#6 — Empowering employees and companies to improve their mental health with Karin Andrea Stephan from Earkick

February 23, 2023 Daniel Abebe Season 1 Episode 6
#6 — Empowering employees and companies to improve their mental health with Karin Andrea Stephan from Earkick
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this episode, I talked to Karin Andrea Stephan, co-founder of Earkick. Karin's whole life has been about connecting and bridging gaps between people and misunderstandings. With Earkick, a remote-first company based in Zurich and San Francisco since 2021, they empower individuals, teams, and organizations to become their best selves and to measure and improve their mental health and well-being.

Karin shared her experiences of improving the mental health of employees and Earkick's, as a fully remote company. We discussed these three main topics:

  1. Giving the right tools to employees to improve their mental health
  2. The perks of working at Earkick and the benefits to employees 
  3. Having massive curiosity and simplicity as part of the company culture

1. Giving the right tools to employees to improve their mental health

Earkick is an app that helps individuals to improve their mental health. At Earkick's, Karin confirms that they also use their own app to track how are the employees doing. With it, there is an AI algorithm that gives the person personalized suggestions based on their data, and it's completely private, effortless, and free.

2. The perks of working at Earkick and the benefits to employees 

Almost every company has good benefits, and sometimes these benefits give you clues about how the company culture might be. At Earkick they try to avoid meetings. They also have one every Wednesday, where employees prepare a presentation to show their colleagues where they are at. There's no real working schedule, they have flexible parental leave, team-building activities, and a generous referral program.

3. Having massive curiosity and simplicity s part of the company culture 

One of Earkick's values is massive curiosity. In Karin’s perspective, massive curiosity is the antidote to depression, anxiety, and toxic environments because massive curiosity means that "you don't know". Not knowing something is the basis of curiosity that makes you go out and find things. Karin confirms that it helps employees make decisions better and recede micromanagement. Everything in their company culture needs to be simple, even communication needs to be simple, and the way they interact with each other.

Show Notes

00:17 Episode begins
01:41 How Karin Andrea Stephan ended up co-founding Earkick
03:29 About Earkick
05:47 Why is personal health so important
09:50 Earkick’s company culture
15:00 About the minimal meeting culture at Earkick
17:27 How Earkick monitors employees’ well-being
20:12 Earkick’s values and purpose when hiring new employees
22:25 How to make sure employees are aligned with the purpose of the company
23:23 About Earkick’s team
25:12 Tips for remote teams who want to create a strong company culture
27:42 End of the episode

Karin Andrea Stephan on LinkedIn:

Earkick’s website:

About Daniel Abebe:  Daniel is an entrepreneur at heart with a business and marketing background. He has been working with and for fast-growing startups since 2013. His passion is to create and engage with inspiring people, and his experience in no-code development and entrepreneurship turned into his best leverage to do just that.

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Hi, I'm Daniel a passionate entrepreneur and the host of the Remote-Culture podcast. On this show, I talk to founders and managers of remote teams to understand how they reinforce their company culture, so the rest of us can get inspired and find guidance.

00:34 Daniel Abebe- HuggyStudio:

In this episode, I talk to Karin Andrea Stephan, co-founder of Earkick. Karin's whole life has been about connecting and bridging gaps between people and misunderstandings. With Earkick, a remote-first company based in Zurich and San Francisco, they empower individuals, teams, and organizations to become their best selves and to measure and improve their mental health. Earkick believes in having very few to no team meetings during the week. They work from anywhere with a flexible schedule. They also put a lot of energy in creating a psychological safe environment for people to thrive.

01:11 Daniel Abebe- HuggyStudio:

…and we are live! Today with Karin Andrea Stephen, co-founder of Earkick. How are you doing, Karin?

01:18 Karin Andrea Stephan- Earkick:

I'm doing great. And it's so cool to see you again, Daniel. It's been a while since we met. And a lot of things have happened. And yeah, we're in exciting times. And I look forward to talking to you.

