As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Russell, co-founder & CEO of Monument, an online platform for those looking to change their relationship with alcohol. Mike is a member of the founding teams of Paintzen (acquired by PPG Industries), Bombas, Zipdrug, and MyClean, four successful New York City technology startups still operating today. Mike is also a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor and has dedicated much of his time towards raising money to help children with cancer.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
Thanks for having me! I grew up in New Jersey with two awesome parents and a brother who I’m really close with. I had a great childhood and a good group of friends between my hometown and sleepaway camp. I encountered a real curveball when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma at 18 years old. Because of the incredible care I received, I was able to beat cancer, and attend college after a delayed start. After working in finance out of college I entered the party promotion business with pretty instant success. Partying and drinking became my livelihood, and I was good at it. (More on that later.) After seven years of promoting I decided to transition out of that business and ‘settle down,’ which led to starting a family and founding several technology startups. However, through all of my ventures, I continued to drink in ways that were detrimental to my health, family, and productivity.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
My inspiration for Monument was my own journey to change my relationship with alcohol. After attempts to stop drinking on my own and through more traditional treatment options were unsuccessful, a friend told me about medication to stop drinking or cut back. With that advice and further research about evidence-based tools, I discovered a combination of therapy and medication that helped me get sober and stay sober. I learned through reading clinical studies that this approach worked for a lot of other people too. Now I’m on a mission to make the evidence-based treatment that changed (and maybe saved) my life affordable and accessible for everyone.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I started other technology companies prior to Monument, and I’ve learned plenty of lessons the hard way. However, I always appreciate the opportunity to grow from those experiences. With Monument, a lesson learned was that it’s a lot of work to be the face of a company. Because Monument is the productization of my experience, I thought it was important I share my story first-hand. I didn’t anticipate that would also mean shooting radio spots and video ads. I even have recorded voice overs in my closet. We make it work!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m really fortunate to work with amazing co-founders at Monument. I’ve actually worked with my co-founder Justin Geller for 10 years now. This is our third business together. He fully immerses himself in every industry we work in and is an incredible business partner, and friend. I’ve also been fortunate enough to work with our co-founder Amit at Monument, who is an inspiring Product leader and great person to work with. One of my favorite pre-pandemic memories was toasting to our beta launch in January 2020 at Getaway Bar, an alcohol-free bar in Brooklyn.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Monument is my third marketplace business, so I already had many lessons learned at square one. However, some of the biggest new challenges came in the early days of research and legal diligence. Navigating the regulations, licenses, and complexities of healthcare and substance use disorder treatment is both a tedious and very necessary effort.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I’ve always had a ‘failure is not an option’ mindset. I survived cancer after being diagnosed as a teenager and since then I’ve made a point to just keep going. I’ve also learned that challenges are usually not as daunting as they first appear. I look back on ‘hard times’ and recognize that I’ve always found a way forward. And at Monument, it’s not hard to find the motivation. We have a really tangible view into how we’re improving thousands of lives, and that encourages me and the team every day to do hard things.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I’ve been completely blown away by the response to Monument. It’s more clear than ever that there is a real and urgent need for what we’re building. After launching in May 2020, we’ve already connected nearly 15,000 members in our digital community, and have seen remarkable success in our personalized treatment plans. Changing your relationship with alcohol can be extremely challenging, but it’s also incredibly worthwhile. As a team, we’re motivated by that truth, and apply it to how we grow our business. Hard things are worth doing. And in our case, can save lives and livelihoods.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
First and foremost, I’m so proud of our team. I’ve never worked with such a collaborative, hard working, and passionate group of people. With at least ⅔ of the team having onboarded remotely, I’ve been so impressed by how they’ve been able to form seamless processes and meaningful working relationships during this time. Team events have also been great, from a virtual alcohol-free spirits tasting to a gingerbread decorating contest.
Secondly, I think our holistic yet singular focus on treating alcohol use disorder makes us stand out among the many inspiring new health tech companies.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Time management is key. And I’m still working on it! One piece of advice I’ve really put into practice is to take real vacations, and fully unplug while away. My golden rule: work while you’re ‘at work’ (or at your desk), and don’t when you’re not. I have two young kids and this is really important to me. I quit drinking to show up for them more, and part of that is carving out time to be totally present.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Monument is a mission-centric, member-obsessed organization. Our vision is a world where a healthy relationship with alcohol is reachable and celebrated by everyone. We’ll achieve that by providing evidence-based treatment (including community, therapy, and medication options) that’s affordable and accessible. We’re empowering folks to become the best version of themselves: the best partners, parents, colleagues, friends, neighbors and beyond. And to love themselves fully. That brings good into the world.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Problems aren’t as major as you think: I’ve learned this time and time again in all of my businesses. Adopt the perspective that no problem is insurmountable, and that challenges are also opportunities to learn. It saves stress and helps you jumpstart into problem-solving mode.
- Hiring is everything: As I have more years as a founder under my belt, I continue to learn the importance of hiring. Now, working on a mission-centric business, this is critical. The people you hire will represent your brand — from customer support, to content marketing, and beyond. Invest in people from the start.
- Things change, for the better: I wish I had understood earlier that something doesn’t have to end up how you thought it would for it to still turn out great. Accepting that saves you stress, and opens up new opportunities. Be flexible: in fundraising, in product launches, and beyond. And when in doubt, listen to your customers. They’ll guide you in the right direction.
- Being the face of a company is a lot of work: I’m really honored and proud to share my story with the Monument Community and beyond. However, I wish I had anticipated the demand that would require early on. I would still have opted to share my story, but would have been more diligent about scheduling and time management.
- Mission-centric businesses can be emotionally challenging, but worth it: Working on a business that directly impacts our members’ health and wellness is incredibly rewarding, and also comes with a unique pressure to succeed. There’s a weight that comes along with that, and it’s 100% worth it.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
In this stage of my journey as an entrepreneur, I have shifted my leadership style to empowering others and trusting the great work of my team. I have learned that people rise to the occasion when they feel supported, and I’ve definitely shifted away from any micro-management tendencies. Plus, hiring a great team makes this easy!
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I’m a firm believer in learning by experience. I personally have always learned by doing. It’s great to read and listen to make your world bigger, but at the end of the day I believe you have to get out there. You don’t confront challenges when reading. You confront challenges when doing. And that’s where the real growth happens.
Also, be discerning about who and where you get advice from. Not everyone is an expert.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I truly believe that the work we’re doing at Monument will change the world for millions of people by breaking the stigma around alcohol use disorder and increasing access to quality care.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
@joinmonument and @monument_mike