‘Breaking Into Startups’: Torch CEO and Well Clinic founder Cameron Yarbrough on mental health & coaching

There has long been a stigma associated with therapy and mental health coaching, a stigma that is even more pronounced in the business world, despite considerable evidence of the efficacy of these services. One of the organizations that has set out to change this negative association is Torch, a startup that combines the therapeutic benefits of executive coaching with data-driven analytics to track outcomes.

Yet, as Torch co-founder and CEO Cameron Yarbrough explains in this Breaking Into Startups episode, the startup wasn’t initially a tech-oriented enterprise. At first, Yarbrough drew on his years of experience as a marriage and family counselor as he made the transition into executive coaching, even referring to the early iterations of Torch as little more than “a matchmaking service between coaches and professionals.”

In time, Yarbrough identified a virtually untapped market for executive coaching — one that, by his estimate, could amount to a $15 billion industry. To demonstrate to investors the great potential of this growing market, he first built up a clientele that provided Torch with sufficient recurring revenue and low churn rate.

Only then was Yarbrough able to raise a $2.4 million seed round from Initialized Capital, Y Combinator, and other investors, convincing them that data analytics software could enhance the coaching process — as well as coach recruitment — enough to effectively “productize feedback,” as he puts it.

For Yarbrough and Torch, “productizing feedback” involves certain well-known business strategies that complement traditional coaching methods. For instance, Torch’s coaching procedure includes a “360 review,” a performance review system that incorporates feedback from all angles, including an employee’s manager, peers, and other people within an organization who have knowledge of the employee’s work.

The 360 review is coupled with an OKR platform, which provides HR departments and other interested parties with the metrics and analytics to track employee progress through the program. This combination is designed to promote the development of soft skills, which in turn drive leadership.

Torch has achieved considerable success, landing several influential clients in the tech sector through its B2B approach. But Yarbrough is clear that his goal with the company is to “democratize” access to professional coaching, in hopes of providing the same kind of mental health counseling and support to employees in all levels of an organization.

In this episode, Yarbrough discusses the history and trajectory of Torch, his experience scaling a company many considered unscalable, and the methods he uses to manage his own emotional and mental health as the CEO of an expanding startup. Yarbrough offers insights into the feelings of anxiety and dread common among entrepreneurs and provides a close look at how he has found business and personal success with Torch.

Breaking Into Startups: There’s a difference between a mentor and a coach. Today, I want to talk about that difference and in addition to the intersection between business and psychology, What Cameron Yarbrough, CEO of Torch and Founder of Well Clinic.

If you’re someone that is looking for a mentor or a coach as you break into tech, or if you just want to be surrounded by peers, make sure you download the Career Karma app by going to www.breakingintostartups.com/download.

On today’s episode, you’re going to understand the importance of therapy, mental health and coaches, as well as how historically, it has been inaccessible to people and how Cameron is using his background to democratize this for the world.

If this is your first time listening to the Breaking Startups Podcast, make sure you leave a review on iTunes and tell your friends. Listen to it on Soundcloud and talk about it on Spotify. If you have any feedback for us, positive or negative, please let us know. Without further ado, let’s break-in.

Cameron Yarbrough is the CEO of Torch. He’s one of the best executive coaches in the world. Not only are we going to be talking about coaching and mentoring for executives, but we’ll also be talking about coaching in general for everyone. We’re going to go into how he created his company.

Breaking Into Startups: Let’s start off by talking about coaching in general and the problem that you’re solving and why it’s relevant anyone thinking about a career.

Cameron Yarbrough: I got into coaching because I’m incredibly interested in the intersection between psychology and business, so this is an industry that encompasses my two biggest professional passions.

Coaching originated in sports about 20-30 years ago when people saw that professional athletes were having these individualized coaches that were helping them succeed. High profile professionals started seeing this happening and they wanted to have a coach for themselves.

The people that are a natural fit for this role have backgrounds in psychology, which is where some of the original stigma from coaching came from. It carried some that stigma that therapy carried with it so people were clandestine about it.

They didn’t want to talk about it but eventually people came out of the closet about the fact that they were working with coaches and these were incredibly successful, high profile people. Over the course of the last couple of decades, coaching has turned into this elite service that very, very highly successful people get to benefit from.

Breaking Into Startups: If it wasn’t for Steve Kerr, the coach of the Warriors, they wouldn’t have won so many games. These coaches tend to be only for people that are elite but what problem are you solving related to making this more accessible for people?

