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Mike Porath: One Story Away from Creating The Mighty

Mike Porath believes in the power of stories, the strength of communities, and the beauty of the human spirit. He learned the craft of storytelling as an award-winning journalist and executive at ABC News, NBC News, the New York Times, and AOL.

Traveling through nearly 50 countries brought him so much joy, but then he found himself on a more meaningful adventure when his younger daughter was diagnosed with a rare disease: Dup 15q syndrome. That has helped him and his wife connect with other people, that is where they learned what community was all about.

They created The Mighty to help people find each other and share their experiences around their own health challenges. They began with 3 stories a day, and 5 years later they have over 3 million members. Their stories have been viewed over a billion times and through research with Harvard University and others, they have shown that they are having a real impact, and they are improving people’s health outcomes while getting so much insight on how people experience more than over a thousand health conditions.

To help their efforts, they have raised more than 20 million from great investors who believe in the mission of The Mighty.

Takeaways:

  1. The best stories make you feel less alone. We’ve never been more isolated than we are right now living in the midst of this pandemic. As a leader of content creation/consumption, think about how you can bring people together with powerful stories that unite or provide vulnerable, common ground.
  2. Find something professionally that you’re passionate about personally.
  3. “Great conversations are what builds community.” The simple formula that Mike’s used at The Mighty and it’s worked really well.

Transcript:

BRYAN WISH: It’s been fun getting to know you the last 4-5 years. You’ve been a huge inspiration to me and many others. Why don’t you share what your One Away moment is?

MIKE PORATH: My big moment, there was before and there was after. Really the way I think about my life and so much of that was about 12 years ago when I got a phone call from a doctor. After a couple of years trying to figure out why my daughter wasn’t doing the things a typical kid would do to thrive – she was a little over 2 years old at the time – he told us that a test result had come back and that she had this very rare disease he’d never heard of or seen.

It likely meant that her mind would not develop beyond that of a 5-year-old. It was a gut punch. As devastating of a moment, it was then, it changed what I wanted to do career wise. I didn’t know any of this at the moment but I kind of turned my life toward how I can work in the service of her and the service of others? Before then, I was a journalist and I worked at big news organizations, ABC News, NBC, New York Times. I really believed in the power of storytelling and still very much do.

What happened after that moment, and it took years for me to really see that, is my wife and I began a community called The Mighty. We’ve grown that into a community of more than 3 million members who share experiences around their own health conditions. That’s what helped my wife and I the most was connecting with other people in terms of raising our daughter. We’ve got three younger boys as well. That was the moment for me. It was for professionally that I eventually shifted my career from being a journalist to launching a startup; building this health community, but it was also in terms of much of my life before then was really about me.

I probably wouldn’t have admitted that at the time. I did the things that I wanted to do, the things that felt good for me, the things that I cared about. I began caring much more about other people. That obviously started with my daughter but I think people who ended up building things in the service of others end up having much more of an impact and can actually grow things much larger that way too. That was the after for me in terms of figuring out what this health community was, the impact of it, and how we could grow it into something that was large and involved a lot of people.

BRYAN WISH: How did you get into storytelling and journalism? Where did that passion ignite from?

MIKE PORATH: It goes all the way back as a kid riding my bike up to the library and checking out choose your own adventure books and all of those types of things. I always loved reading. I always loved stories. In college, I became an English major. That may have been more like literature and understanding that but there was the art and emotion and everything wrapped up into the stories. It’s how we, as humans, learn. I was always fascinated with it. How I made the leap from being interested in it to professionally when I was a junior in college, I was an English and psych major and didn’t know what I really wanted to do.

My mom sent me – this was back in snail mail – a clipping. She was reminding me basically that I had a lot of student loans to pay. It was a clipping of the lowest paying jobs by major and English was second to last. Philosophy was the only thing underneath it. What she was passively aggressively doing was saying, “Hey, Mike, you have to figure out something here post-college. You’ve got a lot of loans to pay.” I took that to heart and I ended up applying for 40 different internships while I was in college.

