Being a founder, not to mention a CEO, can be a very lonely place, carrying loads of stress and requiring to constantly be at peak performance. This often makes it hard to find a balance between one's professional and personal life. Maintaining strong relationships with the co-founders and investors is also not an easy task, where clarity and empathy are not always present. As one of my entrepreneurs says: “It’s not the technological challenge we deal with, it’s the mental one.”

“Throughout my +15 years as a professional, I've always been attracted to the intersection of business and psychology through entrepreneurship - What makes people tick? How do people think and act? And what motivates people in business? What drives me is being there for the amazing entrepreneurs, who are under constant pressure, so that they can make our world a better place. That’s what I’m here for, and this is my podcast – The Human Founder.”

Ep. 61 - With Alex Frenkel, Co-Founder and CEO of Kai.ai

From psychologist to entrepreneur

Just a few years ago, Alex was ‘all in’ as a clinical psychologist – practicing at two clinics and teaching psychology – when by accident, he found himself diving into the tech world. It was something he didn’t know existed, and he felt like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as he discovered the full power and potential that lies within that world. He decided to start his first company and poured all his energy into it.

When I asked Alex about this big switch, he shared that from his perspective, it wasn't a big shift, because companies are all about people. Though his activities as a psychologist have changed, the essence of his work remains the same; it is still all about people. He uses his empathy and wisdom as a psychologist to connect and understand his users and their needs.

Alex and Netanel Lev reached out to Ziv Shalev, who built an earlier version of Kai. They weren't sure about it in the beginning– they didn’t think people would cooperate and use AI, but after weeks of convincing, they decided to go for it - not because they were sure about the idea, but because they were ready to build a company with amazing co-founders– all the while being able to combine their psychology backgrounds with technological expertise.

The alarming data

1 out of 3 teenagers will experience severe sadness, and the percentage is even higher for teenage girls. Suicide rates grew by 40%, and the COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated it. Why is that? Well, the last two years have been very hectic – teenagers spent an enormous amount of time at home without having any certainty about the next day; they were more exposed to the stresses of their home lives and had nowhere to escape to. Add the absence of time outside in the sunlight and in nature, and the twisted mirror of social media, which fills their time with watching illusions of others living perfect lives. All these factors combined are a ticking time bomb. Although it’s scary and hard to admit as parents, we don't necessarily always know what happens to our children, and what’s going on inside their heads. And often when we find out, it is too late.

How can we as parents be there for our kids?

  • Spending quality time with them - there's no way around it
  • Create a space where we as parents bring more vulnerability
  • Normalize sharing emotions by asking how they’re feeling, letting them know that it's super normal to feel pain and go through difficulties - everyone goes through them in their lifetime
  • Address their questions, even and especially when they’re difficult or uncomfortable to talk about
  • Nonjudgmental attitude
  • Modeling - we often don’t teach our kids tools to handle their emotions, and then they find unhelpful and even harmful ways to cope. It’s our responsibility to teach them about the most powerful and basic part of being human - expressing our emotions.
  • Talk with other parents to know you are not alone in dealing with these challenges, and to also learn from others about the tools they give to their kids.

Reacting to Kai

Alex discovered that different age groups react differently to Kai. Adults tend to use technology in different ways and for different reasons than teenagers. Adults resisted the technology – they expected it could replace a human and tried to find loopholes to trick the platform. They were very skeptical.

The younger ‘Kaiers’ on the other hand, didn't expect it to be like a human at all. They trusted the tech more, and it allowed them to have a safe space to hare without feeling shame.

We might have a hard time understanding this, but teenagers have new and different ways of interacting than we do- they’re used to interacting through apps like Discord (an instant messaging platform). Discord started as an app meant for connecting players on online games, but it expanded to serve as a community platform; you can connect with huge communities of various interests like anime and music. Kids are used to group chats, messaging and sending voice messages; they are used to interacting with avatars and not even humans and have developed a shield of anonymity. Teenagers don’t use one app anymore for interactions but are constantly in different conversation spaces since that’s where the future is heading.

Tech as the problem and the cure

Credit: Kai.ai

Technology is a big part of the problem but is also the solution. It’s the channel we can harness to reach out to teens. Just like Duolingo is making learning languages accessible, the goal of Kai is to make emotional tools accessible for everyone.

I asked Alex to demonstrate Kai’s work, and we chose the example of a girl named Amanda who was struggling with body image. The first and surprising thing that Alex mentioned, is that many times, she doesn't realize she is suffering from anxiety or depression. They found that the first thing that helps a teen like Amanda is to ask her - how happy are you right now from 1-10? - This question is a very important trigger for them to gain awareness about themselves. From there, the way Kai works is simple - daily short interactions where Kai allows them to pause, recognize what's good in their life through questions, and be proactive about it, all the while describing their feelings.

As a user of Kai for almost 2 years now, as well as a coach to many founders, I know that for most of us, even stopping for a moment and verbally saying what we want in a coherent way and speaking about our emotions is a very hard task, yet it is so incredibly crucial.

Alex adds that paying attention to the good things is even harder from a neuroscience perspective, because of our brain’s negativity bias. We are all programmed to pay attention to the negative things and don’t notice the good things naturally. This muscle of noticing the good things and feeling gratitude needs to be practiced every day to rewire our brains for happiness and joy in life.

Alex sees a future where everyone has an AI companion and the more, they engage with it, the more it will understand them and be able to help. Something unique about Kai is that their team is a combination of therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists that come from both research and clinical work, to create the best toolkit available. They focus on many things like:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to
  • Learning to control your breath
  • Learning to observe our thoughts and emotions and create healthy distances from them
  • ACT - Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which teaches us not to try to fix challenging emotions, but to allow a space for them
  • Learning the skill of psychological flexibility
  • Learning the skill of positive psychotherapy

And the amazing thing is that Kai also learns and improves itself through its users. A therapist will see 1K of patients on average through their entire career, but Kai will see more than 15k users every single day. Machines on their own have many limitations, and so do humans – but the combination of humans and machines makes for a strong match.

Gali and Alex during their interview