Zak Williams, Son of the Late Robin Williams, Is Willing to Get Personal for the Sake of Public Mental Health
The entrepreneur and investor talks in-depth about his new stress- and anxiety-reducing chew, PYM, and his mission to improve everyone's well-being
There's no perfect time to launch a new product. Zak Williams knows this better than most. The 37-year-old serial investor, entrepreneur, mental-health advocate and son of the late, legendary Robin Williams has helped fund or advise numerous startups in the lfestyle and AI space over the past several years. But with PYM (aka Prepare Your Mind), the purportedly stress- and anxiety-reducing dietary-supplement chew he helped innovate and is bringing to retail this August (the website will start taking preorders today), the stakes are different. Williams is the face and name both behind PYM and up front in its marketing and presentation. The product is an extension of his own, personal journey toward self-healing and sobriety in the wake of his father's passing in 2014. And his goal is to get PYM chews directly to as many consumers as possible to help counter a national epidemic of mood disorders and addiction.
Unfortunately, he and his team ran head-on into a worldwide pandemic that continues to vex scientific and economic experts and do incredible damage to the psyches of countless individuals. That last consequence only lends more urgency to Williams' mission, and in a wide-ranging conversation — with Williams phoning in from his home in Los Agneles — we discussed the tradeoffs of public scrutiny, separating PYM from its category pack and surmounting skepticism in an effort to provide a healty, commercially viable path to simply feeling better.
After having invested in so many companies, what made you ready to be the face of one?
Well, for me at this time, all roads lead to mental health. This is practically everything I do aside from being a dad and showing up for my 1-year-old son. I've worked with several mental-health nonprofits, and it was really crucial for me when it came to my activity in the private sector to align with what I felt was my life's mission. And prior to starting PYM, I was doing things I was passionate about and engaged with, but it wasn't my life's calling.
For me to have a focus on providing relief for people is something that is like a dream come true. So, when I made the decision to start PYM, it was based upon focusing all my energy and effort around mental-health support.
The press release for PYM suggests you came upon the core compounds for the chews and did some trial-and-error till you got the formula right. But I assume you had some help from experts in this area?
When it came to integrating the active compounds, which are adaptogenic and amino acids, we took a body of readily available science and research and tried to work out a way to integrate it into a delicious, effective, readily available product. So the lens that we took is: Leverage the existing body of research around what's effective and create a simple solution.
And clearly you wouldn't have gone to market with this if you didn't feel like you nailed it, but were there some snags and setbacks along the way?
Oh yeah. There were certainly snags and delays in the testing phase. For me, I wouldn't feel comfortable going out to market with a product that I didn't see as being effective for people. Initially, we shared the first version of prototypes with people and they're like, "Yeah, it's fine." Then we had to kind of go back to the drawing board and figure out what was working and what needs to be fine-tuned.
It turns out that we needed to increase the dosage for the active compounds. The actives in our product are not new to the world. They've been in existence in the consumer goods market for many, many years. L-Theanine is an active ingredient in green tea. GABA is readily available in fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut. Rhodiola has been existence for millennia as a neuroprotective, herbal adaptogen. We wanted to take existing compounds available and present in nature and concentrate them to provide a product that supports feelings of anxiety, overwhelm and stress.
Unique as the distillation of its compounds might be, PYM is entering a prevailingly crowded market for wellness products. How have you approached differentiating your branding from soon-to-be competitors?
There are a couple of things that we felt differentiated ourselves. We've got a mission that's very focused around mental-health support. We plan on giving a portion of proceeds to mental-health initiatives focused on developing community-oriented initiatives programs in high schools and digital resources for young adults and adolescents.
Another important consideration is, based upon seeing what's out in the market and what was available, we didn't really see a brand that stands for mental-health support in the consumer-goods category. There is no Coca-Cola for mental health, and we feel that that's an opportunity. It's a very specific value system that everyone we work with all supports. And when it comes to our product, it's a dietary supplement, but we feel there's an opportunity to create a readily available, widely distributable product that's CBD-free that is able to provide effective relief in a way that people can feel like they've got an anchor of support around mental health.
We encourage the competition and increased awareness of adaptogenic products in the public consciousness. It's an upward-trending category, and the more great entrepreneurs that are developing and distributing great products, the more that people can find natural relief.
Are you prepared for skeptics who tend to question the veracity of any dietary supplement?