I didn’t know anybody. I had no connections in the media or anything like that. I either got a no or never heard back. I got one yes and that was at ABC News in New York. Somehow whatever I wrote to someone there, it spoke to them. They got me on the phone. We talked and she said, “I’d really like you to come work for this.” It was a documentary division of ABC News in New York City. That was my summer as I moved up to New York. It was an unpaid internship. I had to find a job at night to pay for living in a place. It was my foot in the door. The internship went really well. At the end of the summer, she said, “Come back after you graduate. We’ll find a spot for you here.” Everything kind of took off from that. Getting that internship was my foot in the door.

BRYAN WISH: When you took that first internship and the jobs that followed, what were some of the key skills that you were able to build?

MIKE PORATH: My first job was working in the documentary unit. We were producing hour-long programs for biographies. There was a show about assassinations, political assassinations, and things like that. I learned, through that first job around video storytelling, all the aspects that would lead up. We’d have 12 weeks to come up with an hour-long show to produce it, finish it, polish it, all of that. I was the grunt worker involved in all aspects. I learned it all.

This is when digital media was coming up. This was back in the late 90s. I poked my head into the studio at ABCNews.com which was just getting off the ground and met a few folks over there. I ended up moving from the documentary unit over to the digital side which I think was great. That worked out really well for me. They were still figuring out what the internet was and what role ABC was going to play in it. There wasn’t much structure to a lot of the activity there. That allowed me, as a young, ambitious kid who wanted to try things, to step in. It was a playground for me.

I spent weekends, nights dreaming up with projects that they just kept saying yes to. I dreamed up sending me to go running with the bulls and I’m going to film it. I’m going to write about it. They were like, “That’s a great idea. Go for it.” That ended up with opportunities where they sent me as a one-man band at Kosovo during the war there. It was because they had figured out that I could handle the storytelling aspects. I could write stories. That’s a different medium than video. I could do audio. I could take photos.

I was tech-savvy enough to figure out how to use a satellite phone and in the middle of the woods somewhere to send back all the materials I was producing and gathering from a laptop to get back to ABC in New York. I got so many great opportunities there and then that led to a job at NBC where I worked on the Tom Brokaw NBC Nightly News show and developed things on the web. I ended up at The New York Times starting as the overnight editor on the internet working with a lot of foreign correspondents in the middle of the night getting stories from them. Eventually, being the homepage editor for NewYorkTimes.com.

It was about being able to figure out how to tell stories in different formats. Long-form video, short-form blogs. That was some of the skillsets. Then when I had a job at AOL running the homepage of AOL, I looked back and I had 30 million views a day. It was a matter of what five words in a headline would pull people into a story? How do you do that in a way where when people land on that story it doesn’t feel like they got tricked? It was a compelling headline but not so far as they got tricked into reading it. Being able to see stats in real-time of what was working and what was not. All of those things helped me figure out how to bring people together by leveraging digital media.

BRYAN WISH: You went from being the person writing the stories, then to managing the home page of a lot of other writers, and the progression from documentary to the digital side. It takes a long time to really learn and harness those skills and understand how they all piece together. With your work at The Mighty, part of what you have to do is create stories that connect to a community to drive conversation and connection. What were some of the things you learned in the early days to create really good stories that connect to an audience?

MIKE PORATH: I think our key insight was there was a really big gap in healthcare. There was a lot of content from a health perspective on the internet that was informational, that was medical, clinical, symptom-related, treatment-related. There was so much of that but there was very little of the human side of people’s experiences and what they were going through. My own experience on that day was my daughter’s diagnosis, getting that news. I did what most people did. I went to the internet and Googled.