01:30 Daniel:

Absolutely! That will be my first question, actually. Because last time we met, you were the managing director of Impact Hub Zurich, and a couple of years passed and now you're the co-founder of Earkick, a remote-first company based in Zurich and San Francisco if I got it right? For the ones who don't know what Earkick is about, or also yourself who don't know you yet, can you tell us a bit more about your story yourself and how you ended up co-founding Earkick?

01:56 Karin:

Sure, my pleasure! I left Impact Hub Zurich in 2021 because I had been offered a term sheet for something that was just an idea. And a thesis of mine and my co-founder Herbert Bay, which was to build a solution, a scalable solution to empower people, individuals, and organizations to measure and improve their mental well-being. Working at Impact Hub showed me that even though I loved my team, it's a great place to work, it's a great team to work with, it just wasn't going fast enough for SDG 3, for good health for everyone. That's why I decided to accept the offer to launch Earkick together with my co-founder, and build a team around the idea that we can not only make mental health measurable in real-time, with the help of deep tech but also help people take their journey into their own hands, get in the driver's seat of their overall health. That's what we're building right now! So Earkick is a solution that empowers people to know where they're at in terms of mental health. And to give them at the moment, the right tools to do something to improve whatever situation they're in, whatever emotional, behavioral, or physical environment they're in.

03:31 Daniel:

Beautiful! It's pretty smart, because I downloaded the app, and everybody can access it, right? So I can have the app and start entering kind of my mood and you would analyze that and give me actionable insights. Is that correct?

03:44 Karin:

This is correct, yes! So you're touching upon a very key point in our company. So when we launched the app -it's an iOS app- we wanted to keep it completely private. So there is no login required. You don't have to leave any personal data. You don't have to register. It's free of charge so that everyone across the world who speaks English can download it and immediately use it. We have the AI part on the phone, which means that when you record, let's say your voice or you record a video or you type something in the algorithm will give you a suggestion, first of all of how you're doing, what the context is, etc, just from a snippet of your voice and video. Based on your own data, it will start to give you personalized suggestions. The most important part though is that people realize they can be completely honest. It's not Instagram, it's not somewhere where they have to pretend to be someone. They can be their true own selves and have it analyzed on the phone, not somewhere in the cloud, and get notification missions that are tailored to themselves, not generic stuff. But "hey, this is this, you haven't been sleeping well, or, you know, try this, these are your stats, and there's room for improvement. And this is what you're doing really well. And why don't you try some breathing exercises, etc". So the idea of making it completely private, effortless, and free, has been basically the red thread. Through our work.

05:31 Daniel:

I'm really looking forward to getting to the insights part and seeing what you guys recommend so that I can have a better life. But now back to your original story, or back to the source of why you created Earkick, if I may ask before we switch to the company culture topic, why did you decide that personal health was so important to you?

05:51 Karin:

Without health, there's no happy life, there's nothing you can do if you don't have at least some leeway within your health. And a lot of suffering and a lot of struggles are preventable. The problem or the challenge with it is not only resources,  a lot of people don't have the resources to go to therapy, or have really good medical attention. But aside from that, the problem is that we don't see things coming. Until this day, there is no way to measure mental health in real-time and automatically. That makes for a lot of problems. So in my own life, and also my co-founder has had the same experience, we saw people slip into mental health disorders without anyone noticing, basically, in our teams, our families, or among our friends. And, it's in hindsight that you know, better, as it's afterward that you say, "Oh, okay, those were the signs, oh, you know, I noticed this and that", but it's a little help to others when they have to develop heavy symptoms first or be unable to go to work unable to function as a person in daily life because it has been recognized very, very late. One of the very prevailing issues that occur during work is burnout, and the burnout rates are rising. Just to give you a few numbers, 75% of United States employees have reported at least one symptom of burnout, when asked. These people, it's very easy to imagine how they slip into that they don't feel comfortable, and then they start looking for other jobs, they start feeling like they can't do this, or there's so much room for misunderstanding. And when you slowly slip down that slope, you get less and less willing, and maybe also able to ask for help. So it's not enough to wait until things go south, we have to have the tools and the knowledge to step in very early. So all these scenarios happen every day, as we speak, in companies and in our private lives. And it's a pity because we can do better than that.

