The Social Impact Leaders Series is a collaboration between Fairlight and The Silicon Valley Podcast, spotlighting groundbreaking philanthropists and social entrepreneurs who are striving to elevate communities, improve the economy and protect the earth. These discussions are summarized and edited excerpts from interviews conducted by Shawn Flynn with social impact leaders we think you should know about.
Next in the series we have social entrepreneur Jonathan Parkhurst, the founder and CEO of Seekhaven, providing recovery coliving communities and recovery capital coaching platforms where residents get the treatment and resources they need while staying in a private or shared bedroom. He experienced homelessness in San Francisco before going on to become a tech entrepreneur and app innovator. Jonathan is also a veteran of Desert Storm.
Shawn Flynn, The Silicon Valley Podcast: Can you share a little bit of background of your career up to this point?
Jonathan Parkhurst, Seekhaven: My career has not been typical of Silicon Valley. I was barely educated. Came out of Flint, Michigan as a kid in a foster program. I was jumpstarted into the military because I lost a scholarship into Michigan playing baseball and luck would have it, I ended up fighting in Desert Storm, a war that I didn’t want to be in, and came out fully addicted to drugs and alcohol. I lived on the streets of San Francisco for the better part of six or seven years, struggling with addiction, homelessness, and really just couldn’t find my way. In treatment, I landed a sober job. That sober job was with 24 Hour Nautilus at the time. And that was the jump into the commission sales background. Every job I’ve had never had a safety net. I was one of those people that never took a salary. I was never one of those people that played it safe. Every job I had was 100% commission and they were always these critical startups. 24 Hour Nautilus was at the precipice, trying to brand themselves as health and wellness. And I got to be a part of that. I sat right next to Mark Mastrov (founder of 24 Hour Fitness) and we launched this whole corporate membership thing. I became one of their key players, went to all the different clubs and had an incredible, incredible journey with them. From there, I moved into recruiting. Somebody says, you’re born to do technical recruiting, Jonathan. Like I can’t even turn on a computer. I say I’ll come in for a day. Let me just walk around and see what it’s like. They take me into this conference room and they start talking about programming language. They start talking about Java. Are we talking about a cup of coffee or are we talking about something else? A couple months later, I was running a team and I was launched into the career that I’m in now, which is staffing. And I’ve been in Silicon Valley staffing engineers and building startups for the last 15 years.
Shawn Flynn: Let’s now talk about Seekhaven.
Jonathan Parkhurt: Seekhaven is at the at its very core a B&B-type platform that helps people in transition, looking for temporary housing, coming out of homelessness or incarceration. They’re able to find an open bed that fits their criteria. Whether you’re a caseworker, parole officer, or a mom, a husband or a wife, looking for a family member after treatment or an alternative to treatment. We are able to provide on-demand, temporary housing. There is nothing out there that exists like it. Currently, you can find a bed for vacation. You can find a bed for an apartment or coliving. But you can’t find a bed if you’re trying to put your son or daughter in a sober living, peer-based environment to keep them sober. And then beyond that we provide a wraparound technology, which is based upon an AI platform that helps to bring a community of services. You don’t have to ask around for them. That’s how it’s done today. In this critical environment where we have over 150 people dying a day of addiction. So between addiction and homelessness, the two biggest crises that face our society today, we don’t apply the type of technology that we would apply to brain surgery or to fly a space shuttle to the moon. It’s readily available to us, but we don’t use it for that. We take technology that already exists and put it in the hands of people that save lives.
Shawn Flynn: So the problem that you’re tackling right now is homeless and addiction. There are so many datasets for so many other things out there, but tell me about the data for this niche.
Jonathan Parkhurst: Everybody wants data. Everybody claims they have it. Some people claim that they use it. Well, data about the lives of people struggling with addiction or in homelessness is collected by word of mouth or by caseworker’s ability or years of experience. Most of the information is done by repository. It’s me asking you to tell me a little bit about what you did today. Tell me where you think you’re struggling? Did you use today? Is anybody hurting you? And that data doesn’t really go anywhere. We don’t have masses of data for this sector of people in this county. I think that we’re just starting to ask, what are the outcomes. How do we capture the outcomes?