What ended up being most helpful to me was not only the medical information I found that day but it was six stories written by parents of kids with the same condition and reading those stories – being a journalist, I was shocked by how powerful those stories were. They weren’t great writers but the raw emotion that they had in their stories. Some parts were really scary. I remember one that was around their kids having 30 seizures a day and how do you cope with that? How do you deal with that? Hearing about what autism was really like in a pretty severe form on the end of the spectrum, that was hard. At the same time, I did not expect to find joy and humor in a lot of these stories and that is what made me feel like there are other people out there that just feel real to me. They are dealing with this. If they can manage this, my wife and I can too.

The best stories make you feel less alone. What we really solve at The Mighty is isolation. We’ve never been more isolated than we are right now living in the midst of this pandemic. I think the organizations, the companies that are able to bring people together with powerful stories, they make people feel less alone. They make people feel much more connected and you can get so much more out of those shared experiences when people connect.

Finding the human side of health in these personal stories was really the key insight. At this point, we’ve produced over 50,000 personal stories of members from our community that have been read and watched billions of times. Some small percentage of people who are consuming that content is saying to themselves, “Hey, this is for me,” and they join the community and they say, “I really want to be a part of this.” That happens thousands of times every day. It’s why we don’t have to spend money on marketing. It’s the content. The stories do the marketing for us.

For anyone that’s looking to build a community out there, my very simple formula is great stories, those become thought starters, and those lead to great conversations. Great conversations are what builds community. It’s those stories to conversations to the community. That is the simple formula that we’ve used here at The Mighty and it’s worked really well.

BRYAN WISH: You got the diagnosis from the doctor. You were gut-punched. What happened next?

MIKE PORATH: I felt lost. I felt scared. I felt alone. My wife and I were both on the call. Different handsets on the phone. We’re in the same room. We’re just looking at each other and listening to this. This was unexpected. We were not expecting to get this type of news or diagnosis. We thought she’s delayed but hopefully, she’ll catch up. This was a very devastating diagnosis. We did not know that that day would actually be incredibly empowering for us in the future. It didn’t feel like that in the moment. I remember my daughter was upstairs napping when we got that call. She was right above me and I’m thinking for two years now we’ve been trying to help her in all these ways.

We didn’t know she’s wired differently. Every cell in her body has an extra piece of chromosome that my wife and I don’t have. How much courage she had – she was actually doing really well compared to a lot of other kids with this condition. I began immediately thinking of her a little differently. She’s still this sweet, little girl but it was a matter of understanding her in a way that I didn’t before. That was an important moment for me. Then it was, “How do we help her?” It moved pretty quickly. That’s when I went to Google. I found those stories. I found an organization that was helping people with this condition.

They had 300 members worldwide at the time. I was able to talk on the phone with the executive director of that organization within hours. They love getting a new member. It didn’t happen very often for them. I ended up becoming very invested in that organization. I’m on the board now. I’m on the fundraising chair of that nonprofit. We learned a lot about the community through that. We connected with people who were raising a kid with this. That was our guide. Those other parents out there. Of course, we found the right doctors and specialists but many of them had not seen another child with this before. The experts were really the other parents who had kids with this. The power of those shared experiences was incredible.

My daughter was struggling to get what they call a pincher grasp which is putting your thumb and forefinger together to pick something up. Kids typically just learn it. It comes naturally. It didn’t to her. In a moment of frustration, I posted something to a message board online and I said, “Has anyone dealt with this where my kid can’t pick anything up?” Another mom, halfway around the world, answered like five minutes later and said, “Yeah, I dealt with this same thing. The way to handle this is to get a sock. Cut two holes in it for their thumb and the finger. Put a sock on the other hand and find your daughter’s favorite food.” For us, it was blueberries. “Then help her. She’s going to figure it out.

She wants to eat that blueberry and you’re giving her two fingers to go do it. Just work with her on that.” After a month of doing that with every meal, she had it down, both hands. That’s just a little glimmer of the power of these shared experiences when it comes to health. The Mighty is the manifestation of those types of experiences. Those shared experiences are happening every day across our platform where people are helping each other through all the challenges that they have.

