Erika Ferszt

Founder of Moodally

Moodally founder Erika Ferszt was raised in New York City, where she graduated from The Dalton School and New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She is currently based in Europe, where for 17 years she was a senior advertising executive, winning over 70 awards for her work, most notably as the Global Advertising, Media and Digital Director at Ray-Ban.

In 2015, Erika was hospitalized for 10 days after suffering stress-related vision loss and became interested in studying the impacts of burnout on employees. Putting her successful career on pause, she completed 2 years Post Grad studies in the Neuroscience of Mental Health at Kings College London and a Masters in Science in Behavioral & Organizational Psychology at London Metropolitan University. Erika combined insights from these educational pursuits with her previous work as a high-ranking ad executive to create Moodally. Recently selected as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Ventures, she looks forward to sharing her vision with the world and helping organizations remove work-related stressors and effectively manage stress.

Erika currently lives in Milan with her 15 year old daughter and their rescue cat Zoe. She loves rock music, travelling, throwing dinner parties for friends, and great conversation. Her primary form of meditation is baking.

Where did the idea for Moodally come from?

I had an epiphany while I was studying for school. After suffering a burnout incident that put me in the hospital for 10 days with stress-related vision loss, I went back to school to study the brain dynamics involved in stress. I was doing some research into mood fluctuations and emotional self-regulation and the term “mood induction” kept coming up. So I dug a little deeper.

Turns out mood induction is a technique that researchers have been using in emotion/mood-based studies, for over 50 years, to put people into specific moods to examine how the brain and body react under specific emotional conditions. In the literature, once the test was over, researchers would use another mood induction technique to put participants back into a neutral mood. I was fascinated that there was a process that could shift mood at will. I thought that if we could bring that into the public sphere, we could potentially help people create a tremendous buffer against stress. The ability to self-regulate emotionally is one of the cornerstones of resilience. People with greater resilience skills are able to manage stress more successfully.

As I dug further, I discovered that mood induction is essentially using creative materials to invoke specific emotions. When I read that I had one of those Hollywood-style eureka moments where my whole life came into focus. I’ve spent 22 years in advertising making creative materials to invoke specific emotions and now there was the possibility that I could use that skill to create a positive impact in the world. I checked with some Ph.D. experts in the field to make sure that I wasn’t imagining the potential and they all confirmed that it was a great idea. I got started immediately.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

We are still currently dealing with Covid, – I am based in Italy – so life is still very much centered around the home. My daughter is in high school and is 50% in home learning and 50% at school. This has an important influence on what I can do and when. I try to make the most of the time when I am alone and will make sure I am super focused on those mornings. When you are a solopreneur you have to wear so many hats and the range of things you tackle on any given day can go from A to Z. This can sometimes make you feel that you’re not accomplishing anything because you do a little here and a little there. I’ve found that the best way to organize my week is to give each day a theme. For example, Mondays will be about developing content for my brand. Tuesdays will be about networking or keeping in touch with people. Wednesdays are for lead generation. This helps me to feel like I’ve really made a dent in what I have to do and be able to see tangible progress.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I’ll get a flash of an idea, usually in the form of a question, and think about what the possibilities could be. I like to spend some time with it in my mind. Really walking through what it would look like, what it would take to make it happen. I like to pay attention to the physical sensations I get in my body while I’m doing this. Whenever I can feel myself expanding or feeling taller, I know I’m onto something that could work. Then I love to research things to death. My friends have always said I should work for the CIA. I want to know what other people are saying, what’s currently being done, and where do I think there’s an opportunity to do it better…assuming it already exists. Then I start to formulate a plan. Once I have a plan in mind, I tend to be pretty unstoppable.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I am so happy that we are finally talking, seriously, about employee wellness. I’m even happier to see that companies that “get it” are turning employee well-being into a competitive advantage. There’s a very clear generational shift that’s happening right now. I am very conscious of the fact that the way I perceive the world, and the way I have been conditioned to think, is radically different than the people coming into the workforce now. Naturally, with everything, there are upsides and downsides to those differences. What I think is a wonderful evolution is that there is growing intolerance of the idea that you have to give everything of yourself to a company and be thankful to have a job that may help you grow. I feel like my generation, and those before me, were taught a form of reverence to the company that is starting to shift. At the same time, a company that carelessly treats its employees is also starting to feel very tone-deaf. I think in the next few years we’re going to see some tremendously positive evolutions in the employee-employer relationship and psychological contract.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I take time off when I feel like I need it. The “beauty” of having been through burnout is that you get very good at reading your body’s signals. As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to get into the mindset of “never stop, keep pushing”. This is very dangerous and ends up being counterproductive. There’s evidence that people who take days off are more productive and creative. They have given their brain a rest, so it isn’t under pressure. They’ve allowed their subconscious to come into contact with new stimuli. So even if they haven’t consciously seen something new that can help them with their business, they’ve planted new seeds which could ultimately triangulate with other new stimuli and form an idea. Every now and then I’ll come off a week where I’ve been working 15-16 hour days and just think “I need to just be around friends and food this weekend”. I won’t look at my phone or touch my computer that whole time. It ends up being the best thing I can do for my business. I come back refreshed, rested, and with a fresh mind.