08:24 Daniel:

I know very much what you're referring to because I’ve experienced burnout a couple of years ago when everything just suddenly became so much weight on my shoulders. And that's something once it happens. It's so obvious suddenly, and then suddenly you go like, "Okay, how can we get out of there", but I guess it would be much easier if we wouldn't land there in the first place. That's what you're trying to achieve, right? To identify that before it's not too late. But before it's more difficult, sort of.

09:00 Karin:

Correct. It's the early signs, you know, your body gives you cues, and also your thoughts and what you experience, your emotions give you cues. But most of us, probably all of us miss those cues in the hustle of daily life. And the thing is, when you're doing well, you also want to know, because then, "Okay, I'm doing something right, I should continue this.". It's not about just chilling a bit more, or taking a weekend off. That's not enough. It's a whole lifestyle that needs to change. But the good news is, it's little things that you need to change on a regular basis. And if you get those little nudges and know where to start and what works for you, it becomes a whole different thing. It becomes very interesting.

09:54 Daniel:

Thank you so much! I think it's beautiful that we discussed the topic. Because it's also very relevant to teams that are working remotely. Where it's so hard to get an idea of how well are my team members. Like how well are they doing? And this is kind of a topic that is personal but also very relevant for companies and distributed teams. If I may switch to the company culture. I've been looking at your different blog articles, but also, job offers, and it's very impressive what you guys are offering to possible recruiters or possibly people who want to work for you guys. So can you tell us a bit more about the company culture at Earkick? And what do you do to win and retain talent?

10:43 Karin:

Oh yeah, that's a huge topic! And it's very related to the mental health topics we were speaking about before. We spend so much time working or at work, it's a huge part of our lives. And if the environment in which we work is not good for our health, or if our attitude there is not good for our health, we will suffer sooner or later. That's one thing. The other thing is, there's a war for talent, and that's not new, right? People can get a lot of money if they're talented and if they're very skilled. And paying those wages, mostly, it's the big tech companies who can pay them, not small startups. In the very beginning, we were only two people, my co-founder, and I. We needed top talent, for money that we can pay. And we said to ourselves, "Okay, let's make it in a way that my co-founder, and I would want to work in that company!". And the first thing that came to mind was, we don't want meetings, we want to have long periods to work and to focus. We don't want to be micromanaged. We don't want someone to count our hours and completely control us. We don't want to have to go to an office, for example. Because I live close to the lake, and it's wonderful, I want to work outside, I want to pick my hours, I want this kind of freedom. And this is worth a lot of money to me- to have that freedom. And so bit by bit, we assembled a list of benefits that we can offer beyond, let's say, a very, very high paycheck. We tried to put this down in our first blog posts about how we work, and it attracted very interesting people. And still, it took time to hire the exact right fit. And we had to push ourselves to wait and to be patient. Because out of all the candidates, not everyone is going to fit. But working remotely means you have to trust that person. It's almost like a marriage, marrying these people. You have to trust them, you have to sync, and you have to have this chemistry, even via zoom, even if you never meet that person. So we put out the article, we had interviews, and we luckily found our first amazing and super smart employee who's a vital part of the company. We empowered him to set his own goals within the company structure and to hire someone else and have this ownership and agency. That is a very smart and sought-after people loan. It has worked out! So that's how we started to hire people. Now we're seven to eight people, depending on how you count. And so far, we're really happy with each other even though we haven't met face to face. So everyone works wherever they want. And we have gone through challenging times, in terms of product, in terms of ideas in terms of strategy. It has never been a human problem. It has always been about the project. It's always been about what we want to achieve. It pays to have these long stretches of focus time, it pays to trust forward, and it pays to have a very clear vision and a very clear mission.

