Zak Williams may not be a household name but his father’s certainly is. As the son of legendary actor and comedian Robin Williams, Zak’s tragic loss in 2014 changed the cultural conversation around mental health permanently. Seven years since his father’s untimely passing, Zak’s startup PYM wants to destigmatize mental health struggles at scale.
Zak Williams is no stranger to anxiety. It’s something he’s dealt with his whole life. Anxiety followed him from California to New York, where he studied linguistics at NYU. It was there while earning an MBA from Columbia Business School. Anxiety packed its bags and returned with him to the West Coast, when he worked as Director of Business Development for Condé Nast in San Francisco.
A constant wherever he went, Zak’s anxiety was persistent but manageable, an uneasiness creeping in around the edges. That all changed on August 11, 2014 when Zak’s father, Robin Williams, died by suicide at the age of 63.
A monumental talent whose genius spanned cultures and generations, no one felt the loss of Robin as acutely as his eldest son. Zak began battling extreme depressive episodes and drinking heavily, triggering panic attacks and insomnia.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and managed to stop drinking with the help of a therapist. Breaking his dependence on alcohol, Zak began to study up on food and herbs, and the ways in which diet impacts the way you feel. It was a breakthrough moment that slowly helped him feel better and return to a life of meaning.
Zak began experimenting with different combinations, mixing ingredients together to help level his moods and lower his anxiety. He was able to function professionally again, helping fund and advise a dozen startups in the lifestyle and AI space, while working closely with Bring Change 2 Mind, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging dialogue about mental health.
All of it ultimately led him to PYM, a company founded by Zak that aims to become a resource for people who want to learn more about the latest mental-health research and improve their own mental health. An acronym for “Prepare Your Mind,” Zak hopes to do this through products and through educating others about therapeutic activities and resources that might work for them.
Just a few months into the company’s journey and off the back of PYM’s first product, the Original Mood Chew, I caught up with Zak over Zoom to learn more about how he’s helping himself by helping others. Read the interview below.
Hey Zak, how did your journey lead you to PYM?
The journey of launching PYM started before the company was founded. I found myself struggling, really struggling after my dad passed away. I was using alcohol constantly to self-medicate and manage my anxiety and the trauma that I experienced.
Through that journey, I found a couple of things. One is I was able to find healing through service. I found that working with mental health organizations, sharing my story, really helped me, but also finding opportunities to give back.
The other thing I found when I took self-medicating out of the mix is that I could really have my anxiety go into overdrive. I had to find all these different solutions to support me and nothing was quite working the way I wanted it to. I was frustrated because cannabis was not something that helped me. It just made me more anxious.
I was working out a ton—and being healthy certainly helps—but I was still getting this feeling practically every day. My now-wife, Olivia, turned me on to this compound, GABA, saying “You might need to try this.”
I started taking it and I was like, « This is night and day. » I thought, « Why had I not heard about this before? » I looked into it and found that these products have been around, they just hadn’t been popularized before. I started looking into what they do. It turns out they balance your endocrine system.
I was feeling super dysregulated and hypervigilant and traumatized. I started taking this product and it gave me the clarity to go out and do the things I needed to do: show up for therapy, stop drinking, continue to service work, exercise.
There were times I was so stressed I couldn’t even get out and work out because I was so anxious. I realized there’s a huge opportunity here to create a company that stands for mental health support at scale, and one that is an advocacy-focused company that stands for mental health support.
“There’s a huge opportunity here to create a company that stands for mental health support at scale.”
The story of the brand feels like an extension of yourself. That also seems evident in the name, PYM, which is your middle name.
Pym’s funny. It was given to me by my dad. He gave it to me because he thought it sounded vaguely Welsh. It was just a made-up word. Then, when I was thinking of starting a company, I knew I wanted something that was short, memorable and stood for something.
I always wanted to do something with Pym but needed to figure out what it stood for. “Protect your mind…power your mind…Prepare your mind!” And so we gave it an acronym. We gave the name meaning.
Tell me about the product creation process. When did you start experimenting with different combinations of ingredients? What were the first products like?
In starting to formulate, we worked with Lena Kwak, who was previously Director of Research and Development for The French Laundry. She turned us onto the whole process of what food science development and product development looks like.
I had a little bit of experience with it because I had been investing and working within the cannabis world for a few years at that point. But that was all within cannabis, not other types of compounds.
The first thing we realized is that we needed something that could be absorbed through the mouth. That gave us a set of ingredients that would potentially work well. From there, we had a wealth of natural ingredients we could draw from. There was GABA, which we knew we wanted. Then, there was L-theanine that we tried and it didn’t work quite well, and then we upped the dose and we were like, « Oh wow, this works really well. »
Then, there were some other ingredients we started experimenting with but we weren’t fully sold on the texture and the chew until we came across the gummy format. We originally wanted to create something that was like a Starburst, and it was great, but you would kind of chew it and then swallow it right away. We wanted a product that you could actually chew thoroughly.