Yarbrough: Individuals who branded themselves as executive coaches would, and still do, charge thousands of dollars an hour for their service. If you want to work with the highest-profile coaches in the country, you’re going to have to pay anywhere from $500 an hour to $5,000 an hour.

Coaching isn’t available to the people who are further down the “power stack” within the organization. This is the problem that I saw.

I would walk into organizations and coach the CEO. I would see mid-level managers and individual contributors who could benefit from coaching but I couldn’t access them and they couldn’t access me, so I set out to try to solve this problem in order to democratize the service.

Breaking Into Startups: When it comes to coaching, everyone has an idea of what an athletic coach does. What kind of problems does a CEO have where they might need a coach to come in and give them advice on?

Yarbrough: A lot of people think that coaching is really about finding a mentor, someone who’s going to give you tactical advice about the problem you need to solve next. Generally, leaders who are hiring coaches aren’t using a coach for tactical advice. They’ll use their board members for that, or they have specific tactical advisors who are giving them counsel on how to solve the next strategic problem.

What an executive coach is actually doing is helping them manage their own psychology and their own emotions. Many startup founders will tell you they’re consumed by this constant, undying feeling of dread on a day to day basis. People oftentimes will come to coaching because of the feeling of dread that comes with this incredible challenge of creating a startup.

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Image via Getty Images / sorbetto

Breaking Into Startups: Historically, people have said “Coaching and mentorship aren’t scalable. How are you thinking about addressing this problem from a technology perspective? What does your software do?

Yarbrough: Coaching as an industry has been a very fragmented market so we created this a global marketplace of executive coaches, all of whom who have graduate degrees and domain experience and we pick out the best people. One problem is finding the best people, and the other problem we’re trying to solve.

Historically, coaching has not seen much innovation in terms of software analytics, so this is a problem I always saw as a coach myself. There was very little available in terms of how to track the outcomes that come from coaching. The industry has seen what’s called a 360 review, and that’s been a product that’s been available in the coaching industry for quite some time but that’s it. It’s a robust survey.

What we’re doing is building a software platform that encompasses a 360 review and also encompasses what’s similar to an OKR platform, which is once we get the results of the assessment back, the software then populates a set of goals for that person to work on. The coach has visibility into those goals, the employee has visibility into those goals. Then we measure that progress over time.

Lastly, it’s very important for the HR department to have some sort of gage into whether the coach is making progress with that employee because you’re asking them to foot the bill. We have a dashboard that allows the HR department to login and see how their employees are doing overtime.

Breaking Into Startups: What are some of the examples of the progress OKRs that people set for themselves?

Yarbrough: An example of progress is if turns out that someone needs to work on executive presence, they may be assigned to watching some TedTalks, reading a book or enrolling in ToastMasters so that I work on my public speaking. They’re typically things that are soft skills-based but translate into more powerful leadership.

Breaking Into Startups: Will your platform track them taking a class or show you a quarterly review?

Yarbrough: It still requires that the employee self-reports that they did take the class and watch the TedTalk. We pull a survey of a couple of allies of that person to see that they’re actually improving. We will pull a survey of a colleague or supervisor and ask “Is Joe actually improving at XYZ?”

Breaking Into Startups: They get a feedback loop from them and that’s also fed to an HR department so they can see visibility to how that person is doing on their task?

Yarbrough: Right. Our whole methodology is built on productizing feedback.

Breaking Into Startups: What is an OKR, and how can someone who is looking into break into tech apply this approach to their own journey and learning new skills?

Yarbrough: An OKR is an objective and key results which was popularized by Google a few decades ago. It’s a tool for driving results. The objective is typically a stretch goal and the KRs are the drivers. We adopted that framework for leadership-based soft skills. Our tool is an OKR for driving soft skills that move leadership.

Breaking Into Startups: A lot of our listeners are learning a new skill as we speak. A lot of them want to get jobs in tech, which require them to put hours of work into it. How can they apply the concepts and things that you teach the clients to their own daily struggles?

Yarbrough: The first thing that I would recommend is reading. I read a lot of books and did a tremendous amount of research to get him to where I am today. Work on yourself and your relationships. I did that through meditation, lots of personal therapy, journaling and writing.

Breaking Into Startups: Would your advice be to have an accountability group or have your peers provide feedback around things that you’re trying to do?

Yarbrough: What we’re doing is productizing towards feedback. When you’re not working in an organization, you have to stimulate that on your own. You can do that through your own peer network or your own group therapy.

Start with research, reading, learning, looking inward through meditation and therapy. Anything that will help you learn about yourself. That will set you up for success.

