Can three phone calls of about an hour each, spread over a period of three weeks, help you change a vexing habit and adopt new ones? Can they help resolve a problem you have been grappling with — say, anxiety during exams or at work, a lack of energy and motivation levels, or communicating with others? Convincing potential customers of this promise is one of the big challenges before V. Bharathwaj, the 40-year-old founder and CEO of MyndGenie, a Bangalore-based start-up that offers phone-based mental fitness coaching.

MyndGenie, which started operations a year ago, defines mental fitness as “the level of fitness of your mind that determines your consistent ability to effectively and optimally handle different situations in your life.” The company’s proposition is based on a simple premise: Making the techniques of behavioral sciences simple, accessible and affordable enough to be offered as a consumer service.

“Our coaching is based on behavioral sciences including behavioral neuroscience, NLP [neuro linguistic programming. This was developed and popularized by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the 1970s] and classical conditioning, and applies exercises related to both emotive and cognitive fitness. The idea is to use it for day-to-day issues for which people don’t have clear solutions,” says Bharathwaj, who is a certified NLP trainer and coach and has been practicing neuroscience-based principles since 1996. He is quick to distinguish MyndGenie from counseling and therapy. “Our objective is not to offer therapy. What we are talking about is similar to physical fitness. In our case, we are addressing the fitness of the mind.”

Looking For Scale

Before turning entrepreneur, Bharathwaj was with 24/7 Customer, a customer service and software firm. He is looking to leverage his experience there in his new venture. To make MyndGenie easily accessible for customers and therefore a scalable business proposition, he has designed it as a phone-based service. “Our core IP is two-fold. One, a method that has converted the behavioral neuroscience and NLP-based exercises such that they can be delivered over the phone and produce consistent results. And two, a specific method to enable [customers] to re-pattern their emotional fitness,” says Bharathwaj, adding that MyndGenie has applied for service patents for these two methods.

Amit K. Nandkeolyar, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Indian School of Business, suggests that there is a strong business case for MyndGenie because “it is solving a real need.” Pointing out that there is a huge amount of variability in an individual’s performance, Nandkeolyar notes that “Typically, individuals have a regular level of performance and a maximum level of performance. While at times there are external reasons for this, many times we just lack the confidence to be maximally productive. I see MyndGenie as … offering the promise that it can help to improve performance by improving confidence. What is unique about MyndGenie is that it is taking a concept that has so far been open only to a select group and bringing it to the mass market. That’s commendable.”

The challenge, according to Nandkeolyar, is to make the concept socially acceptable. “In India, there is still a lot of stigma attached to the idea of going to a third party to resolve any personal problems, especially those related with the mind,” he says. “How MyndGenie positions itself and articulates its value proposition will be key to its success.”

Coaching for Corporates

David Rock, co-founder of the New York-based NeuroLeadership Institute, notes that his institute has trained over 1,100 executive and business coaches in India over the past few years. “We see a definite increase in demand for both coaches and coaching. Because of the economic growth in India, there is tremendous pressure on companies and individuals to do things faster and better,” he says. “There is a real drive and urgency to get to a place of economic and personal well-being. We find that India is catching up in the level of interest and uptake in coaching.”

Naveen Narayanan, head of talent acquisition at HCL Technologies, agrees. “Unlike in the U.S. and the U.K., the area of behavioral interventions is still very nascent in India and is usually within a corporate environment. But it is fast picking up.” Jair Dsouza, general manager for sales at Shapoorji Pallonji Real Estate, adds: “People are now slowly becoming more open to seeking professional help for personal development in both corporate and personal life. There is a clear business opportunity for a company like MyndGenie provided it can address specific problems and show tangible benefits. It needs to articulate clear business and socio-economic benefits.”

Both Narayanan and Dsouza and their teams have participated in the corporate programs offered by MyndGenie and say that they found them to be effective. The corporate programs from MyndGenie are comprised of one-on-one phone-based coaching as well as group workshops targeted at specific business outcomes. In the year since it started operations, MyndGenie has worked with around a dozen companies, including Café Coffee Day, HCL Technologies, Shapoorji Pallonji and Ashok Leyland.