BRYAN WISH: I was getting goosebumps while you were saying all of that. I was getting this memory of maybe three years ago. Me and a bunch of friends took a woman, who has muscular dystrophy, on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. We called it Piggyback Adventures. There was so much joy in that experience because it was such a shared moment between a tight-knit group of people and the comradery and an expression of a shared mission and goal and the benefit around someone who doesn’t have access to do everyday things.

We provided that. She’s very resilient. As you were talking, that’s what you said. The Mighty is a manifestation of all those stories in one place. For anyone on the platform to find the people who are going through the same things and what you created there, you probably don’t even hear 90% of the benefits of the content on the website. Really cool.

You reached out to the executive director. You connected over the blueberry and the community. You saw your daughter able to do things she’s never done. Were you still at The New York Times or AOL then? When did the lightbulb switch to say, “I can take all the pieces I’ve learned and go create something really special?”

MIKE PORATH: I’d love to say I figured it out really quickly. That was a several-year process. I was learning about the community with Dup15Q Alliance, the nonprofit. Getting to know those people. Figuring out how to do fundraising. How we leverage that organization to help people with my daughter’s condition. I learned a lot about the community through that organization.

At the same time, I was kind of rising through the ranks at these different organizations. At the time, I was at AOL. Soon after the diagnosis, I became editor-in-chief of AOL News. I had about a 100 person team. I was growing professionally which was great. I did write a couple of stories about the experience about what it was like to get a diagnosis like this and think about all the ways our life was going to change in order to help our daughter. I was opening up about it which was therapeutic for me.

I had in the back of my head that there was something I wanted to spend much more of my time with on this aspect of my life. At some point, maybe a year, two years after the diagnosis, we actually picked up from living just outside of New York City and moved to Los Angeles, took a new job at a startup. I had a large role running about 30 different websites. I learned a lot about the startup. I’d only worked for big media companies before. I knew content but I didn’t really know all the other aspects of a company really. I learned much more through this startup.

My daughter was getting older. We had a boy and another boy on the way at that time. I was talking a lot to my wife about the idea of a community that brought people together like this. I was talking with other people about it. My wife is really responsible for this switch here. She, at one point, just said, “Enough. Are you going to do this or not?” That was an important moment for me because I could actually see, in her frustration, that she was supporting me to go do this. That was the moment I mentally said, “I’m going to quit my job and go do this now.”

The money we had set aside to buy a house, we instead put into the company. I quit my job. I got a consulting gig that would help me pay for the bills. Looking back, I don’t even know how we did it the first year. I had no salary. I went from a really high paying job. I loved the people at the company. I loved the team we had there. I went to no income until I found those consulting gigs which were not helping me build the company. It was taking my time away from building the company but it’d help pay the bills. Somehow we got through that first year and we were able to raise money. We had a lot of traction.

The idea took off pretty quickly. I hired one person. Paid her out of my savings account. She and I really built it together. I had friends helping me build the website. I don’t code. I don’t know how to do a lot of that. I had friends pitch in and help out. I asked for a lot of favors from a lot of people. They liked the idea though. They liked being a part of this. We got from doing three stories a day to about a half-million readers a month in less than six months. Then I was able to bring on some investors that would help. They saw the idea. They saw that we had the traction and they bought into it. Then that reached a different level where it was, “Okay, now I have some funding to apply resources to build this into something much bigger.”

BRYAN WISH: Your wife, to put off maybe dreams of the family or other pieces of the house to say, “We’re going to take a risk,” that’s really special. That is so courageous. When you got the idea and your wife said, “Are you going to do this?” What was the plan?

MIKE PORATH: With a background in journalism, I have that investigative side to me. I had already done a ton of research. I had talked to the leaders of a lot of healthy communities that have already been built; what worked, what didn’t. What I realized, in a lot of conversations I had, was the hardest part for them was actually getting people engaged. The tech part wasn’t the hard part. I learned that technology was not the hard part of these health communities and providing the right tools to people.

