Being a founder, entrepreneur, or a business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Erika Ferszt.
Erika Ferszt is the founder of Moodally, the mood management program for the workplace. Moodally offers extensively researched training courses that help employees combat workplace stress through the day-to-day management of their mood. Recently selected as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Ventures, Erika has also completed a 2 year post-graduate program in the Neuroscience of Mental Health and holds a Masters of Science in Organizational Psychology.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Erika Ferszt: Up until 2015, I was an advertising executive. I spent over 20 years in the business, won 70 awards, and my last position, which was the best job ever, was the Global Advertising, Media, and Digital Director at Ray-Ban. Unfortunately in 2015, I had a burnout episode where I was hospitalized with stress-related vision loss in one eye. As a result, I chose to put my career on pause and take some time off to get my health in order. Not able to stay still for too long, I started researching the mind and stress. I decided to go back to school to go even deeper. I spent two years in Grad School studying the Neuroscience of Mental Health and then continued on to pursue a Masters of Science in Organizational Psychology. My company, Moodally, is a coming together of my professional experience and what I learned in school.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Erika Ferszt: I was studying stress and the brain mechanisms behind it. Turns out, almost everything in our lives depends on our mood. How productive we are, how we interact with other people, the things we choose to remember, and how we archive the moment we’re living in. In the research, I was reviewing I kept coming across a technique called mood induction. Scientists use it in clinical settings to help people shift their moods. They were able to take people who were depressed and make them happier. They were able to reduce people’s stress. It sounded like a miracle cure. So I did some digging on what it was and found out that they were using creative materials, specially designed to be effective, to change people’s moods. I read this and I thought “wait a second…that’s what I do for a living”. I contacted a Ph.D. professor at one of the Universities here in Milan, where they have a department specializing in discrete emotions (moods). I asked her if I was crazy to think that I could use the same clinical technique as a real-life treatment and she told me that it was a great idea and the science was sound. Moodally was born.
In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
Erika Ferszt: If you ask any one of my former bosses they will all agree that I definitely find myself more comfortable in a position where I’m able to be the decider. I didn’t necessarily think I would start my own company, primarily because I didn’t have a product that I really cared about. I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur just for the sake of being an entrepreneur. When I discovered the facts about mood – and particularly how it can impact the workplace – I felt compelled that this was my calling. However if you had asked me in 2017 if I thought I would be running my own company in 2021, I doubt I would have said yes.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
Erika Ferszt: There are a couple of divinely placed people who acted as course correctors and kickstarted a perfect storm of life changes into motion. I was at the Web Summit in Dublin in November 2015 and I was waiting for Samsung’s presentation of their new VR tool and Beau Lotto, a world famous neuroscientist from University College London, was speaking. It was 20 mind-blowing minutes. In neuroscience, I had found my religion. This was where my passion ignited. Then a much sadder event happened in May 2016 where my dear friend, photographer Matt Irwin, committed suicide. As someone who has been witness to mental health issues in my own family, I felt compelled to make helping people be my next mission. I was committed to finding a way to help people deal with their own thoughts and mood states before they become dangerous. It took another 9 months for the Neuroscience of Mental Health program to find me, but when it appeared on my screen, I knew that it was my destiny. The rest is history.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Erika Ferszt: There’s a couple of things. First is that the big trend is meditation and mindfulness. However, CDC data shows that they’re both practiced by only 15% of the population. I was not successful, as a user/consumer, with either and I know that many people have had my same experience. There may be others who are also avoidant because it seems too “spiritual”. 100% of us are at risk for stress-related issues, but the products on the market are only reaching a small audience. This may just be a question of time, but it could also be that there are strong avoidance barriers. I designed my product to be able to resonate with a very practical professional target. My app and my courses are built from the ground up using demonstrable science. There’s evidence to support the techniques I use.
