This Startup Wants to Make You a Better Public Speaker
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because why take Xanax if you don’t have to?
By Zara Stone
Justin Ip had a big meeting arranged with a Silicon Valley investor in 2014. He was nervous — he wanted them to believe in his mental health startup, and did not want nerves to mess up his pitch. To prep, he popped a Tic Tac-sized pill an hour before his meeting. The conversation went well; he was charming, and his presentation went well. “It was this weird feeling like I should be more nervous,” he reflects. He wasn’t hyped up on caffeine or arrogant on alcohol, he was just his normal self, minus the fluster. The investors agreed, and they offered to fund him.
The pill Ip swallowed was neither sugar (no placebo effect here) nor one from a restricted drug category. It was propranolol, a humble beta blocker. It’s generally prescribed for high blood pressure, but in recent years, propranolol has been reinvented as the “CEO drug” — used by the likes of Richard Branson, Katy Perry and Shawn Mendes for its performance-anxiety benefits. It eases flushing, sweating and shaking. You’d think these industry titans have nothing to fear, but sometimes the bigger the stage, the bigger the nerves. They’re not alone.
Public speaking tops the most-feared list for many in America, affecting 26 percent, according to a 2018 Chapman University survey — that’s higher than the fear of flying, clowns and animals combined. But many people have jobs where public speaking is mandatory. They tend to just suck it up. But what if you don’t have to?
“It felt like a small group of people knew about this, but the rest of the world hasn’t heard the story,” says Ip. In February 2019, five years after his initial pitch, he launched Kick, the first dedicated platform for propranolol prescription. Users pay $40 and fill out a short medical form that is then reviewed by a doctor to screen out (or monitor) people with health contraindications. If approved, they can opt to have Kick shipped to their house, or have their prescription filled at a pharmacy. Currently, Kick is available in 12 states (including California, Florida and Colorado), with the goal of being in 20 by the end of the year.
It just lets you be yourself — but without the physical symptoms of shaking or sweating.
Justin Ip, Kick
First developed as a cardiovascular treatment in 1964, propranolol works by inhibiting adrenaline and regulating the heartbeat — you’ve likely heard of it as a beta blocker. But its off-label use for performance-related anxiety has become increasingly common. For example, a 2015 survey of professional orchestras reported that 66 percent of classical musicians said beta blockers improved their performance — today, you might even find dogs at the Westminster Kennel Club show on it. To be clear: Propranolol is not an actual anti-anxiety medication — it’s not like Zoloft or Xanax, which are used for the treatment of long-term conditions. It simply helps you feel more relaxed in social and performance situations where you might otherwise feel stressed out. Plus “it doesn’t slow you down (like alcohol or weed),” Ip says. “It just lets you be yourself — but without the physical symptoms of shaking or sweating.”
A number of doctors have described propranolol as “effective at managing symptoms associated with anxiety disorders.” Of course, any side effects — which can include everything from dizziness and tiredness to nausea (and sometimes unusual dreams) — should be monitored carefully and reported to your doctor or pharmacist if they persist or worsen. And as with any medication, the pills should be used in moderation. “Beta blockers can provide a targeted, time-limited method of reducing peripheral anxiety, without cognitive impairment — unlike alcohol or Valium,” says Dr. Jonathan Horowitz, director of San Francisco Stress and Anxiety Center. But he cautions about overuse, as they don’t address the underlying reasons behind nerves, and reliance on them could create a negative loop — increasing anxiety if you have to speak without them. Propranolol has no severe interactions with other drugs, but people with health contraindications such as asthma or diabetes should inform their doctor.
Kick’s not the only way to get access to this performance-booster. Propranolol is available from your doctor or the startup Hims, which also sells Latisse, Viagra and hair loss drugs. Kick focuses solely on the beta blocker as a way to address anxieties related to performance, providing easier access to people who might not know to ask for it. And it’s not just about taking a pill to deal with a common stress: On the company’s website, you can also find tips for overcoming public speaking fears and life strategies to help tackle performance anxiety.
Looking to the future, Ip’s plan for Kick includes adding sleep and anxiety solutions to the product lineup. That doesn’t necessarily mean an Ambien prescription (which can have some uncomfortable side effects) — Ip says that infrequently prescribed drugs like Trazodone, an antidepressant designed in the 1960s that fell out of favor due to its side effect of drowsiness, could be just the ticket for insomnia. But, as he asserts, he’s not in the drug business. “We think of ourselves as a confidence company.”