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Torch takes $10M to teach empathy to executives

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When everyone always tells you “yes,” you can become a monster. Leaders especially need honest feedback to grow. “If you look at rich people like Donald Trump and you neglect them, you get more Donald Trumps,” says Torch co-founder and CEO Cameron Yarbrough about our gruff president. His app wants to make executive coaching (a polite word for therapy) part of even the busiest executive’s schedule. Torch conducts a 360-degree interview with a client and their employees to assess weaknesses, lays out improvement goals and provides one-on-one video chat sessions with trained counselors.

“Essentially we’re trying to help that person develop the capacity to be a more loving human being in the workplace,” Yarbrough explains. That’s crucial in the age of “hustle porn,” where everyone tries to pretend they’re working all the time and constantly “crushing it.” That can leave leaders facing challenges feeling alone and unworthy. Torch wants to provide a private place to reach out for a helping hand or shoulder to cry on.

Now Torch is ready to lead the way to better management for more companies, as it’s just raised a  $10 million Series A round led by Norwest Venture Partners, along with Initialized Capital, Y Combinator and West Ventures. It already has 100 clients, including Reddit and Atrium, but the new cash will fuel its go-to market strategy. Rather than trying to democratize access to coaching, Torch is doubling-down on teaching founders, C-suites and other senior executives how to care… or not care too much.

“I came out of a tough family myself and I had to do a ton of therapy and a ton of meditation to emerge and be an effective leader myself,” Yarbrough recalls. “Philosophically, I care about personal growth. It’s just true all the way down to birth for me. What I’m selling is authentic to who I am.”

Torch’s co-founders met when they were in grad school for counseling psychology degrees, practicing group therapy sessions together. Yarbrough went on to practice clinically and start Well Clinic in the Bay Area, while Keegan Walden got his PhD. Yarbrough worked with married couples to resolve troubles, and “the next thing I know I was working with high-profile startup founders, who like anybody have their fair share of conflicts.”

Torch co-founders (from left): Cameron Yarbrough and Keegan Walden

Coaching romantic partners to be upfront about expectations and kind during arguments translated seamlessly to keep co-founders from buckling under stress. As Yarbrough explains, “I was noticing that they were consistently having problems with five different things:

1. Communication – Surfacing problems early with kindness

2. Healthy workplace boundaries – Making sure people don’t step on each others’ toes

3. How to manage conflict in a healthy way – Staying calm and avoiding finger-pointing

4. How to be positively influential – Being motivational without being annoying or pushy

5. How to manage one’s ego, whether that’s insecurity or narcissism – Seeing the team’s win as the first priority

To address those, companies hire Torch to coach one or more of their executives. Torch conducts extensive 360-degree interviews with the exec, as well as their reports, employees and peers. It seeks to score them on empathy, visionary thinking, communication, conflict, management and collaboration, Torch then structures goals and improvement timelines that it tracks with follow-up interviews with the team and quantifiable metrics that can all be tracked by HR through a software dashboard.

To make progress on these fronts, execs do video chat sessions through Torch’s app with coaches trained in these skills. “These are all working people with by nature very tight schedules. They don’t have time to come in for a live session so we come to them in the form of video,” Yarbrough tells me. Rates vary from $500 per month to $1,500 per month for a senior coach in the U.S., Europe, APAC or EMEA, with Torch scoring a significant margin. “We’re B2B only. We’re not focused on being the most affordable solution. We’re focused on being the most effective. And we find that there’s less price sensitivity for senior leaders where the cost of their underperformance is incredibly high to the organization.” Torch’s top source of churn is clients’ going out of business, not ceasing to want its services.

Here are two examples of how big-wigs get better with Torch. “Let’s say we have a client who really just wants to be liked all the time, so much so that they have a hard time getting things done. The feedback from the 360 would come back like ‘I find that Cameron is continually telling me what I want to hear but I don’t know what the expectations are of me and I need him to be more direct,’ ” Yarbrough explains. “The problem is those leaders will eventually fire those people who are failing, but they’ll say they had no idea they weren’t performing because he never told them.” Torch’s coaches can teach them to practice tough-love when necessary and to be more transparent. Meanwhile, a boss who storms around the office and “is super-direct and unkind” could be instructed on how to “develop more empathic attunement.”

Yarbrough specifically designed Torch’s software to not be too prescriptive and leave room for the relationship between the coach and client to unfold. And for privacy, coaches don’t record notes and HR only sees the performance goals and progress, not the content of the video chats. It wants execs to feel comfortable getting real without the worry their personal or trade secrets could leak. “And if someone is bringing in something about trauma or that’s super-sensitive about their personal life, their coach will refer them out to psychotherapists,” Yarbrough assures me.

Torch’s direct competition comes from boutique executive coaching firms around the world, while on the tech side, BetterUp is trying to make coaching scale to every type of employee. But its biggest foe is the stubborn status quo of stiff-upper-lipping it.

The startup world has been plagued by too many tragic suicides, deep depression and paralyzing burnout. It’s easy for founders to judge their own worth not by self-confidence or even the absolute value of their accomplishments, but by their status relative to yesterday. That means one blown deal, employee quitting or product delay can make an executive feel awful. But if they turn to their peers or investors, it could hurt their partnership and fundraising prospects. To keep putting in the work, they need an emotional outlet.

“We ultimately have to create this great software that super-powers human beings. People are not robots yet. They will be someday, but not yet,” Yarbrough concludes with a laugh. IQ alone doesn’t make people succeed. Torch can help them develop the EQ, or emotional intelligence quotient, they need to become a boss that’s looked up to.

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