Establishing scientific advisory is something that is a priority for us. We want to have an evidence-backed approach to anything we do. So, in developing future products, we really feel it's essential to be grounded in science and research, forward-thinking and providing a safe, compliant and regulatorily sound product that's both effective and relieving.
Have you reckoned with the fact that launching PYM will invite more scrutiny into your personal life, which might in turn make your life more stressful?
In this day and age, we need to establish vulnerability as a strength instead of a weakness. Based upon the work that I do in mental-health advocacy, I need to be prepared for scrutiny, and getting comfortable with that is something I need to be OK with because it's a choice I've made in terms of pursuing mental-health support as a mission.
One of the reasons I started PYM is that I couldn't find effective solutions for my anxiety by using products like alcohol and pharmaceutical prescriptions. So the solution that was developed is something I felt comfortable sharing with the world. It felt like the right thing to do. And in terms of my personal story, I do share it consistently. I talk about my struggles with self-medicating and substance abuse. The thing for me was to work out something that felt safe and effective without necessarily leaving me numb.
Do you view PYM, then, as a potential replacement for pharmacological remedies, or more as an alternative or augmentation? Because if there are caveats in the research on PYM's compounds, it's that they may be volatile in combination with some antidepressants.
I'm a firm believer in the validity and importance of pharmacology. We aren't seeking to replace prescription products by any means. If we can provide a simple, lightweight solution to support people for low-grade to moderate anxiety throughout the day, then we feel we would have been successful. But by no means would I suggest that pharmaceuticals should be replaced by our product or any others.
You actually have invested in a cannabis company and so many other varied endeavors. In retrospect, is there a through-line that carries forward to this moment and what you're doing with PYM?
I tend to invest in good people who I think want to make a difference and are addressing an important need in the market that their companies operate in. Talented people will ultimately figure out solutions provided they're focused and agile when it comes to establishing new products. And there is a through-line in terms of investing up to the point where I am now in that my focus in investing in brands like those in the cannabis space is I've learned some about customer needs, customer mindsets, why people do what they do and the data associated with purchasing and things like that.
And there's a whole subset of customers who appreciate and enjoy cannabis products, but might not be addressing their underlying needs through taking them. For those who might not want to take cannabis products to support anxiety and stress, we wanted to create a simple, effective solution.
Fair to say that you view PYM as one piece of a potentially holistic approach to mental health?
Oh yeah. I fully encourage other solutions of mental-health support for people to complement what we're doing — establishing mindfulness practices, meditation, a good diet, good exercise. If people seek other solutions or products around support, we encourage that. Again, we aren't a replacement. We are a supplementary support product.
When you have this intention of bettering people's lives, how do you come up with real numbers for what constitutes success?
Well, aside from sales data and understanding how metrics like retention and subscription work, it's also important for us to establish complementary consumer studies, understanding the type of support that we provide and how it positively impacts our customers' lives. But as customer needs change, as the product landscape evolves, we want to super-serve those needs. So having an orientation towards analytics and data to ground our decision-making is going to be essential.
Coinciding with that, in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, we need to be very mindful about how our products are distributed and how we'll establish a signal around sales, especially when it comes to ultimately distributing out to retailers. We're starting with direct-to-consumer because it is a way to establish a foundation of data and better understand our customers while there's uncertainty in the physical retail space.
What kind of pre-launch adaptations have you made to account for the pandemic?
At this point, a lot of our first launch will be related to pilot testing and understanding how consumers are purchasing and thinking about their personal needs of stress and anxiety support. It's certainly a jarring time. We also see, at least in the mental-health advocacy space, a parallel pandemic occurring around mental-health considerations, so I really hope that our product can ultimately help raise proceeds for mental-health initiatives, especially those supporting young adults and adolescents. There's clearly a shared trauma that's percolating, and any role we can play is a role that we are able and willing to play.
How can similarly idealistic entrepreneur without real in-roads to fundraising take their own next steps?
Certainly, the advice I would give for those people who are seeking to build a company without necessarily knowing where to start would be: Have belief in yourself, and make sure the need that you're seeking to serve for the customer is at the center of everything you do. Be relentless.
It's really challenging to start a company and to do it well, to get funding. There's an opportunity with this new paradigm associated with the coronavirus pandemic and what's going to happen after. So, understand where the opportunities are and what the new need-set that's being established for customers is, and have the belief to be relentless and not stop at anything to provide support for those needs.