It was hard to get them engaged in health. It’s easier to watch a lip sync video on Tik Tok than it is to actually engage in something that has a lot more depth and seriousness to it. I realized we had to add levity to health. We had to make it so it wasn’t so heavy, so negative. What would engage people? My background was in the content storytelling side. I believed by doing great stories that we’re really human and all the elements of how people have conversations and get to know each other.

If they were based on those type of stories and we crafted those in a great way that it got shared around the internet, that could work. That was the key insight into that. The truth is it worked pretty quickly. We tried a lot of things in terms of – doing the content wasn’t as hard. Finding a way to get the right people who would find that content meaningful, to make them aware of it, to get it in front of them, was more challenging.

We tried a lot of things that didn’t work. We partnered with some nonprofit organizations that helped us. You try 50 things and five of them work and then you try to scale those five things and one of those five things may scale. It’s really just trial and error and having no ego about it. Just saying I don’t know the answer but I’m going to try these things and figure it out along the way.

BRYAN WISH: When you talk about the power of stories and things being shared around the internet, I remember you told me a story about a woman that shared something. For some reason, it had the right keyword. It’s been seen by millions of people and it let her kind of starting her own career helping people. From a community and content perspective, the power of that one story is seen by millions of people, and how that’s let her take another path for her own and for the better, maybe share that with us.

MIKE PORATH: That’s a great setup. There’s a woman named Jody Betty who wrote a story for us and really opened up. It was a story that was about dealing with suicidal thoughts. She opened up about how she has felt suicidal at times in her life. It’s really a letter to folks on why to hold on. Her experience going through that getting past that. It’s non-judgmental. It’s empathetic.

We put the title on that as I Want You to Want to Live. She liked that headline. This was one of 20 stories we published that day or 50 stories we published that day. We didn’t think anything of it. Over time, we started seeing more and more people landing on that story. It was like where is all this traffic coming from? We dug in and realized most people were landing on that story because they were googling the words, “I want to die.” It was fascinating.

We said imagine the people at that moment that are googling that phrase and this is the story that comes up for them which is saying, “Hey, I’ve been there too and this is why you need to hold on.” You’d scroll through and at first, we started seeing there are 500-1,000 people every day landing on this story. Then it got up to 10,000 people every day. It grew and grew. It’s well over a million people have now read this story, most of whom found it because they typed into Google, “I want to die.” There are hundreds and hundreds of comments that flow in on that story. They’re comments like, “Thank you. You saved my life.”

Powerful. Imagine the writer of this story and you see this is happening and you’re just inundated with messages from people who are thanking you. Jody was really touched by that and she’s found dozens of friendships through those people that have reached out to her. Eventually, she went on, quit her job, and became a licensed trauma coach. She realized her calling was to help people like this.

She found that calling through that one story she shared. She’s written over a dozen stories for us over the years. That’s the kind of impact that happens when you have a story that’s that powerful. Stories like hers helped us – we got the attention of Harvard researchers that were looking into suicide ideation; what helps people decrease suicide ideation? What gets them out of those thoughts? We’re on our second study working with them.

Their first study actually showed that being part of our community is reducing suicide ideation among people who are prone to suicidal thoughts. Who knew that when Jody was actually writing that story that that was going to lead to Harvard researchers figuring out this is the kind of stuff that’s actually reducing suicide ideation. You can’t plan for any of that stuff. It just naturally builds and happens. It is a beautiful story of what can happen; the impact one story can have on so many people.

BRYAN WISH: What you’ve created is a community that is a safe place where someone like Jody Betty feels she can share that. Because of that, that story has been able to impact millions of lives since. What’s the fabric that has allowed people like Jody to say, “I’m going to bear my soul to this group and this platform?”