Throughout this whole process, any time we formulated something, we would send it out to a bunch of guinea pigs, who were our friends and family. They’re like, « I’m not sure what’s going on here. It seems fine but it’s not giving the desired effect. »
It dawned on me that I was kind of snacking on them, taking five or six, and I was getting the desired effect because I was eating them all the time. We realized that if we concentrated the dose further, it would create this effect once you hit a certain threshold.
It took a couple of iterations but by the third time round, we had this formulation we loved. We layered in another adaptogen called Rhodiola because it added this kind of catalyzing boosting effect that people really liked and that’s when we ended up on the final product.
You guys officially launched PYM in October 2020. Were there any production challenges due to COVID?
There were a bunch of challenges in launching PYM. Fortunately, we make our product in the USA. If we had production issues, it was primarily for safety reasons. There would maybe be a few days where we wouldn’t be producing but it would ultimately resolve and everyone could go back to developing the product.
The big challenge was trying to get our packaging through customs. There was a certain trade war going on and that trade war made it more challenging to get product manufactured elsewhere into the U.S. We had our tins sitting on a dock in customs for five weeks. Suddenly, we’re trying to figure out how to fly product from Asia to the U.S.—instead of by boat—to ensure that people can get our product.
Making the product itself wasn’t a challenge but making sure all of the different elements that make up fulfilling our product and getting it to the right place was a challenge.
What do you think makes PYM a unique product in the market at this moment?
We formulated it with a specific process that enables the GABA to be preserved and not degraded. That’s on the product side.
As a brand, we stand for mental health advocacy. We are an advocacy-focused brand. That’s something we take great pride in. We give a portion of proceeds to Bring Change 2 Mind, the mental health non-profit focused on breaking stigma associated with mental health and developing programs in high schools across the U.S. through peer-to-peer support programs.
We also have a specific lens towards how we think about testing and establishing research associated with what we’re doing. We take the research and science component very seriously.
As we move forward, we’re always going to seek to innovate, test and establish science-backed approaches towards providing support. Ultimately, we want to be the better mood company and in doing that, we want to make sure it’s very grounded in science.
“We’re always going to seek to innovate, test and establish science-backed approaches towards providing support.”
How did you decide to work with Bring Change 2 Mind? How do you work with other organizations?
It’s an organization I’m very familiar with. I’ve been on the board of directors there for over four years. I know how it works. I know the value they add to the communities they support.
In working with and raising money for other organizations, our key focus is how they provide impact. We want to work with top-tier organizations that devote the majority of their resources, if not all of their resources, to making a difference in the mental health support space.
Aside from that, we’re reasonably agnostic. We just need to make sure that they’re doing the best work they can do.
How do you think the conversation around mental health has changed since your father passed away?
The conversation has evolved, especially around young people talking about mental health. People under 25 are not impacted by the stigma in the same way as older generations.
Since my dad’s passing, there’s more of an openness to be vulnerable and to share situations and what people are going through and to seek support and help when needed. I’d say there’s definitely been a positive change over time.
Your father was very open about his personal issues in his work. In what ways has that influenced your journey with PYM?
It’s certainly played a role in allowing me to get out there and share my story, and it’s a lot, but it’s healing for me. I’ve always found it to be a challenge, but a challenge in a good way.
How do you hope to destigmatize mental health challenges with PYM?
A large part of my focus has been around systems-level advocacy, understanding the different elements that make up the mental support environment, programming awareness, research, advocacy and policy, and how those different elements interact with one another.
At this point in time, I’m learning a lot more about the policy side of things and trying to really level up my understanding of how to best approach thinking through actually creating systems-level change.
Do you think it’s important for creators, whether artists or entrepreneurs, to be open about the struggles they’re going through?
I think it’s important, especially when you consider different environments and the different experiences people have in them. For instance, in the private sector, there’s a major opportunity there for people to take a stand and to be vulnerable. In order to be vulnerable, they need to feel safe knowing they’re okay talking about what they’re going through.
In an educational environment, there’s those same opportunities, but it’s really more about growing the pie and focusing on creating a sea change. It’s about having people think through all the different aspects of their life. It’s not just one thing. It’s not just one focus. It’s not just changing the social media component, making a more permissible environment around, say, anti-bullying. It involves approaching the matter on all fronts.
What does success for PYM look like to you?
PYM at scale is a brand that stands for advocacy that’s raising millions of dollars for mental health initiatives, enabling people to feel comfortable and supported and heard, and that supports other brands that are emerging and want to be making a difference in this space.
It also involves being a community that can support other brands and organizations that are seeking to make a difference, and influence and impact the mental health space. In that sense, we want to be a booster and a catalyst.
When it comes to working with us or trying our products, we want people to feel like they’re part of a broader community. That’s really important for us.
You’re a father now. What lessons did you learn from your dad that you’ll pass on to your son?
Always prioritize education, learning and curiosity. Try not to be too serious and find some levity in situations.
All images courtesy of PYM.