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Health Care

How a virtual mental health company survived and scaled a pivot

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Mental health has been at the heart of Ginger’s company vision since it launched in 2011 but just about everything else about the health care provider has changed.

Founded as a technology platform by a trio of MIT entrepreneurs, Ginger — formerly Ginger.io — initially functioned as an app installed on a phone to monitor its user’s mobile behaviors. Changes in routine texting and calling, or a break in someone’s location patterns, could be seen as a sign of a mental health struggle. 

But after three years working with academic and medical centers for research purposes, and seeing firsthand the limited resources for — and numerous barriers around – mental health care, co-founder Karan Singh, MBA ’11, knew it was time for a change.

In 2016 Ginger pivoted from selling to providers to becoming one. Today it offers virtual support to its clients’ employees 24/7, 365 days a year. Clients — which include companies like Buzzfeed, Pinterest, and cosmetics company Sephora — can use Ginger to contact behavioral health coaches, therapists, and psychiatrists, as well as self-guided clinical content and assessments. The company has also raised more than $70 million in funding.

“It was a journey,” Singh said about the company’s decision to change course. “I think fortunately it was absolutely the right call, but in that moment it can be scary. You're taking a leap of faith. For us, this was ultimately about staying true to our vision — a world where mental health is never an obstacle — and realizing the only way we could achieve this was by building it ourselves.”

Here’s what Singh learned from surviving and scaling a business pivot.

Look for opportunities in problem-solving

At the time Ginger started, the company’s plan to be a technology platform contributing to clinical research seemed like the right direction. 

The original idea was that Ginger’s app would monitor a user’s behavior, and if a deviation in a pattern was detected the app would send alerts to the patient and their health care provider, who could then decide next steps.

But as Singh’s team settled into its role, it became clear “there was just an incredible amount of friction at every step in the process in advance of someone getting to a provider and leveraging our technology,” he said.

Not only did users have to face the stigma of admitting they needed help, there was a shortage of providers, Singh said. That meant waiting an average of 25 days to see someone, and that didn’t count the extra week or two it might take if a patient lived in a rural area. Coupled with the fact that not every mental health provider is created equal nor in-network, it made the process of seeing and being treated a challenge.

Singh admitted it’s easy to look at the change in hindsight and see how the dots connected, but at the time it wasn’t so obvious. 

Karan Singh, MBA '11, co-founder of Ginger.

Credit: Ginger

“It was a combination of head and heart for sure,” Singh said. “It wasn’t an about-face. We were a technology platform that was offering this good to other teams, other health care systems, and they weren’t set up to be able to receive it in a way that ultimately made sense.”

Ask for help.

Singh said there was healthy debate in the boardroom, as Ginger’s investors approached the company’s evolution. Singh also used the data the company had been collecting to make the case for a switch.

“‘Keep the member first’ was ultimately the guiding principle. People weren’t getting the care that they should be getting,” Singh said. “But if they were able to do it through our own virtual care system, they’d actually be able to have access to [it].”

While Ginger’s evolution might have seemed natural, it was still a heavy lift. Singh said the company had to hire and train new team members, and set up the right legal framework so the company could function as a medical corporation.

Bringing on Russell Glass — founder and CEO of Bizo, an audience marketing platform which was acquired by LinkedIn in 2014 — was also a big change, but in a good way, Singh said.

Glass’ experience scaling companies has helped with Ginger’s own vision, and he’s also been able to attract new talent, Singh said.

The path from Ginger’s founding to today hasn’t been a straight line, and while the going was tough, Singh said it was important for his team and himself to keep up their own mental health.

“Something that was really, really helpful for us was to practice what we preach,” Singh said. “Throughout our growth as a company, we've made a point to take care of our team and invest in our own mental health. This has helped us sustain the challenges and stressors associated with navigating change and dealing with uncertainty.”

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