Breaking Into Startups: What are some of the common struggles of people in high positions of power experience and what are some of their self-doubts?

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Image via Getty Images / rudall30

Yarbrough: CEOs are typically trained to be very, very polished when they’re in front of the camera but a lot of times, they’re working just as hard as anybody to manage incredible stress, incredible anxiety, incredible insecurity and constant feelings of vulnerability. They’re very well trained on how to present.

A lot of startup CEOs come from a lot of turbulence in their families of origin. There’s a lot of trauma in the family origins of people who end up in startup leadership.

Because they came from family origins that had a lot of trauma, they are uniquely positioned to handle the incredible amount of stress, anxiety and turbulence that they have to face in startup.

The most difficult thing that startup founders have to face is uncertainty. When you grow up in a family system with lots of trauma, that child is constantly dealing with the uncertainty around danger and figuring out how to get themselves out of that danger.

Breaking Into Startups: That’s amazing. Are there any other common themes that you see in CEOs?

Yarbrough: They’ll do anything that it takes to be successful, even if that requires owning their own vulnerability and being very progressive about how they treat that. Most startup CEOs are in therapy, in addition to having a coach.

Breaking Into Startups: As they start to raise more money, what types of challenges are these CEOs facing?

Yarbrough: It seems like from the outside that person is going to become more and more stressed out as the company scales but it’s not necessarily true. They’re just incredibly stressed out all the time from the very beginning until it’s over. When it’s over, they’re stressed because now they have this feeling of abandonment and loss around their identity and who they were.

It’s just stressful all the time. Once you’re trying to raise a Series C for example, you’ve learned a lot so you’re able to handle it.

Breaking Into Startups: How many managers exist to be able to create this executive coach marketplace? How big is the market? How did you address creating your MVP, or your Minimum Viable Product without technology? How did you convince investors to invest in something that they normally wouldn’t invest in?

Yarbrough: We think this is a 15 billion dollar untapped market. If there’s 3 million managers in the market at $500 per person, that’s a 15 billion dollar market.

Breaking Into Startups: How did you start creating these matches and these allies to demonstrate to investors that this is going to work before you started building tech, and how did you convince investors to put dollars behind it after that?

Yarbrough: Our MVP – Minimum Viable Product – was a matchmaking service between coaches and employees via email. We would turn them loose on Zoom and send out a monthly invoice. It was really that simple. Anyone can do it, but we built that up enough recurring revenue and we had very low churn.

People that we were matching with coaches were sticking and with that story, we were able to go to investors and say “Hey investors, we have a product-market fit when it comes to actual coaching. We think there is an incredible amount of software that we can build around this service of executive coaching that will make the coaches better, that will allow us to recruit more coaches from all over the world, that will create defensibility in a genuine moat from our competitors. Invest in us so that we can build software products and analytics tools around the coaching experience that will allow us to scale.”

Breaking Into Startups: How do you manage your own psychology and your relationship with your employees on a daily basis?

Yarbrough: That’s a great question. It’s a huge focus of mine. I work with a therapist. I’ve been working with the same therapist for about 5 years and I meet with her over the phone every single week. That’s the number one thing I use and I also exercise five days a week. Exercise is proven to be just as successful at managing anxiety and depression as antidepressants. Exercise is just as powerful as an antidepressant. I do regular exercise, hike and swim.

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Breaking Into Startups: What’s the process on who you sell to?

Yarbrough: We’re B2B only. For small businesses, we’re often selling to the CEO. Once a company gets into the growth stage, we’ll be selling to the head of HR. Once their mid-market, we typically sell to the head of learning and development.

Breaking Into Startups: Is the vision for it to go from executives to down market to make it more accessible to mid-level and individual contributors?

Yarbrough: It’s true to who we are and what our mission is. Our goal is to make executive coaching available down market within the organization. The focus of our platform is on the manager.

Breaking Into Startups: Why does surfing mean so much to you?

Yarbrough: When you crash on a 12-15 foot wave, you get held under the water. You have to be able to get going when you’re under the water. If you panic, you can drown. You just have to let go and relax and that’s a perfect metaphor for being in a startup. If you’re able to just relax and let go, and not worry about which direction is up, the natural buoyancy of your body just floats you up to the top of the ocean.

Breaking Into Startups: What advice would you give a 20-year-old?

Yarbrough: Play your game. I was a therapist when I wanted to break into tech. I didn’t go out and try to get a degree to become a software engineer because that’s not who I am. Know who you are and play your game. I broke into tech by doubling down on the industry of psychology and the business background I had. Be true to who you are. Go through your portal.