What advice would you give your younger self?

The funny thing is that the all the hang-ups, or anxieties, that I had when I was younger are what have fed my evolution as an adult. So I think if I gave myself some special secrets to success or well-being too early my life would have gone in a different direction. That said, one thing I’ve always felt, but perhaps wasn’t able to articulate until recently, is that you must stay true to your vision and purpose. The more you allow your purpose to be real for you, the better guided you will be in your choices and you’ll see better results. Where your purpose lies is where your passion lies, and vice versa. I know from my time in personal coaching that many people struggle to identify their purpose and, truthfully, it isn’t until later in life that we may understand why we believe we’re here on this planet. If you observe your behavior, your motivations, what you get excited about doing, and then dig into the “why” that lies behind, you’ll find the answer there. It’s not a question of “what am I supposed to do with my life?”. That question is reductive and limiting. It assumes there’s only one way to express your purpose through a specific line of work or job. That’s simply not true. It’s “what impact do I want to have?”. From that question, you can come up with a thousand things to do in your life that will be meaningful for you.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

I suppose it would have to be a true-for-me-ism rather than an actual objective truth. So I’ll offer a piece of unconventional wisdom. From my experience in leading a team for years, I would say that it’s better to work with smaller budgets and smaller teams. When we have problems in companies sometimes we like to throw money at the problem. Yet rarely does this solve the problem, it just puts a band-aid on it. When you have small budgets, and you know what you want to do, you are forced to think harder. You study the situation from all angles. You ask yourself “what if…” and “how can I…”. Through this process you dig deep, you push your brain, and can come up with little seeds of genius.

Smaller teams force ownership of projects. Turns out that employees who have a sense of power over what they’re doing, and can directly impact what they’re doing, are far more motivated. This may not be an approach for all managers, because it truly requires you to be a leader. You have to observe, guide, and course-correct your team when necessary. But it does make happier employees who produce far better work. I like to hire people that are different than me and then let them really explore their unique point of view on what we’re working on. This goes back to my cross-pollination advice. Small teams, unique points of view, who are empowered to make a difference….using small budgets that they have to cleverly think through.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Cross-pollinate. Let me explain. When we spend so much time on our business, reviewing our successes, examining our failures, and brainstorming opportunities we tend to form a sort of tunnel vision. From a neurological point of view, concentrating on one thing strengthens those connections in our brain, so they become dominant. It becomes a very tight, supercharged, and closed network of information. However, when you look outside of your industry, your daily life, your usual challenges and you encourage yourself to be curious, you create new associations. You see commonalities in seemingly disparate sectors. You observe techniques that may not be obvious but can be applied to your own business. This is the mother of innovation and what can help you to always be evolving forward. It’s very important to expand your frame of reference.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Asking for help or introductions. My business is currently B2B so it’s all about getting to the right gatekeeper. Having spent most of my life on the client-side of the advertising equation, sales was not something I ever had to be good at. I was completely out of my comfort zone when it came to networking, lead generation, or sales. I had always been in the very cozy spot of having people come to me. Worse, I knew what it was like to be constantly sold to and how annoying that was. This added another obstacle when it was time for me to reach out to connect with people, in the interest of growing. I know that the advice may seem obvious to most people who have been doing this for a while, but to me, it was a game-changer. Simply asking my friends to introduce me to someone took the pressure off of them to have to buy, was an easy ask that they would gladly come through with, and created a warm introduction on the other side.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