14:29 Daniel:

You said many things. I just want to get back to some of those. So the first one for the others for people who are listening to, the list of perks that Earkick offers just to name a few remote working; so work from anywhere you want when you want, right? So there's no real schedule, flexible parental leave, team building activities, and generous referral program with up to $7,500 for a successful referral. So it's just like so many things there that make it exciting to work at Earkick when it comes to perks. The one perk I would like to deep dive a little bit more into is the minimum meeting culture. Even I'm looking at my calendar right now, and I'm saying, "Can I have fewer meetings than that?". Is it me, that is building up a framework where I have to go through meetings, but actually, I could avoid those? My question to you would be, how do you do that? Because of course, you communicate a lot with Slack and meetings, but at what point is communicating more efficient than meeting for 30 minutes quickly to discuss a point, right? So how do you manage that sweet balance of still being efficient, without meeting so much? Because you said minimal meeting culture, right? It's not that you're never meeting, it's just like, as less as possible, as few meetings as possible.

15:48 Karin:

Yes, I can tell you exactly what that means. So we have one meeting every Wednesday for as little as possible, where we all show results, we show what we're working on a quick presentation of what we're doing. If somebody can't attend that meeting, it's fine. No questions asked. But they would send in like a Loom video, which is five minutes of what they're doing, what they're at, if they need help, etc. And this format, first of all, requires you to prepare. I think most of the meetings could be done away with if people would prepare and feel like it's a benefit to prepare. The other thing is everything else if you have clear goals, if you have a clear set of KPIs in place, if you know what you're doing, there is no need to meet. You can ask most of the questions via slack. And if you need to discuss something, then you meet bilaterally, then you make an auto meeting or whatever they do. But the main thing is as a company the top company culture is to avoid meetings if meetings are not going to relieve you in some way and be of support, lasting support. Then why have them, right? I can assign things via email, I can assign things via slack, and I don't have to sit with people and have everyone talk and then pile up more work than before.

17:23 Daniel:

I love the perspective. It's very insightful, and I am learning as well, when you're speaking, which is a good sign.. My next question would be very relevant to what you guys do at Earkick. You are not meeting or you don't want to meet as often as others do. But the meeting has also some benefits. And you can, for example, feel how people are doing, in what emotional state they are in, right? Earkick is all about seeing the signals before it's too late, right? How do you do that when it's not about burnout, but mostly about motivation, how people feel, and how projects are going, if you don't meet with them? Do you have some sort of check-in that is not project-related as you mentioned before but more personal? Is that something that you guys do? Or how do you monitor the well-being of your employees?

18:25 Karin:

So first of all, we use our own technology. And this is very important to note, because, I mean, we're very few people, and we build the technology. And still, we trust it, right? So we take the test ourselves, and we get an anonymous report on how the team is doing. That doesn't mean that I know that person X is sad, or that person Y is having a problem at home. It's completely anonymous. I know that somebody is maybe not at his or her height. And what it helps me to do as the COO is to address things differently. Or I can sharpen my attention, I try to be more attentive beyond what we do normally. That's one way to keep in touch and to make sure of where others are. But we also have kind of a 1-o-1, me and my co-founder, we speak to each other and we also meet because we are both in Zurich. The others also amongst their sparring partner relationships would have casual interactions or 1-o-1s. And then we have once a quarter sort of a virtual ápero. We speak about everything that's not work-related. So we talked about food and family and weather and vacation and ideas, what we want to do, and crazy stuff. And that's how we bit by bit get closer, we try to open up conversations about very mundane things. That's how you get  a feel for people.

20:14 Daniel:

That's great! My next question would be about your values and purpose. You mentioned that it's important to have an alignment when it comes to the purpose when you're hiring. So how do you or how do you see it in general, the values you have as a company, but also the purpose you have, which is super strong? How does that impact remote work or your team's feelings in general?

20:40 Karin:

It's very important, we not only speak about our values but also try to express them in every kind way. So one of our values is massive curiosity. Massive curiosity is the antidote to depression, anxiety, and toxic environments because massive curiosity means you don't know. You don't know, this is the basis of curiosity. Because you wouldn't be curious otherwise, right? And it's actionable, it's an action, you want to go out and find things. It also means that leadership doesn't know, and the founders don't know. We're all on the same journey, we're looking for something that hasn't been built yet. We want to build it, we don't know how exactly, but we trust the people on our boat to go find it. Right? If you live that value, on a daily basis, it helps you make decisions better and then you won't micromanage. So that's her curiosity. Then it needs to be simple, and not only the product needs to be simple, everything needs to be simple. Communication needs to be simple. The way we interact needs to be simple. So everything that is not, absolutely needed is cut away. It's easier said than done. But we tried to do this on a daily basis, nothing that is not needed even in the physical world. No office is needed? So don't have an office. No meetings are needed? Then just cut it out. If you project that, and you live that it's going to liberate you from a lot of surplus weight, and stuff that you don't need. 