MyndGenie’s main target, however, is the retail customer. “This is an untapped segment. Also, we believe that we can have a stronger impact here because the ownership of the [customers] is a lot more as they pay from their own pockets,” Johny Joseph, chief delivery officer at MyndGenie, states. Currently, the start-up has a total user base of 2,000 customers. Of this, 70% are retail customers. According to Bharathwaj, in the past two-and-a-half months, the total customer base has gone up by 80%. One reason for this, he says, is that March to June is the examination season in India and the service has attracted a lot of students.

Once a customer signs up with MyndGenie via its website, he or she is tasked with completing a couple of tests through two online applications. One is Mynd Code, a brain profiler application that maps the person’s brain patterns and helps to understand how his or her brain processes information, how it thinks, analyzes and motivates. The second application, Mynd Quotient, assesses the customer’s current state of mental fitness. Following this, the customer is assigned a dedicated coach for one-on-one phone coaching. The reports generated by the two online applications are given to both the coach and the coachee. In the first call, the coach works with the customer to shape a specific problem that he or she wants to address into a goal. In the two subsequent calls, based on his or her mental patterns, the coachee is given specific tools to achieve the goal.

“It is not a prescription. The idea is to make the coachee work with the coach. When the coachee practices [what he or she learns] often enough, it becomes an auto-suggestion. It’s like switching on an air-conditioning button in peak summer. It suddenly changes the temperature,” says Joseph.

MyndGenie is currently in the process of upgrading its two web applications to track mental fitness on eight parameters every day and mobile-enabling them with several personalized tips and reminders. “This will be an ongoing coaching application for mental fitness tailored to every individual based on his or her level of mental fitness. Think of this like ‘a mind diet’ application that measures and tells you what you need to do every day. For example, if a user has signed up for weight loss, then the two areas of mental fitness applicable are motivation and willpower. These will be tracked every day and there will be daily recommendations on these two factors,” says Bharathwaj.

Gearing for Growth

At present, the company has a team of nine coaches including Bharathwaj and Joseph. Every coach recruited by MyndGenie needs to have a basic NLP practitioner certificate and is then made to go through a four-week internal training course on the company’s methodologies. Other than Bharathwaj and Joseph, the coaches work on a consulting arrangement. “Most of our customers are students and working professionals and prefer to have the coaching sessions in the evenings,” Joseph notes. “So what we need from a coach is around four to five hours in the evenings.” Each coach, he adds, can handle around 50 clients a month.

Bharathwaj is now gearing up for more users to sign on. Apart from word-of-mouth referrals, he is reaching out to his target audience through social media networks like Facebook, and via partnerships with companies operating in the areas of education, nutrition and sports. For instance, he has teamed with Admizzionz Campuz, a career counseling company based in New Delhi. To cater to a larger customer base, the company has also introduced different packages recently. Apart from the regular three-week package priced at Rs.3,000 (US$56 at the rate of Rs. 54 to a dollar), MyndGenie now has packages spread over three months (US$186), six months (US$558 ) and a year (US$1,115). There is also a US$20 package comprising just the mental fitness report and one coaching session. “The three-week program is the most popular. However, the three-month program is gaining a lot of traction and we are expecting this program to grow significantly,” says Bharathwaj.

In line with this, over the next six months MyndGenie plans to double its number of coaches and increase the total number to around 75 by the end of next year. But expansion could pose several challenges, including recruiting strong coaches, training them in the MyndGenie methodology and aligning them to the company’s vision. “The training process has to be very robust, standardized and repeatable. The coaches must fully understand the identity of the program and what it is trying to achieve,” according to Tim Hallbom, behavioral science expert, NLP coach and founder of San Francisco-based NLPCA. Hallbom, who has trained over 4,000 coaches in the U.S., has been a consultant to MyndGenie since its inception. Hallbom was attracted to MyndGenie by Bharathwaj’s idea of offering mental fitness coaching as a consumer service and operating at scale. “What’s interesting about [Bharathwaj] is that he has both people skills as well as technology skills,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Bharathwaj is also looking beyond the India market; he plans to take MyndGenie global within the year. Bharathwaj notes that various studies estimate the self-improvement industry in the U.S. — including seminars, workshops, books, tapes and coaching — to be worth around US$13 billion and growing at 6% a year. Coaching alone, he says, is estimated to be around a US$2 billion industry. Pointing to a company like TutorVista, which offers online tutoring to customers across the world from its headquarters in India, Bharathwaj adds that this model can work for mental fitness coaching also. “In the U.S. a single coaching session can cost around US$150. We can offer it from here for much less.”