MIKE PORATH: At the heart of it is trust. It’s hard to get someone to open up especially around something health-related. They have to have trust in the community, the people shepherding the community. I think you can build that culture piece by piece with the content that you put up there. It was hard to get the initial stories. We reach out to people when we’d see a blog somewhere and we’d say, “Hey, we really like that. Could we take that and post it on The Mighty? This is who we are and what we do. When more stories like that got out there, all of a sudden, we went from trying to ask for them that people were reaching out to us. They’re saying, “Can I share my story on your platform?” We built a culture around a lot of that by showcasing people opening up.

That made it a lot easier for others to open up. We started as the publisher and really evolved into much more of a social network. As we did that, we allow people to post openly now. We still have the publishing arm where we produce this content but now people come and they can be part of the suicide community and post about what they’re dealing with or thinking about or something that’s helped them and have other people respond to them.

Before we ever launched that platform, we built in a moderation team that was going to really focus on making sure that this is a safe and supportive community. That means fostering the right people and helping those folks and anyone who really doesn’t belong that’s attacking others or anything like that, making sure they’re not a part of it. Unlike a lot of other social platforms, we took a very hard stance on what was going to be acceptable in this community and what was not early on. That allowed us to create the right culture within these communities.

BRYAN WISH: How do you see all of this playing out? What’s the impact behind this that you want to have when it’s all said and done?

MIKE PORATH: It’s okay that I don’t know. I’m okay with the fact that I don’t know exactly where this is going. We got here by listening to the community. They helped us figure out where to take it. We knew we were starting as a publisher. We didn’t know that we were going to evolve into a social network. Our users told us to do that. They were super engaged and they wanted to communicate in ways that weren’t 500-word stories which is what we originally started with.

We said, “Okay, we’re going to build a platform for you to post openly around all this stuff.” Last year we did over 300 in-person events around the country. We couldn’t do those anymore because of COVID. Do you know what they said? They said, “Can we connect together through Zoom and things like that?” We’ve now done 300 Zoom virtual events from the start of COVID to now. That engagement is through the roof. What are we doing now? We’re building out programming for hosts that want to work with people, for people who want to sign up and meet other folks in these virtual settings because we’re just listening to what the community wants. Part of this is just following their lead. Big picture, what I really want to have happened is I see a future of healthcare working in a way that doesn’t exist today.

The analogy I have is if you were able to invite the people that were going to be helpful and meaningful to you on your healthcare journey over for dinner at your home, and they’re sitting around the table and you’re not constrained by time. You can bring anybody you want to that table. One Sunday, you might want to bring someone else. Tuesday, you bring someone else. Eventually, 24/7 you can bring anybody you want to your table. It’s going to be the people that are most helpful to you, the content that’s most helpful to you, resources, services, all of those things. We want to empower people in that way.

I’d like, years down the road, for anyone who is diagnosed with a health condition, this is the place for them. This is the way that helps them navigate through everything that they’re dealing with. They get to connect with the right people. They could be other patients, doctors, whoever is going to be helpful to them. Again, with the content, the resources, the services, all of those things in different mediums that fit the moment. That would help a lot of people if we could continue to grow and do that.

There’s not a lot of other things that I really want to do right now. I love waking up and being able to pour my heart and soul into this. I joke with folks that I don’t have any work/life balance because what I care about with my family is what I care about with the company and the community as well. I like that I don’t have a 9-5 job. I’m kind of constantly working but I also find all the time I need with my family. I get to do something professionally that I’m passionate about personally. I feel blessed to have an opportunity to pull all of this together and spend my time on it like this.

BRYAN WISH: Such a line dancer from the inside out. Where can people find you?

MIKE PORATH: The website is themighty.com. I encourage you to get the app which is The Mighty if you go to the App Store. That’s where you can make much more connections and have conversations with people. People participate much more when they’re on the app. If anyone wants to reach out to me, my email address is just mike@themighty.com.

One Away Podcast
Leah Walsh

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