My first coder vanished after a few months. I had no passwords, no access to anything, no signed contract, no home address for the person…I had nothing. I only had emails and, after a thorough Google search, I managed to track down the shell company he had opened in the UK. Why so naive? Great question. Truth is, he was a friend of a friend. I just assumed that having friends in common and both being in the same industry would be enough collateral to keep the person on the up-and-up. Alas, this was not the case. The person even completely ignored letters from corporate lawyers in the UK and penal lawyers from their home country. I learned then that you always, always, always sign a contract first. No matter who it is. The beauty of this occurrence was that it made me look for a new developer. I found someone incredible shortly thereafter. This horribly unpleasant experience happened to be a tremendous gift.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I had this idea a few years ago that I actually started to develop. It was a site similar to “Texts from last night”. The idea was that people would anonymously post some of the insults that had been said to them by the people they were dating, or had dated. It was originally going to be called “Dating-a-douche” but then the men protested that there was nothing for them, so we added on “Seeing-a-psycho”. I stopped it because it felt like it was going to keep me bitter and angry. Clearly I was going through a dating disaster moment at the time. However, I still think it would be a funny website. If nothing else a very interesting sociological experiment. If someone is interested, I even have logos. Just holler.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

My most recent favorite purchase was my $60 rebounder. I’d never heard of it and recently discovered it online. I hate cardio, I don’t like going to the gym and I abhor running. I do a lot of Vinyasa/Ashtanga yoga so I’m not completely out of shape, but this rebounder is absolutely perfect for me. It wears you out in a good way and it’s super fun. If I need to reach $100 I would say the best money I spent was on this incredible copywriter that I found on Fiverr to help me draft my sales copy.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I don’t use any productivity apps. I find that they actually increase my workload. I’m a pen and paper, “To-Do-List” kind of woman. Actually, science suggests that the old school way, of writing things down, may be more efficient. The one thing I do have is a To-Do list on a Google drive that I share with another person. We’ve done this in an effort of mutual supportive accountability. I keep an eye on what he’s doing and vice-versa. It’s been shown, going all the way back to the 1940’s Hawthorne Studies, that being observed by another person causes us to be more productive. It also stimulates a little healthy competition. We’ve also both selected a reward for ourselves if we accomplish a certain amount of things. The catch is that the other person is the judge of our productivity. I find that, at least for me, this works really well.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. It’s old school and may have disappeared for new generations, but it’s such a powerful book that leads to self-discovery. You learn to listen to yourself, to have confidence in your thoughts and intuitions, and learn how to value the unique message in your voice. I feel like a lot of the current generation is certainly about speaking their mind and voicing their truth and I find that fantastic. Where I think there may be a step missing, in today’s process though, is in building that confidence of what is uniquely yours, where it comes from, and why it inspires you. Julia Cameron’s process helps you get to that “why” that I was speaking about earlier.

What is your favorite quote?

“What’s yours will find you.” It’s been accredited to Imam Ali, cousin, son-in-law and companion of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. I love the message because we can get very caught up in what we want and can cause ourselves a tremendous amount of distress when things don’t go as we planned. Sometimes we chase things, determined to get them – even when all signs point in another direction. This phrase helps me let go of the outcomes that I have in my mind. If it’s for me, it will find me. If it doesn’t find me, it wasn’t for me. This provides me an incredible sense of peace.

Key Learnings:

  • Be curious. Look outside of your industry, your daily life, your usual challenges, and encourage yourself to engage with the new. You may observe patterns in another field that can be applied to your own; bringing innovation and invention.
  • Be detail-oriented. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. We can skip steps or take shortcuts for reasons of friendship, trust, or lack of time. This has the potential to lead to disaster.
  • Pay attention to your needs. It’s great to work hard and it’s important to give it your all. It’s equally important to know when you’re overdoing it and need to take a break. Make time for friends, family, yourself, and life.
  • Sometimes great gifts come in unpleasant packages. Kierkegaard once said life can only be understood backward but must be lived forwards. We never know what role an unpleasant occurrence can have in our lives until the story plays out fully. Having to leave a job you love may be the key to open you up to your life’s purpose.
  • Know what drives you. We can get caught up in pre-made processes, and goals, that the industry may have set for us. Sometimes we bend ourselves to another’s process which pushes us into a space of inauthenticity. Sticking to your purpose and your “why” will help you never go off track.