But what about the socio-economic and cultural differences? Is mental fitness coaching possible across the globe? “The coach doesn’t need to know the context. In fact, we encourage our coachees not to share the context [of their situations]. We only need to know the emotions; those are universal,” says Joseph.

A New Model

Is the phone-based model an effective one for mental fitness coaching? Yes, according to Rock of NeuroLeadership Institute. “Most people think that body language and relationships are important for coaching, but while you do lose a few channels of data in phone-based coaching, you gain a lot more by way of auditory data.” Pointing out that writing is even more effective than phone-based coaching, Rock adds: “The more social cues you take out, the more people open up.” The challenge, he says, lies in scheduling the calls in a manner so that the customer is not constrained by time or location. Hallbom echoes similar sentiments. “Good coaching is about asking good questions and building a good rapport. Both of these are possible over the phone.” He notes that telecommunications technology and the clarity of the call could pose an additional challenge, especially if the company is catering to customers based across the globe.

Some users, however, are not so sure. Dsouza of Shapoorji Pallonji, for instance, says that phone-based interaction alone may not be fully effective since the “attention span can be low.” He suggests that a “face-to face session along with phone coaching would be a better model.” Anshumaan K. Ayyangar, a standard 12 student from Chennai who went to MyndGenie to help increase his test scores in mathematics by improving his concentration, adds: “The phone coaching worked very well, but perhaps in-person may have been even better.” While MyndGenie has added in-person coaching in its six-month and annual packages, the company has limited this service to just one or two sessions over the entire period. “We are absolutely convinced about the phone-based delivery model,” says Joseph.

A strong area of focus at MyndGenie is to make its operations fully technology enabled. “Everything apart from the coaching itself needs to be automated. For instance, right now we are doing back-end operations like training our coaches and scheduling the calls manually. We need to move all of this into a technology-enabled mode,” notes Joseph. Bharathwaj’s earlier experience at 24/7 Customer is expected to come in handy in this area. However, technology, along with branding and marketing spending, requires significant investments. Up to now, Bharathwaj has invested around US$50,000 in the venture. He is currently in discussions with venture capitalists to raise US$2 millionby next quarter.

But the NLP approach has its own share of critics and has even been discredited in some circles. So why did he venture into this space at all? Bharathwaj says it was because of his personal experience. “I am confident because it has worked for me.” In the early days of his career in the mid-1990s, Bharathwaj found himself on the fast-track in his organization. An engineering student, his first job was on the sales team with ITW Signode, a multinational manufacturing firm. While Bharathwaj quickly moved up the ladder, he also started feeling immense pressure. “The performance reviews used to be very harsh. I started feeling stifled,” he recalls. To cope with this, Bharathwaj began reading up on topics like neuroscience and NLP and started applying some of those techniques in his professional interactions. Finding it useful, he got himself formally trained in NLP.

Over the next few years, Bharathwaj introduced some of his learning in his workplace. First, informally, through discussions at iGate, where he was global head of marketing. And then, formally, at 24/7 Customer, where he was chief marketing officer, by embedding NLP principles in the employee training modules. After eight years at 24/7 Customer, he decided to pursue his start-up venture.

Bharathwaj’s long-term target is “to empower 10 million people to achieve their potential” through MyndGenie. “I am confident of the value proposition of MyndGenie,” he says. “And also the market opportunity — anyone above the age of 13 is a potential customer. Our key priority now is to evangelize the concept of mental fitness and make it as popular and acceptable as physical fitness.”