This week we have a very special edition of our spotlight. We’re putting the spotlight on the one and only Irad Eichler, CEO and Founder of Circles. When Irad’s mother was battling cancer, he noticed how lonely she felt, and that she only felt relief when speaking with others going through the same thing. After she passed away, he felt lonely with his grief. These moments were the inspiration behind Circles, and after raising $8 million in seed funding, Irad and the Circles team are going to ensure no one will be left alone while dealing with emotional challenges.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Who was Irad Eichler before he created Circles?
I’ve been building social businesses for the last 20 years, mostly operational. What I learned is that you can reach a third of the amount of growth and acceleration when you’re building an operational organization. For someone whose motivation is to restructure society in a better way, in terms of people that are really struggling every day, to reach millions and millions of people you need to leverage technology. So I think that’s why I chose to do a career change in terms of switching to build something that is based on technology and based on my own experience. When I look at my first organization, Shekulo Tov, and see its growth in Israel for assisting people with disabilities, and then I look at France, for example, and see that they’re 20-30 years behind in that area, I realized there wasn’t much more I could do. With Circles, we can change the world because our solution is scalable and accessible wherever you are.
Can you elaborate a bit more about Shekulo Tov and why you decided to move on to Circles?
Shekulo Tov is an organization that solves the problem of including people with disabilities in society. Today it is the biggest organization in Israel in this field. It provides services to 7000 people every year, which is three times more than that of the state of Connecticut. Being a founder and entrepreneur, I felt that my mission there was completed. I’m still contributing wherever I can, but I wanted to start over. I missed the intimate relationships that you have when you’re on a founding team, working shoulder to shoulder with people and really getting to know them. Second, as I mentioned before, is that I really want to change the world in a scalable and effective way. I also want to set an example for people so they understand that you can do good while making money. There aren’t that many examples out there of successful companies that really changed the world for the better and made a lot of money. At Circles, we want to kind of build a fast-growing company that both makes money and saves people’s lives. Product-wise, why specifically Circles? Because I experienced loneliness when I lost my mother to cancer, and also when I witnessed her dealing with loneliness while she was battling cancer. Nobody really got what she was going through except a friend who was battling the same cancer. When I was grieving the loss of my mother, I felt that. We have WhatsApp groups, one with my father and one without my father. The one with my father was kind of like a desert, nobody spoke there. With my siblings, it was busy, because the three of us lost our mother. My father lost a spouse. It’s a different kind of grief. I witnessed the loneliness that comes with it. Losing my mother was groundbreaking for each one of us. Our mother died. My father’s wife died. That’s why we’re building Circles. We can’t save my mother, we can’t save people from dying, but we can save people from suffering from it, or at least give them a way to deal with the pain that comes with it.
And how has Circles evolved since you started it compared to where it is now?
It started out as an anonymous chat that I built with my friend. I pushed it out via Facebook to people that are dealing with social anxiety and want to kind of chat. It was amazing, because people signed up, joined the group, and started chatting. But within the first 20 minutes, one of them said, “Wow, this is a really crappy app, let’s move to WhatsApp’’ and everybody wrote their phone number and moved to WhatsApp. A week later I got a notification, someone logged in and wrote, “Hey, is anybody here?” and then it struck me how meaningful it is that this is the go-to place for people. So it started like that, with small experiments, and then I met Dan, my business partner, and co-founder. He was a pilot and had an epileptic episode, and he could no longer be a pilot because they didn’t want to take the risk. Nobody really understood what that experience was like for him, and he was off the grid. A few years later, he met a woman who, in a mysterious way, was a pilot as well who had epilepsy and could no longer be a pilot. He was so lonely for years and suddenly he felt so much relief from having this basic experience of understanding. So I met Dan and he immediately knew what I was talking about. That was the moment Circles was born as a company. It was just the two of us and this developer, and we set up this small product and pushed it out. There was so much interest in it. That was the start, and more people joined. Fast-forward a year and we have already provided 100,000 hours of support to people around the world.
Fast forward, and we just received $8 million in funding. Where do you see Circles going from here?
