Oren Frank and his wife, Roni, co-founded the online therapy app Talkspace in 2012. Currently, the company is based out of New York City. The service was conceived after the couple had an extremely positive experience in couples therapy, which they credit for helping save their marriage. The experience was so meaningful that Roni, who has experience as a software designer, decided to get a master’s degree in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.
Oren Frank serves as Talkspace CEO, bringing his business experience from time spent as a senior advertising and marketing executive to bear on making sure the business aspect of Talkspace. The service relies on trained, licensed therapeutic professionals to provide counseling to the many users that have downloaded the app. Chief among these is Dr. Irvin Yalom, the Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry for Stanford. Licensed therapeutic doctors also serve on the Talkspace board and in advisory roles.
Also maintaining a blog, writing a bestselling book on the importance of seeking therapy, and speaking publicly about mental health issues, Oren Frank has helped bring mental health access to a million new clients. Many of these clients have barriers to attaining mental health service, be it from disability or simple lack of access. By being available to anyone, anywhere, Talkspace is trying to bring therapy into the modern age. It works with non-verbal clients as well, a rare option not available in every part of the country.
Users of Talkspace have several plans to choose from depending on their needs and means. By providing various levels of access, including unlimited access to its customers, Talkspace allows for the patient to be able to take better control over the process and not spend more than they can afford.
Interviewer 1: Most millennials walk around with a computer in their pocket. We all know that. And now that computer, well, it can also be a therapist. Talkspace is an online therapy service that enables users to communicate with a therapist as seamlessly as they send text messages with their friends.
Oren Frank is the co-founder of the therapy app and he joins us live here today. Oren, it is wonderful to have you here.
Oren Frank: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Interviewer 1: So I think there’s a bigger question in this overall conversation when it comes to barriers of entry. What are the barriers to entry with therapy and how does Talkspace address a lot of those issues? Because this is still a little bit of a stigmatized world.
Oren Frank: True. First, as you mention, stigma definitely leaves large barriers, even in 2017, in the United States. Still many people are very ashamed. Second is cost – therapy is extremely expensive. Go to the Upper West Side and see a therapist, and it’ll be like 300 or 400 dollars an hour. And last, but not least, is the scheduling, finding the time, making the phone call, etc., etc.
So this is why we crafted Talkspace, basically go overcome those entry barriers.
Interviewer 2: Over 70% of your clients had never been to therapy. And that’s a number you say you’re very proud of. Why is that? Why do you think this is an easy way for people who’ve never had therapy to get into it?
Oren Frank: The real answer is we love therapy; we think is a wonderful profession; it’s extremely helpful. And our vision is essentially — therapy for all. This is therapy for the 99% as opposed to the 1%. And this is why we started Talkspace and what we set out to do. That’s basically the purpose.
Interviewer 1: You launched out in 2012.
Oren Frank: Right.
Interviewer 1: I’m fascinated with what those first, let’s say, six months of operation were like. Was it difficult to get the message out and to convince people to try a digital app focus approach to mental health as opposed to some of the more traditional or more popular routes of…
Oren Frank: True, that’s a very good observation. We had some resistance mostly from the supply side, from the therapists, who I would say are more traditional. It’s a very conservative occupation. In the last 50 years it has changed very little. It started in Vienna, late 1800s, where you took a carriage through the snow once a week to see someone for an hour. It didn’t change that much after that.
It’s always tough in the beginning. But we currently see that our flavor of therapy, which is more accessible and comfortable, online therapy, is getting really good traction. There’s a lot of discussion, there’s a lot of mentions — people seem to understand that this is a much more easy way to actually try therapy. At least try it. May not be a good fit for you, but give it a try.
Interviewer 2: In the last five years, I think you’ve seen acceleration happen the most and especially the last couple of months since president Trump was elected. You say to our producers that growth has been 70 to 80 percent faster than you expected, and a lot of that growth coming from minority populations, women, LGBT, Muslims.
Do you think this is a surprise?
Oren Frank: Personally, from my point of view on the world, not at all. But it’s a sad story. Despite us being able to help so many people, it basically also means that — the election, and especially the inauguration was a really, really strong peak point — triggered a lot of people, and people are concerned about the future. Women are concerned about their rights, minorities are concerned about their rights, immigrants are concerned about being denied entry or sent away.
Interviewer 2: So you’re saying the inauguration was kind of a peak point. Therapy is really a microcosm — you talk about your personal issues to somebody very privately. But these are bigger macro issues. So is that kind of different from what somebody might go to a therapist for when it’s something about their childhood or their past or issues like that?
Oren Frank: True. But then again, this issue, which is very emotional and very powerful and very important, triggers you emotionally. And if I have suffered from anxiety in the past and all of a sudden I see this person running the United States and I’m not entirely happy with the whole thing, then I might need to talk to someone — big time, that’s exactly what we saw.
Interviewer 1: You could draw an actual correlation to — what is this — to the number of downloads or user engagement, to the modern state of our politics?
Interviewer 2: Messages?
Interviewer 1: Could it be where this has just been a very successful six months? And it just so happens that Donald Trump is president of the United States?
Oren Frank: We can draw a direct correlation and relationship, and a very strong statistical one with it, because we track why people are coming, what they are complaining about, what are the issues. What is really interesting about our model, in my opinion, is that you add big data and machine learning, to an extremely traditional and wonderful profession. You get some very interesting insights by doing that.
Interviewer 2: Of course, a lot of this is driven by your data. You can see the number of downloads, the messages that are increasing, but also you can see the types of content that people are talking about.
Is that data secure?
Oren Frank: It’s extremely secure. That’s the thing that we are most focused on. We are a tech company that is using banking grade encryption and security protocols. We are HIPAA compliant, despite us being a technology company.
And whenever we have to have access to the content itself, we actually de-identify it completely. And I think, you know, it’s an extremely, I would say, diligent level of security that we apply today.
Interviewer 1: We’ve talked heavily about the user engagement side of things. I’m pretty fascinated with the therapist’s side of things. How are they coming to the table? Are they just essentially looking for — like, extra income? Or extra practice at performing their craft to help other people? Or do you really have to go out and aggressively recruit talent for this platform?
Oren Frank: We did not recruit the single therapist. They all came our way via word of mouth.
Interviewer 1: You’ve never recruited?
Oren Frank: They came to us, really.
Interviewer 1: Wow, OK.
Oren Frank: I would say, except for the very early beginning that you mentioned before.
Interviewer 1: Sure. Right.
Oren Frank: The thing is, I think therapists are very positive. They’re very helpful. They were drawn to this profession by their own life experiences. And I think we offer them a very interesting modality, a platform that allows them to understand far better what exactly they do well and how to improve. And also a variety. If you think about a therapist on the Upper West Side, he sees the same kinds of people, you know.
When you work on an online platform, you have access to such an interesting and varied cohort of people — conditions, stories. Therapists love it. Not to mention the fact that they can work from home, at night, or from Starbucks, you know?
Interviewer 2: Last quick question. The biggest issues people come to platform for?
Oren Frank: Oh– depression and anxiety. Those are 80% of the issues. It could be covered — there’s a relationship issue or a life event, or God forbid, grief, but those are the underlying issues. And these are diseases of the Western world. And we’re learning how to try and help them more.
Interviewer 1: The same challenges that bring people to that office on the Upper West Side.
Oren Frank: Absolutely.
Interviewer 2: Right. You probably need more help and in a more immediate way if you have anxiety.
Oren Frank: Right. Exactly.