The second is that I focus on mood. Many people don’t understand the dynamics of mood and how broad of an impact it has on your whole day. It’s not about mood tracking, which can be useful to some and more harmful to others. It’s about mood shifting. Our brains like to dwell on what’s bothering us and, as long as we stay in that space, we can inadvertently keep a bad mood alive for hours…with all of the collateral physiological consequences that entails. We focus on helping you abandon the unhelpful train of thoughts occurring in that moment, which is exactly when you need it. De-stressing at the end of the day is better than nothing, but shutting a bad mood off immediately is really the gold standard in stress management.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Erika Ferszt: You need to have a vision. Many people believe money is a motivator. Turns out money, in and of itself, isn’t satisfying. What motivates us intrinsically is passion, purpose, and an idea that we are building something of meaning. That’s what makes you get out of bed every morning even when you don’t feel like it. It gives you a sense of responsibility to something much higher than yourself.
You must be armed with persistence. There were a lot of ups and downs in getting this company set up. Name changes, people changes, money stolen, copycat apps. There are so many opportunities to give up. I sometimes felt like I was living in a video game and doing very poorly at the level. I am older than your average start-upper. I’m female in a male-dominated business. I’m a solopreneur. There were a thousand reasons for me to just go back and get a job doing what I knew. But I wouldn’t have been true to myself. And so….nevertheless, I persisted.
You need a healthy portion of faith served with an side order of realism. It’s a mistake to think that you’re going to launch and the next day you’re going to have one thousand users. Success is long and hard. Even if we look at the unicorns, they’ve been working at it anywhere from 8-10 years. It’s fundamental to be realistic about the road that is in front of you. At the same time, it’s important to be armed with the faith that it is not impossible that there is a leprechaun and a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In Iceland, there is a lot of heritage around the “huldufolk”, which we might call elves. There’s even a government office that deals in relations with the huldufolk. The belief is so strong that supposed huldufolk housing lands have been the cause for highway diversions. When I asked an Icelandic friend of mine whether he believed, or not, in the huldufolk, he replied “Can you prove they don’t exist?”. That’s the kind of thinking you need to start your own company
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Erika Ferszt: Oh my, where to begin. At the beginning of this process, everything was new to me. As I mentioned I’m older than your average first-time entrepreneur and I’ve always been a salaried employee beholden to someone else’s vision – at the beginning I was a leaf on the wind. I avidly listened to advice from anyone willing to give it to me (which is everyone, by the way). I even changed path every time someone with more experience pointed me in a different direction than the one I was on. I learned, after a while, that I needed to stop doubting myself. This company was my baby and like all mothers, I was the mother this baby needed. I now limit my confidant pool to a few truly tested advisors, who I appreciate dearly.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?
Erika Ferszt: I speak to a lot of younger people who work in startups and I hear so many frightening stories. There isn’t a general understanding of how burnout works, or the consequences of it, so we keep pushing, pushing, and pushing. There are sprints, there are investors, you’ve got insane monthly user goals to meet – they live in a constant state of fight or flight. In my opinion, the most important thing is time off to rejuvenate. I would suggest rolling 4 day weeks, similar to crop rotation. I would organize the week so there are never days where nothing is getting done (as in our current Saturday and Sunday), but each employee has 3 days off to rest and rejuvenate. Perhaps one has Monday, Thursday, and Friday off. Another may have Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Perhaps they can pick days that align with their children’s school which makes that time even more precious. If this pandemic has taught us anything it’s that we have to rethink our long-founded “workweek” beliefs and get a little bit clever about people & time management. It would naturally be mandatory, from the company, that the employee time off is respected. It can’t become one of those “please stay home, but I just have these 200 small emergencies to run past you”. People will come back refreshed and ready to go into battle, if you let them unplug
What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?
Erika Ferszt: I believe the single most important thing you can do is understand your problem to its core. It was a piece of advice that I heard from Uri Levine, the co-founder of Waze and it changed the way I look at the world. I believe that this is the only real way you can be profoundly authentic. You must know the problem you’re solving at its core.
Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?
Erika Ferszt: The market is exploding. Companies are coming from everywhere. Celebrities are now competition. It’s very hard to breakthrough. But if you come from the problem, if the problem is yours, perhaps you can solve it in a way they’re not. For example, there are thousands of meditation apps on the market now. You can make a meditation app in 10 minutes. That doesn’t mean you’ve made one that is meaningful to someone who meditates, unless you thoroughly know what the challenges are. If you’re going to try and be useful enough to someone that you’re going to ask them to give you money for your product, you have to be improving their life. Otherwise the second they scratch the surface of your product, they’ll know if it’s worthwhile or not.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Erika Ferszt: Ego. In every company I’ve ever worked for, what always tripped up the CEO, or the founder, was ego. Some organizations remind me of “The Emperors New Clothes” fable. Everyone can see the truth, but they’re not allowed to say it for fear of the consequences. In the entertainment business, they say the worst thing you can do is believe your own hype. I believe it’s the same in business. Ironically there is evidence that suggests that people with the dark triad of personality traits, i.e. narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, do best in senior management positions. If you look at some of the key figures in business today, this appears to be true. In my experience, and that of many people I know, you can work for people like that, but you won’t give your heart for those people. I always did my absolute best work for smart, humble, and humane bosses.
Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?
Erika Ferszt: The primary difference is security and responsibility. When you have a “regular job” it’s true that you could be fired at any moment, you might not make as much as you deserve, or there might not be advancement possibilities. But if you show up to your job, you do it well, and you receive a steady paycheck, you are, for the most part, guaranteed a moderate sense of security. Your responsibilities are then limited to your personal sphere, your family, and situations you choose.
When you are an entrepreneur your responsibilities extend to the companies you deal with, the employees you hire, the investors you take on board, the planet, society, etc. Everything a company does has an impact on someone and it can be positive or negative. When I was starting out, I was talking to people about coming on board. These people had families with children. I asked myself every day “Do you feel confident enough in what you’re doing to allow this person to leave their paying job and risk their security with you?”. At that time the answer was frequently no. Consider market conditions, mergers, lawsuits, regulations, etc.. There is any number of variables that you have no control over that can effect your company in a heartbeat. They can impacting your earnings and the livelihood of all the people who work for you, and with you.
There’s also a question of personal investment. As employees we decide the degree of excellence we want to put into things. We don’t necessarily worry on the weekends about the outcomes, or consequences, of things that happened during the week. When you’re an entrepreneur, you spend every minute of every day thinking about how to learn from the past, what’s working in the present, what could the future be, how can you evolve, or prevent failure. You can take a day off, sure. But it can feel like you’re “stealing” from yourself. It can be a very dangerous mindset. When I was working for a company owned by a multi-billionaire, I always wondered why he was so omnipresent. He was often in meetings about the tiniest details. We always questioned why he wasn’t enjoying life on his new yacht. Now I get it. I think it’s very hard to become a self-made success and not become a machine. I do think, however, that an evolution towards better-balanced entrepreneurs is necessary for the future. I think Dan Price, from Gravity Payments, is an interesting example of this.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Erika Ferszt: I’ve had multiple highs along the road, but I’ll start with the very first one. Ironically, it was when I made my first five-figure payment to my developer. I was pulling the trigger. I was actually going to do this. I had an idea that was years in the making and I had just decided to make it real. It was, for me, the point of no return. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Erika Ferszt: My low is actually a “funny” continuation of my high story and is a perfect example of how quickly things can change on this journey. My first high was making my first payment to my developer. My first low came four months later when that same developer completely vanished off the face of the earth. He wouldn’t respond to my phone calls, wouldn’t answer my texts or emails. He ignored a letter from a corporate attorney in the UK and ignored a letter from a penal attorney in Romania. He not only had my money, but he also had all the passwords to the code repositories, the hosting platforms…everything. (I know, I know….rookie mistake). I have never in my entire life felt so powerless. I had NO moves. The odd part is that we worked in the same field, so I was perplexed that he was risking his professional reputation. It turns out this happens quite regularly in tech, unfortunately.
