On this edition of Founders Interviews we spoke with Rui Brandão, Co-founder and CEO of Zenklub.
Zenklub is transforming the mental healthcare industry, creating a frictionless experience for businesses, 100% online. Using data and technology, they connect businesses and their employees with the best therapists and psychologists for coaching and personal development programs.
*This interview has been slightly edited for reading ease.
To kick things off, can you tell us about your background and the path that led you to Zenklub?
I’m a medical doctor by training. I studied in Portugal and decided to do my last year of university in Brazil, and I’ve been based in Brazil on and off ever since. I decided to start my medical career in Brazil when I was 23, then at 25 I moved to the US to start a vascular surgery residency, and that was when the idea behind Zenklub came about. My mom got ill with a mental disease and for a couple of years it took a serious toll on our family. That’s what made me quit the traditional medical career and really focus on mental health. I’ve been the founder of Zenklub for the past 6 years.
What makes Zenklub unique in the market? How is it different from other offerings?
Firstly, there’s not a lot of offerings in the market, I’d still call it a neglected business space. The mass market is definitely focused on physical illness and physical health. So, when you look at the mental health / mental illness spectrum, there’s really not a lot of offerings. The second thing is our unique approach to the problem: we have a B2B perspective. We did start with B2C, but for the past 3 years we’ve been a B2B company and currently we have around 450 corporate clients, which adds up to a total upwards of 300,000 lives. Basically, what we’ve created is an ecosystem of tools, content and specialists that enable companies to improve their corporate culture and the productivity of their employees.
What has been the most crucial moment so far in the history of Zenklub?
The memory is short and in general we’re always looking forwards. But if I had to, I would say that it was this year, with the changing dynamics of the business world. We had to focus not only on the top line but on efficiency and that meant looking at your workforce, looking at your goals and honestly just changing the pace of the company as a whole. We’re much more foot-on-the-ground now, we’re operating much more on a short-term horizon. It’s been interesting, especially when talking about a mental health company, to be much more pragmatic and talk a lot more about business. This is because being a mental health company, the way you treat your people and the way you take care of your culture is very important, so that you are coherent with what you sell and what you believe in. As a result, this year was a real change of pace, and I would say in a way, it made me more of a CEO — an executive — rather than just a founder. I took a step forward in my own personal journey.
Could you expand a little bit more on how the internal dynamics changed within Zenklub? About being coherent between the image you portray as a mental health company.
I wouldn’t even say portray; I would go as far as walking the talk. I would say we as a company have always attracted people that have a lot of purpose or want to fulfill a purpose. One of our challenges has been how do we put together a solid enough hiring process and development process so that we optimize for growth, because ultimately that’s what we believe in. Our fulfillment will come from the growth of our mission and not just the fact that we work at a mental health company. You have to balance results with purpose and the way you rationalize the objectives. Honestly, this doesn’t only apply to our company — it’s my first company — so I felt this too. That’s part of the reason why I said our big milestone was definitely this year, not just for the company but for me as well.
Do you have any tips or advice for someone who just started / is planning on starting a startup?
I would say if you’re just starting, make sure you validate your idea. Don’t be worried about funding, just make sure you have leeway in order to be on the ground as long as it takes for you to validate your concept. I don’t think an idea is worth money by itself and I don’t think you should be focused on raising money, you should be focused on validating your idea.
If you could go back in time, is there anything you would’ve done differently?
It took a while for us to get going to be honest, we bootstrapped the company for 4 years. In a way we thought the market would validate us quicker than it did. My advice to myself would be to go harder on really getting the numbers good enough for the idea to turn into a small business. I think we focused too much of our early time on getting fundraising when really we should’ve focused more on actually optimizing the initial concept of the business.
Lastly, what has been the most challenging part of growing a startup? And the most fun part?
I think we do all forget to talk about the fun part sometimes! Honestly the fun of it is working with people that you like, and that you want to play together with. I look at work as play, and having a solid team that I can feel like I’m on a football field with, passing right and left, that’s what makes it the most fun. Seeing a challenge and overcoming it with your team. I think from a more outside perspective, it was definitely 2020 when the pandemic hit, which was a bad incident for society, but for us it was a turning point. Companies such as Nubank or Natura, which are really well-known in Brazil, started wanting to partner with us as a marketing stunt. Beforehand people were neglecting us and treating us as if we were just a mental illness company, like “I never want to talk to you or offer you to our employees”, but once they started wanting to partner with us for their customers it brought a change of pace. We started seeing that the topic was the new limelight, so that is something that really comes to mind. In terms of the toughest moment, I would say the beginning was tough, because we never thought we would get so much hate, or “bad love”, from therapists and psychologists in Brazil. We had good intentions, we thought we were bringing forward something good for them, but a lot of them started making complaints to regulatory authorities. The first 2–3 years were tough because the people that we were trying to empower thought we were here to cannibalize or minimize their work.
How did you end up dealing with that challenge?
We got scientific backing, that was the first thing, and we started showing the impact we were providing Brazil in terms of access. 70% of our users had never gone to a therapist’s office, 30% of our users were Brazilians outside of Brazil, so expats, and that just proved that Zenklub’s mission of democratizing and giving people access to therapy was all about opening up the market and not about destroying it.
*Interview by Álvaro Furtado