devoted herself to studying the whole lot she might in regards to the US mental-health-care system from as many angles as potential.

Her analysis took her to her first job on the design studio Ideo, the place she labored on methods to revamp mental-health care. From there, she started coaching as a therapist at Columbia University, however left in 2019 to start out Real. Now the founder and CEO of the startup, the 25-year-old is enthusiastic about correcting the issues she’s recognized within the conventional mental-health-care mannequin.

“The narrative around all of therapy is wrong,” Safira mentioned. “As it exists today, therapy acts as a crisis response. It’s something you go to when you’ve lost someone you love, after a miscarriage, after a divorce. It truly acts as an emergency room. It’s comparable to us building a world where we would never have visited a primary-care doctor until we’d already had a heart attack. But we don’t do that.”

Safira’s authentic plan to shift that narrative was to open a studio on Fifth Avenue that may act as a kind of hub for a brand new, inexpensive model of mental-health care for female-identifying and nonbinary individuals. Members would be part of Real on an annual foundation, which might safe them an annual checkup with one of many group’s employees therapists and limitless entry to therapist-run occasions targeted on numerous life transitions and customary mental-health challenges. The objective was to make therapy “inviting,” Safira mentioned — which she felt could not have been achieved with video-chat or cellphone appointments. 

A group mindset made for fast pivots

Instead, the 14 members of the Real group received on a “massive video chat,” Safira mentioned, and put collectively a sport plan for March. In lieu of opening the studio house as deliberate, they hustled to launch a digital therapy providing known as Real to the People. The online choices had been constructed round a curriculum that catered particularly to the mental-health wants that got here up across the pandemic and quarantining. In one latest examine, 55% of respondents mentioned the quarantine had affected their psychological well being.

The startup rolled out “Digital Group Salons” about subjects like feeling remoted, delaying huge occasions, and quarantine breakups. Later, Real added choices that addressed the mounting struggle towards racism. One-on-one therapy classes had been additionally made out there. 


Real Group Salons.


The complete platform was in-built simply over per week. Software engineers set about constructing out the digital platform. The therapy group went to the drafting board on mental-health curricula and homework. Design and advertising and marketing groups reworked language and visuals so their property would meet the requirements of what had been ready for the launch initially.

“Everyone went in different directions to spend the next eight days building the product,” Safira mentioned. “Really, as a mental-health company, I hate to say how little sleep we got in those days, and I truly hope we’ve made up for it since. It’s really not something that’s meant to be put together with a week’s notice.”

But the trouble and enthusiasm got here with surprising rewards — overwhelmingly optimistic responses to the digital product and the closure of a $6 million spherical of seed financing in June. Notable buyers embody Forerunner Ventures, Female Founders Fund, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Within the primary week of Real to the People’s launch, Safira mentioned, there was a waitlist of 1,000 individuals and Group Salons had been filling up in 30 minutes or much less after opening for sign-ups.

But the Real group additionally gained new perception about what individuals had been actually searching for in an accessible therapy expertise. Though Safira and her colleagues had assumed that almost all Real members would have an interest primarily in particular person therapy — a mannequin they posited had principally been off-limits due to its price ticket — suggestions and metrics from the digital platform made it clear that group experiences had been preferable.

Many customers had been signing into Digital Group Salons and conserving their cameras off. When requested about it later, they mentioned that they needed to be a part of a bunch to listen to in regards to the experiences different individuals had been having and achieve the experience of a therapist, however they did not need anybody to know they had been there.

With a brand new August providing, the Real group continues adapting

This lesson has knowledgeable Real’s subsequent reinvention, a month-to-month digital membership launching Tuesday that begins at $28 per 30 days. Members could have entry to weekly care within the type of therapy Pathways, Group Salons, therapy occasions, and ongoing mental-health monitoring.

Therapy Pathways, Safira mentioned, are essentially the most “unique to Real” providing. Each Pathway is a 12-week therapy expertise constructed round a selected subject — the whole lot from undoing your upbringing and managing anxiousness to understanding your sexual id and proudly owning your single life — that makes use of audio recordings, interactive journal entries, and group classes to serve Real members remotely.

“[Pathways] allow for a community experience,” Safira mentioned. “You’re understanding other people’s journeys without your identity being exposed and in a manner that is far more flexible schedulingwise — and, of course, far more affordable. Therapeutically, [Pathways] are clinically developed to be more effective, fact-checked, and background-checked, not just by our entire therapy team but also by our chief medical officer, really ensuring we’re using the best modalities.”

Real Pathways

Real Pathways.


Safira discovered from pivoting her enterprise the significance of constructing a group united round a core mission, somewhat than a particular product.

“If I [hired] a bunch of people who were sold on a pretty studio, they would have lacked motivation when we had to pivot,” Safira mentioned. “Clearly, Real’s product changed. Every product will change. I personally would encourage founders to look for the thing that emotionally drives them to a great extent and to only hire people who feel that too.”

If you are struggling, name the SAMHSA National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or attain out to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

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