Thriving in a Covid-19 World

Thriving in a Covid-19 World

Mike Kelly, Contributor

Mike Kelly (MBA ’22) talks with Dan Katz (MBA ’22), a member of Thrive Global’s founding team, about mental resilience, why New Year’s resolutions fail, and the art of prioritization.

When the 2016 Chicago Cubs won the World Series after a 107-year drought, millions of long-suffering fans flocked to the streets to join the victory parade. Meanwhile, a friend of mine was putting the finishing touches on a PowerPoint deck after working two weeks of 16-hour days, including weekends. He had lived in Chicago for some time as a management consultant, but in reality, he was on the road more than half that time visiting client sites. When the Cubs, his adopted team, were in the World Series, he was working until 3 A.M., hardly speaking to anyone other than his colleagues. With long flights, travel delays, and intense pressure to succeed lumped on top of endless work, he was pushed to the brink of burnout.

Maybe you have similar stories from your time in the professional world. Even if not, we all know someone who has experienced the physical and mental exhaustion of burnout. This is especially true in today’s world, where the stresses of long workweeks are now compounded by the restriction of social connections, anxiety about the well-being of our loved ones, and the endless news of social and economic disruption. With people’s personal and professional lives becoming deeply intertwined, employers are rapidly searching for new tools and resources to help employees productively cope with stress to prevent total burnout. 

Enter Thrive Global, the behavior change technology company founded by Arianna Huffington, who vividly recounted her own wake-up call in her book, Thrive. Dan Katz (MBA ’22), a member of Thrive’s founding team, sat down with me to share his experience launching and growing Thrive.

Thrive aims to end the burnout epidemic by empowering users of its platform to adopt behaviors to strengthen mental resilience, build physical immunity, and enhance overall well-being. They have worked with corporate clients ranging from JPMorgan and Accenture, to Hilton and Microsoft, to help them better engage their workforces and improve outcomes.

On its surface, accomplishing behavior change at an individual level sounds like a Herculean endeavor. As most of us know all too well, working new behaviors into our daily routines is a major exercise in willpower, and breaking old habits can be just as daunting. Recognizing this, Thrive’s platform is built around what they call “Microsteps,” which Katz describes as tiny actions that, over time, can grow into meaningful new behaviors.

Consider New Year’s resolutions. It is estimated that around 80% of resolutions fail, which is likely partially due to the scale of the resolutions. Take exercise as an example: if you currently do not exercise for more than an hour per week, and you set a goal to exercise for one hour per day, six days per week, you will almost inevitably fail.

On the other hand, if you set a goal to do five pushups every day once you get home from work, you will be much more likely to reach that goal and start to form a habit. When you give yourself a pat on the back after doing five pushups, your brain gets a hit of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps wire the action as a habit. Over time, this habit can expand in meaningful ways that can become the foundation of a daily workout regimen. 

This is the promise of Thrive’s Microsteps. By delivering and reminding you of your Microsteps, which the platform personalizes for your goals, Thrive effectively lowers the willpower, time commitment, and ability threshold to close to zero. Anyone, from harried analysts to hard-charging executives, can find the time to build new habits starting with Microsteps (for more info on the science of habit formation, Katz recommends Tiny Habits, by BJ Fogg).

Before launching Thrive in 2016, Katz served as Arianna Huffington’s Chief of Staff at The Huffington Post. “We saw how our coverage of new topics like sleep and relationship with technology were some of our top drivers of traffic and revenue,” he noted. “And this increased interest from the public in personal well-being coincided with an increased recognition by top business leaders that something in our work cultures had to change.”

Noticing these trends, they began experimenting with ways to bridge the gap between knowing what to do and doing
it. In the end, it was these experiments that paved the way for launching Thrive.

This attitude of experimentation carried over into Thrive, where, Katz shares, they operated like a laboratory in their early days. With several major corporate clients on board at launch, they gathered learnings from their initial offerings, including live workshops, digital campaigns, and the Thrive media platform, a public hub featuring content from CEOs, experts, and other thought leaders.

Over the next few years, they used the data from their “laboratory phase” to begin developing their core B2B offering, the Thrive Platform. To gather the resources to build out this platform, Katz helped lead the process for raising a Series B (the Series A was led by Lerer Hippeau, a NYC-based VC firm, in 2016).

Through 2017, Thrive pitched to a handful of VCs and strategic investors, and in the end, IVP, a premier venture and growth equity firm, led the round. Katz recalls that IVP both grasped the long-term vision for Thrive and knew the B2B space well through prior investments, so they were a clear choice as the lead Series B investor. With this investment from IVP, along with strategic investors like Kevin Durant, the San Francisco 49ers, and Marc Benioff, Thrive built and scaled a platform that is now in the hands of hundreds of thousands of employees across companies ranging from Salesforce to Walmart.

As Head of Business Development, Katz learned to wear many hats as he helped Thrive grow from a small team of co-founders to over 100 employees. From raising venture financing, to overseeing sales, to advancing large, strategic partnerships, Katz’s role evolved to focus on whatever issues were most pressing at the time. “Most recently, during Covid-19, we wanted to give people actionable ways to think about their well-being and immune system–in addition to wearing a mask,” Katz recalls. This meant tailoring Microsteps and other content to focus on sleep, mental resilience, and even getting up from your desk between Zoom meetings 

Given the sheer number and variety of tasks to do at Thrive, Katz cites prioritization as one of the key challenges he faced. “It seemed like every day we identified a shiny new potential partnership,” he says. “So, we had to practice discipline and develop our own rubric for what was worth pursuing.” Eventually, they developed this practice into one of their cultural values, called “relentless prioritization,” which Thrive now teaches to every new hire during onboarding. One of the components of this prioritization is what Arianna described as “completing something by dropping it.” In other words, dropping tasks or saying “no” to some is one way to shift your focus back to the most pressing items.

As an RC, Katz no doubt can put his relentless prioritization skills to good use. At HBS, with the world at our fingertips, one of the challenges is to find the practices–even the Microsteps–that can help ground us in what is most important. For some, this may be prayer, meditation, or exercise, while for others, it could just be getting a good night’s sleep. The larger point is that when we constantly flit between activities without pausing to rest or reflect, we set ourselves up for anxiety, stress, and ultimately burnout. In those quiet moments, we can reflect on our personal journeys and make intentional choices about how to spend our “one wild and precious life.”

As for my friend in Chicago–he still regrets not going to that parade.

Mike Kelly (MBA ’22) grew up outside Pittsburgh, PA. Prior to HBS, he worked for five years in engineering, product strategy, and program management at Ford, where his work spanned both automotive and the future of mobility. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a Mechanical Engineering degree, and he played trumpet in the marching band. His favorite cereal is Reese’s Puffs, which you can usually find him chowing down on Zoom.

September 10, 2020