Despite all my efforts to contact him, he stayed in silence. It took me weeks to get over my maelstrom of emotions and start coming up with a plan. I began to reach out to some people that we knew in common asking them if they could contact this person on my behalf. I just wanted my passwords and thought he might listen to them if he wasn’t willing to speak to me. Turns out he had been lying to multiple people and was technically the full-time CTO of another company. Like me, they were shocked to learn that he had been taking side projects. Long story short, I managed to get my passwords back and found another – way better – developer. I never got my money back and I’ll admit that still stings.
Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?
Erika Ferszt: First I allowed myself to collapse. The pressure of having to fight your feelings adds more stress to your body, it’s called “Emotional Labor”. I focused on things I could control, which was, ironically, my day-to-day life during the pandemic. I had to make sure my daughter was mentally balanced in her distance-learning. I had to make sure we had access to food all the time. I tried to create fun theme nights to lower her anxiety about what was happening. Putting my attention elsewhere, and putting someone else’s needs over my anxieties, was a tremendous source of peace. I had become the serenity prayer (Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference). By not feeling powerless all the time, I started to feel my power return. After a few weeks, I was fully charged to take on the situation. That’s when I was able to resolve it. The lesson was: never go into battle when you’ve only got half a tank. Let the problem sit there. Most of the time it resolves itself. If it doesn’t you’ll have the time off to recover, reflect and respond from a better vantage point.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Have a very strong “Why”. – Things will get tough along the road. The only thing that is going to get you to pick yourself up and dust yourself off is if you’re being driven by something deep within you. If you don’t have something meaningful motivating you, you may run out of steam along the journey. After my coder vanished, I also had another developer copycat my app and steal the name (I was in the process of trademarking it). At one point I was wondering if some higher power was trying to stop me from pursuing this path. If I hadn’t been convinced, deep down, that what I was doing was going to have a positive impact, I would have given up and gone back to my day job.
- Have other interests that you give time to. – Putting all of your energy into only one thing causes tunnel vision. We need new stimuli and thoughts to create new associations. New associations bring new ideas and evolved visions. You may also find that while you are thinking about something else, the answer to one of your problems just pops into your mind. It’s because you’ve taken the pressure off and your mind can think freely.
- Keep a social life – There is a ton of scientific evidence that shows that connection and belonging are vital to our survival. People with strong support networks have a higher correlation with happiness. When we’re focusing on building our companies, we can ignore our family and friends. It’s important to take the time out to feel other people, participate in the human experience, and connect. It’s not only good for your state of mind, it’s good for your brain. Socializing helps increase neurogenesis which creates the possibility for new thought connections and associations, so ultimately it’s good for our work as well.
- Have a stress management strategy in place. – It’s important to understand your triggers and know how to respond to them, in the moment. The process of being an entrepreneur is an endless stream of daily stressors. If you want to make it to the end of the marathon, you have to know how to avoid burning out. This means committing to actively taking care of your mind and body.
- Have a second chapter in mind in case of failure. – Some people do really well with a “failure is not an option” point of view, but I find that to be rather limiting. All or nothing thinking can be extremely harmful. When we only allow for a very specific vision of success, anything else that happens can seem pointless and disappointing. When you start a company you invest so much time, love, passion, and life energy into what you’re creating. Those are resources that don’t come back to you. When I started, I was very conscious to consider how else I could potentially use all of the personal resources I poured into this project, should it fails. How could I recuperate some of my life’s investment? It’s the way chefs think. You never waste anything in the kitchen. Sometimes the products you make out of the “leftovers” are even better than the original dish. I find that this approach allows you to be a little less “I either win or lose” and ends up creating more options.