22:28 Daniel:

How do you make sure that the purpose is understood, but also that the people are aligned with your purpose? Because I guess that's more difficult to evaluate, Right?

22:38 Karin:

Well, that's what you have the interviews for. We do have an interview, we ask very direct questions. We make reference calls, and you can piece together a person's, let's say motivation, through these questions and through these background checks. You can also do a project to work together or do a test on someone, and you will notice how they work. But there's no guarantee, there is no safe way to do things. The good thing is that my co-founder and I have been hiring people for a while. We have built teams, we've been in the business of entrepreneurship for decades. So that helps!

23:19 Daniel:

And that is what makes your team so special because you mentioned on your blog that you hired a superhuman team. And I was wondering like, how do you get there or how do you describe a team that is kind of an overachiever team? What makes them so special, if I may ask?

23:36 Karin:

It's a combination of a very good background, academic background. Let's say we have people from MIT Carnegie Mellon, we have people from ETH University of Zurich, they've all created things in the past. And they have a set of characteristics that we approve of, which is, they have a very strong opinion on what they want to do to change the world. They have a very good idea of how their skills can build the future. They have a very strong way of being rooted in the real world, either it's family or they have a mission privately, where they're rooted where they're not looking for the next best job or they're not trying to pretend to be something or someone. You can find out if you do the due diligence on someone well, and if you follow a certain process. So far that has worked very, very well for us. And everyone, every smart person so far I know wants to create, wants to leave a mark in the world, wants to have something that is their own baby, is their own idea, is their own trajectory. We allow that, we encourage that a lot!

25:12 Daniel:

As a closing question, do you have any tips for teams that are working remotely in different locations, and that may struggle to create a strong company culture?

25:23 Karin:

There are many things you can do. I believe that you have to really know where you're going, you really have to know yourself first, if you were to build that culture, you need to know what you're really after. And you have to be very, very honest with yourself, what is it that drives you? What is it that you will do no matter what even if you knew, tomorrow's your last day? What is at the core of what drives you and what you love? That should be your set of values. And when you look for people who are going to go on that journey with you, then make sure that you really observe them, that you have an interest in them. That you don't fool yourself into finding people who are like you. Find someone who knows what drives them. Find someone whom you know what they love. Find someone whom you can see that they're complementary to what you do. And find someone who can deal with your strengths, and most of all, with your weaknesses. And if that is in place, you stand a very good chance to build something wonderful. And something that is going to create more value for the world, for yourself, and everyone else. One last thing that I would like to say is, there is no perfect size or form for working. Maybe people are happy hybrid, maybe they're happy online or remote, or maybe they're happy on-site. There is no formula! The only thing that needs to be in place is a constant deep interest in what people are longing for. What do they do well, and where they can flourish best, and then build that kind of environment, or assemble a different group of people? Stay curious and stay in love with what you do.

27:22 Daniel:

That's beautiful! That's the mindset of playing the long game. Thank you so much, Karin Andrea! I wish that we can cross paths again in the future and talk again about Earkick and how you guys are doing, and how the culture evolves over time!

27:39 Karin

We will! I'm looking forward to it Daniel, thank you so much!

27:42 Daniel:

See you soon. Bye, bye!

27:42 Karin:



That was everything for today's episode. We hope you enjoyed it and that it was inspiring and insightful. Be sure to subscribe to the show so you get notifications when the next episodes are live!

Episode begins
How Karin Andrea Stephan ended up co-founding Earkick
About Earkick
Why is personal health so important
Earkick’s company culture
About the minimal meeting culture at Earkick
How Earkick monitors employees’ well-being
Earkick’s values and purpose when hiring new employees
How to make sure employees are aligned with the purpose of the company
About Earkick’s team
Tips for remote teams who want to create a strong company culture
End of the episode