Five Skills Psychologists Bring to Startups – Reactions From Startup Weekend Rochester

Rochester Startup Weekend Logo

Rochester Startup Weekend was held April 27th-29th 2012 at Eastman Business Park in Rochester, NY.

Five Skills Psychologists Bring to Startups: Reactions from Startup Weekend Rochester

This weekend I had the opportunity to engage in a local startup weekend event here in Rochester. Startup Weekend seeks to bring together individuals from design, technical, and business backgrounds to bring an idea from a pitch to a business startup in a 54 hour period. Going through my experience as a non-technical founder of a tech startup in CohesiveSelf, I was very interested in connecting with other entrepreneurs and talented designers and software developers. Also, I had an idea I wanted to pitch around combining psychological skills for improving executive functions with mechanics related to video game development (gamification) in a way that could improve academic outcomes for middle and high school students.

After introductions and speeches, Friday night really got started with 60 second pitches and voting that was designed to consolidate the high number of ideas to 12 workable business ideas. And the reception to my idea was . . . somewhere between lukewarm and ice freezing cold. My idea was not chosen. Quickly, the 12 core business ideas fell into place and team leaders talked with participants about their needs from design, technical, and business perspectives. They sold their idea some more and talked about what they wanted out of team members. So what did I have to offer as a psychologist? I love tech but certainly don’t know how to code. I appreciate design but don’t know my way around the adobe suite of products. Where did I fit?

I began to think back to my experiences on my pre-doctoral internship. For clinical psychologists, our internship is the equivalent of an MD’s residency. You have finished coursework and have had multiple placements in agency-based settings to hone your skills in therapy and assessment. As you complete or are close to completing your dissertation you go through a detailed application and match process for a year long placement. In internship, you work long hours in an applied setting, completely immersed in the field. In my internship, I had the pleasure of being supervised by Dr. Jack Teitsma. Dr. Teitsma served as the director of our training and engaged us in a curriculum designed to utilize elements from the business world to help us see our jobs as part of a larger whole beyond mental health. We read classics like The E-Myth, Good to Great, and Seven Keys to Disney’s Success to get us thinking about how organizations work, how to create successful systems that are not person-dependent, and the application of ideas around customer engagement. Dr. Teitsma felt strongly that the field of psychology was changing rapidly, and we needed to change along with it. Our traditional roles of psychotherapy and assessment were becoming crowded with the presence of multiple disciplines including social work, art therapy, counseling, and school psychology. He was a firm believer that the value proposition for future psychologists was to be an “applied problem solver” – someone that can help individuals, agencies, and organizations address challenges they face. And with our background and ability to understand human behavior and emotional and mental health, psychologists are perfectly trained to solve the difficulties presented by these challenges.

So what were the opportunities offered for psychologists who strive to be “applied problem solvers” at Startup Weekend Rochester?

1. Psychologists can help with finding a common language—-For our team, Syracuse student Ross Lazerowitz had the initial vision – SkillsTrader —  a website where individuals can link up and connect with others to trade a skill they have in exchange for a skill they want to develop. As the psychologist on the team, I began to initiate the creation of user stories, brief synopses of how an individual user would come to use this new business idea of SkillsTrader. Given such a short timeframe in which to come up with a basic working product (MVP) with market validation and a business model, the team needed to quickly be on the same page as to what exactly we were going to create. These initial stories helped us to start off on the same page and build excitement about the potential of the idea. It was based on these initial stories that we began to plot our course through the development, design, and presentation of the idea. And this was just the beginning. Periodically, I would bring our disparate elements of development, design, and research together to get consensus around key decisions to keep us moving forward and organization around tasks completion necessary to be ready for our final presentation at the end of the 54 hour event.

2. Psychologists can help with team dynamics—In a startup setting, psychologists bring a combination of knowledge and experience around teams that has great potential. From our work in community, agency, and medical settings, we have experience as part of multidisciplinary teams within the healthcare space. Through this experience, we are used to approaching complicated problems while working alongside individuals whose experience and viewpoint may be vastly different from our own. For example, a multidisciplinary team may include backgrounds such as psychiatry, nursing, social work, art therapy, education, occupational therapy, speech pathology, family development/advocacy, law, and business. Additionally, we have key knowledge around group behavior and motivation that is rooted in social psychology. It was not enough to have our initial excitement around the idea. We needed to be able to maintain that drive. So everyone needed to have a role (or roles) that gave them a stake in not only the outcome of Skillstrader but the process as well.