We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Erika Ferszt: In the academic world, there are two definitions of resilience. One they call a state of hardiness, which is essentially a trait that you are born with. There are people that are born more resilient than others and have life experiences that allow them to keep that resilience. Hardiness is often associated with people who have high levels of self-esteem, optimism, extraversion, sense of coherence, and self-efficacy (taken from Eschleman & Bowling, 2010). The other definition is resilience as a skill, something you can learn and develop over your lifetime. Resiliency training often focuses on giving people cognitive skills that can boost their sense of ability to face challenges. Most programs include the ability to recognize emotional triggers, find new ways to think about the situation, improve communication skills and help find silver linings. To me, the maximum of resilience is being open to experience the full range of emotions – fear, anger, sadness, joy – and being able to successfully navigate your way back to being centered every time.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?
Erika Ferszt: I had a rather challenging childhood. It was highly unusual in nature which led to a lot of unpredictability at home. There were financial issues, mental health issues, incompatibility issues, emotional instability…you name it, we had the issue. (Both of my parents are still alive, and I want to respect their privacy by omitting specifics.) By the time I started living on my own, as a senior in high school, I had already lived in 10 different apartments in New York. I became financially independent as soon as I began college. I worked full time while being a full-time student. The truth is that it was the constant unpredictability that made me unbreakable. I was constantly building a sense of “survived that, what’s next”. Yet, despite everything I went through, I consider myself to have led a very privileged life. Some people have faced far worse and still get out of bed every day. They have all my respect.
In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?
Erika Ferszt: This has changed over the years. When I was younger I was rather cynical. I mentioned that I was unbreakable, but I also wore heavy armor around me. I was untouchable too. I was very uncomfortable with my emotions and would tend to ignore and suppress things. This just meant that I had a lot of negativity dwelling inside my body. When I went through the pre-mid-life crisis that many women can find themselves in during their early thirties, the armor started cracking open. I no longer feared facing the hard emotions because I knew I could survive. As I processed a lot of old baggage, I got lighter and lighter. My outlook on life changed. I no longer lived in total black or white but had discovered that there are a thousand shades in between. So now when something difficult happens, and they never stop happening, I just take a deep breath, roll my eyes, laugh, and ask “Ok, what needs to be done here?”. I also try to see the good in every situation. Just because something happens to us that we don’t want, or don’t welcome, doesn’t mean it’s bad for us. I’ve had some of the most important course correctors come to me as difficult events. When I looked back I realized they were actually gifts. I try to keep that in mind all the time. We never know if it was a “bad” thing until we know how the story ends.
Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.
Erika Ferszt: There is scientific evidence that demonstrates that a manager can directly impact the well-being, productivity, and motivation of their entire team. Mood is contagious. Your bad mood and your good mood. It’s also been shown that managers who participate in emotional self-regulation training end up seeing positive improvements throughout the whole team (including those who did not participate in the training). The team showed increases in job satisfaction and work/life balance. In Italian they have a saying which is “il pesce puzza dalla testa”. This translates to “the fish smells from the head”. It means that it’s the leader who sets the tone.
Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?
Erika Ferszt: I have a manifesto that I read every time I need a little boost. It’s the Impossible is Nothing manifesto that was part of the Adidas launch campaign many years ago. You’ll find it on the internet incorrectly identified as having been said by Mohammed Ali, but it was actually written by copywriter Aimee Lehto Schewe (the tagline Impossible is Nothing was written by Boyd Coyner at TBWA Amsterdam). I love it because it speaks to everything I believe in life. When I forget why I do things, I read this:
Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing. (Got chills just typing it…)
How can our readers further follow you online?
Erika Ferszt: I can be found on LinkedIn, or would love to have people visit us at www.moodally.com or instagram.com/moodally.wellness.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with
this. We wish you continued success and good health!