Our platform would be able to tell that someone is having an anxiety attack. And you’d be able to start to use that data across the line. We use this data in Google. We use it in Wikipedia. But we don’t use that type of technology in trying to save people’s lives from addiction or homelessness. Homelessness and addiction are shame-based diseases. So the data is reported more like, we suffered this much unemployment or this much homelessness in the county. Or how many people have died from addiction. But we’re not reporting on it as though we’re using that data for useful purposes in the future. And I think that once we get to a place where somebody can actually use this information and create a revenue source, I can create another business based on this data. A lot of companies are able to get product-market-fit, but they have trouble with go-to-market-fit. What’s the market strategy? What wisdom can you share with what has been tried so far? Maybe competitors have tried, and you’ve taken feedback from them. This is the big elephant in the room. I’m just going to be honest. Product-market-fit? I’m in the industry. I think I know what I’m talking about. I know what the product fit is. I ran sober living homes. I lived in sober living homes. I was homeless. There’s no better person to know what a product fit is. And so when I’m trying to get a product fit, as a business, I have to put myself in the shoes of the people that would be using that product. I didn’t want to do surveys, because I already know I didn’t want to waste that time. It cost me by doing that. A pivot occurred. Right now, the people that found the opportunity of housing, these homes have no support, because there’s no data. So they’re all self-funded or dealing with bootstrap funding. They can’t pay me for what I offer. So offering them marketing costs at a low rate or reducing their costs in managing their homes, while it sounds great, it’s not compelling enough to go through the change. But if the residents, the people that really matter, get a bigger benefit by doing business with us, by having us chaperone them through their recovery in a way that isn’t being done at their residence, that was where we found the product fit. Then we saw advertising on the freebie. It was the only model that I knew. What I learned is that by offering free, especially in a marketplace, you start to gain adoption. And that’s where I find myself right now. Is providing a service to humanity, which is where I started to begin with. I had to go all the way around the planet earth, chasing all of these people’s, “Oh, if you’ve had this business plan,” or “If you had this pitch deck.” “All you’re missing this one thing. And if you did that, I’d give you a million dollars.” I come back with that one thing and they’re out. “We don’t have any more funds. Sorry.” And I did that for two years. My heart got broke a billion times. And it really comes back to product fit. Typically, in my experience with the other entrepreneurs I’ve talked to and for me, it started with where my passion to was begin with. And finding that product fit amongst the industry was about finding partners that needed what I do in order to sell their product. And that’s where I’m finding my product fit.
Four times a month I go to the Tenderloin between 10 o’clock pm and 1 am and I sit with the homeless. I knew about the tent encampments before they were talked about in the San Francisco Chronicle. I knew about what they were offering them. When they take them from those encampments, they offer them Brillo. They offer them tinfoil, a crack pipe, and they give him a room and they tell him stay out of the street. This is so that you can use your drugs safely. This is a known fact. But the papers say, “We got 2054 people off the streets.” You put them in a single-room hotel with other drug addicts and prostitutes and you left them there. I’m sorry, but that’s the deal. We can get away with that. Imagine what else we can get away with. Instead of giving them a phone, which is what our app does, and allowing them, when they’re ready, to find the services or at least incentivize them with a wellness check-in. If you look at the numbers in San Francisco, the fentanyl death has doubled. And they’re finding them days later. That means they’re not doing wellness checks fast enough. It can get really bad.
Shawn Flynn: So diving into that a little bit more with your app, daily check ins, they’d be a way to monitor everyone.
Jonathan Parkhurst: We don’t love the word monitor, but we’d be able to participate in their life. Yes.
Shawn Flynn: Participate in their life daily. But it’d be tracking, maybe government spend as well in these programs if they’re working or not. Now, at least from my understanding, or my guess, would governments really want everything to be tracked with what they’re doing and where the money is deployed? Is there a conflict of interest here?
Jonathan Parkhurst: You had Steve Schneider on here. Steve works really well with the government. There’s a way to frame that doesn’t threaten. By doing this you put $10 on a $10 problem when they’re ready for the $10, instead of $10 across all the problems. You put $1 on $1 problem. If you can measure it. You can improve it. If you can collect the data, you know where to spend the money and I think that’s the most important value that we’re trying to drive home. We’re working with municipalities right now and they’re not feeling threatened. They’re buying into that right now. This changes the way that their workers work. It allows them to see more people and have a holistic view.
Listen to Shawn Flynn’s whole interview here.
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