3. Psychologists offer strength in one to one connection—This should come as no surprise, since providing individual psychotherapy has long been a traditional role of psychologists. And, at its heart, psychotherapy is about being able to show empathy and have an understanding of your client’s experience, which you can use to help them overcome their challenges and meet their goals. However, the translation of this area of expertise to a tech-based startup may not be immediately clear. For me, as part of this team, I wanted to be sure to spend individual time with members of the team so that I could learn more about their interests and passions. So I did, learning about teammate Adam LaFave‘s upcoming start as employee #52 at Zaarly, Philip Ross‘ passion for disrupting higher education, and how Ross Lazer‘s experience learning Rails web development inspired his idea for SkillsTrader. By engaging one on one with all members of the team that comprise a startup, psychologists can help bridge the gaps when misunderstanding or miscommunication occurs. By developing a knowledge of a particular person’s viewpoint, psychologists can help translate information between the gaps and create common ground.

SkillsTrader Logo

SkillsTrader:Learn – Share – Trade


4. Psychologists offer presentation and effective communication skills—Back in my internship days, Dr. Teitsma would often say that the true measure of a psychologist’s intelligence is not in being able to communicate ideas around psychology to other psychologists, but in being able to effectively communicate complex concepts in mental and emotional health to everyone and anyone. This concept has stayed with me throughout my career and in the many different tasks I have in my work. From assessment to therapy to consultation to presentation, I am only successful if I can help create understanding. And it’s not enough to just be able to communicate these ideas in a one to one setting, but psychologists need to be able to present to groups: teams, families, therapists, conferences, etc. Even though I was “out of my element” (and certainly anxious because of it) in this new experience of Startup Weekend, I had the gift of “reps” – multiple experiences presenting and passionately communicating ideas to a number of different groups.  This was a skill that translated well to presenting to both our mentors and the panel of judges at the event.

5. Psychologists know that intrinsic reward is where it’s at—As we waited for the judge’s results after the presentations, we were eager and excited to hear if we had won the competition. We received positive feedback from mentors with various backgrounds (development, business, design) and were even told by members of other groups that they felt we were one of the most impressive teams. The tech our developers created in a mere 54 hour span was nothing short of incredible. We had a working match system set up for our “traders” that included working video chat. And then, the results came in.  And . . . we were not awarded any spots in the top 3 by the judges. The disappointment for my team and for me was immediate. However, for me, this feeling passed quickly. The prizes and perks offered to the top teams were certainly valuable extrinsic rewards.  I did not need the external validation of the competition to know that this was one of the best teams I have ever been a part of. I developed connections that will remain long after the winners of Startup Weekend Rochester are lost to my memory. And I added new experiences that would only serve to flame the passion I have for my startup (CohesiveSelf) and for bringing the worlds of technology and psychology together.  Psychologists know these intrinsic rewards are the true drivers of success, creativity, execution, and big picture well-being.   

So psychologists, mental health professionals, entrepreneurs, what do you think?  What else did I miss?


About doctorcypher

Dr. Craig Cypher is a Licensed Psychologist in New York State and the president and owner of Cypher Psychological Services, P.C. Dr. Cypher has over a decade of experience in working with children, adolescents, young adults, and their families in a variety of mental health and educational settings. He also works extensively as a trainer and presenter, providing informative and interactive experiences on a number of topics, including the impact of trauma, understanding the subjective experience of mental illness, goal setting for sport and life, video games, media, and violence, and coach education in youth sport. Dr. Cypher also maintains a private practice in psychology, offering psychological services, training, supervision, and consultation. His philosophy in providing psychological services to children, adolescents, and families is to serve as a guide in a learning process designed to help clients overcome challenges. Through therapy, youth and families can learn more about themselves, develop inner strengths or mental skills, and make changes in themselves or their situations. Specialties include individual and family psychotherapy, sport psychology and performance enhancement services, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TFCBT) and consultation, group dynamics, video games and new media, and the effects of technology on emotional and mental health.

Posted on May 4, 2012, in Psychology and Tech and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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