So I think within 10 years, we will sit here and you will interview me again and we will go, “Really? People that were battling cancer, people that went through a divorce, or people who were grieving had to deal with it by themselves? The world was like that?” It will no longer make sense to us. We’re building a world where it will not make sense for people to deal with any kind of emotional challenge on their own. In the past, we lived in tribes where it took a village to raise a child, everybody was involved. And then we moved from villages to cities where all of a sudden we were by ourselves. We’ve been living in cities for more than 1000 years and people are dealing with loneliness. No, let’s get back to this experience of a woman having a baby and other women being there to support her. That’s where we’ll be and the way it’s going to work is connecting in a virtual place that is dedicated to emotional support. That’s what we are building. At the end of the day, the answer is out there. How do you solve loneliness? By connecting people. Sure, there are social platforms out there, but that promotes communicating, not connecting. We are building what we call a belonging platform. We help people belong to a group that can meaningfully support them.
Over the years, what has been your most meaningful or memorable experience at Circles?
Stepping into the office in the morning and looking at all the super talented and dedicated people that are passionate about the purpose is the moment that I will always cherish. You know that there is something broken in the world, and there are so many talented people that are working on fixing it. In the early days, it was just Dan and myself, and now we have this amazing team. I feel humbled every time I walk into the office.
And is there a story from a member that really struck a chord with you and you thought, “I’m really doing something special here”?
There are a few, but there is one that was particularly meaningful. We did a holiday campaign where we provided free Circles for three days over Christmas and New Year’s for people who lost a loved one. There was one woman from Mississippi who shared that she lost her husband and two sons. She joined the Circle from Hawaii, and she was there because couldn’t stand being in her empty home during the holidays. She was so grateful for the opportunity of having people saying “Merry Christmas” and caring about her. She said, “I have no one in the world.” So that was a moment where I said, “Okay, we’ve done our part in the world.” It was all worth it. No matter what else happens, that moment made it all worth it because she felt connected. She wasn’t alone anymore. People really cared about her. Five women, in the first 10 minutes, all of them crying. It was amazing.
What would you tell someone who is really hesitant about joining a Circle? How would you pitch Circles to them?
First of all, I would definitely acknowledge how frightening it is and how stressful it is to join a Circle. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to step into a room with people that you don’t yet know and talk about something that is painful. It is really challenging. I think the best way to describe it is this metaphor where you’re on a cliff and you want to jump into the water. Once you jump and land in the water it’s going to be this amazing and meaningful experience, but you have this initial hesitation where you need to take a deep breath before taking that first step. But once you take the step, you’ll feel immediate relief. There is no way to take out the stress. For some people, it will be easy and for some more challenging. But there is tension there for all of us, no doubt about it. It’s not about trying to take the tension out, it’s about trying to live with the tension. Acknowledge the tension that comes with joining the Circle, take a deep breath, and join for five minutes. You don’t have to talk. People will greet you and it will be an amazing experience. You just need to breathe, click on “join the meeting” and join the Circle. After that, it will be worth your while. Having said that, what we’re doing to reduce the tension a little bit is encouraging talking with the facilitator or a Circle member before, read and write in the group chat, or read other members’ profiles. Take all the friction out and we will help you do that. We will help you reduce the tension by connecting you with others.
When you think about the Circles we have now, are there any Circles that we don’t have that you’re already thinking of opening?
For sure, there are so many. Think of the 40 million caregivers in the United States, people that are taking care of their aging parents. There’s so much emotional burden there that nobody is taking care of. Think of veterans, people that have been out of the country for years and have experienced war, and who come back and no one really understands what they went through or how they feel. Only other veterans do. Think of new moms, or parents of children with special needs, nobody can really get what they’re going through. Choosing who we want to help is like choosing your own child – you don’t choose one. We will take care of every person I mentioned and much more.
Last question, it’s your birthday today (at the time of the interview). What is your birthday wish for Circles?
Be present. Be present in what we’re going through right now. Because the stage of the company that we’re in, and the number of people that we are helping, will never be the same. Tomorrow we’ll have a different product, a different team, the number of members will grow, and the challenges will be different. So for us, I wish we could all be present in what we are doing right now because Circles moving forward isn’t going to be the same.
It’s only been a year and we’ve already accomplished so much. With this new funding, we’re ready to do so much more and bring Irad’s vision of a less lonely world to life.