Can a platform really help me with that?
The ubiquity of platforms for ordering goods and services in modern society is quite remarkable. Need a ride? Open your Uber app. A place to stay for a long weekend? Check out Airbnb. A new paintball gun? Amazon’s got you covered. But what about something as personal and critical as your mental health? Can a digital platform really help match you with a high-quality therapist tailored to your specific individual needs? Zencare, a Brooklyn-based start-up founded in 2015, believes the answer is a resounding yes.
What is Zencare?
Zencare is a two-sided online marketplace that matches users with mental health professionals. It was launched after its founder, Yuri Tomikawa, became frustrated with her own journey finding a therapist, which consisted of unanswered phone calls/e-mails, confusion about provider expertise, and opaque costs.
For users, Zencare creates value in several ways. First, it enables searching and filtering based on a variety of parameters such as location, price, insurance, availability, and specialty in a manner that is extremely familiar for anyone who has used Airbnb, OpenTable, or a variety of other platforms. Second, it provides vetted therapist profiles with extensive logistical and clinical details as well as photos, videos, and a means to easily schedule an introductory call online. Finally, it’s completely free.
For therapists, Zencare primarily promises to both streamline marketing efforts and enable the acquisition of new, highly motivated patients. Not only does Zencare help with their online marketing presence by actively co-developing and managing the content for the therapists’ profiles – including taking photos/videos and writing personalized bios – but it also provides value by virtue of being an exclusive network that thoroughly vets its providers and thereby helps therapists stand-out in an otherwise noisy environment. However, unlike for users, therapists pay to be on the platform, with monthly rates starting at $49-$79 and a one-time set-up fee of $129-199.
Can Zencare scale?
While Zencare has successfully expanded to eight geographies within the US, it’s important to consider how the features of the platform and market will impact its future scalability and sustainability.
Zencare has strong cross-side network effects – since having more users will attract more therapists and vice versa – but weak or non-existent same-side network effects. Notably, there are a few properties specific to the mental health space that create interesting network dynamics for Zencare:
- Satisfied User Churn: While most platforms can reasonably expect that satisfied users will become repeat customers, Zencare has a unique challenge: if it is successful in matching a user to an ideal therapist, that user’s need for the platform is eliminated. As a result, to sustain at scale, Zencare needs to constantly replenish the pool of users.
- Adverse Selection: Zencare risks adverse selection from therapists. That is, if the best therapists already have full schedules or strong word-of-mouth referral channels, they may not be interested in the platform. Alternatively, therapists with worse references or high patient turnover may be more likely to sign-up.
- Exclusivity: Since one key value proposition for therapists is the prestige of being on an exclusive network, Zencare must optimize to its “Goldilocks” point of exclusivity: too little and it risks diluting the value for therapists; too much and it risks users leaving dissatisfied with the range of options and availability.
Zencare’s network is highly fragmented into local clusters, since it focuses primarily on in-person therapy offerings and users naturally want therapists that are accessible. This reality, along with Zencare’s strategy of thorough vetting and in-person on-boarding of each therapist, explains its slow and steady expansion into new cities and states over the last several years. This cluster localization and hands-on expansion strategy leave Zencare somewhat vulnerable to a competitor that figures out how to scale in a faster or more automated manner.
Disintermediation should not be a concern for Zencare, since it simply monetizes the therapists’ presence on the platform rather than taking a percentage of user payments for therapy sessions. However, a related concern could be therapists jumping on and off the platform from month to month depending on if their schedule is full for that particular month. To combat this, Zencare deftly charges therapists annually to create a stickier relationship.
There are no disincentives for either users or therapists to multi-home since the cost of using an incremental platform is negligible. To minimize propensity of therapists to multi-home, Zencare can focus on (1) improving the quality of recommendations/matches and (2) incorporating complementary services into the therapist interface – such as customer relationship management tools – so that therapists come to prefer patient leads from Zencare over other platforms.
Zencare is an innovative company addressing a critically important but fundamentally complicated problem. The digital platform provides a compelling value proposition for both users and mental health professionals, though scaling and sustaining the model will certainly be challenging given both traditional platform business issues as well as additional nuances related to operating in the mental health space.
- Fernandes, Deirdre. “Tech firms enter the business of campus mental health care.” The Boston Globe. 11 December 2018. https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2018/12/11/tech-firms-entering-business-campus-mental-health-care/aLbOmGTvnu7Tfc7jKPdS8N/story.html.
- Gabrielson, Courtney. “The ‘Power of a Really Good Therapist’: How Zencare Makes Finding One Easy. 13 March 2018. https://www.americaninno.com/rhodeisland/rhode-island-startup/the-power-of-a-really-good-therapist-how-zencare-makes-finding-one-easy/.
- Nilsson, Casey. “Zencare Connects People to Mental Health Services.” Rhode Island Monthly. 23 April 2018. https://www.rimonthly.com/zencare-connects-people-mental-health-services/.
- “Website Strives to Make the Therapist Search Process More Zen.” Medtech Boston. 21 November 2016. https://medtechboston.medstro.com/blog/2016/11/21/website-strives-to-add-zen-to-the-therapist-search-process/.
- Zencare website. Retrieved March 17th, 2020. https://zencare.co/.
- Zencare therapist website. Retrieved March 17th, 2020. https://therapist.zencare.co/.